The Dignities and Duties of the Priest

by St. Alphonsus Liguori C.SS.R.
Doctor of the Church

-----------------------------Chapter Nine-----------------------------
The Zeal of the Priest

 In giving the spiritual exercises to the clergy, the sermon on zeal is the most necessary, and may be the most useful of all; for if one of the priests who assist at the exercises resolves [as we ought to hope through the Divine grace] to employ himself in procuring the salvation of souls, God will gain not one but a hundred and a thousand souls, who will be saved through the labors of that priest.

  WE shall speak in this chapter:
   1. Of the obligation of priests to labor for the salvation of souls,
  2. Of the pleasure that a priest who seeks the salvation of souls gives to God,
3. Of the eternal glory and the great reward that a priest who labors for the salvation of souls may expect from God.

The Obligation of Every Priest to Labor for the Salvation of Souls

"In the world there are at the same time many and few priests-----many in name, but few in reality," says the author of the Imperfect Work. The world is filled with priests, but few of them labor to be priests; that is, to fulfill the duty and obligations of a priest, or to save souls.

   The dignity of priests is great, because they are the coadjutors of God. "We are God's coadjutors." [1 Cor. 3, 9] And what greater dignity, says the Apostle, than that of cooperating with Jesus Christ in saving the souls which He has redeemed? Hence St. Denis the Areopagite calls the dignity of the priest a Divine dignity, and even the most Divine of all Divine things. For, as St. Augustine says, it requires more power to sanctify a sinner than to create Heaven and earth.

  St. Jerome used to call priests the saviors of the world. St. Prosper calls them the administrators of the royal house of God. And, long before, Jeremias called them the fishers and sportsmen of the Lord: Behold, I send many fishers, saith the Lord, and after this I will send many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.  St. Ambrose explains this passage of priests who gain to God the most abandoned sinners, and deliver them from all their vices. The mountain signifies pride; the hill, pusillanimity; and the holes of the rocks, bad habits, which bring with them darkness of understanding and coldness of heart. Peter de Blois says that in the work of creation God had no one to assist Him, but in the mystery of redemption He wished to have coadjutors. Who on this earth is superior to the priest? "To the king are entrusted earthly things; to me, a priest, heavenly things," says St. Chrysostom. And Innocent III adds: "Although the dignity of the Blessed Virgin was greater than that of the Apostles, yet to these, and not to her, were given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven."

  St. Peter Damian calls the priest the leader of the people of God. St. Bernard styles him the guardian of the Church, which is the spouse of Jesus Christ. St. Clement, an earthly god, for by the ministry of priests the Saints are formed on earth; St. Flavian says "that all the hope and salvation of men is placed in the hands of priests." And St. John Chrysostom writes, "Our parents generate us for the present life, priests for life eternal." Without priests, says St. Ignatius Martyr, there would be no Saints on this earth. And, long before, holy Judith said that on priests depends the salvation of the people. You are the ancients among the people of God, and their very soul resteth upon you.

[8, 21] The priest is the author of holiness of life in seculars, and on him depends their salvation. Hence St. Clement has said: "Honor priests as those that effect good conduct in others."

   Great, then, beyond measure, is the dignity and office of priests, but great also is their obligation to labor for the salvation of souls. For, says the apostle, every high-priest taken from among men, in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins. He afterwards proceeds to say: Who can have compassion on them that are ignorant. [Heb. 5, 1-2] The priest, then, is appointed by God as well to honor Him by sacrifices, as also to save souls by instructing and converting sinners.

   A kingly priesthood, . . . a purchased people. [1 Peter 2, 9] The order of ecclesiastics differs altogether from that of seculars. The latter attend to the things of the world and to themselves, but the former are a purchased people; a people whose business it is to gain not the goods of this earth, but the souls of men, says St. Ambrose. St. Antonine says that the very name of the priest explains the nature of his office, for sacerdos signifies "he that teaches holy things." And St. Thomas says, "He that distributes holy things." [P. 3, q. 22, a. 1] Honorius of Autun says, presbyter signifies "he that shows the way from exile to our country." St. Ambrose calls priests the "leaders of the flock of Christ." Hence the Saint says in another place: "May the name and the works agree, so that the name may not remain a vain title and may not become the cause of terrible crime." If, then, the meaning of the words sacerdos and presbyter is to assist souls in order to save and conduct them to Heaven, let the name and conduct, says St. Ambrose, correspond; that the name may not be empty, and that the honor of the office may not become a source of guilt. "The misery of the flock is the shame of the shepherd," adds the same holy Doctor.

