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Faithful Fathers

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Faith of our Fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword;
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word
Faith of our Fathers, holy Faith
We will be true to thee till death.

When I learned this hymn as a Protestant child, we sang it on Thanksgiving, on the Fourth of July, and especially on Father’s Day. When we sang “Faith of our Fathers”, we thought of the courageous Pilgrims — the fathers of our country — who suffered and even died in order to establish a society in which they and their descendents could be free to practice their Christian faith.

We remembered the Founding Fathers who built a nation on the firm foundation of faith in God, with all that this means about principles of human justice and freedom, brotherhood, peace and unity, and the “self-evident” truths about man, which are deeply rooted in Christian teaching. It also meant our own fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers and uncles and cousins and brothers, who would risk their lives in order to preserve, protect and defend this “family of faith”, our Christian nation, with fidelity and great courage — even unto death.

And finally, it meant that our own dads had willingly accepted this task, this loving responsibility for us. I somehow knew — though I hoped he’d never be called on to do it — that my father would be willing to be “chained in prison dark” or even lose his life in order to save mine, and my brother’s and sister’s and mother’s; and that he would do this because of his faith. The faith of his — and our — fathers would support and inspire and sustain him. Only by being true to his faith in God would it be possible for him to “be true to us till death”.

I did not realize until many years later that “Faith of Our Fathers” is actually a Catholic hymn — and the fathers the hymn speaks of were priests and martyrs. Many Catholics in this country do not know this either. The hymn was written in 1849 by Father Frederick William Faber (1814-1863). Father Faber was an Anglican priest who followed Cardinal John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church (in 1845) and founded the Brompton Oratory in London.

Father Faber was singularly devoted to the Mass, and to the Mother of God. When he wrote this hymn, he particularly had in mind the English Martyrs of the Reformation — Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, and others — who, though “chained in prisons dark” were yet “by faith in conscience free”.

Father Faber also surely had in mind the Apostles of Our Lord, all but one of whom died for their faith and for ours; men whose heroic faith, undiminished by “dungeon, fire and sword”, made it possible for the Church to live and thrive; men whose witness and testimony is “living still” as a model and example for each of us.

Yet, my naive understanding of what was meant by the Faith of our Fathers was not entirely wrong — even if it was incomplete.

Curiously, the Church is now very concerned about the lack of priests (fathers) — at the same time that virtually everyone is worried about the absence of fathers from families. I say curiously, because the absence of fathers from both the Church and the family have some of the same root causes, and will continue to have some of the same grim consequences for the future of the faith as for the family.

What has happened? What has happened to virtue? The word “virtue” means merit, moral excellence, maturity, conformity to a standard of right. (Latin root vir = man - rel. virile, strong, manly). Our culture has lost its sense that virtue is something everyone should strive for — men and women alike.

It is not easy to be virtuous, as we know too well from our own experience. Too many of us — both men and women — do not want to take risks, to make personal sacrifices for others — especially for others. We think it remarkable if anyone lives a life of sacrifice. We also know from history what happens when a society becomes a self-indulgent, selfish people who want what they want when they want it. (Think of Sodom and Gomorrah, for a start!)

In the history of the Church, beginning with the apostles, we know that priests were men who responded to the call to heroic lives of sacrifice, men who saw nobility in suffering for others, who accepted responsibility for the lives of others

Father Frederick Faber had this in mind when he wrote “Faith of our Fathers”. The English Martyrs — those who died under Henry VIII and even more who were martyred under Elizabeth I — were men of heroic virtue, capable of commitment and the most supreme witness to Truth “even unto death”.

In North America we think of our own North American Martyrs, the Blackrobes — Jesuit priests who brought the Gospel to North America in the first decades of the 17th century, and who, in imitation of Our Lord, offered their lives that others might receive salvation in Christ. These men were tortured and put to death in the most hideous ways — only so that others might receive the “faith of our fathers” — might have the only true freedom from its One Source.

What have we done with the precious inheritance we received from our fathers?

Are we willing to sacrifice for others, for love? Has personal suffering lost its redemptive meaning for us? Do we view suffering as dehumanizing — to be avoided at all costs? Such a view, detached from God’s truth, involves dehumanizing others; devaluing human life itself. So abortion is both legal and routine; and killing people to end their suffering — euthanasia, “assisted suicide” — is being promoted as a “right”.

Churches, as much as secular institutions, have failed to transmit the “faith of our fathers”. Most people do not believe they are responsible for protecting this inheritance for the future of mankind. Our culture is afflicted with the moral flabbiness and decay that comes from lack of exercise of virtue — and the loss of a sense of self-worth that comes with it. This leads to pervasive moral disease that eats away consciences and destroys souls. This corrosive moral decay can infect an entire society, as we have seen. Not one of us is unaffected by the deliberate abandonment of truth.

