The Dignities and Duties of the Priest
St. Alphonsus Liguori C.SS.R.
Doctor of the Church


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

The Pleasure that a Priest who Labors for the Salvation of Souls Gives to God

   To understand how ardently God desires the salvation of souls, it is enough to consider what he has done in the work of the redemption of man. Jesus Christ clearly expressed this desire when He said: I have a baptism, wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished. [Luke 12, 50] He said that He felt as if swooning away through the ardor with which He wished to see the work of redemption accomplished; that men might be saved. From this St. John Chrysostom justly infers, that there is nothing more acceptable to God than the salvation of souls. And before him St. Justin said: "Nothing is so pleasing to God as to labor to make others better." Our Lord once said to Bernard Colnado, a priest who had labored much for the conversion of sinners: "Labor for the salvation of sinners, for this is what is most pleasing to me." This is so dear to God, adds Clement of Alexandria, that the salvation of men appear to be his sole concern. Hence, addressing a priest, St. Laurence Justinian said: "If you wish to honor God, you can do no better than labor in behalf of the salvation of souls."

  St. Bernard says that in the eyes of God a soul is more valuable than the whole world. Hence, according to St. John Chrysostom, a person pleases God more by converting a single soul than by giving all his goods, to the poor. Tertullian asserts that to God the salvation of a single sheep that has strayed away, is as dear as the salvation of the entire flock. Hence the Apostle said: I live in the faith of the Son of God, Who loved me and delivered Himself up for me. [Gal. 2, 20] By these words he signified that Jesus Christ would have died as soon for a single soul as for the salvation of all men, says St. John Chrysostom in his comment on this passage . . .

   It is related by several authors of St. Carpus, Bishop, that he had a vision in which he seemed to see a scandalous sinner who had induced an innocent person to commit sin, and that he felt himself impelled by zeal to throw him into a precipice on the brink of which he stood, but Jesus Christ appeared to support the sinner with His hand, and said to St. Carpus: "Strike Me, for I am ready again to die for sinners." As if He said: Hold, strike Me rather than this sinner; for I have given My life for him, and am ready to give it again to save him from perdition.

   The ecclesiastical spirit, says Louis Habert, consists precisely in an ardent zeal for promoting the glory of God, and the salvation of our neighbor. Hence, according to Natalis Alexander, they that wish to attend only to themselves, and not to others, should not be admitted to the priesthood. The Lord commanded that the priests of the Old Law should wear vestments covered all over with certain circles, which resembled eyes, to show, as a certain author says, that the priest should be all eyes to attend to the sanctification of the people. St. Augustine says that zeal for the salvation of souls and for the promotion of Divine love in all men springs from love. Then, adds the Saint, he that has not zeal, shows that he does not love God; and he that does not love God is lost. He that watches over his own soul pleases God; but he that watches over the souls of his neighbors, pleases him still more, says St. Bernard.

  God, says St. John Chrysostom, has no better proof of the fidelity and affection of a soul than in seeing her zealous for the welfare of her neighbor. The Savior three times asked St. Peter if he loved Him: Simon, son of John, lovest thou Me? [John 21, 17] When assured of Peter's love, Jesus Christ asked him to do nothing else in proof of his love than to take care of souls: He said to him: Feed My sheep. On this passage St. John Chrysostom says: "The Lord might have said, If you love Me, cast away money, practice strict fast, sleep on the hard floor, and macerate yourself by hard labor. But no; He says, Feed My sheep." On the word My, St. Augustine remarks that our Lord wished to say: "Feed them as My sheep, not as thine; seek in them My glory, not thine; My profit, not thine." In these words the Saint has taught that he that desires to labor for the salvation of souls should seek neither his own glory nor his own gain, but only the advancement of the Divine glory.

   After reading the lives of the holy Martyrs, and of the holy workmen in God's vineyard, St. Teresa said that she envied the latter more than the former, on account of the great glory which they that labor for the conversion of sinners give to God. St. Catherine of Siena used to kiss the ground that had been trodden by priests employed in saving souls. Such was her zeal for the salvation of sinners, that she desired to be placed at the mouth of Hell, that no soul might enter into that land of torment. And what do we, who are priests, say? What do we do? We see so many souls perish, and shall we remain idle spectators of their perdition? . . .

