The Dignities and Duties of the Priest

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

-----------------------------Instruction III----------------------------

The Chastity of the Priest

The Merit of this Virtue, and its Necessity for the Priest

No price is worthy of a continent soul. [Ecclus. 26:20] In comparison with a chaste soul, all the riches, all the titles and dignities of the earth are contemptible. Chastity is called by St. Ephrem the life of the spirit; by St. Peter Damian, the queen of virtues; and by St. Cyprian, the acquisition of triumphs. He who conquers the vice opposed to chastity, easily subdues all other vices; and, on the other hand, the man who submits to the tyranny of impurity, easily falls into many other vices, into hatred, injustice, sacrilege, etc.

Chastity, says St. Ephrem, changes a man into an Angel.  St. Bernard says, "Chastity makes an Angel of man." And according to St. Ambrose, "he who has preserved chastity is an Angel: he who has lost it is a devil." The chaste, who live at a distance from all carnal pleasures, are justly assimilated to the Angels: They shall be' as the Angels of God in Heaven. [Matt. 22:30] The Angels are pure by nature, but the chaste are pure by virtue.

'Through the merit of this virtue," says Cassian, "men are like unto Angels." And St. Bernard asserts that a chaste man differs from an Angel only in felicity, not in virtue; and although the chastity of the Angel is more blissful, that of man is stronger. St. Basil adds, that chastity renders man like to God, Who is a pure spirit.

Chastity is not more excellent than it is necessary for the attainment of salvation. But for priests it is specially necessary. For the priests of the Old Law the Lord ordered so many white vestments and ornaments, and so many external purifications, as symbols of bodily purity, merely because they were to touch the sacred vessels, and because they were a figure of the priests of the New Law, who were to handle and to immolate the most sacred Flesh of the Incarnate Word. Hence St. Ambrose has written: "If of the figure such chastity was asked, how much more will it be asked of the reality?" On the other hand, God ordained that the priests who were habitually infected with eruptions on the skin, the symbols of impurity, should be cast off from the altar: Neither shall he approach to minister to Him, . . . if he have a pearl in his eye, or a continual scab. [Lev. 21: 18] "But this evil," says St. Gregory, "he has that is controlled by the concupiscence of the flesh."

Even the pagans, as Plutarch writes, required purity in the priests of their false gods; because they thought that whatsoever related to the divine honor should be clean. And of the Athenian priests Plato says, that for the more effectual preservation of chastity they lived apart from the rest of the people. Hence St. Augustine exclaims: "O great misery among Christians! the pagans have become the teachers of the faithful."

Speaking of priests of the true God, Clement of Alexandria says that they only that lead a life of chastity are, or should be, called true priests." "Let the priest be humble and pious," said St. Thomas of Villanova; "if he is not chaste, he is nothing." Chastity is necessary for all, but principally for priests. "To all," says St. Augustine, "chastity is most necessary, but especially to the ministers of the altar." Priests have to treat on the altar with the immaculate Lamb of God, Who is called the Lily of the Valleys,  and feeds only among the lilies. [Cant. 2: 1-16] Hence Jesus Christ would have no other mother than a Virgin-----no other guardian or precursor than a Virgin. And St. Jerome says that Jesus loved John above the other disciples on account of the prerogative of chastity. And Jesus intrusted His mother to John on account of his purity, as He consigns to the priest His Church and Himself. Hence Origen says: "Above all should the priest who assists at the altar of God be girt about with chastity." And according to St. John Chrysostom, a priest should have purity which would entitle him to stand among the Angels. Should none, then, but virgins be promoted to the priesthood? St. Bernard answers: "Long continuance in chastity is regarded as virginity."

Hence the holy Church guards nothing with so much jealousy as the purity of her priests. How many councils and canons enforce it? "Let no one," says Innocent III, "be admitted to holy orders unless he be a virgin, or a man of approved chastity;" and he ordained that "they who are in holy Orders, if they lead not a chaste life, are to be excluded from every dignity." St. Gregory says: "No one should approach the ministry of the altar unless his chastity has been proved."  St. Paul assigns the reason why the ministers of the altar are obliged to lead a life of celibacy: He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please God; but he that is with a wife, is solicitous for the things of the world, how he may please his wife. He who is free from the conjugal bonds belongs entirely to God; for he has to think of nothing but of pleasing God. But he who is bound to the married state has to think of his wife, his children, and the world . [1 Cor. 7:32]

 St. Athanasius, then, had reason to call chastity the house of the Holy Ghost, the life of Angels, and the crown of Saints. And St. Jerome has justly called it the honor of the
Church and the glory of priests. Yes: for, as St. Ignatius, Martyr, says, the priest as the house of God, as the temple of Jesus Christ, and the organ of the Holy Ghost, by which souls are sanctified, ought to practice chastity.

