The Dignities and Duties of the Priest

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

Nihil Obstat. Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D., Censor Librorum
Imprimatur. + Patritius Cardinalis Hayes, Archiepiscopus Neo-Eboracensis
Die 24 Mar., 1927


By virtue of the authority granted me by the Most Rev. Patrick Murray, Superior General of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, I hereby sanction the publication of the work entitled "DIGNITY AND DUTIES OF THE PRIEST," which is Volume XII of the complete edition in English of the works of St. Alphonsus de Liguori.

JAMES BARRON, C.SS.R., Provincial

-----------------------------Chapter Three-----------------------------
The Sanctity Necessary for the Priest

What Should Be the Sanctity of the Priest by Reason of His Dignity

GREAT is the dignity of the priesthood, but great also are its obligations. Priests ascend to a great height, but in their ascent they must be assisted by great virtue; otherwise, instead of meriting a reward, they shall be reserved for severe chastisement. "The sacerdotal dignity," says St. Laurence Justinian, "is great, but great is the burden. Raised to this high degree of honor, it is necessary that priests sustain themselves by great virtue; otherwise they will have to expect instead of great merit great punishment." And St. Peter Chrysologus says: "The priests are honored, but I say that they are burdened." The honor of the priesthood is great, but its burden is also great; great, too, is the account that priests have to render to God. "Priests," says St. Jerome, "will save themselves, not by their dignity, but by the works that correspond to their dignity."

Every Christian should be perfect and holy, because every Christian professes to serve a God of holiness. "In this," says St. Leo, "a Christian consists, that he gets rid of the earthly and puts on the Heavenly man. Hence Jesus Christ has said: Be you therefore perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect." But the sanctity the priest should be very different from that of secular. "Between priests and the rest of men," says St. Ambrose "there should be nothing in common as to works and as to conduct." And the Saint adds, that as great grace is given to the priest, so his life should be more holy than that of seculars. And St. Isidore of Pelusium says that between the sanctity of a priest and a good secular the difference should be as great as between Heaven and earth. St. Thomas teaches that every one is obliged to practice what is suited to the state that he has chosen. And according to St. Augustine, a man by entering the ecclesiastical state imposes on himself the obligation of being holy. And Cassiodorus calls the clerical profession a Heavenly life. The priest is, as Thomas à Kempis says, bound to greater perfection than others, because the priesthood is the most sublime all states. Salvian adds, that in things in which God counsels perfection to seculars, he makes it imperative on ecclesiastics.

The priests of the Old Law carried on their forehead a plate on which was engraved the words Sanctum Domino, that they might be reminded of the sanctity that they should profess. The victims offered by the priests should be entirely consumed. And why? "It was," says Theodoret, "to symbolize the complete sacrifice that the priest has made of himself to the Lord." St. Ambrose says that to offer sacrifice worthily the priest ought first to sacrifice himself by the oblation of his whole being to God. And Hesychius has written that from youth till death the priest should be a perfect holocaust of perfection. Hence God said to the priests of the Old Law: I have separated you from other people, that you should be Mine. Now, in the New Law, the Lord commands His priests far more strictly to abstain from worldly business that they may labor only to please that God to Whom they have dedicated themselves.

No man, says St. Paul, being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business that he may please Him to Whom he hath engaged himself. And the holy Church requires of those that enter the sanctuary by taking the first tonsure, to promise that they shall not engage in secular pursuits, and to declare that thenceforward they will have no other inheritance than the Lord. The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup . . . it is Thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me. St. Jerome says that the clerical dress, the very state, calls for and demands sanctity of life. Thus the priest should keep not only at a distance from every vice, but should also make continual efforts to arrive at perfection. In this consists, according to St. Bernard, the perfection that can be attained in this life. St. Bernard weeps at the sight of so many that run to Holy Orders without considering the sanctity necessary for those that wish to ascend to such a height. St. Ambrose says, "Those are very rare that can say, 'The Lord is my portion.' Those are very rare whom passion does not inflame, or whom cupidity does not actuate, or whom terrestrial cares do not absorb." St. John the Evangelist writes: Who hath made us a kingdom, and priests to God and His Father. In explaining the word kingdom, Tirinus with other interpreters says, that priests are the kingdom of God: first, because in them God reigns in this life by grace, and in the next by glory; secondly, because they are made kings to reign over vice. St. Gregory says that the priest ought to be dead to the world and to all the passions, in order to lead a life altogether Divine.

