By What Authority?
The Undaunting Witness of the Catholic Priest
What would the world be like without the priest? St. John Vianney states, “Leave a parish for twenty years without a priest, and they will end by worshiping the beasts there” (Bernard Nodet, Le curé d’Ars. Sa pensée – Son cœur. p. 98). Unfortunately, history, and even recent history has allowed us to glimpse into the realization of this possibility in different parts of the world—in the USSR, Mexico, Nazi Germany, China, Nicaragua, etc. Communist, socialist and totalitarian regimes have time and again tried and are trying to remove God and the message of Jesus Christ from their lands, seeking to “promote man” without due consideration of what man is, the whole of man, including his spiritual nature, his origin and final end which is God. Modern totalitarian regimes claim the good of the “State” overrides the basic human rights of the individual and use force to violently suppress any attempt to resist. This has been the historical ‘role’ of Islam which has, according to John Cardinal Newman, played the anti-Christ for over a thousand years. It is no exaggeration to say that it has constantly and systematically persecuted Christianity wherever its flags wave; and the resultant state is, apparently without exception, one of totalitarian authority.
Without the Church, without the priest who gives us the Eucharist and preaches the truth about God and man, the State becomes “the beast” to be worshipped. St. Jean Vianney himself, growing up in revolutionary France, had firsthand experience of the devastation of the faith in a people without religious leaders. Only the small minority that clung to the Catholic underground Church grew in fervor and faith through the trials of the revolution, while very many apostatized rather than face fines, imprisonment or even death. In our own times, how many ordinary Christian men, even good Christians and youth, were drawn into the lie of Nazism when separated from the source of truth, Christ Himself, living and speaking in the priest.
How many capitulated in weakness under atheistic pressure when they did not have the Eucharist to sustain them in their trials—in Russia, in Germany, in Cuba, in Nicaragua. The so-called liberation theology transformed the Gospel into marxist militancy, where a machete was deemed better and more effective than prayer and the Sacraments. In his book, Another Mexico, the Catholic author, Graham Greene, gives a rather depressing glimpse into the religious condition of the people in post-revolutionary Mexico in the early 20th Century. Within twenty years the vast majority had fallen back into superstition and idolatry, hedonism or even worse, just plain indifference, especially in those parts of the country where these laws were most strictly enforced.
Yet, invariably these regimes have been confronted by the tenacious and often effective opposition of the Church, by Christ’s minister, the priest. Whether by open condemnation or by underground resistance, the Church and her hierarchy has consistently stood firm against the totalitarian suppression of religious freedom and basic human rights, and has persistently striven to make the consolation of the Sacraments available to the Christian faithful, through the heroic and selfless—often life-demanding—ministry of faithful priests. Totalitarianism fears the Church, fears the priest, for the priest is the voice of Christ in the world, the voice of faith and human dignity, the voice of justice, the voice of God’s sovereign rule over man and of the final judgment. But besides the truth of Christ, the priest also brings the Eucharist and all the other Sacraments through which we receive the grace and power from Christ to stand up for the truth and to die for the truth, to see beyond all merely human aspirations and to live for God alone. Every totalitarian government has met this resistance of the Church and, consciously or not, recognized the power of the Eucharist; consequently, in order to succeed in their goals they have violently persecuted the Church and her priests through the closure of Churches, anti-clerical laws, concentration camps, torture and execution, especially of priests.
The priest (most particularly the Bishop), by his sacramental configuration to Christ, makes present not only Christ the Head and High Priest, but also Christ the Spouse of the Church, the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the Bride. Amid the many thousands of hidden martyrs whose stories we will know only in heaven, we have become familiar over the years with the lives of many heroic priests who were willing to give their lives in the service of the faithful. In Mexico, Blessed Miguel Pro, who had dodged police and communist soldiers for two years in order to celebrate the Eucharist in private homes and hear confessions even on street corners, strengthening the faith and giving Holy Communion to as many as 300 persons per day, finally gave the witness of his life shouting “Viva Cristo Rey!” as he was mowed down by a firing squad. The life—and more importantly, the death—of this single priest animated the repressed and silenced Catholic population to rise up within two weeks against the Communist rule and achieved, if not the repeal of anti-Catholic laws, at least a significant diminishment of their enforcement in most parts of the country for a few years.
During the Nazi supremacy in Germany, thousands of heroic priests attained the palm of martyrdom; others, speaking out fearlessly against the Nazi ideology, were protected by their popularity among the people, but were nevertheless silenced. The German priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer, preached fearlessly against the Nazis, forming leagues of Catholic men to confirm them in their faith and strengthen them in their resistance to atheistic legislation. He was often imprisoned and eventually sent to a concentration camp, but in order to avoid popular outrage by making a new martyr, he was then “exiled” to a remote monastery where he was allowed no outside contact. His health broken, he died a few months after the war.