Means of Preserving Chastity

Great, then, is the excellence of chastity; but terrible indeed is the war that the flesh wages against men in order to rob them of that precious virtue. The flesh is the most powerful weapon that the devil employs in order to make us his slaves. His strength is in his loins. [Job 40:11] Hence but few gain the victory in this warfare. "Among all combats," says St. Augustine, "the combat for chastity is the most violent, because it is a daily combat, and because victory is very rare." How many miserable men, exclaims St. Laurence Justinian with tears, after many years spent in the solitude of a desert, in meditations, fasting, and penitential austerities, have, for the sake of sensual indulgence, left the desert and have lost chastity and God? Priests, then, who are bound to perpetual chastity, must take great care to preserve it. You shall never practice chastity, said St. Charles Borromeo to an ecclesiastic, unless you are careful to watch over yourself with great diligence; for chastity is easily lost by the negligent.
This care and attention consist in taking the means of preserving chastity. These means are, to avoid certain incentives to impurity, and to adopt certain remedies against temptations.


The first means is to avoid the occasions of sins against purity. "We must," says St. Jerome," be far from those whose presence may entice us to evil." St. Philip Neri used to say that in this warfare cowards, that is, they that fly from the occasions, are victorious. "Concupiscence," says Peter de Blois, "is overcome by nothing more easily than by flight."

The grace of God is a great treasure, but this treasure we carry in vessels that are frail and easily broken. We have this treasure in earthen vessels. [2 Cor. 4:7] Man cannot of
himself acquire the virtue of chastity: God alone can give it. I knew, said Solomon, that I could not otherwise be continent except God gave it. [Wisd. 8:21] We have not strength to practice any virtue, but particularly the virtue of chastity; for we have by nature a strong propensity to the opposite vice. The Divine aid alone can enable a man to preserve chastity; but this aid God gives not to those that voluntarily expose themselves to the occasion of sin, or remain in it. He that loveth danger shall perish in it. [Ecclus. 3:27]

Hence St. Augustine gives the following advice: "To repel the attacks of lust, take flight if you wish to obtain the victory." Oh! how many, said St. Jerome at the hour of death to his disciples (as we read in the epistle of Eusebius to Pope Damasus), how many have been cast into the putrid mire of impurity through a presumptuous security that they should not fall. No one, then, adds the Saint, should consider himself secure against this vice: though you were a Saint, you are always in danger of failing.

It is not possible, says the Wise Man, for a man to walk on red-hot coals and not be burned. Can a man walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be burnt? [Prov. 6:27] On this subject St. John Chrysostom writes: "Are you perhaps of stone or of iron? No, you are a man subject to the common weakness of nature. Do you think that you will not be burnt if you take fire into your hand? How else could this be? Put a burning light into the hay, and then say that there will be no blaze! Like hay is this nature of ours." Hence it is not possible for a man to expose himself voluntarily to the occasions of sins against chastity and not fall into a precipice. We should fly from sin as from the face of a serpent. Flee from sin as from the face of a serpent.
[Ecclus. 21: 2] We fly not only from the bite of a serpent, but also from contact with it and proximity to it. We must also avoid the company and conversation of persons who may be to us an occasion of yielding to any sin against purity. St. Ambrose remarks that the chaste Joseph would not stop to hear the first words of Putiphar's wife, but instantly fled away, considering that there was great danger in waiting to listen to her. But some one may say: I know my duty; but let him attend to the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "I know what I ought to do, but I know not what I would do were I to remain in the occasion of sin."