The present priesthood is the same as that which Jesus Christ has received from His Father: And the glory which Thou hast given to Me, I have given to them. Since, then, says St. Chrysostom, the priest represents Jesus Christ, he ought to have as much purity as would entitle him to stand in the midst of the Angels. St. Paul requires that the priest should be irreprehensible: It behoveth a bishop to be blameless. In the word bishop, the Apostle certainly includes priests; for from bishops he passes to deacons, without making mention of priests: Deacons in like manner chaste, etc. Hence he intended to comprehend them under the word bishop. This passage is understood in this sense by St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom, who in speaking on this point say, "What he said of bishops he also meant for priests." Now the word irreprehensibilem-----blameless-----every one knows, implies the possession of all virtues. "It comprises all virtues," says St. Jerome. And in explaining this word, Cornelius à Lapide says "that it is meant for him who is not only exempt from all vice, but who is adorned with all virtues."

For eleven centuries, all that fell into mortal sin after Baptism were excluded from the priesthood. This we learn from the Council of Nice, from the Council of Toledo, from the Council of Elvira, and from the Fourth Council of Carthage. And if a priest after his ordination had fallen into sin, he was deposed, and shut up in a monastery, as may be observed from several canons. In the sixth canon, the following reason is assigned: Above all, what the Church wishes is perfect innocence. Those that are not holy should not touch holy things. And in the several canons we read: "Since the clerics have taken the Lord for their inheritance, let them not have intercourse with the world." The Council of Trent declared, "Wherefore clerics called to have the Lord for their portion ought by all means so to regulate their whole life and conversation as that in their dress, comportment, gait, discourse, and all things else, nothing appear but what is grave, regulated, and replete with religiousness." In ecclesiastics the Council requires sanctity in dress as well as in conduct, language, and every action. St. John Chrysostom says, that priests should be so holy that all may look to them as models of sanctity; because God has placed them on earth that they may live like Angels, and be luminaries and teachers of virtue to all others. The word ecclesiastic, according to St. Jerome, signifies a person who has taken God for his inheritance.

This made the holy Doctor say: "Let the cleric then understand the signification of his name, and let him put his life in harmony with his title." Let ecclesiastics understand the signification of their name, and live according to it; and since God is their portion, let them live for God alone, says St. Ambrose." The priest is a minister destined by God for two most noble and exalted offices-----to honor Him by sacrifices and to sanctify souls: Every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God. "Hence," says St. Thomas on this passage, "it is for the things that refer to God that the priest receives his mission, and by no means that he may acquire glory or amass riches." Every priest is chosen by the Lord, and placed in the world to labor, not to acquire wealth, nor applause, nor to indulge in amusements, nor to advance his family, but only to promote the interests of God's glory. "He is ordained for the things that appertain to God." Hence, in the Scriptures, the priest is called a man of God. A man that belongs not to the world, nor to relatives, nor to himself, but only to God, and that seeks nothing but God. Hence to priests should be applied the words of David: This is the generation of them that seek Him, of them that seek the face of the God of Jacob. Behold the generation that seek only God! As in Heaven God has appointed certain Angels to assist at His throne, so on earth, among men, He has destined priests to procure His glory. Hence He says to them, I have separated you from other people. St. John Chrysostom writes: "Therefore has God chosen us, that like Angels we may live with men on earth." "And God Himself says, I will be sanctified in them that approach to Me." "That is," adds the commentator," My sanctity shall be shown forth by the sanctity of My ministers."

What Should Be the Sanctity of the Priest as the Minister of the Altar

St. Thomas says, that greater sanctity is required in a priest than in religious, on account of the most sublime functions of his ministry, particularly in the oblation of the sacrifice of the Mass. "Hence," adds the holy Doctor, "the cleric who is ordained sins more grievously under similar circumstances if he does anything contrary to the sanctity of his state than the religious who is not ordained." Listen to the celebrated maxim of St. Augustine: "A good monk will hardly become a good cleric." Hence no one can be called a good ecclesiastic unless he surpasses a good monk in virtue. "A true minister of the altar," says St. Ambrose, "is born for God, not for himself." That is, a priest should disregard his conveniences, his interests, and amusements; he should consider that from the day that he has received the priesthood, he belongs not to himself, but to God; and should attend only to the interests of God. The Lord evidently wishes His priests to be pure and holy; that being cleansed from every defect, they may approach the altar to offer sacrifice to Him: And, says the Prophet Malachy, He shall sit refining and cleansing the silver, and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and shall refine them as gold and as silver, and they shall offer sacrifices to the Lord in justice. In the book of Leviticus He says: They shall be holy to their God, and shall not profane His name . . . for they offer the burnt offerings of the Lord, and the bread of their God, and therefore they shall be holy.

