The following talk was given by Fr Anthony Pillari to young men at the Voice of the Family conference Created for heaven: the mission of Catholic young adults in today’s world that was held in Rome on 20 October 2018.
“For my power is made perfect in weakness”
Fr Anthony Pillari
“When you become willing to suffer for the sake of unborn children, your witness on their behalf becomes much more powerful.” A pro-life leader uttered these words to me many years ago, speaking of those in Operation Rescue.¹
Are you willing to suffer arrest and imprisonment, ridicule and hatred, in order to give witness to the Truth of Christ, in order to work for the salvation of souls? What are you willing to suffer, as a man, to help save souls? Because Christ is calling each one of you to take up arms in the spiritual battle that is raging all around us. So many, many souls do not even know that they are in the midst of a battle; do not know that demons are trying to drag them down to hell. And so God turns to you, young men who have at least some awareness of the gravity of what is taking place today in the Church and in the world. And He asks you: “Are you willing to fight for Me, to defend souls, to help win souls for Me? Are you willing to suffer, even to the point of losing your life?” “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”²
None of us chose to be born at this time. But God chose you to be born in this time, to live in the midst of this great crisis. God is offering you all the graces necessary to live heroically these years, to take up your role as leaders, as men. And a man can only lead in Christ’s army, whether as a priest, a religious, a head of a family, or a celibate man in the midst of the world — a man can only truly lead if he is willing to imitate Christ in His suffering, if he is willing to lay down his life. Because make no mistake, if you bear faithful witness to the truth of Christ, the world will hate you. As St Paul declares: “…all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”³ And for those of you called to be priests, the devil, the prince of this world (cf. Jn 12:31), will hate you with a special intensity. Because you will be called, as a priest, to bear courageous witness, in your preaching, in your celebration of the Sacraments, and in your life, to the truth of Christ and the reality of sin.
To take just one example: as a priest, I am called to proclaim to every man, including those ensnared in the sins of homosexual acts, the teaching of Christ, the teaching of the Church: such acts are gravely sinful. Such acts violate the natural moral law; such acts are sins so grave that they cry out to Heaven for vengeance (as Bishop Morlino of Madison Wisconsin recently reiterated). And the world will hate you for proclaiming this truth. As Christ declared: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
And the hatred of the world might include not only being ridiculed, sidelined, or caricatured as a bigot, but might well come to include fines, imprisonment or even death. In early 16th century England priests did not expect that in just a few short years they would only be able to celebrate the Sacraments in secret, at the risk of being hung, drawn, and quartered if caught. They did not anticipate that their own bishops would betray the faith, would abandon them. Fathers of families did not anticipate that in just a few years they would only be able to attend the Holy Mass, and to refuse attendance at heretical services, at the risk of crippling fines, of imprisonment, and of the loss of all their possessions. And yet that is exactly what priests and fathers of families faced. But though they did not choose to live in a time calling for heroic witness, God chose them for that time, and God offered them all the graces necessary to be faithful to the Truth that comes from God, faithful until death.
Why did the prince of this world orchestrate such severe punishments for priests caught celebrating the Holy Mass? Because the devil is terribly afraid of losing a great multitude of souls through the apostolate of a priest. When God calls a young man to take up the spiritual arms of the priesthood, that young man is called forward to kneel before his bishop, who anoints his hands with sacred chrism, praying: “May it please you, O Lord, to consecrate and sanctify these hands by this anointing and our blessing. That whatever they bless may be blessed, and whatever they consecrate may be consecrated in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”4 “Receive the power to offer sacrifice to God, and to celebrate Masses for the living and the dead.”5 From that moment, the young man’s hands become capable of washing souls with the blood of Christ. No matter where the priest may be, men will always be able to receive from him absolution for their sins. And no matter where the priest may be, every day of his life, his hands will be capable of offering the Holy Sacrifice upon the altar — of rendering present Christ’s redeeming sacrifice of Calvary.
The greatness of the priesthood is enough to make some young men say: “I would never be capable or worthy of such a vocation. I’m so weak, so imperfect, so sinful.” It is quite true that you are unworthy of being consecrated a priest of Jesus Christ, that you are weak — most likely far weaker than you know, and that you are imperfect and sinful. But whom did Christ choose as His first priests, His first bishops? He chose weak, incapable men who had just shown all of Jerusalem how sinful and cowardly they were. All of Jerusalem knew that Christ’s closest friends, the apostles — except for one — had abandoned Him, had run away and hidden themselves during the Passion. Peter had even publicly denied that he knew Him. And yet God chose these weak, sinful men to become the foundation of His Church, to be the first men to embrace what the Church has always taught to be a superior state of life.6 As the Church reiterated in the encyclical Sacra Virginitas: “This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church.”7
One aspect of this superiority is, at times, overlooked: celibacy is a superior way of life in part because celibacy provides far more assistance for weak, sinful men — assistance in growing in holiness — than the married state. For several years I helped lead a youth group for the spiritual formation of young men. I met with them weekly during the year and then helped lead summer camps lasting from one to three weeks. It was striking to see the difference in the young men during those camps. Their personalities, with their combination of good intentions and inclinations to sin, were essentially the same during the summer camp and during the year. They were the same young men. But when they were at the summer camp, with a schedule that included daily Mass, the rosary, Eucharistic Adoration, and hard work calling for physical sacrifice; when they had the support of priests and other like-minded young men, conferences for spiritual formation, and so forth; they did much better in their struggle to abandon vice and embrace virtue, in their struggle to love Christ with all of their heart, mind and strength. Whereas back in the world, after a few weeks, they would often fall back into old habits.
