Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Priestly State of Life
The Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, is the same Spirit that fills the heart and mind of a good priest, vivifying his mortal body. Priests acting in that Spirit are seeking the advancement of the Kingdom, and will accomplish it.
Two circumstances triggered this essay: First, it is the woeful news coming from Holland, back in December 2011, regarding the surfacing of more and more evidence of priest scandals in that country now, as well. Second, it is the issuance of the new Roman Missal with a reworked prayer that the priest recites quietly during the Sacrifice of the Mass right before he elevates the consecrated host showing it to the congregation with the words “Behold the Lamb of God.” In that powerful prayer he addresses a momentous request to Christ Himself: “never let me be parted from you”! This impassioned supplication, combined with the “command that we be delivered from eternal damnation,” 1 seems to assume a particularly compelling meaning in our days, given the devastating counter-witness and hurt caused by behavior—grossly at odds with the vocation and mission of the priesthood—spreading all over the world during this past decade.
The rationale for this contribution—given the great number of magisterial pronouncements and other material intending to offer much-needed remedy for the priest scandals—would be to encourage a continued reflection on priestly holiness. Such holiness should be regarded not as an option or luxury, but as an intrinsic and absolute necessity for the integrity of the priestly state, the deficiency of which would imply deleterious consequences, both in this life and in the life to come. Take, for example, the scriptural witness: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” 2 We became priests to mediate God’s reconciliation and life, to make Him loved, adored and worshipped among all, yet this pursuit is indissolubly paired with personal holiness. Following are some thoughts of elaboration.
“Walk before me, and be blameless”: The indispensableness of priestly perfection
More than Abraham and Aaron should a priest feel appealed by the exhortation: “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” 3 The priest’s mission is to be the forma gregis, that is, the model of his flock, called to lead by holiness: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 4 As homo Dei – a man of God – the priest should surpass all others in the purity of his lifestyle, giving proof of a Christlike ministry in an unfeigned cultus virtutum. Only if he is truly God’s sanctuary can he dispense divine mysteries as a mediator.
It will never be enough for the priest to just withdraw from all grave sin, like the one who takes flight from a venomous snake, but rather, he ought to turn away from all forms of evil, striving for the summits of virtue in everything. Instead of merely avoiding any backsliding, he is to advance from virtue to virtue, becoming ever more humble, pure, sober, meek and fervent. He should grow daily in his ascetical contempt for worldly things, in his pursuit of charity, zeal and prayerfulness. If the Old Testament required unblemished sacrifices, 5 then how much more is a priest required to aspire to holiness?
Now, a somewhat paradoxical question comes to mind: How is the one who eats the bread of angels capable of finding delight in the pods of pigs? 6 How can the one who explains the justice of God to others, himself disdain discipline? How can someone commit crimes against innocent children, and then approach the holy altar of God, pretending he is offering an acceptable sacrifice? Well, there are observable symptoms to watch out for, including one’s desire to join in with mundane and frivolous enjoyments while shunning prayer, study, and ministry; or, being forgetful about any progress in soulful interiority, all the while being engrossed with the amassing of temporal goods. When a priest does decline in his moral outlook, he then turns out to be in a worse condition than anyone in the Church; that is a universal experience.
