Holiness of priests

Editorial, June 2010

Recently I was re-reading Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s book Those Mysterious Priests (1974), published five years before his death on December 9, 1979. In Chapter 7 he talks about how the priest continues the Incarnation of God by sharing in the three offices of Christ—to teach, to sanctify and to lead. He makes the same point that Pope Benedict XVI made last March when he announced the current “Year for Priests.” He says, and offers reasons to prove, that the effectiveness of the Catholic priest is directly related to and depends on his personal holiness.

The Pope said that the first reason for the special year for priests is to encourage them to strive for holiness and spiritual perfection because the effectiveness of their ministry depends on that. It should be quite obvious that the holier the priest is, the more he will be able to help others to grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. This follows logically from the simple and profound fundamental principle that “No one can give what he does not have” (Latin: Nemo dat quod non habet). We learned that in first-year philosophy. It was true then and it is true now and always will be true. If a priest is not burning with love for Christ, he may be a good administrator or teacher but he will not inspire others to strive for holiness.

Sheen says that the priest as an ambassador for Christ, as an instrument of Christ, is sent into the world to convert it to faith in him and the living God. But the priest cannot preach Christ and give him to others if he is not dwelling already in the heart of the priest. Saints and martyrs in the history of the Church are good examples of this. A few who come to mind are St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII, Blessed Pope John XXIII, John Paul II, Fr. Patrick Peyton (the “Rosary priest”) and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, to mention just a few. They were effective because they were burning with love of Jesus Christ and, like St. Paul, they preached Christ crucified. They also preached that we worship Jesus in the liturgy and in our prayers because he is God incarnate.

Pope Benedict, when he declared the “Year for Priests” last March, said that God is the treasure people seek from the priest. He must bring God to them and through the Gospel show them that Jesus is God and the answer to their deepest desires. The vast majority of the faithful do not seek direction from priests in matters of politics, economics and the environment. Priests are not expected to be experts in secular affairs. Catholics expect their priests to radiate Christ—to teach them how to know and love God and to give them some guidance in living according to God’s holy will.

Sheen says something similar in the book mentioned above. On page 87 he writes: “He (i.e., the priest) will inspire others only inasmuch as he is consecrated or made holy in the truth. Ardeat orator qui vult accendere plebem” (italics sic). Thus, if the priest is not burning with love for God, he will not move others to love God.

Jesus tells us in the great Sermon on the Mount, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). The advice is directed to all Christians, but especially to priests. In order to properly strive for perfection the priest must be a man of prayer; he must love Jesus and spend time with him before the Blessed Sacrament. It is for this reason that Archbishop Sheen constantly urged priests to spend a Holy Hour each day before the Blessed Sacrament. Sheen did that for over fifty years. That is probably the reason for his great effectiveness as preacher.

A good model for all priests is St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, who spent most of his time every day in church either praying or administering the sacraments. Like St. John, the priest must dedicate himself to the service of others by preaching, offering Mass, hearing confessions, counseling and helping those in need. Priests who do that gradually increase in holiness and become very effective ambassadors for Christ, like St. Paul, the Curé of Ars, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ About Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ

Fr. Kenneth Baker, SJ, is editor emeritus of HPR, having served as editor for over 30 years. He is the author of the best selling Fundamentals of Catholicism (three volumes) and of the popular introduction to the Scripture, Inside the Bible.