February 08, 2013

The Papal Letter of 1917

By Joe Tremblay *

In 1917 Pope Benedict XV couldn’t help but notice that the world was growing cold to Christ. The observation of these developments begged an important question: Why the change? Why was had Western Civilization grown tired of its native religion? Instead of blaming the world, Pope Benedict XV did some serious soul searching on behalf of the Church. He asked, “Has the Word of God then ceased to be what it was described by the Apostle, living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword? Has long-continued use blunted the edge of that sword?”

The answer, of course, is a resounding “No!” Then what was the underlying cause of a world that had gone secular? As uncomfortable as it is, the Holy Father points to the answer: “If that weapon does not everywhere produce its effect, the blame certainly must be laid on those ministers of the Gospel who do not handle it as they should. For no one can maintain that the Apostles were living in better times than ours, that they found minds more readily disposed towards the Gospel or that they met with less opposition to the law of God.”

Yet, the brutal fact remained: The Church possessed the same Gospel and the same Sacraments as the Apostles did, but the results in 1917 were not encouraging. And as Pope Benedict XV suggested, Catholics in the 20th century were not using the Gospel as they should. This, he said, was “a matter of the greatest and most momentous concern.”

Although the problem of mishandling the Gospel and easy access to the Sacraments were not visibly pronounced in Pope Benedict XV time, they would be in decades to come. With an uncanny eye, the Holy Father saw the beginning of what would be a real crisis. In his 1917 encyclical, On Preaching the Word, he chose to focus on the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the diligence bishops had to exercise in selecting, not only learned men, but holy men for the priesthood. Indeed, he echoed the admonition given by the Lateran Council centuries earlier: "If it should ever be impossible to maintain the present number, it is better to have a few good priests than a multitude of bad ones."

In fact, Pope Benedict XV cautioned his brother bishops of the following: If men find easy access to the pulpits of our churches…it is your duty to see that such a grave abuse should disappear, and since you will have to render to God and to His Church an account of the manner in which you feed your flock, allow no one to creep unbidden into the sheepfold and to feed the sheep of Christ according to his fancy.” The Holy Father was candid enough to say that if an unworthy priest leads souls astray through error or scandal, then the bishop who ordained him would share in his sins. To this, he said, “If anyone acts carelessly and negligently in this duty, he clearly offends in a grievous matter, and on him will fall the responsibility of the errors which the untrained preacher may spread or of the scandal and the bad example which the unworthy one may give. 

 The Fathers of the Church were known to issue to very same warning to their priests. But what if a good priest turned bad? There are countless examples throughout sacred history that show that a man of the cloth can begin his ministry on solid footing only to slip and fall from grace at a later time. Perhaps a gifted preacher may let human applause go to his head. In any event, if a member of the clergy was found to abuse his office, the pontiff counseled his brother bishops to act! For the good of souls, false compassion for the unworthy minister had to be set aside. He said, “If you detect any one for his own glory or for gain, abusing the office of preaching, you should at once remove him from that function.” And elsewhere he said that if a priest was to be found wanting in virtue or learning, he was to be “debarred.”

The criterions for choosing worthy men for the priesthood, according to Pope Benedict XV, were three-fold. First, the candidate was a man “who always fully conformed himself to God's will.” In other words, he had to be a man of virtue and zeal, putting God’s glory about his own profit. Secondly, “he will not avoid labor or trouble of any kind.” The Holy Father went on to say that such a man should not immoderately desire the comforts of life or seek his own ease rather than the good of souls. Like Christ and the Apostles, the man of the cloth should possess the spirit of sacrifice. As such, short-term sacrifices will deter him from long-term gains. In the third place, every priest and preacher of the Word should be a man of prayer. As St. Bernard counseled a fellow preacher: "If you are wise, be a reservoir, not a conduit, be full yourself of what you preach and do not think it enough to pour it out for others." The Doctor then adds: "Today we have in the Church a profusion of conduits, but how few are the reservoirs!"

These priestly qualities are “a matter of the greatest and most momentous concern” because from the mouths of unworthy ministers comes a distorted or watered down version of the Gospel. To be sure, such an abridged version which leaves out supernatural principles and counter-cultural doctrines is incapable of saving souls. It produces that useless salt the Lord warned about in his Sermon on the Mount. As Pope Benedict XV warned, “But since among the truths revealed by God there are some which frighten the weakness of our corrupt nature, and which therefore are not calculated to attract the multitude, they carefully avoid them, and treat themes, in which, the place accepted, there is nothing sacred.”

Then he has us reflect on a special quality of St. Paul’s; one that would prove difficult to exercise but one that is of paramount importance for the preacher if he is to win souls for Christ. He said,

“(A)ll Christ's doctrines and commands, even the sterner ones, were so proclaimed by St. Paul that he did not restrict, gloss over or tone down what Christ taught regarding humility, self-denial, chastity, contempt of the world, obedience, forgiveness of enemies, and the like, nor was he afraid to tell his hearers that they had to make a choice between the service of God and the service of Belial, for they could not serve both, that when they leave this world, a dread judgment awaits them; that they cannot bargain with God; they may hope for life everlasting if they keep His entire law, but if they neglect their duty and indulge their passions, they will have nothing to expect but eternal fire. For our ‘Preacher of truth’ never imagined that he should avoid such subjects, because, owing to the corruption of the age, they appeared too stern to his hearers. Therefore it is clear how unworthy of commendation are those preachers who are afraid to touch upon certain points of Christian doctrine lest they should give their hearers offense.”

Then he asked a question which is so important for all Catholics who seek to advance the Faith in the twenty-first century: “Does a physician prescribe useless remedies to his patient, merely because the sick man rejects effective ones? The test of the orator's power and skill is his success in making his hearers accept the stern truth he is preaching.”

This will be a key factor in not only determining the success of the New Evangelization but for the renewal of the Church.

Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He was a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children. The views and opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily reflective of any organizations he works for.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.