Yes, it is true that the priest is only human, prone to weakness, blindness, and tardiness in doing good. However, knowing about his inborn irresolution, he must steadfastly turn to God: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” 7 And let him be assured of this, that without that aid he will not succeed: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.” 8 Therefore, “[O]h, Lord, come to my assistance, make haste to help me.” 9
“I chose you and I appointed you”: The feasibility of priestly perfection
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 10 This injunction of Christ, directed to his disciples, must also be considered an unreserved imperative for his priests. Yet, is it really possible to attain to that perfection? Well, it will always originate in a desire to be holy: “And I say, ‘O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.’” 11 But how will we be able to break through so many passions that militate against the soul, overcome so many occasions to fall into vice, and practice virtues that go against the law of humans bound to earth? The answer is that we are asked to be pure in the midst of corruption; humble in the midst of honors; poor in the midst of earthly wealth; holy in the midst of structures of sin; and impregnable in the midst of enemies. We are called to live in this world without being of this world: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth;” 12 “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” 13
Indeed, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force;” 14 and, yes, enormous is the onus sacerdotii, but the grace of the One who imposes it is even more powerful. Is there anything impossible for God?15 If we fear any enemies, well, God is the Lord of hosts! He guarded Abraham among the Chaldeans, protected Joseph in Egypt, shielded Lot in Sodom, kept Job safe among unbelievers, and saved Daniel in Babylon. He is the one who has sanctified all his saints who lived among non-Christians and sinners, not least to teach us priests never to be despondent about the task at-hand. If we do what is in us, God will bring his work to perfection in us.
Means to reach priestly perfection
The priest has to be foremost a vir desideriorum, 16 a man of ardent desire of reaching the summit of Mount Sinai, where he will enjoy a profound union with God: “Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” 17 Every day, and every hour, should the longing to please God alone be renewed: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” 18 Every action ought to be preceded by a pure intention of loving and serving God, “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 19 This is practicable if we follow the biblical lead, “therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me,” 20 ever mindful also of the Augustinian maxim, ama et fac quod vis. One of the lurking threats to priestly integrity is to grow remiss about the divine service: “And now, O priests, this command is for you: If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” 21
To live always in his presence should be our priestly resolution, our life lastingly constituted under His eyes. Whatever I think, desire, say or do, I think, desire, say or do it in his sight, as did Abraham, Enoch, and Noah. No matter what we do as priests, let us do it as if it were our last action on earth: Memento mori! With that in mind, everything will be carried through sub specie aeternitatis. How passionately will we celebrate Holy Mass, will we repent of our sins, and with how much attention will we spend time in prayer. God does not expect impossible things from us: if we strive to discharge the various aspects of our daily duties with perfection—praying, examining our conscience, administering the sacraments, studying, working in the office, and so forth—then our entire priesthood will be perfect.
It will also be indispensable to habitually call to mind the reasons why we chose to be priests—ad quid venisti? Was it not for the love of God and the salvation of souls? 22 With that before our eyes, we are eager to renew our zeal, divest ourselves of all tepidity, vanquish sinful passions, and curb all inordinate appetites. Descending into the recesses of our soul, there in God’s presence, we scrutinize our life with all sincerity. What hinders us to diligently, and without self-pity, remove the obstacles, one by one, that hamper our running the race? It is needful to continuously watch out for the origin of vices or imperfections in us as they always have a radical head, Goliath, to use a symbol. If we manage to kill Goliath, then the collateral effects will be eliminated as well.
Much can be learned from the assiduousness of business people who would not miss an opportunity to add to their monetary fortunes. Similarly, we should be intent on amassing treasures in heaven, daily adding to them, and making them grow. Let us also reflect on that artist who brings his oil-on-canvas to completion with patience. Likewise, let us patiently correct all fault and improve in all virtue. Just as the “celebrities” of this world gain a corruptible crown, so we have been promised to obtain a crown that will never fade away. Just one caution for now: Let us never be content with what we have achieved so far!
The Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, is the same Spirit that fills the heart and mind of a good priest, vivifying his mortal body. Priests acting in that Spirit are seeking the advancement of the Kingdom, and will accomplish it. There is a constant need to examine oneself: am I guided by the Spirit of God or by the spirit of this world? And it is not easy to discern the truth here, unless one retreats deeply into one’s heart and conscience. Since every priest ultimately seeks to bring about something good through his ministry, it is important not to be deceived by nature.
