Monday, September 7, 2009

THE YEAR OF THE PRIEST: The Ambassadors of Christ

Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957), son of the Bishop of Manchester, attended Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford, and in 1910 was ordained in the Church of England. In 1919, he became a Roman Catholic. He was a prolific writer producing detective novels, biographies, apologetic works, histories, spiritual direction and a new English translation of the Bible. The following is just one chapter of his RETREAT FOR PRIESTS, written in 1946. The whole Retreat can be downloaded as a pdf document HERE.

The epistle for the first Sunday in Lent (2 Cor. vi, 1-10), try as we may to make it sound as if it referred to the congregation, refers really to ourselves. It is so plainly St. Paul's conception of what his ideal priest ought to be like.

The Liturgy makes the whole passage somewhat mystifying by leaving out the verses immediately before, which set the key for the whole. "We are Christ's ambassadors, and God speaks to you through us; we entreat you in Christ's name, make your peace with God." St. Paul's metaphor, then, is that of an ambassador, and an ambassador delivering, on behalf of his Sovereign, an ultimatum, a direct threat of war. The priest, at the beginning of Lent, has to entreat his congregation not to offer the grace of God an ineffectual welcome. So many graces missed already, and now the acceptable time has come, the day of salvation; treat this Lent, brethren, as if it was your last chance! Lent, you see, is a kind of sacramental expression of the span of life that still lies before us, the time granted us for repentance, for making our peace with God. If we do not make our peace with God, then, at the expiration of the time fixed, of the days of grace he has offered us, we find ourselves in a state of war with God, his enemies, and eternally. It is an ultimatum we deliver; now or never, make your peace!

So far, the moral has been for the congregation; the rest of the epistle is a moral, entirely, for the priest himself. We are careful not to give offense to anybody, lest we should bring discredit on our ministry; Christ wants for his ambassadors, not just any sort of ambassadors, but ambassadors trained in a school of Divine diplomacy. Not mere town-criers, shouting out "Oyez, oyez!" so as to say, afterwards, that everybody in the street has had fair warning; men entrusted with plenipotentiary powers, to secure the renewed loyalty of the rebellious subjects, if there is any form of persuasion that can do it. It is for the ambassador to ingratiate himself with the people of the country he is sent to; make people love and respect him, so that they may love and respect the master he represents.

To be the ambassador of Christ after a fashion, makes no great demands on the priest. All he has to do is to get up every Sunday morning, read out the Credo, and say "If you don't believe that, my dear brethren, you will go to hell"; get up every Sunday evening, read out the Ten Commandments, and say, "If you don't keep those, my dear brethren, you will go to hell". The ultimatum has been delivered- yes. But have we really been ambassadors? John Wesley, when one of his sermons hadn't made much impression, used to note the fact in his journal, and add, "I am clear of these men's blood". He was a great man, John Wesley, but I don't like him when he uses that phrase. Don't let us ever get into the habit of thinking that after having given our congregation twenty minutes on the danger of mixed marriages, and twenty minutes more on the importance of being in time with the bench rents, we are "clear of their blood". Something more is demanded of an ambassador; what? St. Paul goes on to tell us; not very tidily, because he hadn't a very tidy mind; but perhaps more tidily than usual.

Patience, a great deal of patience-that, he tells us, is the first thing we need. And he goes on to give nine samples of the kind of things we have to put up with, divided into three threes. "In times of affliction, of need, of difficulty-those are the mental discomforts brought on us by the vicissitudes of our work; "under the lash, in prison, in the midst of tumult"-those are the bodily discomforts inflicted on us by our fellow-men; "when we are tired out, sleepless, and fasting"-those are the bodily discomforts inflicted on us by circumstance. The picture seems to us highly-colored; do not let us forget that priests in many parts of the world are having, now, to work under those conditions; times may change, and we may have to ourselves. Meanwhile, patience is not less demanded of us because the provocations to which we are accustomed are, by comparison, pin-pricks. How difficult it can be when the faithful will try to buttonhole us after Mass on Sunday; when we are tired out after the confessional yesterday, sleepless after mutton-chops at half-past nine and a long evening with the notices, fasting until after the last Mass is sung; in affliction, need, and difficulty because we are already trying to buttonhole so many people ourselves, trying to remember what it is we have so importantly got to say to them; the last moment when we want to be under the lash of the parish grouser, imprisoned by the parish bore, in the midst of tumult, with the altar-boys kicking up a shindy all around us-and this is the moment when, most of all, the parish sees us, and ought to see us at our best!

You don't need to tell me that it is the fault of the laity. Only last Sunday I preached to fifty school girls imploring them not to grow up into the kind of people who buttonhole priests after Mass. But it is a splendid opportunity, you know, for realizing our ambassadorship. It's very odd to reflect what a lot of the good marks some of us will get at our last account will be for keeping our tempers, just, with great difficulty, keeping our tempers, at moments when nobody imagined we were in any danger of losing them.

