S. Ioannis Mariæ Vianney
Today is a very special feast day for me as it is the Patronal Feast of the Oratory of St John Vianney, the priestly fraternity that I belong to. It seems wholly appropriate then to continue reflecting on the priesthood as we have these past few days.
I ended yesterday by remarking how St John Vianney was an “exemplar” of the priestly vocation. Reading the life of the Curé d’Ars (as he is also known) we notice immediately his dedication to God, like Enoch he “walked with God” on a daily basis. Like Enoch he was surrounded by sinful people, yet he obeyed and trusted in God, “… he kept clear of sin, when sinful ways were easy…” [cf Sirach 31:8-11] and he achieved great things thereby, the salvation of those he served. The teachings of St John Vianney also beautifully convey the incarnational aspect of the ministerial priesthood, “If I were to meet a priest and an angel, I should salute the priest before I saluted the angel. The latter is the friend of God; but the priest holds His place.” By that he means that the priest – made in the image and likeness of God unlike the angel, is also the mediator between God and Man and again unlike the angel, has the ability to present God incarnate in the holy Eucharist. “See the power of the priest; out of a piece of bread the word of a priest makes a God. It is more than creating the world.” For those thinking this is “blasphemous” understand that a more humble man you could not have met than the Curé and allow me to explain further what he means…
I remarked to someone once expressing this incarnational teaching of the Curé another way, “If you had the choice, if the Curé himself were to appear here and I were here to hear your confession, who would you go to?” The reply, “The Curé!” “Ah,” I replied, “but the Curé would not be able to give you absolution.” Back came the stunned response, “Why not?” “Because he is dead. I am alive!” Despite all the holiness of the Curé, despite the fact that he is a Saint, he would be unable to impart God’s absolution because he is not alive! Only in this physical existence can the promise of God’s absolution promised through the Apostolic ministry [cf John 20:19-23] be realised. This simple truth is the same even for us to receive the ultimate benefit of our salvation eternal life, i.e. the Eucharist, for only “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” [cf John 6:53-54] St John Vianney again, “When the priest remits sins, he does not say, “God pardons you”; he says, “I absolve you.” At the Consecration, he does not say, “This is the Body of Our Lord;” he says, “This is My Body.”
As we noted yesterday, God works through His creation to restore it, hence why God became Man in Christ. In like fashion then, the high priesthood of Christ works through the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant, just as under the Old Covenant the means of atonement worked through the ministerial priesthood of the Sons of Levi. The difference is, that whereas before the priesthood was patrilineal i.e. descended from a particular tribe of the chosen people of Israel, the sons of Aaron in the tribe of Levi [cf Exodus 28:1-4; Numbers 25:13], now the priesthood is called out of those who have been freed from sin, who have become by adoption “children of God” [John 1:12, 13] and have been “chosen” [John 15:16].
Obviously, as before, the stewards of God’s mysteries must themselves strive after holiness, hence the first obligation to pray – to achieve personal sanctity by walking with God, by living out a relationship with Him, by discerning His will and by offering intercession for those He loves. But how is this possible for mere men? Here we must understand our own place in the created order. Remember that we are made in the “image and likeness of God” [cf Genesis 1:26, 27], what does this mean?
In Genesis 2:7 “Jehovah God formed man with the dust of the ground.” With this act, God created man’s body. The verse continues, “And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” “Breath” is derived from the Hebrew word neshamah which, significantly, is translated “spirit” in Proverbs 20:27: “The spirit [neshamah] of man is the lamp of Jehovah.” We can thus infer, that God’s breathing into man the breath of life produced man’s spirit. Zechariah 12:1 corroborates the creation of man’s spirit by telling us that just as Jehovah stretched forth the heavens and laid the foundation of the earth, He also formed the spirit of man within him. Genesis 2:7 concludes “And man became a living soul.” The soul (man’s intrinsic person) was the issue of the breath of God entering into the nostrils of the body of dust. The biblical record of the three-step creation of man clearly reveals him to be tripartite. Hebrews 4:12 “The word of God is living and operative and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit and of joints and marrow.”