“There are few who find it”: The sobering paucity of the elect
Yet, not all priests appear to be actually following the arta via: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” 23 In fact, those who are prideful and clericalistic are on the easy road to enter through the wide gate; this also includes those who are chasing after earthly honors and riches like Judas. Nor do those enter the narrow gate who implicate themselves too much in mundane business; not to mention those priests who are excessively given to useless confabulations and games, wasting precious time for eternity. Those are not on the right path who do not honor the vow of celibacy—in thought, word, or action—once solemnly vowed before the bishop and the entire people of God. In our days, there are far too many sad examples of those!
Furthermore, those who are tepid in their ministry, who act with lukewarmness in attempting to avoid only the more grievous sins, but never in their hearts convert to a life of spiritual communion with the Lord, seem also to have abandoned the hard road that leads to life. What can one say about those priests who are disobedient towards the ecclesial hierarchy, not caring to conform their lives to the laws of the Church, and to the mandate of their bishops? How can those be saved who do not catechize and instruct their people; who do not preach the truth about sin and its consequences; who are not making themselves available for confessions; or, who celebrate the sacred mysteries with superficiality? Moreover, how about those who leave the house of God in disarray, and its sanctuary linens in filth, who do not show any zeal for it?
Thus, there may be many priests in name and exterior appearance, but rather few in deed and interior perfection! How rare are true inner light, innocence, perfect penance, charity, and sincere humility! How seldom do we find indefatigable labor, assiduous prayer, genuine holiness—“many are called, but few are chosen.” 24 This is why priests especially ought to work out their own salvation with “fear and trembling.” 25 It should never be forgotten how the priest and the Levite on their way between Jerusalem and Jericho passed by the dying man in the parable of the good Samaritan. 26 And does the following word of Christ not chiefly apply to his priests, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?” 27
“Non serviam!”: The gravity of priestly sin
Which sin is truly grave in God’s eyes if not the sin of his priest? The priest’s malice is far greater than that of others! Ponder this comparison: There is clearly a difference between an ordinary citizen who happens to transgress a stipulation of the law on the one hand, and a high-ranking official who spurns the law, on the other. The latter’s offense is truly grave. Correspondingly, a priest who despises the law of God is ultimately saying in his heart: non serviam! He virtually joins the ranks of Lucifer who refused to serve and worship God.
Now, it is an affront for a friend to betray his friend; yet, it is a greater offense for a son to abandon his loving father, squandering his inheritance in frivolous ways. But it is even more serious when a spouse becomes unfaithful to her husband, remaining with another man. We could say, therefore, that a priest who sins prefers Satan, the world and the flesh, over his divine Spouse, Father, and Friend! The Jews who asked for Christ’s death acted criminally, but greater was the crime of Judas, Christ’s apostle, who sold and handed him over to the high priests.
While Christ suffers much from the sins of Christians, he arguably suffers most from the sins committed by his priests. Can there be any doubt that scandalous priests will be judged with greater severity by the eternal Judge: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating … From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” 28 It may also be beneficial to call to mind the nemesis incurred by Nadab and Abihu, 29 Aaron’s sons, who were fatally consumed by an illicit fire because of their negligence in the service of the Almighty. Additionally, let us recall the Old Testament figure of Uzzah, the Levite, who touched the ark of the covenant without permission and died; 30 or Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who perished because of their corrupt ministry. 31 Should we priests not be especially heedful of St. Peter’s injunction? He said: “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion, your adversary, the devil, prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” 32
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”: The evil springing from a corrupted priestly life
Christ loves His sheep and lambs with eternal love, shedding his blood and giving his life for them. He has entrusted his own flock to his shepherds on earth, inspiring the faithful to trust them, to know their voice, and to follow them. It has caused the Church immense sadness that some priests have become like hirelings, fleeing from the wolves, with the wolves snatching and scattering the flock. 33 The corrupt shepherd brings about famine, emaciation, disease, and spiritual death. 34 He was supposed to visit the sheep; yet, now there are many maladies, wounds, and fatalities because of his negligence. He was called to watch over them, but in his absence they were dispersed: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.” 35 The sheep are a symbol of the souls of our parish communities, left in their ignorance, infirmity, and sin. A bad priest ruins the flock. If the faithful see their priest commit a sin, they will be discouraged from pursuing holiness themselves, instead becoming confirmed and entangled in sin and vice.