When a young man enters the novitiate or seminary, when he is ordained a priest, if he lives faithfully according to what the Church asks of him, he experiences a transformation that is not just the result of a few weeks of a different style of life, in the course of a summer camp, but that is the result of years — of the rest of his life — of receiving the special helps offered by the constant training of a celibate priestly life well-lived.
But the devil is terribly afraid of what even one good priest can do. And so the devil is today trying desperately to obscure this truth, to proclaim — as loudly as he can, using newspapers, TV, the internet — that becoming a celibate, Catholic priest will make you weaker and more prone to sin than if you were to get married. Nothing could be further from the truth! But the devil’s lie might appear convincing because of the current clerical scandals. For several decades the true nature of priestly life has, in many seminaries, not been adequately taught. Many young men have come through a seminary without receiving the necessary training — you could say without going through the necessary “spiritual boot camp”, without being equipped with the necessary spiritual armour, with the much-needed habits and daily disciplines that priests have embraced for centuries; without the training in how to make sure their souls would receive regular spiritual nourishment throughout their priestly life. And so, many young men then found themselves, as priests, quite vulnerable to sin.
Of course, ever since Judas there have been bishops and priests who committed serious sins, and Judas had the best formation possible, the formation given by Our Lord Himself. So even with the best seminary formation in the world there will always be the possibility of priests choosing to sin. But the seminary formation of these past few decades has left priests vulnerable, without the spiritual armor necessary to protect them in the midst of the world. So it can be good to recall, even very briefly, the immense treasures and helps Our Lord offers His priests through the Church.
In an orthodox seminary formation a young man learns to embrace and cherish the precious treasure of priestly celibacy. As St Paul declares: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided… I say this for your own benefit… to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”8 If you were engaged to a young woman and you told her: “Sophie, I’m so looking forward to marrying you in three months. I wanted to let you know though, that I’ve decided to also marry Elizabeth, that same day. But don’t worry. The fact that I will be married to both of you will not diminish in the slightest my love, attention, and devotion to you.” How would Sophie respond? “You’re crazy! A man is only capable of giving his heart to one wife. You must be out of your mind if you think that having a second spouse will not greatly harm your love, attention, and devotion to me.” As a man, you can only give your heart to one spouse. For those of you whom God will call to become priests, you will be called to give your heart to Him alone, to the exclusion of any earthly spouse.
It is difficult to put into words the greatness of the blessings the priest receives by having God alone. The saints and mystics, in attempting to say something of the intimate relationship between the soul of a celibate and his God have used the language of the Song of Songs. They have used poetry and music to give some hint of the blessings God has in store for those who choose Him alone as their portion, yet, in the end, they confess that “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)
In a healthy marriage, where a man is truly devoted to his spouse, or, to take a different example, where a man has a best friend for many years — perhaps a teenager who spends extended time, over several years, with a best friend — the man is greatly influenced by his spouse, or the teenager by his friend. Because the man’s spouse or friend occupies a major place in his heart, the spouse or friend has a profound influence on his thoughts, his emotions, his way of acting, how he lives his life. If this is the case even in a human relationship, how much more so for the man who choses God alone as his portion; God, who has promised in the Gospel to give a hundredfold in return for whatever we sacrifice for Him? The priest will therefore, to the degree that he lives his time of formation and his priesthood well, experience the hundredfold of blessings — blessing that help him become more and more like Christ — in his thoughts, his emotions, his way of acting, in his entire life.
Even with poor sinners — and I say this as one who, sadly, is still terribly far from fully embracing the gift of the priesthood; as one who is still, unfortunately, in so many ways lukewarm — even with poor sinful men God takes what we offer Him and grants the hundredfold. The Church, as a good mother, knows the weakness of her children and offers us many practical helps and safeguards so that, on a daily basis, we might be strengthened and protected in our priestly life. Though much of these helps have not been sufficiently taught in recent decades, and have therefore, not been truly embraced and put into practice in priestly life, they are still available and are an invaluable help for young men called to become priests.
