It’s time once again to prepare for the feast of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, whose liturgical memorial is celebrated tomorrow, August 4th. This feast has special import for me this year, since I now have the care of a parish (or two) of my own.
Well, there is no better way to prepare for tomorrow than by re-reading St. John Vianney’s brief Catechism on the Priesthood, which I re-post below:
My children, we have come to the Sacrament of Orders. It is a sacrament which seems to relate to no one among you, yet relates to everyone. This sacrament raises man up to God. What is a priest? A man who holds the place of God – a man who is invested with all the powers of God. “Go”, said Our Lord to the priest: “as my Father sent me, so I send you. All power has been given me in heaven and on earth. Go then, teach all nations….He who listens to you, listens to me; he who despises you despises me.” 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”. St. Bernard tells us that everything has come to us through Mary, and we may also say that everything has come to us through the priest: yes, all happiness, all graces, all heavenly gifts. If we had not the Sacrament of Orders, we should not have our Lord. Who placed him there, in that tabernacle? It was the priest. Who was it that received your soul, on its entrance into life? The priest. Who nourishes it, to give it strength to make its pilgrimage? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, by washing that soul, for the last time, in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest – always the priest! And if that soul comes to the point of death, who will raise it up, who will restore it to calmness and peace? Again the priest. You cannot recall one single blessing from God without finding, side by side with this recollection, the image of the priest.
Go to confession to the Blessed Virgin, or to an angel: will they absolve you? No. Will they give you the body and blood of our Lord? No. The Holy Virgin cannot make her Divine Son descend into the Host. You might have two hundred angels there, but they could not absolve you. A priest, however simple he may be, can do it; he can say to you, “Go in peace; I pardon you”. Oh, how great is a priest! The priest will not understand the greatness of his office till he is in heaven. If he understood it on earth, he would die – not of fear, but of love. The other benefits of God would be of no avail to us without the priest. What would be the use of a house full of gold, if you had nobody to open you the door! The priest has the key of the heavenly treasures: it is he who opens the door; he is the steward of the good God, the distributor of his wealth. Without the priest, the Death and Passion of our Lord would be of no avail. Look at the heathens: what has it availed them that our Lord has died? Alas! They can have no share in the blessings of Redemption, while they have no priests to apply his blood to their souls!
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. After God, the priest is everything. Leave a parish twenty years without priests; they will worship beasts. If the missionary Father and I were to go away, you would say, “What can we do in this church? There is no Mass; our Lord is no longer there; we may as well pray at home.” 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.
When the bell calls you to church, if you were asked, “Where are you going?”, you might answer, “I am going to feed my soul”. If someone were to ask you, pointing to the tabernacle, “What is that golden door?” – “That is our storehouse, where the true food of our souls is kept”. “Who has the key? Who lays in the provisions? Who makes ready the feast, and who serves the table?” – “The priest”. “And what is the food?” – “The precious body and blood of our Lord”. O God! O God! How you have loved us! 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…. Someone said, “Does St. Philomena, then, obey the Curé of Ars?” Indeed, she may well obey him, since God obeys him.
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. St. Teresa kissed the ground where a priest had passed. When you see a priest, you should say, “There is he who made me a child of God, and opened heaven to me by holy Baptism; he who purified me after I had sinned; who gives nourishment to my soul”. At the sight of a church tower, you may say, “What is there in that place?” – “The body of our Lord”. “Why is he there?” – “Because a priest has been there, and has said holy Mass”.
What joy did the Apostles feel after the Resurrection of our Lord, at seeing the Master whom they had loved so much! The priest must feel the same joy, at seeing our Lord whom he holds in his hands. Great value is attached to objects which have been laid in the drinking cup of the Blessed Virgin and of the Child Jesus, at Loreto. But the fingers of the priest, that have touched the adorable flesh of Jesus Christ, that have been plunged into the chalice which contained his blood, into the pyx where his body has lain – are they not still more precious? The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.