Beautiful Hands of the Priest, The
DESCRIPTION: "We need them [the priest's hands] in life's early morning, We need them again at its close." Singer mentions the clasp of friendship, and priest's hands at the altar, absolution, marriage, and "when death-dews on our eyes are falling."
EARLIEST DATE: 1974 (Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan)
KEYWORDS: nonballad religious clergy
FOUND IN: Ireland
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan 31, "The Beautiful Hands of the Priest" (1 text, 1 tune)
Tom Lenihan, "The Beautiful Hands of the Priest" (on IRTLenihan01)
NOTES [1121 words]: Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan: "A Father Crowley of Dunsallagh gave Tom the words of this poem on a type-written sheet about 1963 and asked him could he put a tune to it?" - BS
Hm. The cynic in me can't help but wonder, Just what had that priest been doing with his altar boys that he needed such propaganda? It is Catholic doctrine that the sacraments come through the church -- but it is also very basic Catholic doctrine that the sacraments are made efficacious by God, *not* the particular priest involved, who may in fact not be in a state of grace. The power is all in the church collectively, not the priest; it is the sacrament, not the one who administers it, which acts.
As WalkerEtAl puts it on p. 202, according to medieval theologians, "the sacraments were 'valid' (i.e. objectively accomplished what they 'said') not because of what the human minister was or did (ex opere operantis) but because of the church's performance of the action itself (ex opere operato) in dependence upon the covenanted grace of God.
This is not a recent doctrine (although I suppose you could argue that this is why the Catholic Church has shown no theological urgency in dealing with its many sex abuse scandals); the church had to face the issue very early on, in the face of the Donatist heresy and related doctrines such as Novationism, which held the contrary opinion that the state of the minister did matter. The Novationists arose after the Decian persecution of 250 (O'Grady, p. 79); many had fallen away from the faith during the troubles, but wanted readmission to the church after Gallienus's edict of toleration in 260. Pope Cornelius was willing to forgive, but Novatian felt that there was no possibility of forgiving the apostate; he split from the church and was declared Bishop of Rome, with his sect lasting for a few centuries (Christie-Murray, p. 96).
The Donatists were a slightly later but rather stronger version of the same thing. In most regards they were orthodox; as Chadwick says on pp. 219-220, "The Donatists and the Catholics affirmed the same creeds and read the same Latin Bible. Donatist churches could only be distinguished from Catholic ones by the Donatist custom of whitewashing the walls." Their differences were concerned solely with admission to the Church.
The Donatists arose in the aftermath of Diocletian's persecution (from 303). The persecution did not end until 312. And, in 311, a new bishop of Carthage had been needed. Caecilian was consecrated bishop by Felix of Aptunga, who was considered to have gone along with the persecution, so many in the diocese refused to accept Caecilian's ordination. (According to Nigg, p. 110, Caecilian was also "opportunistic" and "imperious," which can't have helped his cause.) A rival sect arose, with Majorinus their first bishop (Nigg, p. 111). He soon died, to be replaced by Donatus (from 316), who gave the group its name -- and probably most of its energy.
According to Qualben, p. 123, "The [Donatist] party held that the traditors, or those who had surrendered copies of Scripture in the recent persecution, had committed a mortal sin." Nigg, p. 112, says that they were willing to allow certain stumbles by their lay members -- but the rules for the clergy were absolute. And, according to p. 113, they allied with a group called the Circumcellions (whose doctrines are not clear, but they sound like thugs) to enforce their rules.
According to Christie-Murray, pp. 96-97, "Augustine wrote copiously against the Donatists, helping to establish the principle, which has remained that of the western Church, that the sacraments are not dependent for their validity upon the moral character of the men by whose hands they are administered but are valid in themselves, deriving their efficacy from God."
Similarly Qualben, pp. 123-124: "the character of a minister does not affect his official acts. All the acts of the church are valid acts, though the officials may be unworthy men."
Chadwick, p. 221: "According to the Donatist (and Cyprianic) view, the validity of the sacrament depends on the proper standing of the minister; it is valid if received within the church, invalid outside it.... Catholics at the Council of Arles (314) had come to accept the doctrine which Pope Stephen upheld against Cyprian in 256, viz, that the sacraments belong not to the ministry but to Christ."
Nigg, p. 112, sums up the problem this way: How could a defiled priest offer true sacraments? The Donatist answer was that he could not, and demanded purity of the clergy. The Catholic church -- knowing that many clergy did vile things when they could get away with it -- declared that the sacraments were made efficacious by God and the greater church, not the individual minister.
I'm doubtless raging on about the Donatists too much, but theirs was a stubborn and irritating doctrine. They eventually got on Augustine's nerves so much that he requested the Emperor to suppress the Donatists (Nigg, pp. 114-115). This didn't work too well, since the Donatists had arisen out of a martyr cult and if anything grew stronger when persecuted, but it drew forth from Augustine what Nigg, p. 116, calls his most extreme statement (and, remember, Augustine is the guy who said it was God's job to send unbaptized babies to Hell). Augustine's docrine was, "compel them to enter." In other words, be orthodox or die.
The persecution didn't work; the sect seems to have endured until at least the Vandal, and perhaps the Islamic, conquest of North Africa (Clifton, p. 37).
Novatianism and Donatism were the earliest major examples of this class of heresies, but not the last. Clifton, p. xv, notes that the Waldensians, who were strongest in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, also had a belief that the givers of the sacraments had to be unspotted -- and they were among the chief targets of the Inquisition! (Clifton, p. 133).
Thus this Father Crowley was a heretic going against a doctrine which predates even the great Nicene/Chalcedonian Creed, and which had been condemned repeatedly since! Admittedly a fine distinction for a layperson to make -- but one that every Catholic clergyman should know!
Nonetheless this is a very Irish sort of a piece. Edwards, p. 53, notes that, in Ireland, "Clerical power initially derived from the hostility of the state." Coogan, p, 3, pretty well sums up the peculiar situation in that nation: "The parish priest was the Irish peasant's spokesman and bulwark against authority, an ever-present eternity. The consolation and support that the better priests gave their flocks was reciprocated by a respect for the clergy generally only equaled today by that accorded to an imam in a fundamentalist Arab village." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Chadwick: Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (being volume I of The Pelican History of the Church), Pelican, 1967
- Clifton: Chas S. Clifton, Encyclopedia of Heresies and Heretics, 1992 (I use the 1998 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Coogan: Tim Pat Coogan, Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland, 1993 (I use the 2001 Dorset Press edition)
- Christie-Murray: David Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy, Oxford, 1976
- Edwards: Owen Dudley Edwards, Burke & Hare, 1983 (I use the revised 1993 paperback edition by Mercat Press)
- Nigg: Walter Nigg, The Heretics: Heresy Throughout the Ages, an English translation and abridgement by Richard and Clara Winston of Nigg's Das Buch der Ketzer, 1949; translation copyright 1962 (I use the 1990 Dorset edition)
- O'Grady: Joan O'Grady, Early Christian Heresies, 1985 (I use the 1994 Barnes & Noble edition)
- Qualben: Lars P. Qualben, A History of the Christian Church, revised edition, Nelson, 1936
- WalkerEtAl: Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, Robert T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church, 1918, 1959, 1970, 1985; I use Scribners's eighteenth printing of the fourth edition
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