1. Let us examine the principal occasions that the priest should carefully avoid in order to preserve chastity. It is necessary, above all things, to abstain from looking at dangerous objects. Death is come up through our windows, [9:21] says the Prophet Jeremias. Through the windows: that is, through the eyes, as St. Jerome, St. Gregory, and others say in their comments on this passage. For as to defend a fortification it is not enough to lock the gates if the enemy be allowed to enter by the windows; so to preserve chastity all other means shall be unprofitable unless we carefully watch over the eyes. Tertullian relates that a certain pagan philosopher plucked out his eyes in order to preserve chastity. This is not lawful for us. But if we wish to avoid sins against purity we must abstain from looking at women, and still more from looking at them a second time. To look at dangerous objects, says St. Francis de Sales, is not so hurtful to us as to repeat the look. And St. John Chrysostom adds, that it is necessary to turn away the eyes not only from women whose dress or manner is immodest, but even from those whose demeanor is full of modesty! Hence holy Job made a compact with his eyes not to look at any woman, even at a chaste virgin; because he knew from looks evil thoughts arise: I made a covenant with my eyes that I would not so much as think upon a virgin. [21:1] Ecclesiasticus advises us to imitate the example of Job. Gaze not upon a maiden, lest her beauty be a stumbling-block to thee. [9:5] St. Augustine says: From looks spring evil thoughts; the thoughts produce a certain carnal delectation, though indeliberate. To this indeliberate delectation succeeds the consent of the will; and, behold, the soul is lost. Cardinal Hugo remarks that the Apostle commanded women to keep their heads veiled in the church because of the Angels, that is, because of priests, lest looking at their faces they should be tempted to lust. [In 1 Cor. 11:10] Even while he lived in a cave at Bethlehem, in constant prayer and penitential austerities, St. Jerome was tormented by the remembrance of the ladies whom he had long before seen in Rome. Hence he cautioned his friend Nepotianus to abstain not only from looking at women, but from even speaking of their figure. By a single look of curiosity at Bethsebee, David miserably fell into the sins of adultery, homicide, and scandal. "The devil only wishes us to begin," says the same St. Jerome. The devil only requires that we begin to open the door; he will afterwards open it entirely. A deliberate, fixed look at the countenance of a young woman may be an infernal spark that will cause the ruin of the soul. Speaking of priests, St. Jerome says that they ought to avoid not only every unchaste act, but every glance of the eye.
2. If to preserve chastity we must abstain from looking at women, it is far more necessary to avoid conversation with them. says the Holy Ghost. [Ecclus. 42:12] The inspired writer subjoins the reason, saying, that as the moth comes from clothes, so the wickedness of men has its origin in conversation with women. For from garments cometh a moth, and from a woman the iniquity of a man. [Tarry not among women,Ibid.] And, says Cornelius a Lapide, as the moth comes from a garment in spite of the owner, so from intercourse with women evil desires spring up, even when we will them not. He adds that as the moth is insensibly generated in and corrodes the garment, so by conversation with women concupiscence is imperceptibly excited, even in men who are spiritual. St. Augustine regards as certain the sudden fall of the man who will not avoid familiarity with dangerous objects. St. Gregory relates of Orsinus, who had separated from his wife, and become a priest with her consent, that forty years after their separation, when he was dying, she put her ear to his mouth to ascertain whether he was still alive; but Orsinus exclaimed: "Withdraw, O woman," said he; "take away the straw; for I have still a small portion of the fire of life which may consume us both."

Everyone should be filled with terror by the unhappy example of Solomon, who after being so dear to God, and so familiar with him, after being made, as it were, the pen of the Holy Ghost, was in his old age, by conversation with pagan women, induced to worship idols. And when he was now old, his heart was turned away by women to follow strange gods. [3 Kings 11:4] No wonder; for, as St. Cyprian says, it is impossible to stand in the midst of flames without being burned. And St. Bernard has written, that to be familiar with a woman and to preserve chastity require greater virtue than to raise a dead man to life. If, then, says the Holy Ghost, you wish to be secure, Remove thy way far from her. [Prov. 5:8] Do not even pass near the door of her whom the devil makes an occasion of temptation to you: pass at a distance from it; and should it be really necessary for you to speak to a woman, your words, says St. Augustine, should be few and reserved. St. Cyprian gives the same advice. He says that our intercourse with women should be passing, and as if we were in flight.

