The Dignities and Duties of the Priest


St. Alphonse Liguori C.SS.R.
Doctor of the Church




-----------------------------Chapter Five-----------------------------
The Injury Done to the Priest by Tepidity

To What the Tepid Priest is Exposed

THE Lord commanded St. John in the Apocalypse to write to the Bishop of Ephesus the following words: I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience. I know well all that you do; I know your labors for My glory; I know your patience in the toils of your office. But he adds: But I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first charity. But I must reprove you for having fallen away from your first fervor. But what great evil was here in this? What great evil? Listen to what our Lord adds: Be mindful, therefore, from whence thou art fallen . . . and do penance, and do the first works: or else I come to thee, and will move thy candlestick out of its place. Remember whence you have fallen; do penance, and return to the first fervor, with which, as My minister, you are bound to live, otherwise I will reject you as unworthy of the ministry that I have committed to you.

Is tepidity, then, productive of so much ruin? Yes, it brings with it great ruin, and the greatest evil is, that his ruin is not known, and is, therefore, neither avoided nor dreaded by the tepid, and especially by priests. The majority of them are shipwrecked on this blind rock of tepidity, and therefore many of them are lost. I call it a blind rock: because the great danger of perdition to which the tepid are exposed consists in this, that their tepidity does not allow them to see the great havoc that it produces in the soul. Many are unwilling to be altogether separated from Jesus Christ; they wish to follow Him, but they wish to follow Him at a distance, like St. Peter, who, when the Redeemer was seized in the garden, followed Him from afar off. But they that act in this manner, shall easily fall into the misfortune which befell St. Peter, who, when charged by a servant maid with being a disciple of the Redeemer, thrice denied Jesus Christ.

He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little. The interpreter applies this passage to the tepid Christian, and says that he shall first lose devotion, and shall afterwards fall, passing from venial sins, which he has disregarded, to grievous and mortal offenses. Eusebius Emissenus says that he that is not afraid to offend God by venial faults shall scarcely be exempt from mortal sins. "By a just judgment," says St. Isidore, the Lord will permit him that despises minor transgressions to fall into grievous crimes." Trifling maladies, when few, do little injury to health, but when they are numerous and frequent, they bring on mortal diseases. "You guard against great faults," says St. Augustine, "but what do you do in regard to light faults? You have shaken the mountain: take care that you be not crushed by a heap of sand." You are careful to avoid grievous falls, but you fear not small ones; you are not deprived of life by the great rock of any mortal sin, but beware, says the Saint, lest by a multitude of venial sins you be crushed as by a heap of sand. We all know that only mortal sin kills the soul, and that venial sins, however great their number, cannot rob the soul of Divine grace. But it is also necessary to understand what St. Gregory teaches, that the habit of committing light faults without remorse, and without an effort to correct them, gradually deprives us of the fear of God; and when the fear of God is lost, it is easy to pass from venial to mortal sins. St. Dorotheus adds, that by despising light faults we expose ourselves to the danger of falling into perfect insensibility. He that disregards small offenses is in danger of general insensibility, so that afterwards he shall feel no horror even of mortal sins.

St. Teresa, as the Roman Rota attests, never fell into any mortal sin; but still our Lord showed her the place prepared for her in Hell, not because she had deserved Hell, but because, had she not risen from the state of tepidity in which she lived, she should in the end have lost the grace of God, and should be damned. Hence the Apostle says, Give not place to the devil. The devil is satisfied when we begin to open the door to him by disregarding small faults; for he shall then labor to open it perfectly, by leading us into grievous transgressions. "Do not imagine," says Cassian, "that any one falls at once into ruin." That is, when you hear of the fall of a spiritual soul, do not imagine that the devil has suddenly precipitated her into sin; for he has first brought her into tepidity, and then has cast her into the precipice of enmity with God. Hence St. John Chrysostom says that he knew many persons adorned with all virtues, who afterwards fell into tepidity, and from tepidity into an abyss of vice. It is related in the Teresian Chronicles, that Sister Anne of the Incarnation once saw in Hell a person whom she had regarded as a Saint: on her countenance appeared a multitude of small animals, which represented the multitude of defects that she committed and disregarded during life. Of these some were heard to say, By us you began; others, By us you continued; others, By us you have brought yourself to Hell.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot, says our Lord, through St. John, to the Bishop of Laodicea. Behold the state of a tepid soul, neither cold nor hot. "The tepid person," says Father Menochius in his exposition of this passage, "is one that does not dare offend God knowingly and willingly, but is one that neglects to strive after a more perfect life, and hence easily gives himself up to his passions." A tepid priest is not manifestly cold, because he does not knowingly and deliberately commit mortal sins; but neglecting to seek after the perfection to which he is bound by the obligations of his state, he makes little of venial sins, he commits many of them every day without scruple, by lies, by intemperance in eating and drinking, by imprecations, by distraction at the Office and Mass, by detractions, by jests opposed to modesty: he leads a life of dissipation in the midst of worldly business and amusements; he cherishes dangerous desires and attachments; full of vainglory, of human respect and self-esteem, he cannot bear a contradiction or a disrespectful word; he neglects mental prayer, and is destitute of piety. Father Alvarez de Paz says that the defects and faults of a tepid soul are "like those light indispositions that do not cause death, but that weaken the body in such a manner that a grave malady cannot supervene without destroying the body which has no longer the power of resisting." The tepid Christian is like a sick man who has labored under many light maladies, which, because they are incessant, reduce him to such a state of debility, that as soon as he is attacked by any serious disease, that is, by a strong temptation, he has not strength to resist, and falls, but falls with greater ruin.