Our self-indulgent culture is dismantling the “Faith of our Fathers” — as well as the real meaning of fatherhood itself. Despite the claim to be liberating people from the “rigid, puritanical” ideas of Our Fathers, the refusal of faith in God our Heavenly Father causes suffering — from a lack of love of others, of virtue, of self-sacrifice, and commitment to truth. This leads to nihilism, hopelessness, cynicism. Selfishness, self-gratification, self-involvement; and this unbalanced self-love leads to a self-imposed isolation — a refusal to love others. It deadens souls. This is what Pope John Paul meant when he called our contemporary society a “culture of death”.

The Faith of Our Fathers — that strong living faith that “dungeon, fire and sword” could not destroy — is now in great peril. It is clear that the essential message of salvation in Christ Jesus, the message that subsists fully within the Catholic Church, is increasingly countercultural — a “sign of contradiction” to the world. To be a Christian in our fallen world is a radical act. It will always require sacrifice. It must always be firmly, essentially grounded in selfless love.

We live in a deeply confused society that is increasingly hostile to religion. Christian churches are suffering from a serious weakness of missionary activity. We seem not to have a clear idea what we should be doing. We hear all the time that we are unfairly imposing our religious convictions on society. Truth is relative — it’s whatever each person thinks it is — unless, of course, he insists that truth is real. In other words, it is false to claim Christianity is true. (Pope Benedict calls this the “dictatorship of relativism”.) So we now hear that Christian missionary activity should be confined to charitable works free from unwelcome religious content. Confusion about the meaning and purpose of the Church’s mission to bring Christ’s truth the world leads to a kind of evangelical anemia.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict is attempting to overcome this pervasive cultural anemia in evangelization — as did Pope John Paul II before him. For this reason he recently established the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. And I think this accounts for how he views his role as a successor to Peter — a successor to the apostle who within the first half hour of the existence of the Christian Church on earth made three thousand converts.

We have seen both Blessed John Paul and Pope Benedict going out into the world to preach the Gospel to all people — the “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ — the self-giving love of God, which is the only message of true liberation. The example of our Holy Fathers — their courageous witness to the faith — gives us heart.

“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”.

Pope Benedict quoted this saying of the Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, at the beginning of his letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, June 2009-10. The Holy Father continued,

This touching expression makes us reflect, first of all, with heartfelt gratitude on the immense gift which priests represent, not only for the Church, but also for humanity itself. I think of all those priests who quietly present Christ’s words and actions each day to the faithful and to the whole world, striving to be one with the Lord in their thoughts and their will, their sentiments and their style of life. How can I not pay tribute to their apostolic labors, their tireless and hidden service, their universal charity? And how can I not praise the courageous fidelity of so many priests who, even amid difficulties and incomprehension, remain faithful to their vocation as “friends of Christ”, whom He has called by name, chosen and sent?

We make the Holy Father’s words our own, and with him we give thanks for our priests — our faithful fathers.

Pope Benedict appropriately chose the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus as both the beginning and the end of the Year for Priests (2009-2010). In his homily for Vespers on the feast of the Sacred Heart in 2009, the first day of the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict gave a striking description of the meaning of the heart of Our Lord for all of us:

The heart of God burns with compassion! On today’s solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus the Church presents us this mystery for our contemplation: the mystery of the heart of a God who feels compassion and who bestows all His love upon humanity — a mysterious love, which in the texts of the New Testament is revealed to us as God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.

God does not lose heart in the face of ingratitude or rejection by the people He has chosen; rather, with infinite mercy He sends His only-begotten Son into the world to take upon Himself the fate of a shattered love, so that by defeating the power of evil and death He could restore to human beings enslaved by sin their dignity as sons and daughters.

But this took place at great cost — the only-begotten Son of the Father was sacrificed on the Cross: “Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1). The symbol of this love which transcends death is His side, pierced by a spear. The Apostle John, an eyewitness, tells us: “one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (cf. Jn 19:34).…

“The very core of Christianity is expressed in the heart of Jesus”, Pope Benedict continued,

in Christ the revolutionary “newness” of the Gospel is completely revealed and given to us: the Love that saves us and even now makes us live in the eternity of God. As the Evangelist John writes: “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).

God’s heart calls to our hearts, inviting us to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties, to trust in Him and, by following His example, to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.

Although Jesus’ invitation to abide in His love is addressed to all the baptized, the Holy Father says, he also stressed that the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is especially devoted to prayers for the sanctification of priests. He quotes a saying of the Cure of Ars: “the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”, then addresses his fellow priests:

How can we fail to be moved when we recall that the gift of our priestly ministry flows directly from this heart? How can we forget that we priests were consecrated to serve, humbly yet authoritatively, the common priesthood of the faithful? Ours is a mission which is indispensable for the Church and for the world, a mission which calls for complete fidelity to Christ and constant union with Him. To abide in His love entails constantly striving for holiness, as did Saint John Mary Vianney.