If the parish priest—the doctor, teacher, apostle, and father to his flock—is deviating from sound doctrine, they will soon abandon the path of truth and trust, as well. Unbelief and impiety come from such an environment. An unfaithful priest can be the cause of innumerable evils in the Church. How much has the Church, throughout her history, suffered from ordained ministers who turned into schismatics, apostates and heretics, on small or large scales?
Let us just point out some concrete symptoms in discernment of spirits in this regard. A worldly priest will feel empty if he does not garner some earthly gain or honor, expecting praise for whatever he does, and murmuring inwardly when people do not give him recognition. He has to force himself to work hard, to study, to catechize, to assist the poor, to hear confessions, and easily ignores the admonitions of his ecclesial superiors, never appreciating humble and seemingly unprofitable tasks. He is timid in denouncing the transgressions of the powerful while avoiding the ridicule of the enemies of the Church. He prefers bodily rest and relaxation. He tends to take pride in fine clothes, expensive furnishings for his quarters, and other luxuries. He is readily irritated by trivial contradictions or verbal abuse. He is reluctant to give to the poor. He perceives the cultivation of his interior life as a burden: meditation, prayer and lectio divina become tedious. The Divine Office is an encumbrance, tending to avoid it, in some cases, altogether. He also seems to involve himself with the powerful and rich of this world, taking pride in their reverence, familiarity and protection.
But let us now consider the practices of the good priest and pastor.
“You water its furrows abundantly”: The good occasioned by a saintly priest
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 36 Blessed are the people to whom the Lord grants a pastor after His own heart. Under his pastorship, crooked ways will be made straight, the rugged into even paths, and all are touched by God’s salvation: “You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” 37
Just as the people were blessed who received the twelve apostles in their lands, it is obvious for anyone to behold how much energy, strength and efficacy a saintly priest possesses. There were only twelve apostles, but they were sent to preach the Gospel to the whole world. They were lambs who conquered a world populated with wolves and serpents. As fishers-of-men, they illuminated a world shrouded in gloom by their teaching. Without staff and without weapon, they overturned idols and pagan temples. Though of humble background, they were honored by the human race. The real difference was that they were holy, innocent men, imbued with chastity, strong in prayer, dedicated to their apostolate, imitators of Christ, and filled with the spirit of his zeal.
Blessed, therefore, the city or town that has a saintly pastor, who undoes ignorance and vice, as did Saint John Vianney in Ars. The strength of a virtuous priest is such that nothing can hide or escape from it. How numerous are those made to turn away from heresy, how many are finding the path of pious devotion, how many are impelled to believe in Christ by his holiness and gentleness. Moreover, how many of the poor are being evangelized, how many blind are enlightened, how many sick are cured, how many children instructed, and how many priests sanctified by saintly priests! That should persuade us as to how much a good priest can achieve by his prayer, word and example.
Now, the saints are proposed to us by the Church as an incentive to be imitated, ultimately not to be carried away by the half-heartedness of the lax.