   If, then, says St. Jerome, you wish to perform the office of a priest, let the salvation of others be the gain of your soul. And St. Anselm holds that the proper office of a priest is to preserve souls from the corruption of the world, and to lead them to God. Hence the Lord has separated priests from the rest of mankind, that they may save themselves and others. Zeal, as St. Augustine says, springs from love. Hence, as charity obliges us to love God and our neighbor, so zeal obliges us first to procure the glory and to prevent the dishonor of God, and afterwards to seek the welfare and to avert the injury of our neighbor.

   It is useless to say, I am a simple priest; I have not the care of souls; it is enough for me to attend to myself. No: every priest is bound to attend, in the way in which he can, to the salvation of souls, according to their necessity. And in a district in which souls are in grievous spiritual necessity for want of confessors a simple priest is, as we have proved in our Moral Theology, bound to hear confessions; and if he has not the necessary qualifications, he is obliged to qualify himself for the office of confessor. This is the opinion that the learned Father Pavone of the Society of Jesus has held in his works, and not without reason; for as God has sent Jesus Christ to save the world, so Jesus Christ has appointed priests to convert sinners. As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.

[John 20, 21] Hence the Council of Trent ordains that they that wish to receive priesthood should prove themselves fit for the administration of the Sacraments. [Sess. 23, cap. 14, de Ref.] For this end, says the angelic Doctor, God has constituted the order of priests, that they may sanctify others by the administration of the Sacraments. And priests are specially appointed to administer the Sacrament of penance. For immediately after the words: As the Father hath sent Me, etc., St. John has added: When He had said this, He breathed on them . . . and He said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. [John 20, 22]  Since, then, it is the office of a priest to absolve from sins, one of his principal obligations is to qualify himself for that office, at least when there is necessity, that he may not receive the reproach contained in the words of St. Paul to his companions in the priesthood: And we helping to exhort you, that you receive not the grace of God in vain. [2 Cor. 6, 1]

   Priests, as Venerable Bede writes, are destined by God to be the salt of the earth, that they may preserve souls from the corruption of sins. But if salt does not perform the office of salt, it is fit only to be cast out of the house of the Lord, and to be trodden by all. [Matt. 5, 13]

Every priest, says St. John Chrysostom, is, as it were, the father of the whole world, and therefore should have care of all the souls to whose salvation he can co-operate by his labors. Besides, priests are appointed by God as physicians to cure every soul that is infirm; thus Origen has called them "Physicians of souls," and St. Jerome, "Spiritual physicians." Hence St. Bonaventure says, "If the physician flees from the sick, who will cure them?"

   Priests are also called the walls of the Church: "The Church has her walls," says St. Ambrose, "that is, her apostolic men." And the author of the Imperfect Work says, "Her walls are the priests." They are also called the stones that support the Church of God, and by St. Eucherius they are called the pillars that sustain the tottering world. Finally, they are called by St. Bernard the very house of God. Hence we may say with St. John Chrysostom, that if a part of the house fall, the injury may be easily repaired;. but if the walls fall, if the foundations and the pillars that sustain the edifice give way; finally, if the whole house tumbles to the ground,-----how can the loss be ever repaired? Moreover, priests are called by the same St. John Chrysostom, the husbandmen of the vineyard of the Lord. But, O God! exclaims St. Bernard with tears, the husbandmen sweat and labor the whole day in the cultivation of their own vineyards. But what are the occupations of priests whom God has appointed to cultivate His vineyard? They are, continues the Saint, always corrupted with idleness and worldly pleasures.

   The harvest is indeed great, but the laborers are few. [Matt. 9, 37] No: the bishops and parish priests are not sufficient for the spiritual wants of the people. If God had not destined other priests to assist souls, he should not have sufficiently provided for His Church. St. Thomas says that the twelve Apostles destined by Jesus Christ for the conversion of the world represented the bishops, and the seventy-two disciples represented all priests ordained for the salvation of souls, the fruit which the Redeemer demands of His priests: I have chosen you that you should go, and should bring forth fruit. [John 15, 16] Hence St. Augustine calls priests the administrators of the interests of God. To priests has been entrusted the duty of extirpating vice and pernicious maxims from the minds of the people, and of infusing into them the virtues of the Gospel and the maxims of eternity. On the day God raises a man to the priesthood He says to him what He said to Jeremias: Lo, I have set thee thus over the nations, and over kingdoms, to root up and pull down, and to waste and to destroy, and to build and to plant. [1, 10]

   I do not know how a priest can be excused from sin, who sees the people of the district in grievous necessity, and is able to assist them by teaching the truths of faith, or by preaching the Divine word, and even by hearing confessions, and through sloth neglects to give them spiritual aid? I know not, I say, how he can escape on the day of judgment the reproof and chastisement threatened against the slothful servant who hid the talent given to him, that he might trade with it. The master gave him that talent that he might trade with it, but he hid it; and when the master demanded an account of the profit he had received from it, he answered: I hid thy talent in the earth . . . behold, here thou hast that which is thine. [Matt. 25, 25] But for hiding the talent the master reproved him, saying: What! I have given you a talent that you might trade with it; this is the talent, but where are the profits? He then took the talent from him, commanded it to be given to another, and ordered him to be cast into exterior darkness: Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it him that hath ten talents; . . . and the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. To be cast into exterior darkness means, according to the commentators, to be sent into the fire of Hell, which gives no light, and to be excluded from Heaven.