Our Holy Father’s words surely invite all of us to pray for our holy priests!

But there is something more. As Pope Benedict pointed out, all baptized believers participate in the “universal priesthood” of Christ. In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) we read:

[The] faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are established among the People of God. They are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly functions of Christ. They carry out their own part in the mission of the whole Christian people with respect to the Church and the world. (n. 31)

How can we, as ordinary Catholics, respond to the call to participate in this priestly role of Christ Jesus, who redeemed the world through His sacrificial, self-giving love?

First I would like to make an observation from the point of view of a woman — a mother. A priest makes atonement for sins. He sacrifices himself; he is willing to suffer for others as Christ suffered for us, spilled His blood for us. The connection, I think, between suffering and giving new life is something that mothers know about. In a sense, mothers make this sacrifice of suffering with joy. But, actually, in bringing new life into the world, we do shed blood. We endure pain. Now, the wonderful thing about that pain and that suffering is that it results in new life. As any woman who has given birth could tell you, this suffering and pain is transformed into incomparable joy precisely because of this new life. In a sense, our suffering, in whatever way we are called to do it, when it is united with Christ’s redemptive suffering, can bring the promise of redemption — of new life — into the world. So, I think, the priesthood — the ordained priesthood — and motherhood are linked in this sense of making sacrifice for the lives of others — and for the salvation of the world.

Priesthood and motherhood are both under attack in our society today, throughout our culture. I believe this is not merely a coincidence. Priesthood and motherhood both manifest the dignity that a willingness to suffer for someone else gives to the meaning of life. Because they have in common an act of intense self-donation, of self-giving love, and because such actions contradict our contemporary culture’s gospel of radical autonomy, it seems to me that priesthood and motherhood stand or fall together.

Unique among human beings as a paradigm of this selfless love is Mary, the mother of Our Lord. I believe it is no accident that the Patroness of the Americas is not a warrior saint like Saint George of England, not a confessor saint, like Saint Louis of France, not even a missionary saint, like San Diego (the apostle Saint James) of Spain. No, the Patroness of the Americas is a woman, the Woman, the Mother of God, who is Mother and model for us all.

Significant also is that it is Mary’s manifestation as the Immaculate Conception to whose protection the Americas are consigned; for her Immaculate Conception signifies the purity, the integrity, the perfection required in order that Jesus Christ might come into the world. This same purity, integrity, wholeness and perfection of the Woman Clothed with the Sun, through the Cross of her Son, will effect the ultimate conquest over the Serpent (whose works are evil, ignorance, isolation, spiritual darkness and death) at the end of the world.

During the Year for Priests, Pope Benedict explained the specific role of priests in several messages. Three principal tasks of priests the pope addresses are: teaching, sanctifying, and governing. (These are also called the role of Prophet [teaching], Priest [sacrificial, sanctifying], and King [governing].)

The pope describes priestly teaching as “the proclamation of the truth, the proclamation of God revealed in Christ or, in other words the prophetic task of putting the person in touch with the truth, of helping him to know the essential of his life, of reality itself”.

To sanctify a person, to make someone holy “means putting him or her in touch with God, with this being light, truth, pure love. It is obvious that such contact transforms the person”, Pope Benedict said. “An essential part of the priest’s grace is the gift, the task of creating this contact. This is achieved in the proclamation of God’s word in which His light comes to meet us. It is achieved in a particularly concentrated manner in the Sacraments.... And it is in the celebration of the Holy Mysteries that the priest finds the root of his holiness”.

In his homily on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June 3, 2010, Pope Benedict described the priesthood of Jesus in relation to the Eucharist:

“In the Last Supper Jesus transforms the bread and wine into His own Body and Blood, so that the disciples can nourish themselves from Him and live in profound and real communion with Him.

“Jesus was not a priest according to the Jewish tradition”, the pope noted. “It is the Father who confers this priesthood on Him at the very moment in which Jesus goes through the passage from His death and resurrection. It is not a priesthood according to the order of the Mosaic Law, but according to the order of Melchizedek, according to a prophetic order, depending only on His singular relationship with God.”

“Christ’s priesthood entails suffering,” said the Holy Father. “Jesus really suffered, and He did so for us ... through the painful passion [and] thanks to this transformation Jesus Christ became ‘High Priest’ and can save all those who entrust themselves to Him.”

In the Eucharist, the pope said, “Jesus anticipated His sacrifice, not a ritual sacrifice but a personal one. Giving thanks and with a blessing, Jesus transformed the bread and wine. It is divine love that transforms, the love with which Jesus accepts in advance to give Himself completely for us.