 St. John Chrysostom desired to be blind, provided the souls under his care were converted. St. Bonaventure declared that he would have accepted as many deaths as there are sinners in the world, that all might be saved. During a winter which he spent among the heretics of Chablais, St. Francis de Sales used to creep over a river on a beam of ice, with great risk and inconvenience to himself, in order to preach to them. Being in Naples during the great revolution of 1647 and seeing the great loss of souls which it caused, St. Cajetan felt so intense a sorrow that he died of grief. St. Ignatius used to say that he would rather live uncertain of his eternal lot than die with a certainty of salvation, provided he could continue to assist souls. Behold the zeal for souls which animated priests that loved God! And still, in order to avoid a trifling inconvenience, or through fear of illness, some even among those that are charged with the care of souls withhold the aid of their ministry. St. Charles Borromeo used to say, that a pastor of souls, who wishes to have every convenience, and to take all the precautions that may be useful to health, will never be able to fulfill his duties. Hence he would add, that a parish priest should not go to bed till after the third paroxysm of fever.

  He that truly loves God, says St. Augustine, does everything in his power to draw all to his love, and can say with David: O magnify the Lord with me; and let us extol His name together. [Ps. 33, 4] He goes in every direction: exhorting in the pulpit and in the confessional, in the public places and in private houses, saying, Brethren, let us love God, let us praise his name, in words and works . . .

The priest who has labored for the salvation of souls can hardly die a bad death. When thou shalt pour out, says the prophet Isaias, thy soul to the hungry, and shalt satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light rise up in darkness. . . And the Lord will give thee rest continually, and will fill thy soul with brightness, and deliver thy bones. [58, 10] If you have spent your life in assisting a soul in need, and have consoled her in her afflictions, in the darkness of your temporal death, the Lord shall fill you with light, and shall deliver you from eternal death. This was the doctrine of St. Augustine: "In saving a soul thou hast predestined your own," says the holy Doctor." And, long before, the apostle St. James said: "He must know, that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul [that is, his own soul, as appears from the Greek text] from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins." [5, 20]

   A priest of the Society of Jesus, who during life devoted a great deal of time to the conversion of sinners, died with joy and confidence of salvation; this, some considered to be excessive. Hence he was told that at death we should entertain sentiments of fear as well as of confidence. He answered: Have I served Mahomet? I have served a God Who is so grateful and faithful; why, then, should I fear? When St. Ignatius of Loyola declared that in order to assist souls he would remain on earth in an uncertainty about his salvation, though he was certain that by dying he should be saved, a person said: "But, Father, it is not prudent to expose your own soul to danger for the salvation of others." The Saint replied, "Is God a tyrant, Who, after seeing me risk my salvation in order to gain souls, would send me to Hell?"

  After having saved the Jews from the hands of the Philistines, by the victory that he won with so much personal danger, Jonathan was condemned to death by Saul for having, contrary to his orders, eaten a little honey But the people cried out, Shall Jonathan then die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel.? [1 Kgs. 14, 45] Why, O king, said they, should Jonathan be put to death after having saved us all from destruction? Thus they obtained his pardon. The priest who has saved souls may well expect a similar reward on the day of his death. These souls shall come and say to Jesus Christ: Wilt Thou, O Lord, send to Hell the priest who has delivered us from eternal misery? And if Saul remitted the punishment of death at the prayers of the people, surely God will not refuse to pardon such a priest for the prayers of the souls that are his friends in Heaven. Priests who have labored for the salvation of souls shall hear from God Himself the announcement of eternal rest: From henceforth now, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors. [Apoc. 14. 13] Oh! what consolation and confidence shall the remembrance of having gained a soul to Jesus Christ infuse at the hour of death! As repose is sweet to him who is oppressed with fatigue,-----Sleep is sweet to a laboring man,-----so death is sweet to a priest who has labored for God.