  This passage is applied by St. Ambrose, Calmet, Cornelius à Lapide, and Tirinus to those that can procure the salvation of souls, and neglect to do it, either through negligence or through a vain fear of committing sin. "This," says Father Cornelius, "is advice to those who through indifference or a vain fear of sinning do not devote to the salvation of their neighbor the lights, the talents that they receive from God; no doubt Christ will ask of them an account on the day of judgment." And St. Gregory says: "Hear! whoever does not wish to employ his talents will be cast out by a sentence of damnation." Peter de Blois writes: "Whoever employs God's gifts for the good of others deserves to have a greater measure of what he already possesses; but from him who hides the Lord's talent will be taken what he seems to possess." St. John Chrysostom says that he cannot conceive how a priest can be saved who does nothing for the salvation of his neighbor. After having mentioned the parable of the talent, he says that for a priest the neglect of having employed the talent given to him is criminal, and shall be the cause of his damnation. Addressing those who say, "I am satisfied if only I save my soul," St. Augustine says, "Do you not recall to mind the servant who buried his talent?"

  St. Prosper says that to save his own soul it will not be enough for a priest to lead a holy life, for he shall be damned with those that are lost through his fault. In one of the Apostolic canons we read the following words:

"The priest that does not take care of the clerics or of the people should be punished, and if he perseveres in his carelessness, let him be deposed." Why, says St. Leo, should you take the honor of the priesthood if you will not labor for the salvation of souls? The Council of Cologne declared that if a person take the Order of priesthood without the intention of performing the office of vicar of Jesus Christ, or of saving souls, a great and certain chastisement is reserved for him, as for a wolf and a robber, which he is called in the Gospel.

  St. Isidore does not hesitate to charge with mortal sin the priest that neglects to instruct the ignorant and to convert sinners. And St. John Chrysostom says, "Not on account of their own, but on account of the sins of others that they did not prevent, priests are often condemned to Hell." St. Thomas, speaking of a simple priest, says that the priest that fails either through negligence or ignorance to assist souls, renders himself accountable to God for all the souls that are lost through his fault. St. John Chrysostom says the same: "If priests take care only of their own souls, and neglect the souls of others, they will be condemned to Hell with the damned."   A certain priest in Rome felt great fears at death for his eternal salvation, although he had led a life of retirement and piety. Being asked why he was so much afraid, he answered: "I am afraid, because I have not labored for the salvation of souls." He had reason to tremble, since the Lord employs priests to save souls, and to rescue them from vice. Hence, if a priest does not fulfill this duty, he must render to God an account of all the souls that are lost through his fault: If when I say to the wicked, Thou shalt surely die . . . thou declare it not to him, nor speak to him, that he may be converted from his wicked way and live; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but I will require his blood at thy hand. [Ezek. 3, 18] Thus, says St. Gregory, speaking of idle priests, they shall be accountable before God for the souls whom they could assist, and who are lost through their negligence.

  Jesus Christ has redeemed souls with the price of His Blood: For you are bought with a great price. [1 Cor. 6, 20] But these souls the Redeemer has entrusted to the care of priests. Unhappy me, said St. Bernard, when he saw himself a priest, if I be negligent in taking care of this deposit; that is, of the souls whom the Redeemer considered to be more precious than His Own Blood." Seculars have to render an account of their own sins, but priests must render an account of the sins of all, says the author of the Imperfect Work. And before him the apostle said: For they watch as being to render an account of your souls. [Heb. 13, 17] Thus the sins of others are imputed to the priest that neglects to prevent them, says St. John Chrysostom. Hence St. Augustine has said: "If on the day of judgment one can scarcely render an account of one's own soul, how will the priest fare If he has to render an account of all sins?" Speaking of those that become priests not to save souls, but to secure a more comfortable means of living, St. Bernard says, Oh, how much better would it have been for them to labor in the field, or to beg, than to have taken to the priesthood! On the day of judgment they shall hear complaints against them from so many souls that have been damned through their sloth.