The priests of the Old Law, then, were commanded to be holy, because they offered to God incense and the loaves of proposition, that were but a figure of the most holy Sacrament of the altar. How much greater should be the purity and sanctity of the priests of the New Law that offer to God the immaculate Lamb, His own very Son? Estius says that we do not offer calves or incense, as the priests of the Old Law did, "but the body of Christ who was hanging on the Cross." Hence, Bellarmine says: Woe be to us miserable beings, to whom the highest office has been assigned, yet we are so far from the fervor that God required of the priests of the Old Law, who were in comparison with us only shadows. The Lord commanded even those that carried the sacred vessels to be free from all stain: Be ye clean, you who carry the vessels of the Lord. "How much greater," says Peter de Blois, "should be the purity of priests who carry Jesus Christ in their hands and in their breasts?" "He that holds in his hands not only golden vessels," says St. Augustine, "but those vessels in which the death of the Lord is commemorated, must be pure." The Blessed Virgin Mary should be holy and free from all stain, because she was to carry in her womb, and to treat as a mother, the Incarnate Word. "Why, then," says St. John Chrysostom, "should not sanctity shine forth with greater splendor than the sun, in the hand that touches the flesh of a God in the mouth that is filled with celestial fire? and in the tongue that is purpled with the blood of Jesus Christ?" The priest on the altar holds the place of Jesus Christ. "He should, then," says St. Laurence Justinian, "approach the altar to offer sacrifice like Jesus Christ; imitating as much as possible the purity and sanctity of Jesus Christ." How great the sanctity that a confessor requires in a nun, in order to permit her to communicate every day? And why is not the same perfection required in a priest that celebrates every morning? "It must be confessed," says the Council of Trent, "that man can perform no action more holy than the celebration of Mass." Hence the holy Council adds that priests should be most careful to offer this holy Sacrifice with the greatest possible purity of conscience. "But," says St. Augustine, "what a horrible thing to hear the tongue that calls down the Son of God from Heaven to earth speaking against God; and to see the hands that are bathed in the blood of Jesus Christ polluted with the filthiness of sin."

If God required so much purity in those that were to offer the sacrifice of animals and of bread, and if He forbid these oblations to be made by him who had any blemish-----Whosoever hath a blemish, he shall not offer bread to his God-----"how much greater purity," says Cardinal Bellarmine, "is required in those that have to offer to God His own Son, the Divine Lamb?" St. Thomas says that the word macula includes every defect: "Whoever is addicted to any vice should not be admitted to Holy Orders." In the Old Law, the blind, the lame, the lepers, were forbidden to offer sacrifice. Neither shall he approach to minister to Him, if he be blind, if he be lame, if he be crooked-backed, if he have a continual scab. . . . Let him not approach the altar, because he hath it blemish, and he must not defile my sanctuary.

What Should Be the Sanctity of the Priest as Mediator Between God and Man

The priest should be holy, because he holds the office of dispenser of the Sacraments; and also because he is a mediator between God and sinners. "Between God and man the priest stands," says St. John Chrysostom, "by communicating to us God's benefits, and by otfering Him our petitions; he reconciles the angry Lord, and wards from us the blows of His justice." Through priests, God communicates His grace to the faithful in the Sacraments. Through them He makes us His children, and saves us by Baptism: Unless a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Through them He heals the infirm and even resuscitates, by the Sacrament of Penance, sinners that are dead to Divine grace. Through them He nourishes souls, and preserves in them the life of Divine grace, by means of the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. Through them he gives strength to the dying, to overcome the temptations of Hell, by means of the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. In a word, St. John Chrysostom says, that without priests we cannot be saved. By St. Prosper priests are called judges of the Divine will. By St. Chrysostom, the walls of the Church. By St. Ambrose, the camps of sanctity, and by St. Gregory Nazianzen, the foundations of the world, and the pillars of the faith. Hence St. Jerome says, that the priest by the power of his sanctity has to carry the weight of all the sins of the world. Oh, what a tremendous weight! And the priest shall pray for him, and for his sins before the Lord, and the sin shall be forgiven. It is on this account that the holy Church obliges priests to recite the Office every day, and to celebrate Mass at least several times in the year. St. Ambrose says that priests should never cease by night or by day to pray for the people. But to obtain graces for others the priest must be holy. "Those that are mediators between God and the people," says St. Thomas, "must shine before God with a good conscience, and with a good reputation before men."