“This love is none other than the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, which consecrates the bread and wine and changes their substance into the Body and the Blood of the Lord, rendering present in the Sacrament the same sacrifice that is made later in a bloody manner on the cross.”

Pope Benedict concluded: “Christ was a true and effective priest because He was full of the power of the Holy Spirit — He was the culmination of all the fullness of the love of God.”

In his general audience on May 26, 2010, the Holy Father spoke on the responsibility of priests to govern:

Dear priests, “tend the flock of God that is your charge, not by constraint but willingly ... being examples to the flock” (I Pet 5:2). Therefore, do not be afraid to lead to Christ each one of the brethren whom He has entrusted to you, certain that every word and every action will bear fruit if they come from obedience to God’s will: know how to live in appreciating the merits and in recognition of the limits of the culture in which we find ourselves, with the firm assurance that the proclamation of the Gospel is the greatest service to render to man. In fact, there is no greater good, in this earthly life, than to lead people to God, to reawaken faith, to lift the person out of his inertia and desperation, to give the hope that God is near and directs our personal histories and that of the world: this, in the ultimate analysis, is the deep and final meaning of the task of governing that the Lord has given to us....

These tasks of the priest — to teach, to sanctify, to govern — are interrelated, as we can see. And they are indispensable. This work of priests is especially critical today, in our culture, which rejects the Church’s fundamental teachings, and rejects her authority to teach. As we know, the Church is suffering intensely at this moment, from what Pope Benedict called “terrifying” sin within the Church. He addressed this in a news conference during his journey to Fatima in May 2010:

… attacks on the pope and the Church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the Church come precisely from within the Church, from the sin existing within the Church. This too is something that we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church, and that the Church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice.

What is our response as Catholic believers? The Holy Father continues,

In a word, we need to relearn precisely this essential: conversion, prayer, penance and the theological virtues [faith, hope and love].

This is our response, we are realists in expecting that evil always attacks, attacks from within and without, yet that the forces of good are also ever present and that, in the end, the Lord is more powerful than evil and Our Lady is for us the visible, motherly guarantee of God’s goodness, which is always the last word in history.

In his encyclical Spes Salvi (Saved in Hope, 2007), Pope Benedict described the serious trials and sufferings we encounter, and also the source of our hope: God’s great love for us in sending His Son to suffer and die for our salvation. To assure us of this great hope, the Holy Father wrote,

we need witnesses — martyrs — who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way — day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day — knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope. (§ 39)

In other words, we need the example of the total dedication to truth and self-giving love of the “faith of our fathers”.

The pope has a suggestion for ordinary Catholics like you and me:

I would like to add here another brief comment with some relevance for everyday living. There used to be a form of devotion — perhaps less practiced today but quite widespread not long ago — that included the idea of “offering up” the minor daily hardships that continually strike at us like irritating “jabs”, thereby giving them a meaning. Of course, there were some exaggerations and perhaps unhealthy applications of this devotion, but we need to ask ourselves whether there may not after all have been something essential and helpful contained within it. What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ’s great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves. (§ 40)

I think most of us will welcome the pope’s reminder of this kind of prayer of “offering”, in which even our small difficulties as well as our real suffering are united in the saving love of Our Lord for the benefit of others.

Significantly, at the end of his visit to Fatima last year, Pope Benedict entrusted the priesthood to the Mother of Our Lord. “May the Church be renewed by priests who are holy”, he prayed, “priests transfigured by the grace of Him who makes all things new”. His prayer for priests concludes with these words:

Our Mother for all time, do not tire of
“visiting us”, consoling us, sustaining us.
Come to our aid and deliver us
from every danger that threatens us.
With this act of entrustment and consecration,
we wish to welcome you
more deeply, more radically,
for ever and totally
into our human and priestly lives.
Let your presence cause new blooms to burst forth
in the desert of our loneliness,
let it cause the sun to shine on our darkness,
let it restore calm after the tempest,
so that all mankind shall see the salvation of the Lord,
who has the name and the face of Jesus,
who is reflected in our hearts, for ever united to yours!

I spoke earlier of the “Fathers” hymn I learned as a child. One verse was changed in the version sung by Protestants. You will see why. Father Faber, much as Pope Benedict, entrusted the work of “our fathers” in faith for the salvation of all mankind to the intercession of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord Jesus:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win all nations unto thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death.

“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus”, Saint John Vianney said.

We pray with Pope Benedict: “May the Church be renewed by priests who are holy — priests transfigured by the grace of Him who makes all things new”.

Helen Hull Hitchcock is president of Women for Faith & Family, and editor of Voices and The Adoremus Bulletin.

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