 St. Gregory says that the more souls a sinner shall have converted from their sins, the sooner he shall be absolved from his own transgressions. He that has the good fortune of being employed in converting sinners has a great mark of predestination, and of being written in the book of life. This the Apostle insinuated when, in speaking of those that assisted him in the conversion of nations, he said: I entreat thee also, my sincere companion, help those women that have labored with me in the Gospel with Clement and the rest of my fellow-laborers, whose names are [mark these words] in the book of life." [Phil. 4, 3]

   With regard to the great reward that priests who labor for souls shall receive, Daniel said: "They shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity." [12, 3] As we now see the stars shine in the firmament, so the priest who converts souls to God shall shine among the blessed in the empyrean Heaven with a brilliant light of glory. If, says St. Gregory, he that rescues a man from temporal death deserves a great reward, how much greater shall be the recompense of a priest who delivers a soul from eternal death, and brings her to eternal life! And before him our Savior said: But he that shall do and teach, he shall be called great in the kingdom of Heaven. [Matt. 5, 19] How great shall be the chastisement in Hell of a damned priest who by his scandals has perverted many souls! On the other hand, will not God, Whose liberality in rewarding virtue surpasses His severity in punishing vice, give great glory in Heaven to the good priest who by his labors shall have gained many souls?

  St. Paul placed the hope of his eternal crown in the salvation of those whom he had converted to God, and trusted that they should procure for him a great recompense for eternity: For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of glory? Are not you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? [Thess. 2, 19] St. Gregory says that a priest who works in the Lord's vineyard obtains as many crowns as he gains souls to God . . . When St. Philip Neri died and went to Heaven, the Lord sent to meet him all the souls that he had saved The same is related of that great servant of God, Brother Cherubim of Spoleto. He was seen entering Heaven accompanied by many thousands of souls that had been saved by his labors. It is also related of the Venerable Father Louis la Nuza, that he was seen in Heaven sitting on a lofty throne, at the foot of which were seated all the souls that he had converted
. . .

If we wish to receive from God the reward of our labors for the salvation of souls, we must do all not through human respect, nor for our own honor or temporal gain, but only for God and for His glory; otherwise, instead of a reward we shall receive punishment. Great should be our folly, says St. Joseph Calasanctius, were we to seek from men a temporal remuneration for our labors. The office of saving souls, says St. Bernard, is in itself very dangerous, since we shall have once to render an account of the actions of others. And St. Gregory writes: "The priest possesses as many souls as he is instructing subjects." With the Divine aid we shall be able to avoid sin and merit a reward in the work of saving others; but he who performs this work for any other end than to please God, shall be abandoned by God; and without the Divine assistance, how shall he be able to avoid sin? "And how," says St. Bonaventure, "shall they avoid sin who receive Holy Orders, seeking not the salvation of souls, but temporal gain," or whose motive, as St. Prosper says, is not to become better, but richer: not more holy, but more honored? . . . The glory of God, then, must be the sole end of the priest who labors for souls.

With regard to the means that a priest should adopt in order to gain souls to the Lord:

1. The priest must above all attend to the perfection of his own soul. The sanctity of the priest is the principal means of converting sinners. St. Eucherius says that priests by the power of their sanctity sustain the world. The priest, as mediator, is charged with the office of making peace between God and men, says St. Thomas. But he who is a mediator must not be hateful to the person before whom he has to intercede; otherwise, he will increase his wrath, says St. Gregory. "Hence," the Saint adds, "pure must be the hand of the one that wishes to cleanse others of their stains." Thus St. Bernard concludes that a priest, in order to be fit to convert sinners, must first purify his own conscience and afterwards the conscience of others. St. Philip Neri used to say, give me ten zealous priests and I will convert the whole world. What did not a solitary St. Francis Xavier do in the East? It is related that he alone converted ten millions of pagans to the faith. What did not a St. Patrick, a St. Vincent Ferrer, do in Europe? A single priest of moderate learning, who loves God ardently, will convert more souls to God than a hundred priests of great learning and little zeal.

  2. He who wishes to reap an abundant harvest of souls must devote a good deal of time to mental prayer. In prayer he must first receive from God sentiments of piety, and afterwards communicate them to others: That which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops. [Matt. 10, 27]

It is necessary, says St. Bernard, to be first a reservoir and then a canal. The works in which a zealous priest should be employed are:

1. The correction of sinners. Priests who see insults offered to God and remain silent are called by Isaias 'mule dogs.' But to these mute dogs shall be imputed all the sins that they could have but have not prevented.

