A Holy Priesthood for a Holy People

The Good Shepherd, by James Tissot (1836-1902).

A groaning in the heart, of one seeking and waiting for God, is appropriate for Advent. A thirsting in the heart for his living water, in this world of dryness, is proper. In this waiting for the holy season of The Incarnation, however, a sadness comes. In the midst of overflowing Walmart shelves of plastic imported toys, blinding in effervescent color, overwhelming in variety; in this pre-holiday blitz of consumerism and materialism, a deep sadness is proper. In the battle for hearts and minds—for souls—of the people, the Church and the Gospel are not winning. The world is not being overcome, nor even contained: it is expanding even into the homeland, even into the Church.

Many years ago, a priest, for whom I have great respect, said to me during a conversation about vocations, “We don’t need more priests. We have too many priests.” I was so stunned, that I did not know how to understand his comment, nor how to respond.

I think I understand now. We don’t need more priests; we need more holy priests. My friend was a holy priest, and thanks be to God for making our paths cross. There are other kinds of priests, who cause great grief to the Church. Thanks be to God also for Pope Francis, who has made public his awareness of the need for holy priests—priests who live the holy vocation, who serve in the name of Christ our Lord. Last April, Pope Francis received in audience, seminarians from a Pontifical College at the Vatican.1 In his comments to the seminarians, he included this:

You, dear seminarians, are not preparing to engage in a profession, to become employees of a company or of a bureaucratic organization. We have so many, so many halfway priests. It is a sorrow, that they do not succeed in reaching the fullness: they have something about them of employees, a bureaucratic dimension, and this does no good to the Church. I advise you, be careful that you do not fall into this! You are becoming pastors in the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to be like Him and in His person in the midst of his flock, to feed his sheep.

“We have so many, so many halfway priests.” Halfway priests. This is one way to describe the many who seemed to begin a response to a holy calling, but who chose a “compromise” along the way. Men who perhaps really heard, at the first, a call to leave the world and follow Jesus with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength—but they wanted a compromise with the world, halfway. It does not work. Halfway does not work in one’s relationship with God.

Do we need more priests? We might say we need fewer halfway priests, and more whole-hearted, wholly consecrated, wholly committed, holy priests. We don’t need employees of a (religious) “company,” or CEOs of one, either. We need pastors of souls, for the Kingdom of God.

Christ’s Call for a Holy People

Jesus made possible something radically new upon this earth: a holy priesthood, a holy people, his Church sent to proclaim, and to live, his holy Truth. The Gospels present very powerfully the conflict between this radical calling and a compromise that is much more acceptable to many men. “Halfway priests” can be content with a “halfway Gospel” (as if there were such a thing). And such a halfway religion can be very popular with a people seeking a middle ground between this world and the Kingdom of God.

St. Augustine saw, discerned, and wrote of the irreconcilable clash of the two loves that vie for the heart of a man, the two gods, the two callings in the souls of men. Every man must choose and choose definitively: I will follow God, or I will follow men and this world. I will seek his will, or I will pander to theirs. Augustine said it this way:

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.2

There is no compromise! But through the ages, men have tried to make a compromise with God, to find a middle ground, to have it both ways—indeed to have both cities, the City of Man and the City of God. Men and women are tempted to this impossible compromise—laity, clergy, religious, and secular. There is no compromise. “Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4).

This leads to a thought that ought to be very troubling. Among the Catholic laity are citizens of the City of God, thanks be to God. These are Catholics seeking holiness, seeking sanctity, seeking to be faithful to God and to his intentions for us—willing to say “no!” to anything, but God and his will. There are also among the lay members of the Church, citizens of the City of Man who are trying to work an impossible compromise, trying to be acceptable to God while still following the loves, ambitions, and values of the secular world. They can be active in all the social events, fund raisers, committees, and boards of the parish, but they are lukewarm spectators during the Mass.

Among the clergy and the consecrated religious—those who are religious leaders—there are, as well, citizens of the City of God and others who are citizens of the City of Man, seeking to work the easy, but impossible, compromise with God. These, who wear the titles and clothing of the City of God, are in their hearts citizens of the world, of the City of Man—“wolves in sheep’s clothing.” For the clergy and consecrated religious, the burden and responsibility before God are great, and thus the moral imperative is grave. Jesus was strong in his warnings and judgment against the scribes and the Pharisees. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! Because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter, to go in” (Mt 23:13).

Yes, the result of religious leaders loving the world and seeking a middle ground—and thus avoiding the cross, promised by Jesus—is hypocrisy within themselves and grave scandal to those who innocently follow them. Their Gospel is not of life, but of the world, and it is received and loved by men who love their sins. But, in fact, Jesus warned his disciples, “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:2). A religious leader, a guide for others seeking God, must—must—be true to God and seek his approval in all things, and not pander to, or seek, the approval of men. He must seek to please God, and not be a man-pleaser. He can do good for men truly, only if he is true to God. The religious leader can be a blessing for men, only if he seeks the blessings of God in all things. He must be a man of prayer, in communion with God, before he can speak a helpful word to others. Pope Francis urged the seminarians to the path of holiness:

And this path means to meditate every day on the Gospel, to transmit it with your life and your preaching; it means to experience the mercy of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And never leave this! Go to confession, always! And in this way you will become generous and merciful ministers because you will feel the mercy of God upon you. It means to nourish yourselves with faith and with love of the Eucharist, to nourish the Christian people with it; it means to be men of prayer, to become the voice of Christ that praises the Father and intercedes continually for brothers. (cf. Heb 7:25)

The advice that the Pope is giving these seminarians should seem obvious. Be men of prayer! Be men close to the mind and heart of Christ, the Good Shepherd! Use time every day to reflect and meditate on the Gospel!