And then you have a list, I think, of four qualities which the perfect ambassador ought to have. St. Paul always pitches his standard high. I don't know how you are to translate that word "hagnotes." "Chastity", yes; but the word has a merely negative sound. "Hagnotes" is a quality so pure as to be terrible; it dazzles you, no embattled array so awes men's hearts. A convoy passing through a country town, that endless stream of fortified motion, how it takes your breath away with the realization of the terrific thing modern war is! Something like that ought to be the purity of the priest. Not just the insensitiveness of the bachelor, who finds women a nuisance, not the furtive horror which tries to forget that sex exists, but something unapproachable, blinding, on a different plane from thoughts of evil. What a waste of God's gifts, when the life that is pledged to celibacy is not a life irradiated by purity! When brooding regrets, or cheap familiarities, tarnish the surface of that mirror which ought to reflect Christ!

"Knowledge"-how curiously St. Paul compiles his lists! Only this is not the kind of knowledge in which you can take doctorates. Always, I think, the idea in St. Paul's mind when he uses this word is that of familiarity with the things of the supernatural world, a familiarity which only comes from prayer. "He was in the world . . . and the world knew him not"-it is the opposite of that attitude which St. Paul means by knowledge; a recognition which has grown into familiarity. The soil on which an embassy is built belongs, by diplomatic usage, to the country which that embassy represents. And the ground on which the priest's feet tread should be, as it were, part of the soil of heaven transplanted to earth. The language of heaven should be talked in the presbytery, as the English language is talked in the British Embassy at Moscow. The layman who is in a difficulty ought to say to himself, "I'll go and talk to the priest about it, he'll be able to tell me; he knows God". The laity at large have the impression, and rightly, I think, that we priests know our job. I sometimes wonder whether they have the same confidence that we know our Employer.

"Long-suffering"-the difference between that and the patience we were speaking of just now leaps to the eye. You can be patient about things; an illness or a sleepless night; you are long-suffering only about persons. More, you are patient with people when they bore you or badger you without meaning any harm; you are long-suffering only where there is a sense of injury. And this quality, in one of Christ's ambassadors, is evidently of the first importance. We carry his ultimatum in our pockets; that puts us in a very delicate position. On the one hand, we have to portray him to the faithful as infinitely forgiving; we shall not do that if we are unforgiving people ourselves. On the other hand, it will sometimes be our duty to tell a fellow-mortal, "No, if you go on like that, if you persist in doing that, there is no forgiveness for you, in this world or in the world to come". Essential that the man who speaks like that should not be thought to be putting any personal animus into the declaration; the sinful soul must never be allowed to think "He is saying that because he has a down on me". And that is what people are very apt to say; cast your mind back to school days, and remember how when you were punished it was always because that professor had a down on you. The priest, then, must be known as one who personally harbors no grudges, who forgets an injury. When the sinner is told by such a man as that that there is no forgiveness, he will begin to take notice. Do let us beware of using phrases, even in fun, which will send round the parish the impression that we are unforgiving people.

"Sweetness" will not quite do in English, though "suavitas" might do in Latin, for "chrestotes." "Chrestos" is a word St. Paul is fond of applying to Almighty God himself; "kindness" would do, but I think "graciousness" does better. Here you have the positive side of the picture; our Lord's ambassadors must represent him as being, not only forgiving to the sinner, but gracious to all his suppliants. And if we are to represent our Lord to the people in that light, we shall do it best by having a graciousness of our own which represents his. There is a kind of universal benevolence which sometimes makes itself felt, even in a very shy man, even in a very reserved man, which does win souls. Everybody calls the priest "dear old" Father So-and-so, if not actually "poor old" Father So-and-so; there are no organizations in the parish and the accounts are in a frightful mess, but somehow people go to church. It is "chrestotes" that has done it.

The pure-minded priest, the priest who is familiar with God, who is forgiving, who is gracious-having asked all that of us, St. Paul goes on to give us four resources we have to rely on, if we are going to face this tremendous task. The Holy Spirit; I wonder if we think enough about all that? I mean, we are apt, some of us, to be rather like the minister who said "If I'm called upon to speak suddenly like this, I just say what the Holy Spirit puts into my mind, but if you'll give me an hour or two for preparation, I can do much better". We get into the pulpit without any sermon prepared, because we have been prevented, by sick calls or some other unexpected interruption, from giving it the time we meant to. And no doubt the Holy Spirit does give us special assistance then, but isn't it giving him a rather secondary role if we only expect him to help us out on occasions like that? Surely we ought to pray to him more, try and make ourselves more supple to his influence, than we do. After all, most of us have known, in the confessional perhaps, what it is to say something which we aren't in the least expecting to say, can't quite make out afterwards why we did say it; isn't that perhaps meant to make us see that we have more help at hand than we mostly realize? Isn't it meant to make us trust, rather more, the occasional impulse we get to say something-only we're too shy; to write a letter to somebody-only we're too slack? Don't let us be neglectful in our devotion to the Holy Spirit; the ambassador has got to keep in touch with Headquarters.

