In Rome one can see a beautiful fresco of the Good Shepherd in the catacomb of Saint Priscilla. According to tradition, Priscilla was the mother of Senator Pudens. She and her family must have been baptized by St. Peter himself, soon after his arrival in the Eternal City. The first pope knew the family well and their home was to become the center of his apostolate in Rome. There he must have offered Mass and preached. Later a catacomb was built under the house and the fresco of the Good Shepherd was painted in one of the underground rooms.
We are celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of the canonization of St. Margaret Mary, “the beloved disciple of my Sacred Heart,” as Our Lord called her. It is touching to see how the first Christians, not having yet the revelations of Paray-le-Monial, used the image of the Good Shepherd to represent the Merciful Love of Jesus, as in the fresco of the catacomb of St. Priscilla. St. Peter was of course present when Our Lord told His apostles the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus also revealed to them that He was the Good Shepherd who had come to rescue His wayward sheep. St. Peter was never to forget this and, as we will see, he experienced it in his own life. So he was able to explain the mystery of Our Savior’s Infinite Mercy to Priscilla and his family in these words: “You were as sheep gone astray but you are now converted to the shepherd and bishop of your souls” (I Pet. 2:25).
In his first epistle, which he wrote in Rome, maybe in the house of Priscilla, Saint Peter exhorted priests, many of them he had himself ordained as their bishop: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking good care of it… And when the prince of shepherds shall appear, you shall receive a never fading crown of glory.”
The words of the first pope were thus echoing Our Lord’s famous words to him on the shore of the lake of Galilee: “Simon, son of John, lovest thou me? Feed my sheep.” St. Augustine has this beautiful commentary: “Our Lord is the Good Shepherd and all the rest, all the good shepherds are his members,” i.e., “shepherds under The Shepherd.” “A good shepherd is one who knows that he is feeding Our Lord’s flock for His Master and not for himself.” Yes, Jesus shepherds his sheep through his undershepherds the priests. But the priests are themselves members of the flock, so they too need the loving care of the Good Shepherd. St. Peter, in his weakness, knew this only too well. If priests want to be good shepherds and not hirelings, if they desire to work well for Our Lord, then they must “abide in Him and Him in them.” They must travel on the difficult road of their priesthood in His company.
After His resurrection, Our Lord served breakfast to His apostles after the miraculous catch of fish on the lake of Gennesaret. St. John mentioned that it was on a charcoal fire that Our Savior cooked the fish (Jn. 21:9). The other time the same word is used in the Gospel is when St. Peter stood in front of a “charcoal fire,” the night he denied his master three times.
This detail brings together both moments in St. Peter’s life. The first fire reminds us of his sin and the second of the mercy of Our Lord reassuring him that he had been forgiven. At the second fire Jesus questioned Peter about his love for Him. Peter, having been humbled by his fall, realized now his great weakness. So when Our Lord asked: “Do you love me more than the others?” Peter answered: “Lord, Thou knowest” and further: “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” The charcoal fire reminded him of this terrible night when he fell into sin through presumption. Cured from his illusions, he now placed his confidence in Our Savior’s grace and no longer in his own strength. Later, he was one day to explain all this, maybe with tears in his eyes, to Priscilla and her family in Rome.
As they are called to shepherd others, priests must always remember to depend on the help of the Chief Shepherd. They must constantly bear in mind their own fickleness and how much they are in need of Our Savior’s Love and Mercy. Like St. Peter, they can become a lost sheep that has to be sought, found and brought back on their good Master’s shoulders. As St. Paul says, they carry the precious grace of their priesthood in an earthen vessel which can be broken. How easy it is to forget their spiritual poverty and thus run the risk to deny their Lord and fall from grace! “Watch and pray.”
We wrote about the two fires mentioned in the Gospel, but we know there is a third one, which the Church calls an “ardent furnace of charity.” This is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, fully revealed only to St. Margaret Mary in the 17th century. This Heart of Our Savior was heard by Saint John resting on Jesus’s breast during the last supper , then pierced on the cross by the lance of the centurion and finally shown to Saint Thomas when he opened the folds of his tunic and said: “Bring hither thy hand and put it into my side.”
When St. Peter was still full of pride, he was far from the fire of the meek and humble Heart of Jesus. So he felt cold and went to warm himself by the charcoal fire and then fell into sin. Yes indeed the heart of the priest is made for God and it cannot fully rest until it rests in Him. When it becomes lukewarm, it will often seek the consolation of creatures an then disaster can be expected. This is why the undershepherd must seek intimacy with the Good Shepherd. The priest takes care of the souls Jesus purchased at such a great price, i.e., His own blood. This is why the priesthood is such a mark of love. Our Lord could have chosen others, but He chose these because He wanted to make them His friends and take care of His sheep (Jn. 15:15).
It is a mystery how the good priest, through his fidelity, can console the Divine Heart and give Him the happiness of saving many souls through his ministry. On the contrary, the unfaithful priest can be a source of grief for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We see this very well in the revelations to St. Margaret Mary. Our Lord suffers more from the sins of souls consecrated to Him than from others. Priests are Jesus’ strength and weakness, His hope and His fear, His joy and His sorrow. They can be in the Sacred Heart either a burning flame of charity or a piercing thorn of pain.
Knowing all this, Holy Mother Church has given to her priests many models of holiness. One of the most beautiful was St. Pius X. In a letter soon after the death of the holy pope, Padre Pio wrote: “Truly, he was more than ever the good shepherd, the king of peace, the meek and humble Jesus on earth.” When Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Society of St. Pius X with the goal of restoring the holiness of the priesthood, he could not have chosen a better patron than Giuseppe Sarto. This year, the Society is celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was approved on November 1st 1970, on the feast of All Saints. The Archbishop always saw in this date a powerful reminder that the very essence of the Society is the sanctification of priests, to give the Church holy priests who shall be good shepherds of souls.