Paul similarly describes that which makes us human, “I pray to God that your whole spirit and soul and body may be made blameless until the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1 Thess 5:23] Here The “spirit” is the highest part of man, that which assimilates him to God; renders him capable of religion, and susceptible of being acted upon by the Spirit of God. The “soul” is the inferior part of his mental nature, the seat of the passions and desires, of the natural propensities. The “body” is the corporeal frame. In other words, we are made up of our physical bodies, our soul (psyche) is what interprets our sense sensations experienced by our bodies and our spirit is that which makes us alive and aware and enables us to rationalise above our senses; the spirit is what makes us of God who is Spirit. Essentially then we are “tripartite” beings i.e. spirit, soul, and body in order to enable us to contact and live within the spiritual, psychological and physical realms, respectively.
Firstly, with his human spirit, man can worship God, serve God, and know God intuitively. Second, the soul is that part which forms the personality of man and enables him to contact and function within the psychological realm. Finally, the physical body with its five senses enables man to relate to and communicate with the physical world. In our own time “soul” and “spirit” have become regarded as interchangeable, understandable in the sense that neither seem sense perceptible or rather physically experiential. But the fact that we are able to interpret what we experience through our senses betrays our soul, we might call it our “mind”, our “will”. But our spiritual intellect enables us to rationalise above our sense experience, our spiritual intuition has the capacity to know and discern apart from human reason or circumstantial experience.
With regard then to the possibility of men acting as mediators between God and men, between heaven and earth? Let us recall St John Vianney’s point above. Unlike the angels who are only spiritual beings, and animals who are only physical beings, the unique tripartite nature of man enables him to experience both spiritual and material things. Not only that, but man can effect and affect both spiritual and material things, he is imago mundi a microcosm of the universe itself, a mini-model of creation and god-like; the only other being in the universe able to manipulate the spiritual and the material world is, God. Man can spiritualise the material and materialise the spiritual. He is in every way a mediator.
If we recall the observation that St John Vianney could “read into men’s souls” we might understand that he could intuitively understand another person’s passions and lusts, he recognised the predilections that were preventing them from developing their spiritual intellect and he became famous for accurate diagnosis betrayed by the penances and spiritual direction that he gave those who sought him out (20’000 pilgrims per annum by the time of his death). Here the Curé demonstrates what can be achieved by a man completely self-aware to all that he is as God created him. Who pursues holiness of life by walking daily with God, a man of prayer uniting his will with God’s in the discernment of God’s will and purpose for his life. A man who can be truly a mediator between God and men, communicating with both and enabling the latter to realise for themselves all that God desires them to be. “The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you.” Curé d’Ars
I remarked before how the priesthood is in danger from the process of emasculation that is currently prevalent in all areas of the Church. Through the contemporary mindset that confuses soul and spirit as one and interchangeable, humanity is losing sight and realisation of itself. “Me, myself and I” the motto of the ego is left to interpret everything subjectively, employing only the bodily senses to make sense of the world, regarding only physical empirical evidence as “proof”. The spirit is still visible though, the realisation of spiritual intellect is still discernible in forms of art, music, painting and even in science and technology, in the materialisation of ideas onto paper into buildings and physical structures… but no more is this recognised as “of the spirit” but simply of the “soul” driven by passions and lusts and sensuality. Even higher aspirations such as “equality” are driven by the selfish desire of souls wanting to give freedom to the expression of their passions, which is why objective reason and debate are no more and subjective reasoning and impassioned belligerency are the modus operandi of campaigners.
Within the Church itself, this confusion has resulted in a situation where few are properly catechised and have been left to the “whims and fancies” of new doctrines derived from secular ideologies and principles that are in fact fundamentally at odds with the very nature of the created order itself. As Paul prophesied, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” [2 Tim 4:3-4] Through the general propensity of contemporary theologians jettisoning the wisdom of past ages to replace it with their own subjective hypothesises attempting to blend the Gospel with the fast-paced Zeitgeist of the secular world, Christianity itself is losing sight of the true reality of the created order. Ironically, in an attempt to appeal to the souls of men, they have compromised the awareness of spiritual intellect! As a result the same is true of spiritual directors, theology schools and most of the institutions responsible for the formation of priests.
To concludes today’s reflection, a sage quote from the Curé, “When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion.” Sadly, in part deliberately, in part through ignorance, the contemporary Church is realising this end as people forget what their own true nature is about, so vocations of all kinds are impoverished and the priesthood affected… (more soon…)
Sancti Ioannis Mariae Vianney, ora pro nobis!