Priest and victim

By keeping a daily Holy Hour, we best learn our priestly identity and how to be a living sacrifice’

By Bishop Emeritus Richard F. Stika

“Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?”  — Matthew 26:40

Keep watch.” As I reflect upon my time here in the diocese, it seems fitting to conclude with a reflection on the priesthood. For what a great blessing this year to have celebrated the sacrament of Holy Orders with the ordination of seven men—three to the priesthood and four as transitional deacons! Indeed, how blessed we are to have such men who answered God’s calling and desire to bring Christ to His flock and serve them.

And to do so ever more faithfully, and for the blessing of their priesthood, the one counsel I strongly recommend is that of never neglecting to make one continuous Holy Hour every day before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (even on days off and during vacations).

If there was but one book that I wish every priest would prayerfully read, and review at least annually on the anniversary of their ordination, it would be Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s The Priest Is Not His Own. For any priest who embraces his sage advice and makes a Holy Hour each day will be able to more faithfully exercise and live out his priesthood in Christ as both priest and victim. For it is what Christ is, and what we are ordained to be.

Lost meaning. In our day and age, one word has tragically lost its great spiritual significance among Catholics, and even more sadly among priests, too—that of “victim.”

For the priestly identity of the ordained is inseparable from that of also being a victim. Whereas in the Old Testament the priest and the sacrifice to be offered were distinct and separate, as Archbishop Sheen explained, “Christ united in Himself both priesthood and victimhood.”

As such, he warns priests that to understand their priesthood as something separate from that of also being a victim in Christ is to have “a mutilated concept of our priesthood.” This is why, particularly for priests, a daily Holy Hour is so important.

Why a Holy Hour? In the 60 years of his priesthood, Archbishop Sheen never once failed to keep a Holy Hour each day, claiming it was the key to growing and strengthening his priestly life in Christ. For it was in the prayerful silence of each of his Holy Hours before the Blessed Sacrament that He learned from Our Lord that he could not “ascend the altar as a priest and not as victim.”

He continually stressed the importance of making a daily Holy Hour because it “is the only thing that works for the priesthood.” And laity, too, as they are able, are encouraged to make a daily visit to the Blessed Sacrament as well.

Love for the Mass. Because the Eucharist, as St. John Paul II stressed, “is the principal and central raison d’être of the sacrament of the priesthood, the Holy Hour necessarily fuel’s the priest’s fervor for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

As Pope Benedict XVI stressed, “The fervor of a priest’s life depends entirely upon the Mass.” And it is the Holy Hour that fuels that fervor for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—for that which we celebrate is that which we must also live.

Priestly identity. It is in the presence of the Lord for a continuous hour that we best learn our true identity as priests and to be “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1)—to offer and be offered “through Him, and with Him, and in Him” in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and in the Mass we must live.

We learn to enter into Christ’s “hour” by spending an hour with Him. And by doing so, we learn, as Archbishop Sheen stressed, “There is no such thing as a ‘six o’clock Mass—the Mass is continuous, a living sacrifice.’” We must live our Mass every day as priest and victim.

Making a Holy Hour. Properly understood, Archbishop Sheen explains that “the Holy Hour is not an official prayer; it is personal.” While “the basic purpose of this hour is to meditate,” one can also pray the Liturgy of the Hours (although he recommends no more than 20 minutes so as to keep the majority of the hour for meditative prayer). Certainly, one may pray the rosary, or meditate upon Scripture or upon an appropriate spiritual reading. But it is also important during this time to learn how to “listen to the Lord.”

And if you are tempted to give up making a daily Holy Hour, Archbishop Sheen instructs us to “ask yourself which of these three excuses, which the Lord said would be ours, is keeping us back from total service: earthly desires, earthly love, or earthly grief” (Luke 9:57-62).

Priestly adoration. We come before Our Lord in the Holy Hour to adore and give Him thanks. But consider this—our priestly vows are themselves “an act of devotion” by which we dedicate ourselves to God and promise our faithfulness (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2102). Because of this, one laudable practice for priests is to begin the Holy Hour by briefly praying and reflecting upon “The Promise of the Elect” from the Rite of Ordination.

These are the six questions asked by the ordaining bishop at our priestly ordination and the seven from our diaconal ordination, each beginning with the words, “Do you resolve….” The only vow common to both rites of ordination begins with “Do you promise…” regarding respect and obedience to the bishop and his successors.

Perhaps the reason for this double emphasis is because, as a noted Italian exorcist explained, “The prince of disobedience is the devil, and you beat him by being obedient, not by your personality, or charisms.”

Strength for the ministry. The Holy Hour helps us to be more vigilant in guarding the vows that protect our priesthood. For to neglect even one vow is to step out from under the protection it provides—and let there be no doubt, Satan will be sure to swoop in when we do. So, guard your priestly vows, for by them we shall be judged.

His greatest desire. Here I think of Venerable Brother Bernardo Vasconcelos (1902-1932), a Portuguese Benedictine monk. His greatest desire was to become a priest and to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, but after suffering an illness for six years, he died at age 29.

However, those long years of suffering served to form his understanding and love of the priesthood, the Eucharist, and the Mass in a way far greater than the seminary could have. Nearing death, he wrote a short but very beautiful book, The Mass and the Interior Life, where he wrote what he learned it meant to be truly eucharistic:

“Those who live the sacrament of the Eucharist should also live the sacrifice, which is its principle and source…. And if they do not live the sacrifice of the Eucharist, they easily forget the active part which they should take in the holy Mass, as co-offerers and co-victims. This is such an enormous loss to their spiritual life that it is hardly surprising if they lack that special veneration and affection which they ought to have for the holy Sacrifice.”

Dying with Christ. Venerable Bernardo longed to ascend the altar as both priest and victim. But for us who have been ordained, we need what Christ gives us in the Holy Hour each day so as to ascend the altar as both.

Then by “having died with Christ on the altar,” as Archbishop Sheen states, we can then continue our “sacrifice of the heart and mind in thanksgiving; in the sacrifice of good deeds; in the sacrifice of broken hearts and contrite spirits; and in the sacrifice of the whole man and the dedication of [our]self to God” (Romans 12:1 and 15:16; Hebrews 13:15, 16; Psalm 51:17; 1 Peter 2:15; Philippians 2:7).

To do so is “to live the blessed Eucharist,” by living “the sacrifice and the sacrament in its entirety,” according to Brother Bernardo.

Did that Hour count? Given Archbishop Sheen’s humor, it seems fitting to conclude with this story regarding the Holy Hour. He recounted how he had been traveling all day by train in Europe and had yet to make his Holy Hour.

Pulling into the train station, he calculated he had just enough time to go to the church nearby to make his Holy Hour before his next train departed. When he got to the church, he sat down in the pew (he always knelt during his Holy Hour) and closed his eyes to pray, only to awaken exactly one hour later.

Having to run back to the train station, he asked his guardian angel, “Did that hour count?” And his angel replied, “Yes—that’s how the disciples kept their first hour.”

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