A priest is called to nourish his spiritual life:
- through the daily celebration of the Holy Mass, in which he offers the Holy Sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead, and leaves aside earthly things in order to be face to face with His God;
- through the Divine Office, during which the words of the psalms, prayers of the Church, and readings from Scripture and the saints constantly teach and guide him in his relationship with God;
- through the daily rosary, in which the priest is brought ever closer to Our Lord and Our Lady;
- through daily meditation — by spending at least 30 minutes a day in quiet conversation with God — or by making a Holy Hour;
- through spiritual reading;
- through regular fasting and Confession — from their days at the seminary priests used to learn the practice of confessing once every 15 days;
- through his annual retreat: once a year a priest is required to make an annual 5-day retreat. When made well, these five days of silence for more intense prayer and formation help the priest come more fully face to face with his God, in order to be renewed and blessed in ways that only God can grant.
There are many other ways that a priest is strengthened for the spiritual battle. For example, wearing the cassock on a daily basis — so that all who encounter you, whether on the street, in a shop, on the plane, or elsewhere will know that you are a priest — makes it easier for others to seek his help. But even when not in public, for example even when the priest is going about various duties within the rectory, the cassock helps the priest himself remember that he is consecrated to God, that he is called to serve God and His people all throughout his day — that the priesthood is not “a job” but a consecration to God of all that he is, of his entire life. The priest also lives in a presbytery, a place that should be set aside and decorated in such a way as to help the priest remember that he is in the presence of God, normally with a small chapel in the rectory or with the church close at hand. The priest also has the fraternal support of other priests striving for holiness. This is true today, even in the midst of the current scandals. The friendship and support of brother priests is very real.
The priest also has the invaluable help of knowing that what he has received — if he has been given in his formation what Christ Himself confided to the Church, what has been safeguarded by her for 2,000 years — that the truths he has been formed in will never change, and cannot change, because they are the truths that God Himself has revealed. They are a firm bedrock upon which his life and apostolate can be built. As St Alphonsus Liguori declares: “From the time of the Apostles down to our own days our Faith has continued unaltered… Accordingly, the Catholic Church has remained the same in all ages and in all climes. The doctrines she teaches today are the same that were taught and believed in the first ages of the Church.”9 Our Lord gave this solemn command to the apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”10 St John exhorts us all, but in a particular way the priest: “Let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you.”(1 Jn 2:24) Or as St Jude writes: “I beseech you, dearly beloved, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.”(Jude 3)
To contend, to fight “for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.” Such is the great mission to which every priest is called. God turns to you, young men who have at least some knowledge of the greatness of our Faith, some awareness of the battle raging all around us, and He asks you: “Are you willing to fight for Me, to defend souls, to help win souls for Me? Are you willing to suffer, even to the point of losing your life?” “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”11
Are you willing to suffer arrest and imprisonment, ridicule and hatred, in order to give witness to the Truth of Christ, in order to work for the salvation of souls? As young men, Christ is calling each one of you, right now, to take up arms in the spiritual battle that is raging around us. So many, many souls do not even know that they are in the midst of a spiritual battle, do not even know that demons are trying to drag them down to Hell.
For those of you whom Christ is calling to become His priests, and who accept this call to suffer with Him, you will experience the truth of His words: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”12 God will accomplish much more than the hundredfold through your priestly apostolate: your hands will become capable of absolving souls, of presenting again and again the Holy Sacrifice of Calvary to the Father, of distributing God’s graces, every day of your life, to poor sinners throughout the world. You will discover the truth of His words: “My power is made perfect in weakness.”13 And in your own relationship with God you will discover a treasure that surpasses human understanding: what God grants who choose Him alone as their portion, to the exclusion of any earthly spouse.
May God grant, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, each one of us, as men, to be willing to lay down our lives for Him, to be willing to suffer and sacrifice for the salvation of souls, and for the consolation of Our Lord’s Sacred Heart. And for those of you called to be priests, may the Blessed Virgin be by your side to help you embrace wholeheartedly the incomparable treasure of choosing God alone as your portion, and of becoming an alter Christus.
¹ Operation Rescue, founded in 1986, was a pro-life movement in the United States. A group of people would peacefully sit in front of an abortion clinic, praying and physically blocking the entrance to the clinic for some hours while police came and carried them away to jail. “Operation rescuers” were willing to spend days in jail and face the consequences of arrest for the sake of preventing innocent children from being killed that morning at an abortion clinic, and in the hope that mothers who arrived and saw them there might reconsider their decision.
² Matt. 16:25.
³ 2 Tim. 3:12.
4 From the traditional rite of ordination.
6 Note: a well-established tradition in the Church is that the apostles, after being ordained priests, chose to live celibate lives. See https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=7052
7 Sacra Virginitas, Encyclical Pope Pius XII, March 25th 1954, no. 32.
8 1 Cor. 7:32–35. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA.
9 St Alphonsus Liguori, The 12 Steps to Holiness and Salvation, Tan Books 2012, pp. 12-13.
10 Matt. 28:19–20.
11 Matt. 16:25.
12 Mk. 10:29–30.
13 2 Cor. 12:9.