We might add some advice along the same lines. Do not be seekers of the praise and glory of men! Jesus said, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44). Do not pander to their desires, making light of the Gospel with easy truths and funny stories, making short the holy sacrifice of Mass to keep from offending their schedules, catering to the comfort of parish contributors while ignoring the mission of the Church, and the true spiritual needs of the sheep. Take precious time with the Lord—before the Blessed Sacrament, in his Holy Word. Meditate upon and pray the Scripture Readings personally, in quiet and solitude, before the Lord. Be the man who unfolds his words to reveal Jesus the Word for the people in Holy Mass. Be the man who “trembles” at his Word! (Is 66:2, 5). Be the man who finds his life in his Word, Jesus!

We need to pray for the Church! We need to pray for holy bishops, and priests, and deacons, and religious sisters and brothers—and simply lay Catholics! All are called to holiness! None are called to mediocrity, to lukewarmness, to half-heartedness in the things of God. All are called to holiness. All are called to his Cross, and are given a cross of their own to carry and to follow behind him. All are called to offer their lives as a living sacrifice, in union with his, which is our spiritual worship.

The priestly vocation deserves to be lived faithfully, generously, and heroically. The Pope challenged the seminarians whom he addressed to take a sober assessment of themselves, and their personal response to the call of God. He said,

If you—but I say this from my heart, without offending!—if you, if one of you, is not willing to follow this way, with these attitudes and these experiences, it is better that you have the courage to look for another way. There are many ways in the Church of giving Christian witness, and so many ways that lead to sanctity. In the ministerial following of Jesus, there is no room for mediocrity, that mediocrity that leads always to use the holy People of God for one’s own advantage. But Heaven help evil pastors, because the Seminary, let’s say the truth, is not a refuge for the many limitations we might have, a refuge from psychological lacks or a refuge, because I don’t have the courage to go forward in life, and I seek there a place that defends me. No, it’s not this.

“Like people, like priest,” Hosea wrote (4:9). Christ is coming—again—but this time, not as a vulnerable infant. This is the time to become prepared to meet him, to give account, to hear and obey his call. My priest-friend, of whom I spoke earlier, taught me much. One more comment of his that is relevant, I think, is this: “There will be many surprises in heaven.”

R. Thomas Richard, PhD About R. Thomas Richard, PhD

R. Thomas Richard, PhD, together with his wife, currently offers parish presentations and adult formation opportunities. He has served as religious formation director for parishes, director of lay ministry and deacon formation at the diocesan level, and retreat director. A former teacher, engineer, Protestant minister, and missionary, he has earned graduate degrees in Catholic theology and ministry, Protestant ministry, and physics. He is the author of several books in Catholic spirituality, which are described on his website, www.renewthechurch.com.


  1. How this article calls to my heart! It seems to me today that there are so few priests who are following Jesus with all their heart. I heard a priest, who was coming to give a mission, hold out Nelson Mandela as an example that we should follow – a man who, for all his ability to forgive his enemies, still did not value the least of the Lord’s brethren – the unborn and introduced abortion on demand for his people. Should we truly wish to follow his example? This incident occurred a few days after the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe a more trustworthy model for a priest to preach about.
    The newsfrom the Synod last October was preoccupied with discussion about communion for the divorced and remarried and how we should value the homosexual orientation. Is that the Gospel we are to preach now? One dare not speak openly lest we be accused of being like Donatists who didn’t want to forgive those seeking forgiveness for their apostasy. I recently came across a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who spoke of .. “Cheap grace whicg preaches forgivensee without the need for repentance…” As well as repentance I was taught, before my First Confession, there must also be a firm purpose of amendment. I feel as if I’m living in a Church I don’t recognise so, I was encouraged and my faith revived to read these powerful words. Thank you R. Thomas Richard.

    • Hello Lochain, thank you for your comment. I have observed among some, a tendency to focus on social justice issues (which are, obviously, important!) but in such a way as to neglect issues of personal morality. The two cannot be separated! How can a person work truly in the arena of social justice, while giving no concern or importance to the individual moral standards of the citizens of the society? Integrity demands a consistency here: a society comprised of righteous citizens will be just; a society of immoral and self-obsessed citizens will have no justice at the national level.

      The West is certainly in dangerous waters, as it drifts ever farther from human moral truth. When amoral men become judges, and soldiers, and businessmen, and government workers, and doctors, and teachers, and presidents and leaders – society is headed for chaos. Here again, the Church must be the witness for and the teacher of truth, morality, righteousness and holiness. Jesus showed and taught us the way – but is the West forgetting?