But some one may say, The woman with whom I am familiar is a person of deformed figure; God forbid she should be an occasion of sin to me. But St. Cyprian answers that the devil is a painter who, when concupiscence is excited, makes a deformed countenance appear beautiful.

But she is a relative. St. Jerome answer: "Allow not to stay with you even the person that is your relative.'" Relationship sometimes serves to take away restraint and to multiply sins by adding the guilt of incest to impurity and sacrilege. "The sin will be only the more criminal," says St. Cyprian, "the more easily one can remove the suspicion of misconduct." St. Charles Borromeo passed a decree that his priests should not without his permission dwell in the same house with women, even with near relatives.
But she is a spiritual soul and a Saint: there is no danger. Is there no danger? Yes, says St. Augustine, there is danger; and because she is spiritual and a saint you ought the more to fear and fly familiarity with her; for the more spiritual and holy a woman is, the more easily she gains the affections of men. The Venerable Father Sertorius Caputo used to say, as we read in his life, that the devil endeavors first to infuse a love for the virtue of the individual, and thus inspire a security that there is no danger; he then excites sentiments of affection for the person, and afterwards tempts to sin; and thus he causes great havoc. Before him St. Thomas said the same: "Although carnal affection is dangerous to man, it is yet more so for those that associate with persons that seem to be spiritual; for, even though the beginning seems pure, yet frequent familiarity is very dangerous; and the more the familiarity increases, the more the first motive is weakened, and thus purity is defiled." He adds, that the devil knows well how to conceal the danger. In the beginning he sends, not poisoned darts, but only those that inflict slight wounds, and kindle an affection; but in a short time the persons begin to act towards each other not like Angels, as in the beginning, but like beings clothed with flesh. The looks are not immodest, but they are frequent and reciprocal; their words appear to be spiritual, but are too affectionate. Each begins frequently to desire the company of the other. "And thus," concludes the Saint, "a spiritual devotion is converted into a carnal one."

St. Bonaventure gives five marks by which we may know when a spiritual affection has become carnal.

1. When there are long and useless conversations (and when they are long they are always useless);
2. When there are mutual looks and mutual praise;
3. When one excuses the faults of the other;
4. When they exhibit certain little jealousies;
5. When the absence of one causes a certain inquietude in the other.

 Let us tremble: we are flesh. Blessed Jordan severely reproved one of his religious for having, without any bad motive, once taken a woman by the hand. The religious said in answer that she was a Saint. But, replied the holy man:  "The rain is good, and the earth also, but mix them together and they become mire." Such a man is a Saint, and such a woman, too, is a Saint; but because they expose themselves to the occasion of sin, both are lost. The strong hath stumbled against the strong, and both are fatten together. Listen to the melancholy fall of a holy woman who, as we read in ecclesiastical history, was accustomed through charity to bury the bodies of the holy Martyrs. She found one of them whom she believed to be dead; but finding he was still alive, she brought him to her house and took care of him. He recovered; but what happened? These two Saints, by conversing together, lost their chastity and the grace of God.

This has happened, not once, nor a few times: how many Christians, who were Saints before, have, by similar attachments, which were at first spiritual, in the end lost their soul and God? St. Augustine attests that he knew some great prelates of the Church of whom he had as high an opinion as of St. Jerome and St. Ambrose, and who, by exposing themselves to such occasions, fell away from sanctity into sin. St. Jerome wrote to Nepotianus: "Do not confide too much in your past chastity; be careful not to sit alone with a woman without a witness," that is, do not remain with her. St. Isidore of Pelusium says: "If necessity obliges you to converse with women, keep your eyes cast on the ground; and after you have spoken a few words, go away immediately." Father Peter Consolini of the Oratory used to say, that we should practice charity towards women who are even Saints as towards the Souls in Purgatory, that is, from a distance, and without looking at them. This good Father would say, that in temptations against chastity priests would do well to reflect on their dignity; and would add that a certain Cardinal, when molested by thoughts, began to look at his cap, and to think of his cardinalitial dignity, saying: "My cap, I recommend myself to you." Thus he resisted the temptation.