St. Gregory says that it would be temerity in a mediator to present himself before a prince to ask pardon for rebels, if he himself stood charged with the guilt of treason. They that wish to intercede for another, adds the same Saint, must stand high in the estimation of the king; for should they be objects of his hatred, their intercession will only increase the indignation of the sovereign. Hence, according to St. Augustine, the priest must have such merit before God that he may be able to obtain for the people what they, on account of their demerits, cannot hope to receive. And Pope Hormisdas has said, "The priest must be holier than the people, because he must pray for them." But St. Bernard says, with tears, "Behold, the world is full of priests, and still there are but few mediators." Yes; for few priests are holy and worthy of being mediators. Speaking of bad ecclesiastics, St. Augustine says: "To the Lord is made pleasing the barking of dogs than the prayer of such priests."

Father Marchese, in his Journal of the Dominicans, writes that when a servant of God of the Order of St. Dominic implored the Lord to have pity on the people through the merits of priests, he said to her that, by their sins, priests provoked rather than appeased His anger.

What Should be the Sanctity of the Priest Given to the People to Be Their Model

Priests should be holy; because God has placed them in the world as models of virtue. They are called by St. John Chrysostom, "Teachers of piety;" by St. Jerome, "Redeemers of the world;" by St. Prosper, "Gates to the Eternal City for all nations;" and by St. Peter Chrysologus, "Models of virtue." Hence St. Isidor has said, " Whoever leads people on the road of virtue, must himself be holy and blameless." Pope Hormisdas has written: "Let him be blameless that presides over others in order to reform them." And St. Denis has pronounced that celebrated sentence, that no one should dare to become the guide of others, unless by his virtues he has made himself most like to God.

And according to St. Gregory, the sermons of the priest whose life is not edifying, excite contempt and produce no fruit. St. Thomas adds, "For the same reason are disregarded all the spiritual functions of such a one." Speaking of the priest of God, St. Gregory Nazianzen writes: "The priest must first be cleansed before he can cleanse others; he must first himself approach God before he can lead others to Him; he must first sanctify himself before he can sanctify others; he must first be himself a light before he can illumine others." The hand that must wash away the stains and defilements of others must not be polluted, says St. Gregory. In another place he says that the torch that does not burn, cannot inflame others. And St. Bernard says, that to him that loves not, the language of love is a strange and a barbarous tongue. Priests are placed in the world as so many mirrors, in which seculars should look at themselves: We are made a spectacle to the world, and to Angels and to men. Hence the Council of Trent, speaking of ecclesiastics, says, "Others fix their eyes upon them as upon a mirror, and derive from them what they are to imitate. Philip the Abbot used to say that priests are chosen to defend the people, but for this their dignity is not sufficient; sanctity of life is also necessary.

Practical Consequences

Hence the Apgelic Doctor, considering all that has been said on the sanctity necessary for the priesthood, has written, that to exercise Holy Orders worthily more than ordinary virtue is required. Again he says, "Those that devote themselves to the celebration of the Divine mysteries should be perfect in virtue." In another place he says, "In order to exercise this office in a worthy manner interior perfection is required." Priests should be holy, that they may give glory, and not dishonor to that God Whose ministers they are: They shall be holy to their God, and shall not profane His name. Were a minister of state seen playing in the public places, frequenting public-houses, associating with the rabble, speaking and acting in a manner calculated to reflect dishonor on the king, what regard could such a minister entertain for his sovereign? By bad priests, who are His ministers, Jesus Christ is covered with shame. St. John Chrysostom says that of unholy priests the Gentiles might say, "What kind of a God have those that do such things? Would he bear with them if he did not approve of their concduct?"