Then there is unaffected love, love unfeigned. It may be the business of the ordinary ambassador to feign love; to pretend great friendliness towards the country in which he is stationed, when in fact he feels no such friendliness, and knows that his countrymen don't either. We are in a better position than that; we are bound to our congregations by a real tie of Christian fellowship, of pastoral good-will, which will triumph, if we will let it, over many difficulties.

And then "the word of truth": or as we should say, "the truth of our message". The ordinary ambassador is fairly often under an obligation-what shall we say? Sir William Temple observed that an ambassador is one who goes and lies abroad for his country. Let us say anyhow that he is often in a position where he has to let the foreign statesmen he is conversing with deceive themselves-about his own country's resources, his own country's intentions. The ambassador of Christ suffers from no such embarrassment as that; he is simply speaking the truth that is in his heart.

And finally, the power of God-we must not expect God to do miracles for us; but he has waiting for us, if we will trust him, unexpected providences; an important conversion, a big check, you never know what. So, when its ambassador is not being listened to, a country will sometimes reinforce his authority by making a demonstration, mobilizing its troops, or something of that sort. Heaven does back up its ambassadors.

At this point St. Paul, whose thought plays about like lightning, disconcerts us a little by apparently beginning to say the exact opposite of what he has been saying before. He has been telling us how important it is that the ambassadors of Christ should make a good impression, and then quite suddenly he adds: "After all, what does it matter what people think of us? Makes no difference at all". The reason is, I think, that (as you will find at the beginning of the letter) people at Corinth have been saying nasty things about St. Paul. They said he was a man you couldn't trust, and he didn't like that. But he reminds himself now that what people think of us doesn't in the least matter. Well, it isn't really the opposite of what has gone before. I think if he had expressed himself rather more coherently, he would have said, "It is the business of Christ's ambassador to make the most favorable impression he can. Having done that, he must not be in the least surprised if in spite of it people think ill of him; they always will". And we, while (as I've been trying to point out) we have an urgent duty to make people think well of us, must be quite unmoved, in ourselves, by their approval or disapproval. It all means nothing.

We are to be armed on the right as well as on the left; your ancient soldier carried his shield on his left arm, and fought that side first. But it isn't really satisfactory only to have a pad on the leg that is facing the bowling. No, we must be armed right and left with justice, by which I think St. Paul here means innocence. It doesn't very much matter, because he has got his metaphor mixed up; what he is trying to say is that we should be equally steeled against undue blame and undue praise. "By honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report". The best-looking girl in the parish goes and marries a Protestant, when you've moved heaven and earth to prevent it; and then you hear the Protestants are saying that you deliberately threw her in the poor boy's way, so as to try and pervert him. Don't mind; it won't do any harm. On the other hand, don't be too ready to believe all the good you hear about yourself. The intense woman who says, "Father, that marvelous sermon of yours"; the enthusiastic parishioner who says, "Ah, sure, Almighty God sent us a good priest when he sent you, Father"-write it off; that kind of thing won't save you any Purgatory.

Then the rest of the epistle merely carries a list of the unkind things people say about God's ambassadors; the instances chosen are very much of St. Paul's own day, and I fancy very much concerned with St. Paul's own experience. He had critics at Corinth, and they had been saying that he was a liar; that he was unacknowledged (that is, the other apostles didn't recognize him as an apostle); that it didn't matter what his teaching was, because he was probably dead in any case; or if not dead, so badly mauled by the mob at Ephesus that he would be no use again; that he was always writing tearful letters, and making people feel uncomfortable; that he was always begging for money; that he had no rich friends, and couldn't expect to make a success of preaching the gospel.

All that we probably shan't hear about ourselves. But we shall hear very much that sort of thing said about the Church we love more than life. That our claims are built on falsehood; that we are an insignificant force in the world to-day; that we are dying out, or at least have lost so much prestige that we shall never recover from it; that we are kill-joys, preaching a medieval morality to a world which has grown out of it; that we are always on the make, always in alliance with the rich against the poor, with the Have's against the Have-not's; or, contrary-wise, that we are a very provincial, middle-class set of people, we Catholics, what we do isn't worth reporting, what we say isn't worth repeating. All that we shall hear said, or read it in books and newspaper articles by people who don't like us. But none of it matters; none of it matters a bit, as long as we haven't been responsible, for giving a bad impression of the ministry we exercise; as long as we, Christ's ambassadors, have done our best to do what nobody can ever really do-represent him.


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