3. It is also necessary to fly from bad company. St. Jerome says that a man becomes like the companions with whom he converses. We walk in a dark and slippery way; such is the present life; Lubricum in tenebris.-----if a wicked companion impels us to the precipice, we are lost. St. Bernardine of Sienna relates that he knew a person who had preserved her virginity for thirty-eight years, and afterwards, in consequence of having heard an immodest word, fell into such habits of impurity, that, says the Saint, the devil himself, if clothed with flesh, could not have been guilty of such filthy abominations.
4. To preserve chastity, it is also necessary to avoid idleness. Idleness, says the Holy Ghost, hath taught much evil. [Ecclus 33:29] Ezechiel says that it was the cause of all the wickedness of the inhabitants of Sodom, and of their total destruction. Behold! this was the iniquity of Sodom . . . the idleness of her and of her daughters. [Ezek. 16:49] This was, as St. Bernard remarks, the cause of the fall of Solomon. The concupiscence of the flesh is repressed by labor, says St. Isidore. Hence St. Jerome exhorted Rusticus to be always occupied, so that the devil, whenever he came to tempt him, should find him employed. According to St. Bonaventure, the man who is employed shall be tempted by a single devil, but the idle shall be frequently assailed by many devils.


We have seen, then, that for the preservation of chastity it is necessary to avoid idleness and the occasions of impurity. Let us now examine what we must do in order to preserve this great virtue.

First, it is necessary to practice the mortification of the senses. If, says St. Jerome, anyone wishes to live in the midst of earthly delights, and expects at the same time to be free from the vices that accompany pleasures, he deceives himself. When the Apostle was molested with the stings of the flesh he had recourse to bodily mortifications. I, said he, chastise my body and bring it into subjection. [1 Cor. 9:27] Unless the flesh be mortified, it will submit to the spirit only with difficulty. As the lily among the thorns, so is My love among the daughters. [Cant. 2:2] As the lily is preserved among thorns, so chastity is guarded by mortifications.

But for him who wishes to practice this sublime virtue, it is, above all, necessary to avoid intemperance as well in drinking as in eating.

Give not, says the wise man, wine to kings. [Prov. 31: 4] He who takes more wine than is necessary, shall certainly be molested with many carnal motions, and shall scarcely be able to rule the flesh and make it obedient to the law of chastity. "The body that is inflamed with wine will overflow with lust," says St. Jerome. For as the prophet Osee has said, wine deprives man of reason, and reduces him to the level of a brute. Wine and drunkenness take away the understanding. [4:11] Of the Baptist it was foretold, He shall drink no wine and strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost. [Luke 1: 15] Some will argue in favor of the necessity of wine, because it is a remedy for the weakness of the stomach. But, according to the words of St. Paul to Timothy, a small quantity of wine is sufficient for that malady. Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake, and thy frequent infirmities. [1 Tim. 5:23]

It is also necessary to abstain from superfluity of food. St. Jerome asserts that satiety of the stomach provokes incontinence. And St. Bonaventure says: "Impurity is nourished by eating to excess." But, on the other hand, fasting, as the holy Church teaches, represses vice and produces virtue: "O God, Who by corporal fasting dost suppress vice, dost elevate the mind, and dost confer virtues and rewards." St. Thomas has written that when the devil is conquered by those whom he tempts to gluttony, he ceases to tempt them to impurity.
It is necessary to practice humility. Cassian says that he who is not humble cannot be chaste." It happens, not infrequently, that God chastises the proud by permitting them to fall into some sin against purity. This, as David himself confessed, was the cause of his fall. Before I was humbled I offended. [Ps. 118: 67] It is by humility that we obtain chastity, says St. Bernard. And St. Augustine writes: "Charity is the guardian of virginity, humility is the place of the guardian.'" Divine love is the guardian of purity, but humility is the house in which this guardian dwells. St. John Climacus used to say, that he who expects to conquer the flesh by continence alone is like a man in the midst of the ocean who wishes to save his life by swimming with a single hand. Therefore it is necessary to unite humility to continence.