Were the Chinese, the Indians, to see a priest of Jesus Christ leading a scandalous life, they might say, how can we believe that the God Whom such priests preach is the true God? Were He the true God, how could He bear them in their wickedness without being a party to their crimes? Hence the exhortation of St. Paul: In all things let us exhibit ourselves as ministers of God. Let us, he says, addressing priests, appear as true ministers of God, in much patience-----bearing with peace, poverty, infirmity, persecutions; in watchings and fastings-----vigilant in what regards the glory of God, mortifying the senses; in chastity, in knowledge, in sweetness, in charity unfeigned-----in guarding holy purity, in attending to study in order to assist souls, in practising meekness and true charity to our neighbor; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing-----appearing afflicted at being deprived of the pleasures of the world, but enjoying the peace which is the portion of the children of God; as having nothing, but possessing all things-----poor in earthly goods, but rich in God; for he that possesses God, possesses all things. Such ought priests to be.

In a word, tbey ought to be holy; because they are the ministers of the God of holiness: Be holy, because I am holy. They ought to be prepared to give their lives for souls, because they are the ministers of Jesus Christ, Who, as He Himself has said, came to die for us who are His sheep: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth His life for His sheep. They ought, in fine, to be entirely employed in inflaming all men with the holy fire of Divine love; because they are the ministers of the Incarnate Word, Who came into the world for that purpose: I am come to cast fire on the earth, and what will I but that it be kindled. David earnestly besought the Lord to grant, for the benefit of the whole world, that His priests might be clothed with justice: Let the priests be clothed with justice.

Justice comprises all virtues. Every priest should be clothed with faith, by living according to the maxims not of the world, but of faith. The maxims of the world are: It is necessary to possess wealth and property, to seek the esteem of others, to indulge in every amusement within our reach. The maxims of faith are: Happy are the poor; we should embrace contempt, deny ourselves, and love suffering. The priest must be clothed with holy confidence; hoping for all things not from creatures, but only from God. He must be clothed with humility, considering himself worthy of all punishment and contempt; with meekness, being sweet to all, particularly to the rude and passionate; with charity towards God and man: towards God, living in an entire union of his soul with God, and making his heart, by means of mental prayer, an altar on which the fire of Divine love always burns; and towards man, fulfilling the instruction of the Apostle: Put ye on; therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, the bowels of mercy; and endeavoring to the best of his ability to relieve all in their spiritual and temporal necessities. I say all-----even his persecutors and those that treat him with ingratitude. St. Augustine says: "Nothing in this world is more advantageous or more honorable in the eyes of men than the priestly office.

But in the eyes of God nothing is more formidable, important, and dangerous." It is a great happiness and advantage to be a priest, to have the power of making the Incarnate Word descend from Heaven into his hands, and of delivering souls from sin and Hell, to be the vicar of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, the mediator between God and men, to be raised and exalted above all the monarchs of the earth, to have greater power than the Angels, in a word, to be, as St. Clement says, a God on earth: nothing more advantageous. But, on the other hand, nothing more important and dangerous. For if in his hands, Jesus Christ descends to be his food, the priest must be more pure than the clearest water, as St. Francis of Assisi was told in a vision. If he is a mediator before God in favor of men, he must not appear before God stained with the guilt of any sin; if he is the vicar of the Redeemer, he must be like him in his life. If he is the light of the world, he must be refulgent with the splendor of all virtues. In fine, if he is a priest he must be holy. If he correspond not with God's graces, the greater the gifts that he has received, the more frightful the account that he shall have to tender to God. "For," says St. Gregory, "the gifts of God while augmenting augment the account that one has to render." St. Bernard says that the priest "holds a celestial office, that he is made an Angel of the Lord, and [adds the Saint], as an Angel he is elected to glory or condemned to Hell."

<>St. Ambrose says that a priest should be exempt even from the smallest faults. "Not a mediocre and ordinary virtue is suitable to the priest," says the same holy Doctor; "he must be on his guard not only against shameful falls, but even against light faults." Hence, if a priest is not holy, he is in great danger of being lost. What do some, or rather the greater number of priests do in order to acquire sanctity? They say the Office and Mass, and do nothing more: they live without making mental prayer, without mortification, without recollection. Some will say, It is enough for me to be saved. "No," says St. Augustine, "it is not enough; if you say that it is enough, you will be lost." To be holy, the priest must lead a life of detachment from all things, from worldly society, empty honors, etc.: and particularly from inordinate attachment to relatives. When they see him attend but little to the advancement of his family, and wholly devoted to the things of God, they say to him: Why dost thou do so to us? He must answer them in the words of the Infant Jesus to His mother when she found him in the temple: How is it that you sought Me? did you not know that I must be about My Father's business? Such should be the answer of a priest to his relatives. Have you, he should say to them, made me a priest Do you not know that a priest should attend only to God? Him only do I wish to seek.