By Cardinal Heenan THIS decree on the priesthood is magnificent and puts us in the debt of the Commission responsible for drawing it up. It replaces the version—rejected at the last session—which was quite unworthy of its sublime subject.
There is an added reason why we should be grateful. The Council gave much thought to the Decree on Bishops. It was discussed in detail and at great length. If after that we had been satisfied with a second-rate document on the priesthood, our priests would have felt aggrieved.
Those who compose drafts for Conciliar decrees always face something of a dilemma. If they avoid particular cases and confine themselves to statements of principle it is hard to produce anything really practical.
It is unwise, on the other hand, to go into details in a decree of a General Council. This difficulty is especially pronounced when a subject like the priesthood is under discussion.
"The care of souls". St. Gregory the Great wrote. "is the art of arts." But the actual practice of the pastoral art varies according to local conditions.
Priests in Europe, for example, obviously do not use the same techniques as those in Asia or Africa. Even within the European continent there is considerable variety in the pattern of pastoral work.
It should, nevertheless, be possible to lay down certain rules for the guidance of priests everywhere. This can be done and, I am sure, it should he done in this decree.
We are in the age of the lay apostolate. But, as every Catholic knows, the laity scarcely ever conduct a successful apostolate unless they are hacked and guided by zealous priests.
The laity need the priest leader and this decree ought to say so. As it is we have only this recommendation: "Priests should always remember in dealing with'the faithful that they are brothers among brothers."
Excellent. By all means the clergy should be brothers— but it is their calling to be Fathers and leaders as well.
Every experienced pastor of souls knows that an untrained layman cannot safely be entrusted with the delicate work of the apostolate. He must first be given some spiritual formation by his priest. This. in fact. is laid down in the decree of our Council on the Lay Apostolate.
An apostolic undertaking flourishes when a prudent and zealous priest is guiding those taking part. Take as an example the Legion of Mary which is one of the most impressive societies in the whole field of lay activity. (It happens that the founder of the Legion of Mary, Mr. Frank Duff, is present here in St. Peter's taking his well-deserved place among the auditors.)
The rules of the Legion of Mary lay down the key role of the priest in the whole organisation. Upon the spiritual director, the Legion handbook says, fails the primary duty of inspiring members with the spiritual qualities they need. The priest is the very mainspring of Legion activity. (Handbook page 187.) I WANT TO turn next to the section dealing with the behaviour of priests towards each other. This is what we read: "Priests have an obligation towards their brethren who have been found in some way wanting. They must never be hard on them but always treat them with consideration and charity."
This, in fact, hardly needed to be said.
But this is not enough. I plead for something to be added to this section on the duty of a priest to try to forestall the failure of a weak or wayward colleague.
When a wretched man has made shipwreck of his priestly life, it is not at all uncommon for his closest associates to express no surprise. It is easy to be wise after the event.
But surely it is the duty of a priest to be wise earlier and to warn the Bishop or Vicar-General so that the unfortunate priest may be removed from temptation before it is too late. Every language has some version of the saying: "A stitch in time saves nine."
Priests, unhappily, rarely speak up in time. In this matter they are inclined to behave like schoolboys. At all costs they do not want to be regarded as sneaks or informers. So they remain silent while a brother priest rushes to his ruin. Not a word to those in authority who alone can really come to the rescue and give the priest a fresh start.
It is of great importance to say something positive in this decree about a priest's responsibility towards his fellows. No priest ever has the right to ask "Am I my
brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4. 9.)
It is good to see the point made (Section 7) that priests should be hospitable to each other and take recreation together. It is by no means a waste of time for priests to play a round of golf together. Priestly company brings a kind of blessing in itself. The need priests have of each other's company must be mentioned in the council's decree on the priesthood but it ought to he stressed even more strongly.
In countries where the church has not lost touch with the working class the priest spends a great deal of time with the laity. He is made welcome in every Catholic home. Regular visitation of Families is a vital part of his ministry.
House-to-house visiting does a great deal of good. It fosters affection between priest and people—where the clergy visit their flocks anti-clericalism does not exist.
But the visitation of families brings hazards of its own. Dangerous friendships can be formed. All priests, but especially the younger clergy, must be told by the Council of the dangers of choosing friends exclusively from among the Priests who avoid the company of their fellow priests—
"lone wolves" the clergy call them rarely do God's work well. Our priestly work is blessed when Bishop and priests, young and old, arc bound closely together in the warm comradeship of an undivided priesthood.
FINALLY, I WANT to discuss the question of the distribution of priests (Section 9). Already in his apostolic letter Fidei donum, Pope Pius XII exhorted diocesan priests to volunteer for the foreign missions. This appeal is now reinforced by the Council.
Bishops will, however, be much more inclined to encourage their priests to volunteer for service in Africa, South America and elsewhere if they know that the local clergy in these places are totally engaged in the work of the ministry.
It is said that in some places the faithful are left without pastors while perfectly healthy priests in monasteries and religious houses resolutely refuse to come to the aid of the Bishops. They quote the constitutions of the order as reason why they cannot undertake pastoral work.
They are allowed to teach the humanities to boys of good family—a task which the laity could do equally well —or to preach retreats to nuns. But the holy rule forbids them to go out to give religious instruction to the ignorant and break the bread of life to the poor.
I do not know if the stories tdld about these monks are true. But this I do know for certain: in the world of today. while the shortage of priests persists, all monks and friars (with the exception of enclosed contemplatives) ought to be ready to take up pastoral work of any kind.
The author of the Imitation of Christ says that it is better to please the Blessed Trinity than to give a learned discourse on the Trinity. In the same way, it is surely better to preach the gospel to the people of God than stay at home to write books and articles about the people of God.
In this decree, therefore, the religious ought to be urged to come to the help of Bishops in places where the faithful languish for want of priestly ministrations. It is said that God helps those who help themselves. Bishops will gladly send out missionaries to countries where the monks are already co-operating with their fellow clergy and their own Bishops in doing the work of the Gospel.