But above all, to acquire the virtue of chastity prayer is necessary: it is necessary to pray, and to pray continually. It has been already said that chastity can neither be acquired nor preserved unless God grant his aid to preserve it; but this aid he gives only to those who ask it. Hence the holy Fathers teach that, according to the words of Scripture: We ought always to pray, and not to faint. [Luke 18:1] Ask, and it shall be given you. [Matt. 7:7] The prayer of petition is necessary for adults,-----necessitate medii,-----that is, as a means without which salvation is impossible. Hence the angelic Doctor has said: "After Baptism, continual prayer is necessary to man." [P. 3. q. 39, a. 5] And if to practice any virtue Christians require the Divine assistance, they stand in need of still greater help in order to preserve chastity, because they have a strong tendency to the opposite vice. It is impossible, says Cassian, for man, by his own strength, without aid from God, to keep himself chaste; and therefore, in our struggle with the flesh, we must ask the Lord, with all the affection of our soul, for the gift of chastity. "According to the advice of the Wise Man," says Abelly, "we should pray to God with our whole heart." Hence St. Cyprian teaches that the first means of obtaining chastity is to ask it of God. And before him Solomon said: And as I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it, and this also was a point of wisdom, to know whose gift it was: I went to the Lord, and besought Him, and said with my whole heart. [Wisd. 8:21]

We should then, says St. Cyprian, instantly resist the first carnal solicitations with which the devil assails us, and not permit the serpent, that is, the temptation, to grow strong. St. Jerome gives this same advice: "You must not permit bad thoughts to grow in your mind; no, kill the enemy when he is small." It is easy to kill a lion when he is small, but not when he has grown to his full size.

Let us guard against reasoning with temptations contrary to chastity: let us endeavor instantly to banish them. And, as the spiritual masters teach, the best means of banishing such temptations is not to combat them directly face to face, by making contrary acts of the will, but to get rid of them indirectly by acts of the love of God, or of contrition, or at least by turning the mind to other things.

But the means in which we should place the greatest confidence is prayer, and recommending ourselves to God. It is useful, as soon as we perceive the first motion of impurity, to renew our purpose to suffer death rather than consent to sin, and immediately after to have recourse to the wounds of Jesus Christ for aid. Thus the Saints, who were flesh, and subject to temptations, have acted, and thus they have conquered. "If I am tormented," says St. Augustine, "by any bad thought, I have recourse to the wounds of Jesus; for I find rest in the wounds of our Saviour." Thus, also, St. Thomas of Aquinas repelled the attacks of the woman by whom his chastity was assailed: "Do not permit, O Lord Jesus and O most holy Virgin Mary, that I should offend God!" exclaimed the Saint.
It is also very useful to make the Sign of the Cross on the breast, and to have recourse to our Angel guardian and our holy Patron. But above all, it is useful to have recourse to Jesus Christ and the Divine Mother by instantly invoking their most holy names, and by continuing to invoke them until the temptation is beaten down. Oh! how powerful are the most holy names of Jesus and Mary against the attacks of impurity!

Devotion to the holy Virgin, who is called "the Mother of fair love, and the guardian of virginity," is a most useful devotion for the preservation of chastity. And to recite, at rising in the morning and going to bed at night, three "Hail Marys," in honor of the purity of Mary, is a devotion that has singular efficacy in obtaining the gift of continence.

Father Segneri relates that a sinner addicted to the grossest impurities went one day to confession to Father Nicholas Zucchi, of the Society of Jesus. The Father prescribed as a remedy for his wicked habits that he should recommend himself, morning and evening, to the purity of Mary, by saying three "Hail Marys." After the lapse of several years the sinner returned to Father Zucchi, and by his confession showed that all his vices were perfectly corrected. The Father asked him how such a change had been wrought. He answered that through the little devotion of saying the three "Hail Marys" he had obtained the grace to change his life.

Father Zucchi, with the permission of the penitent, mentioned the fact from the pulpit. There was a soldier present who was actually in the habit of sins of impurity; he began to say every day the three "Hail Marys," and in a short time, with the aid that the Divine Mother obtained for him, he soon renounced the evil habit. Through a false zeal, he went one day to the accomplice of his sins in order to convert her; but when he was on the point of entering her house he was suddenly driven back, and found himself transported to a considerable distance. He then understood that he had been prevented from speaking to the woman by a special grace obtained for him by Mary, for which he thanked her. Had he been placed again in the occasion of sin he would probably have relapsed. [This double example is related with some other details in the Glories of Mary, p. 2, Disc. 4 (Vol VII. page 379).]