If Padre Pio was a great lover of the Sacred Heart and a good shepherd of souls, we cannot say the same of several other priests whom we meet in his life. One of the saddest examples was the Archbishop of Manfredonia and the four canons of San Giovanni Rotondo. Theirs was an extremely immoral life, with several innocent souls victims of these “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Padre Pio’s saintly life was such a reproach to them that they decided to calumniate him so that the Holy Office would take disciplinary measures against him. They succeeded so well that Pope Pius XI and even Cardinal Merry del Val were deceived. A friend of Padre Pio tried to use the media to correct this injustice. Padre Pio disapproved of it, probably because he feared that more harm than good would come from public exposure of this scandal. It is only several years later that the truth finally came out and the culprits were severely punished. Holy Mother Church has always known the consolation of good priests and the grief caused by the ones who did not follow their calling to holiness.
Even in his own order, Padre Pio knew there were quite a few scandals in the beginning. The Capuchin Order was founded by Matthew de Baschi. It was immediately successful since 10 years later it had no less than 700 members. Capuchins were holy religious. They were also wonderful preachers and this was a big help in the fight against the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately Matthew left the order in order to achieve independence. The second general superior, Louis de Fossenbrune, had to be expelled from the order for disobedience. But the greatest scandal was given by Bernardino Ochino, fourth general superior of the order. He was at the time the most famous preacher in Italy. In 1542 he apostasized and joined Calvin in Geneva. He went so far as to preach polygamy through his sermons and his example.
The pope resolved to suppress the Capuchin Order. He was dissuaded with difficulty, but Capuchins were nevertheless forbidden to preach. It was a great humiliation for the order, but God was purifying his children through this trial. Thirty-five years later, St. Fidelis of Sigmaringen was born in 1577. He was to become the first canonized saint of the Order. The Capuchins now count 15 saints and 51 blessed. From a human perspective, it seems that the ill repute into which the Order had fallen was without remedy and that the Order was bound to wither away. And yet God had other plans and the Order was to produce great fruits of sanctity, among them Padre Pio. Truly we can exclaim with St. Paul: “Oh the depths of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are his judgments and how unsearchable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33). Here is a beautiful quote from Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary: “I know how to accomplish my designs, even through means which seem contrary.”
As the Society of Saint Pius X now counts 50 years of existence, let us be grateful, first for the priests whose holiness rejoiced the Sacred Heart as well as edified us the faithful and who have now gone to their eternal reward. The saintly Fr. La Praz from Switzerland who carried so patiently his heavy cross is but one example. God took these priests sometimes at an early age. But they are now praying in Heaven for their confreres still struggling in this vale of tears.
Let us also bear in mind the tireless priests who in the 1970’s and 1980’s maintained the Traditional Mass, with the help of a few elderly priests, when there was no indult Mass or Ecclesia Dei fraternities. It was a heavy burden but they carried it cheerfully as good shepherds of their flocks. Theirs was often a gruelling schedule with three and sometimes four Masses on Sunday, with hours of confession. Those brave priests traveled everywhere, toiled, suffered and sowed in tears so that we could now enjoy the fruits of their labors. Where would we be without them? We would certainly have no Traditional Mass, therefore we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude.
As faithful we have to pray for those of our priests who are now suffering from illness, loneliness or temptations. Priests know, more than any other, that they have to follow Our Lord on the painful Way of the Cross. Jesus is indeed purifying them through their trials, since it is only when their heart is broken that supernatural peace and joy is fully released. Yet they are weak so they heavily depend on the prayers and sacrifices of generous souls. We should see Our Lord in them, since they are “other Christs.” At the end of her life, St. Therese of the Child Jesus was offering all her sufferings for her two “brothers,” missionary priests.
Let us not forget those priests who have strayed from the path of virtue. They need our compassion and our prayers. We may know one or another of these unhappy souls who are now like lost sheep, a shepherd no longer united to the Chief Shepherd but separated from Him. The Divine Heart seeks them and pursues them in His Mercy, as He sought to bring Peter back to repentance. Thanks be to God there are several examples of beautiful conversions in this domain. Until her death, St. Therese of Lisieux prayed for the ex-Carmelite priest, Fr. Loison, who had left the Church and married.
Last but not least, let us remember the good priests who are doing their work with charity, humility and fidelity: those who are saying Mass for us on Sunday, hearing our confessions and baptizing our children. These shepherds are dear to us, they are our light in the darkness of the world. They are patient with us, who are not always docile to them. They are willing to give us their time when we need someone to listen to our problems. They quietly go about doing their work of saving souls. Satan will certainly try to destroy them. If we pray for them, he will not succeed. The children of Fatima, especially Jacinta prayed for priests.
We suggest to our fellow Traditional Catholics the following prayer:
O Jesus, Eternal Priest, keep all Your priests within the shelter of Your Sacred Heart, where none may harm them. Keep unstained their anointed hands which daily touch Your Sacred Body.
Keep unsullied their lips purpled with Your Precious Blood. Keep pure and unearthly their hearts sealed with the sublime marks of Your glorious priesthood. Let Your holy love surround them and shield them from the world’s contagion.
Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may the souls to whom they have ministered to be their joy and consolation and in Heaven their beautiful and everlasting crown.
O Mary, Queen of the clergy, pray for us; obtain for us many holy priests. Amen.