ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


Christ in the Priest

Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. -- JOHN i: 17.

IT has been seen how the Church is the Body of Christ, in such a sense that the soul who desires the Friendship of Christ must seek it in the Church as well as in herself -- exteriorly as well as interiorly. Certain characteristics of Christ, for example, the knowledge of which is essential to true sympathy with Him -- His authoritativeness, His infallibility, His undying energy and the rest -- these are appreciated fully only by the fervent Catholic.

Now the Catholic Church is a Society of such vastness, that for the majority of persons it is impossible to form any complete image of her in their minds. Intellectually they know of her; interiorly they bow to her; but, practically, she becomes accessible to them primarily through the priest. This is indeed a common charge brought against the Catholic Church. She exalts, it is said, fallible humanity, in the person of the priest whom not even she believes to be infallible, to heights too giddy to be safe. If it were merely the Ideal Society that was exalted, some excuse could be found; but it is the individual human priest who, as a matter of fact, in the eyes of Catholics parades in the garments of Christ, and is thought to be clothed with His prerogatives. This is largely true. The only possible answer is that Christ did actually intend this to be the case; that He appointed a Priesthood which should not only represent Him and stand for Him, but should in a certain sense be Himself -- that is to say, that Christ should exercise divine powers through its agency; and that devotion and reverence towards the priest should be a direct homage to the Eternal Priesthood of which the human minister is a partaker. If this is true, it becomes plain that the priest, as well as the Church, is one of those channels through which the devout soul must develop her personal intimacy with her Lord.

I. It is unnecessary to enlarge upon the very evident humanity of the Priest. No priest is mad enough to forget it even for an instant. Even if his personal complacency should blind him to his own defects, society will very soon remind him of it by the examples of others. Again and again, some unhappy priest, seeming to rise step by step in the spiritual life, extending his influence and his reputation, gathering admirers and dependents round him, suddenly offers to the world a heart-breaking reminder of his own weak humanity. It need not be a moral fall -- in the narrow sense -- thank God! it seldom is that -- but how often is there a sudden slackening of zeal, a sudden explosion of ludicrous personal pride, which, in a moment, shakes the souls who have leaned on him, and affords the world one more example of the fact that "Priests are but men after all!" Certainly, priests are but men. Why, then, is the world so shocked to find them men, unless subconsciously at least it is aware that they are a great deal more?

For, first, they are Ambassadors of Christ; and Christ is present in them as a King is present in his accredited Representative. Christ expressly commissions them in this, when He bids His Apostles to go out "into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature."{1}

This in itself -- claimed as it is by every kind of "Christian minister " -- involves, by that very fact, an enormous extension of Christ's virtual Presence on earth. "How beautiful," cries the prophet of even the old dispensation, "how beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings and that preacheth peace";{2} beautiful, since they are feet that carry the love-message of the Fairest of the children of men. Here, then, it is worth while noticing that the priest, so far as he may attempt to be original in the substance of his message, is unfaithful to his commission. Christ does not commission his ambassador to invent treaties of reconciliation, but to deliver the Divine treaty. It is occasionally said that the Catholic Church is the notorious enemy of thought; that she offers no encouragement, but rather the reverse, to the brilliant explorer in the realms of truth; that she silences or repudiates her ministers the instant they begin to think or speak for themselves. This is exactly true, in the sense that she does not believe that God's Revelation can be improved upon by even the most brilliant human intellect. She does not rebuke those of her ministers who seek originality in the manner of their message, so long as the message is not obscured by their originality; she does not silence those who present old dogmas in new phrases: but emphatically she repudiates those who, as some recent thinkers have attempted to do, seek to present new dogmas under the cover of the old words. First, then, Christ is in His priest, at least so far as to use his lips for the Divine message. And we may note, in passing, that this requires extraordinary graces in the messenger. There is nothing so irrepressible as human nature; nothing that so yearns to push itself forward; and, simultaneously, nothing in which the human mind takes greater pleasure in speculating and dogmatizing than the region of theology. Yet, in some manner, so overwhelming are the graces with which Christ has strengthened His Church, that it has become a reproach in the world that priests all teach the same dogmas. It is a reproach for which we may thank God.

II. But all this might be done without a Priesthood at all. Every non-Catholic minister claims as much. For it is evident that since the Divine Teacher Jesus Christ no longer speaks on earth with His own human lips, He must, so far as the preaching of Revelation is concerned, use other human lips for that purpose. "Truth . . . came by Jesus Christ";{3} and preaching of that Truth is continued by Him through the mouths of His accredited ministers. But "Grace" also "came by Jesus Christ."{3} And if the conveyance of Truth by human ministers is not derogatory to the prerogative of Christ as Prophet, it is reasonable to believe that the conveyance of Grace by human ministers is no more derogatory to the prerogative of Christ as Priest. And this is one essential of the Catholic doctrine of Priesthood. Christ came to bring life, to sustain it, and to restore it when lost: for He alone, the Prince of Life, possesses the elixir of Life. The Pharisees were right enough, on their premisses, in arguing "Who can forgive sins, but God alone?"{4} "How can this man give us His Flesh to eat?"{5} It was the premisses that were wrong; since Christ was more than man. Christ, then, who is the Fountain of Life, alone can give Grace: as Christ, who is the Truth, alone can give Revelation. For Grace is to Life, what Revelation is to Truth. And it is the underlying idea of the Catholic Priesthood, that He commissions and empowers in both depart<

CHRIST IN THE EXTERIOR 71 -->ments alike, and not only one, a human ministry to exercise the Divine Prerogatives,

As, therefore, the priest in the pulpit cries, "I say unto you": so in the confessional he whispers "I absolve you," and at the altar "This is my Body."