<>"Do not be silent," says Alcuin, "lest the sins of the! people be ascribed to you." Some priests abstain from reproving sinners because they do not wish to disturb their peace of mind; but, says St. Gregory, for this peace that they desire, they shall miserably lose peace with God. An animal falls, exclaims St. Bernard, and many are found to lift it; a souls falls, and no one is found to raise her up. Yes, sinners are not converted, although, according to St. Gregory, priests are specially appointed by God to point out the path of virtue to those who go astray. Hence St. Leo adds: "The priest who does not withdraw another from error proves that he is himself involved in it." St. Gregory writes that we kill as many souls as we see committing sin without endeavoring to apply a remedy. A zealous priest ought to be employed in preaching. By preaching, the world has been, as the Apostle says, converted to the faith of Jesus Christ: Faith cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ. [Rom. 10, 17] And by preaching, the faith and the fear of God are preserved in the hearts of the faithful. Priests who feel themselves unable to preach should at least endeavor as often as possible, in their conversation with friends or relatives, to edify by words of edification, by relating examples of virtues practiced by the Saints, by inculcating some maxim of eternity, by impressing on them the vanity of the world, the importance of salvation, the certainty of death, the peace enjoyed by those who are in the grace of God, or some similar truths.

  3. The priest should be occupied in assisting the dying, which is a work of charity most dear to God, and most conducive to the salvation of souls; for the dying are more strongly tempted by the devils, and are less able to assist themselves. St. Philip Neri frequently saw Angels suggesting words to priests who were attending dying persons. For parish priests this work is an obligation of justice, but for every priest it is a duty of charity. It may be performed with advantage by every priest, even by those who have not talent for preaching. In attending the sick, a priest may be of great service to their friends and relatives. That is the fittest time for spiritual discourses. On such an occasion it is even unbecoming in a priest to speak of anything but of God and of spiritual things. But let it be remembered that he who performs this office must use great caution, that he may not be an occasion of ruin to himself or others. Moreover, he who cannot preach should at least labor in teaching the Christian doctrine to the children and the poor, many of whom in the rural districts, in consequence of not being able to go often to the church, live in ignorance of even the principal mysteries of faith.

   4. Lastly, it is necessary to be persuaded that the work which is most conducive to the salvation of souls is the administration of the Sacrament of Penance. The Venerable Louis Fiorillo, of the Order of St. Dominic, used to say, that by preaching, the priest casts out the net, but by hearing Confessions he draws it ashore and takes the fish. But some may say this is a very perilous office. There is no doubt, dearly beloved priest, says St. Bernard, that to become the judge of consciences is attended with much danger; but you shall fall into greater danger if through sloth or excessive fear you neglect to fulfill this office when God calls you to it. "Woe to you," says the same Saint, "if you are a Superior! But a greater woe to you if through fear of commanding you shrink from doing good." We have already spoken of the obligation of every priest to employ the talent that God has given him that he may save souls; at his Ordination a priest is destined in a special manner for the administration of the Sacrament of Penance. But you may say that you are not qualified for this office, because you have not studied theology. But do you not know that a priest is bound to study? The lips of the priest shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth. [Mal. 2, 7] If you did not intend to study in order to be able to assist your neighbor, why did you become a priest? Who, says the Lord, asked you to take Holy Orders? Who required these things at your hands that you should walk in My courts? Who, asks St. John Chrysostom, has forced you to become a priest? Before your Ordination, adds the Saint, you ought to have examined your fitness for this duty; but now that you are a priest you must work and not examine; and if you are not fit for the work, you must qualify yourself for it. To excuse yourself now on the grounds of ignorance, continues the holy Doctor, is to excuse one sin by another. Some priests read many useless books, and neglect to study the science that may enable them to save souls. St. Prosper says that such priests violate justice.

   In fine, it is necessary to be persuaded that the priest should seek nothing but the glory of God and salvation of souls. Hence St. Sylvester ordained that with regard to ecclesiastics the days of the week should be called by no other name than that of Feritæ, or vacant days. The Gentiles themselves used to say that priests should attend only to the things of God, and therefore they forbade their priests to exercise the office of magistrates, that they might be entirely devoted to the worship of their gods. After he had been appointed by God to promote His honor, and the observance of His law, Moses spent a good deal of his time in settling disputes. Jethro justly reproved him, saying: Thou art spent with foolish labor . . . Be thou to the people in those things that pertain to God. [Ex. 18, 18] Before you were Ordained priest, says St. Athanasius, you might devote yourself to any occupation you wished, but now that you are a priest, you must be employed in the fulfillment of the office for which you are destined. And what is the nature of this office? One of its principal duties is, as we have shown, to labor for the salvation of souls. This doctrine is confirmed by St. Prosper, who says: "To priests properly belong the care of saving souls."