St. Maximillian Kolbe, even under the harshest conditions of Auschwitz in Poland, encouraged and strengthened those around him by his unfailing goodness and love. Seeking to spread love in the midst of hate and evil he would say, “Good is more contagious than evil.” Many witnesses who survived Auschwitz attest to the great impression St. Maximillian had made upon them by his unfailing love in action, such as passing up even the meager rations of food he was allowed for the sake of others. Eventually, he gave the ultimate witness to the love of Christ, offering his life in the place of a man with a wife and children.
Before World War II, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli as papal nuncio to Germany spoke out fearlessly for nearly a decade against both Communist and Nazi movements in Germany, and though he received many death threats, he strived unceasingly to procure peace through concordats with the German states. Later, as Pope Pius XII, he refused to leave Rome and when parts of the city were bombed, the Pope was there to be with and comfort his people. He was held prisoner in the Vatican as it was surrounded completely by Nazi forces; nevertheless, he continued to condemn Nazism as openly as prudence would allow, while at the same time finding secure refuge for many thousands of Jews. After the war, he was also quick to recognize and condemn Communism, forbidding any Catholic to be a member of a Communist party.
Under Communism in Russia and the lands behind the Iron Curtain, many thousands of priests from the 1930’s onward were arrested, tortured and executed or sent to concentration camps. Those who worked in the underground did so at the risk of torture and execution. A Bishop of our Order, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, ORC, testified at the beatification process of one such priest, Blessed Alexij Saritski. Blessed Alexij worked in Kazakhstan, going from region to region in secrecy, hearing confessions day and night without eating or sleeping, so that as many people as possible could receive H. Communion at his Mass before he had to move on. Yet the witness of these infrequent visits kept the faith of the people alive and increased their thirst for the Holy Eucharist. If this priest was willing to sacrifice so much and at the risk of his life to bring them Holy Communion, truly, they realized, the Eucharist was worth dying for. Blessed Alexij was eventually apprehended and received the crown of martyrdom a year and a half later in 1963 after many humiliations and severe maltreatment.
Many, many other priests were quick to recognize the dangers of Communism and bravely stand up against it. Cardinal Mindzenty, a Hungarian Bishop, for years suffered “exile” in the American embassy in Hungary. In America, the preaching of Archbishop Fulton Sheen on national television and radio was a significant factor which helped to protect America from accepting the false ideologies of Communism. Nor can we fail to mention one great priest of the Church who spoke out both fearlessly and unceasingly against Communism, bearing witness to the teachings of Christ and the dignity of the human person: Pope John Paul II. Ordained secretly under Nazi occupation, after the invasion of Poland by the USSR, already as a priest, Bishop and Cardinal, Karol Wojtyla defied authorities and both openly and secretly ministered to the Catholic faithful despite Communist prohibitions. As Pope, his witness and pastoral visits to Poland encouraged and set off the Solidarity movement that challenged leaders of the USSR and eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. His close collaboration with President Reagan is said to be one of the principle causes for the end of the arms race and Communist domination.
Today also, here in America, we are seeing many brave priests and Bishops standing up for Christian principles, for life, marriage and the family, in the face of much opposition from the current administration. We need to pray for our Bishops, that they have the strength to stand firm and the courage to speak out against attacks on our Christian standards and beliefs, and attacks against basic human rights. Pope Paul VI, who witnessed the beginning of a movement of dissent in the Church which has permeated the Church down to the present day, wrote to his fellow Bishops in the encyclical, Ecclesiam Suam, “An immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs is fundamentally a kind of skepticism about the power and content of the Word of God which we desire to preach. Only the man who is completely faithful to the teaching of Christ can be an apostle. And only he who lives his Christian life to the full can remain uncontaminated by the errors with which he comes into contact” (EcS, 88). We read of Bishops standing up and speaking against so-called “Catholic” senators and congressmen, who by their anti-Christian political policies, have given scandal to so many Christians. We need to pray for these Bishops, that they may have the strength to withstand the many attacks of the media and pseudo “Catholic” movements against life and family.
As we enter the last six months of this Year for Priests, we want to remember the importance and key role of our religious leaders in our lives. Where would we be without them? Where would the world be without them? The Bishops and priests are on the front lines; they need our support, they need especially our prayers and sacrifices. And so we want to encourage you to continue with all the members of our Crusade, which has now grown to 4500 strong, to offer a continual plea to heaven for our priests, for our Bishops, for our Cardinals and especially, for the Holy Father. May they be the voice of Christ in the Church and in the world, untiringly and unrelentingly speaking out for the principles of faith and morals. With humility and fidelity, may they bear the light of Christ in the midst of men, that none may be led astray by the false lights of this world. In the night of trial, may Jesus find them ever watchful and ready, that He need not wake them from sleep nor pass over them as useless servants. May they never grow weary of their sacred vows, nor ever abandon Christ for the sake of comfort. When storms and darkness close in around us, may they lead the way with equanimity and perseverance, firmly placing their trust in God alone, without whom, they can do nothing. May Jesus be for them, therefore, their rock and stronghold. And may God grant them the grace to persevere unto the end, that He may one day call them to Himself as His good and faithful servants. Amen.
© 2015 • All texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission except for personal use.