This, then, is a second, and an overwhelmingly awful thought, yet essential to be understood, if we are to realize in what manner Christ is present in His priest.

First He is present in him when he delivers, it may be more or less mechanically, the message with which he is entrusted. The Divine Prophet uses human lips to "utter knowledge," and to declare truth. But when we reflect that the Divine Priest uses human lips to effect sacerdotal purposes, we see that the Presence is far more intimate than that of a King in his ambassador. For the ambassador is practically in no sense His Master: he can dictate the terms of a treaty, but he cannot finally conclude it: he can plead with those to whom he is sent, but he can only in a very limited and representative sense reconcile them to His King. Yet these Ambassadors of Christ, in virtue of the express commission which they have received, in such words as "This is My Body . . . do this for a commemoration of Me."{6} "Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive they are forgiven them"{7} -- are empowered to do that which no merely earthly ambassador can do. They effect that which they declare: they administer the mercy which they preach. . . .

Here, then, we can say in reality, that Christ is present in His Priest -- present, that is, as He is present in no saint, however holy, and in no angel, however near to the Face of God. It is the priest's supreme privilege, as well as his terrifying responsibility, to be, in those moments during which he exercises his ministry, in a sense Christ Himself. He says not, "May Christ absolve thee"; but "I absolve thee"; not, "This is the Body of Christ"; but, "This is My Body." It is not then merely the utterance of the lips which Christ employs, but Himself for the moment must sway the Will and Intention; since it is a Divine Act that is done. He becomes present in the priest, then, by His priest's permission. As to whether or not, here and now, the Blessed Sacrament is consecrated (that is, the crowning marvel of Christ's mercy consummated) -- as to whether, here and now, the sorrowful sinner goes pardoned away -- as to whether, in a word, God, in this or that place, at this or that time, acts as God -- this hangs not merely on the mechanical words uttered by the priest, but by the union of his free-will and free intention with that of his Creator.

III. It seems as if we had wandered far away from our theme -- Friendship with Christ. Yet we have never left it for a moment. We have considered various modes in which Christ's Friendship is made accessible to us; and have seen how it does not consist merely in an interior adherence to Him, but in an exterior recognition and an exterior welcome of Him. His Human Nature comes to us in the Sacrament of the Altar; His Divine authority comes in the Human Nature of those who compose His Church, and have a right to speak in His Name. These various characteristics of His cannot be apprehended -- that is to say, Friendship with Him cannot be what He means it to be -- without these further modes in which He accomplishes His Presence. And here, in His Priest, is yet another mode.

He dwells here on earth, speaking through the lips of His Priest, so far as that priest utters the authoritative and infallible teaching of the Mystical Body of which he is a mouthpiece. He energizes here on earth, in those Divine acts of the priest which Divine Power alone can accomplish, exercising the prerogative of mercy that belongs to God only, making Himself present in His Human Nature under the forms of the Sacrament which He Himself instituted. And, in addition to all this, He exhibits, in that atmosphere that has grown up about the Priesthood, through the instincts of the faithful rather than through the precise instructions of the Church, attributes of His own Divine character, in sympathy with which consists the friendship of those who love Him. What else is that aloofness and detachment and caste-like spirit so characteristic of the Cath< 74 THE FRIENDSHIP OF CHRIST -->olic priesthood, but the aroma of the unapproachable sanctity of God who is Most Holy, on whose Face the angels dare not look -- this, translated into terms of common life? What else is the astounding accessibility of the priest to the souls who seek him as priest rather than as man, but the human rendering of the Divine readiness to receive all who are burdened and heavyladen? The very purity of the priest, his detachment from family ties, his loss as a man of all that normally makes a man -- even this is but a far-off glimmer of the radiant Personality of Him who was a Virgin's Son, who chose a Virgin for his forerunner, and a Virgin as His familiar friend -- who is followed even among the celestial family of Heaven, "whithersoever He goeth," by men "who were not defiled with women: for they are virgins."{8}

Devotion to the priesthood, then, respect for the office, jealousy for its honour, insistence upon the high standard of those who fulfil it -- these are nothing else but manifestations of that Friendship of Christ of which we are treating, and recognitions of Himself in His minister and agent. Not to lean upon the priest -- (for no man is capable of bearing the full weight of another soul) -- but to lean indeed upon the priesthood -- this is reliance upon Christ: for as you approach the priest, understanding what it is for which you look, and discerning the man from his office, you approach that Eternal Priest who lives in him -- Him who is "a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech"; {9} Him of whom the highest praise which His prophet could utter, was to glorify Him as a "Priest upon His Throne." {10}

{1} Mark xvi: 15.

{2} Isaias lii: 7.

{3} John i: 17

{4} Luke v: 21.

{5} John vi: 53.

{6} Luke xxii: 19.

{7} John xx: 22, 23.

{8} Apoc. xiv: 4.

{9} Ps. cx: 4.

{10} Zach. VI: 13.

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