The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 2, Chapter 7

The Example of Priests who were Saints

Chapter Seven


It would be possible to write this chapter on the way in which the saints who were priests celebrated their Mass by quoting what has been said of the following: St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis of Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Philip Neri, St. Paul of the Cross, St. Alphonsus, St. John Vianney—together with his friend Fr. Chevrier.

However, I intend to mention only those facts which I can remember at the moment of writing. St. Dominic used to spend practically the whole night in church, praying and doing penance for the sinners to whom he would preach the Gospel on the following day. That was his preparation for celebrating Mass, during which he was often moved to tears. St. Thomas also received this gift of tears. And he, too, would often remain in church to pray for several hours during the night, either before the Office or after Lauds before celebrating Mass.

St. Francis of Sales, as we read in his life written by Fr. Hamon, vol. ii, p. 376, carried out the ceremonies of the Mass with all possible recollection and devotion, remaining calm and dignified throughout. Those who assisted at his Mass could see that his mind and heart were totally absorbed in God. We have it on the testimony of St. Frances of Chantal that he was never distracted. He was the living image of Jesus Christ. At the moment of consecration and communion his bearing as a priest was so imposing, but as a victim so humble, that he seemed to be completely transformed into God, so to speak— as though he had reached the transforming union. His face revealed such interior happiness and joy that his congregation could not help but be impressed. Those who saw him receive Holy Communion, when his head appeared to be crowned by rays of glory and his brow encircled by a ring of light, treasured the scene in their memory until the day of their death, and testified to the fact in the court for his canonization.

It is also told of him that he took such care in preparing for his Mass that he was eager to go to confession every day before approaching the altar.

For St. Philip Neri the Mass was a time of deep contemplation and most ardent love, so much so that he was often rapt in ecstasy during the sacrifice.

St. John Vianney used to say that if only we fully realized the meaning of the Mass and its infinite value, we would certainly die. "One would need to be a saint to celebrate worthily. When we are in Heaven, we will appreciate the value of the Mass, and how often we have said it without due reverence, or worship, or recollection." This we will know even in Purgatory, when it will no longer be possible to celebrate Mass either for ourselves or for others.

All these saints united the personal offering of their own trials and sufferings to that of the sacred victim for the salvation of souls. The author of the Imitation writes, bk. iv, c. 8: "Christ says: As I willingly offered Myself to God the Father for thy sins, with My hands stretched out upon the Cross, and My Body naked, so that nothing remained in Me which was not completely turned into a Sacrifice to appease the divine wrath; even so oughtest thou willingly to offer thyself to Me daily in the Mass, as intimately as thou canst, with thy whole energies and affections, for a pure and holy oblation. . . . Offer thyself to Me, and give thy whole self for God, and thy offering shall be accepted. . . . But if thou wilt stand upon self, and not offer thyself freely to My will, thy offering is not complete, nor will there be an entire union between us."

This was realized to the full by Fr. Charles de Foucauld, who, finding himself unable to convert the Mohammedans owing to their lack of good will, offered himself on their behalf during the sacrifice of the Mass. In the end he was put to death out of hatred for religion, and he died as a victim of love for souls.

The Mass celebrated by a saint is, so to speak, a prelude to the homage of Heaven, expressed in the words of the Preface: "Holy, holy, holy", in praise of the Blessed Trinity.

Therefore we should ask for the grace to celebrate our Mass with keener faith, more steadfast hope, more selfless and stronger love for God and souls. Our spirit of worship must become more enlightened, and the essential devotion of our will more powerful. In this way, each of our Communions will become more fervent and more fruitful than the preceding one, by producing in us a daily growth in charity and so preparing us to receive Holy Communion on the morrow with an even greater fervour of will.

This is true of all good priests, even though they may not always realize it. St. Francis of Sales used to say of St. Frances of Chantal, who still retained her peace of soul even when deprived of all sensible devotion: "She is like a good singer stricken with deafness, unable to hear the voice which gives such pleasure to others." Beethoven suffered from deafness in the later years of his life, but he continued to be an outstanding composer. Though unable to hear his symphonies, he enjoyed an intellectual awareness of their beauty. This is symbolical of the aridity of the saints, who are sometimes deprived of all sense consolations and yet retain a most ardent spiritual love of God in the higher faculties of their soul. In this they resemble Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane where he began the sacrifice of the Cross, where he began to be a victim sacrificed by the shedding of his blood.

It would seem that Beethoven in his deafness had an even greater love for his art and the beauty of his harmonies which he could not hear. So also the saints. Sometimes while celebrating Mass they lose all their sensible devotion, but at those times they have an even greater love for the sacrifice whose value they do not then perceive, since they offer themselves in union with Christ and thus acquire more merit. But, generally speaking, there comes a time when their spiritual fervour overflows in some way into their sensible nature. That happened in the life of St. Paul of the Cross after forty years of extreme aridity and desolation. During that time he had given a perfect example of a life of reparation. But, before he died, God comforted him and favoured him with perfect peace as the final preparation for the happiness of Heaven.

So far we have spoken of Christ's priesthood, of our priesthood, of the interior life which priests must lead in union with Christ priest and victim, of eucharistic worship and its bearing on priestly perfection, and finally, of the priest's union with Mary. Now, by way of summary, we must consider the excellence of the priestly grace.