Therefore, we priests should study the way they preached, how much they prayed, how they conducted themselves with gravity, moderate in their lifestyle, humble in conversations, mortified and compassionate, how little concerned with worldly affairs, and how ardent in their asceticism and spirituality. They truly abhorred all sin and vice, while emulating all uprightness. “Go, and do likewise;” 38 yes, we do well to accept them as models for our own life and teaching, and together with them we shall be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Indicators of priestly holiness include a quest to do everything ad maiorem Dei gloriam and pro salutem animarum, content with a minimum of material comfort, not shying away from labor, with its resulting sweat and fatigue. He will promptly accede to the wishes and orders of his bishop or religious superior, making wise use of his freedoms with self-imposed renunciations. He will not try to lord it over anybody, but, for God’s glory, is ever ready to occupy the last place, and even judges himself unworthy of that place: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” 39
The spiritual priest rejoices in the occasion to suffer for the glory of God, keeping his eyes fixed on eternal matters; he attempts not to depend too much on earthly things even to the point of condemning them. He is disturbed only when God’s name or the Church’s reputation is impugned, or when a soul is in danger of eternal perdition. He gives abundantly, freely and gladly, to the destitute, himself shunning personal luxury and exquisite items in his quarters. His focus is on growth in virtue, and in that effort he flees the world and mortifies his passions in the Spirit, to the point of periodically seeking out pockets of solitude and silence. To the saintly priest, spiritual exercises mean inner joy and repose in God. He is not a respecter of persons, dealing equitably with rich and poor. In fact, he will be inclined to favor the impoverished, disadvantaged, and marginalized, making himself their advocate, lending his voice to the voiceless in his community. Lastly, he loves to evangelize the poor.
All of the above are signs, not just of his priestly vocation, but also of his election: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.” 40
May this short essay be an encouragement to reform our priestly lives as we look into the mirror of these truths: “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” 41 Let us energetically seek to become good and worthy priests, knowing that holiness is not some superfluous extravagance, but rather a quintessential indispensability accompanied by the glowing prayer to be “delivered from eternal damnation.” 42 Since without God’s help, we will not be able to attain to our goal, we earnestly pray for that special grace to be interiorly reformed and sanctified. At length, here is the axiom to go by for our ministry: Be detached from worldly things, and aspire solely to the things on high, and we will be faithful servants of the One who bene fecit omnia. 43 And may he accept our solemn prayer: “Lord, never let me be parted from you.” 44
- From the “Hanc igitur”, Canon Romanus, Roman Missal; see also Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Anima Christi: “ne permittas me separari a Te”. ↩
- Matthew 5:13. ↩
- Genesis 17:1. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 11:1. ↩
- Cf. Leviticus 22:21. ↩
- Cf. Luke 15:15f. ↩
- Psalm 121:1f. ↩
- Psalm 127:1f. ↩
- Psalm 70:1. ↩
- Matthew 5:48. ↩
- Psalm 55:6. ↩
- John 17:16f. ↩
- John 15:18f. ↩
- Matthew 11:12. ↩
- Cf. Luke 1:37. ↩
- Daniel 9:23; 10:11.19. ↩
- Psalm 81:1. ↩
- Matthew 5:6. ↩
- Mark 12:30. ↩
- Wisdom 7:7; cf. Isaiah 11:2. ↩
- Malachi 2:1f. ↩
- Cf. Code of Canon Law, can. 1752. ↩
- Matthew 7:13f. ↩
- Matthew 22:14. ↩
- Philippians 2:12. ↩
- Luke 10:31f. ↩
- Matthew 8:11f. ↩
- Luke 12:47f. ↩
- Leviticus 10:1f. ↩
- 2 Samuel 6:6f. ↩
- 1 Samuel 4:11. ↩
- 1 Peter 5:8f. ↩
- John 10:12f. ↩
- Leviticus 4:3 implies that the sin of an anointed priest induces the entire people to sin and brings guilt upon them. ↩
- John 10:10. ↩
- John 10:10f. ↩
- Psalm 65:9-13. ↩
- Luke 10:37. ↩
- Luke 17:10. ↩
- 2 Peter 1:10f. ↩
- Ephesians 4:22-24. ↩
- From the “Hanc igitur,” Canon Romanus, Roman Missal. ↩
- Mark 7:37. ↩
- From the celebrant’s quiet prayer before the “Behold the Lamb of God,” Roman Missal. ↩