Hence the Lord continues to address the tepid bishop, saying, Would thou wert cold or hot, but because thou art lukewarm, I will begin to vomit thee out of My mouth. Let him that finds himself miserably fallen into the state of tepidity, consider these words and tremble.

I would that thou wert cold! Better, says the Lord, that you were cold, that is, deprived of my grace, for then there should be greater reason to hope for your recovery from so miserable a state; but by remaining in it, you shall be exposed to greater danger of rushing into grievous sins without any hope of ever emerging from them, "Although he that is cold," says Cornelius à Lapide, "is worse than he that is tepid, yet the condition of the tepid is worse, since the danger of falling is greater, without any hope of recovery." St. Bernard says that it is easier to convert a wicked layman than a tepid ecclesiastic. Pereira adds, that it is more easy to bring an infidel to the faith, than to renew a tepid Christian in the spirit of fervor. And Cassian has said that he saw many sinners consecrate themselves to God with their whole heart, but that he knew no one that had risen from tepidity to fervor." St. Gregory holds out hopes to a sinner not yet converted, but he despairs of him who, after having repented, and given himself to God with fervor, falls into tepidity. Beholds his words: "However tepid anyone may be, there is always a hope that sooner or later his fervor will be reanimated; but of anyone that falls little by little from fervor into tepidity, we must expect nothing. In fact, we may count on a sinner for the grace of conversion, but if after conversion he becomes tepid, we must despair of his return."

In a word, tepidity is a desperate and almost incurable evil. For in order to be able to avoid danger it is necessary to know it. Now the tepid, when they have fallen into that miserable state of darkness, do not even know their danger. Tepidity is like a hectic fever that is scarcely perceived. The tepid man does not see even habitual defects. "Grievous faults," says St. Gregory, "because they are more easily observed, are more readily corrected; but he who disregards light defects continues to commit them, and thus by the habit of despising minor transgressions he shall soon despise grievous sins." Besides, mortal sin always excites a certain horror even in habitual sinners, but to the tepid, his imperfections, inordinate attachments, dissipations, love of pleasure or of self-esteem, cause no horror. These little faults are the more dangerous because they imperceptibly dispose him to ruin. "Great sins," says Father Alvarez de Paz, "are less dangerous for the just than these little faults, because the hideous aspect of the former frightens them, while the others insensibly conduct to ruin."

Hence St. John Chrysostom has written that celebrated sentence, that we ought in a certain manner to be more careful to avoid light faults than grievous sins: "We must use more care to avoid little sins than to avoid great sins; for the latter are already opposed by our nature, and because the former, being small, make us more indolent in our struggles. Since we disregard them, the soul cannot raise itself so generously as to repel them: hence great sins flow from small sins." The reason, then, assigned by the Saint is, that mortal sins excite a natural horror, but light faults are disregarded, and therefore they soon become grievous, And the greatest evil is, that small defects that are disregarded render the soul more careless about her spiritual interests, and therefore, because she has been accustomed to despise slight offenses, they lead her to think little of grievous transgressions, In the Canticles the Lord says; Catch us the little foxes that destroy tIle vines, for our vineyard hath flourished. Mark the word foxes: he does not tell us to catch the lions and tigers, but the foxes. These foxes destroy the vine; they make a multitude of dens, and thus dry up the roots, that is, devotion and good desires, which are the roots of spiritual life. He also says little. Why does he tells us to catch the little and not the large foxes? Because the little foxes excite less terror, but often do more mischief than the large ones. For, as Father Alvarez says, small faults when disregarded impede the infusion of Divine graces, and thus the soul remains barren, and is finally lost. The Holy Ghost adds: for our vineyard hath flourished. How great the evil of venial faults when multiplied and not abhorred? They eat the flowers, that is, they destroy the good desires of advancing in perfection, and when these desires fail, the soul shall always go backward until she finds herself fallen into a precipice from which it will be difficult to rescue her.

I will begin to vomit thee out of My mouth. Let us conclude the exposition of this text of the Apocalypse. A draught that is cold or hot is taken with facility, but when tepid it is taken with great difficulty, because it provokes vomiting. This precisely is what the Lord has threatened against the tepid soul. I will begin to vomit thee out of My mouth. In expounding this passage Menochius says, "God begins to vomit forth the tepid man, because the latter as long as he perseveres in his tepidity creates in Him nausea, until finally at his death the Lord vomits him entirely, and he is forever separated from Christ."  The tepid are in danger of being vomited forth by God, that is, of being abandoned without hope of remedy. This is what the Lord means by vomiting the soul out of his mouth; for all have a great horror of taking back what they vomit.

"For just as,'' says Cornelius à Lapide, "one refuses to take back what one has rejected, so God has a horror of the tepid whom he has vomited forth." How does God begin to vomit forth the tepid priest? He ceases to give him any longer these loving calls [this precisely means to be vomited forth from the mouth of God], these spiritual consolations, these good desires. In fine, he shall be deprived of spiritual unction. The unhappy man will go to meditation, but shall make it with great tediousness, dissipation, and unwillingness. Hence he shall by degrees begin to omit it, and thus shall cease to recommend himself to God by petitions for his graces, and by neglecting to ask the Divine graces he shall always become more poor, and shall go from bad to worse. He shall say Mass and the Office, but they shall be a source of demerit rather than of merit. He shall perform all his functions with difficulty and by force, or without devotion. You shall, says the Lord, be anointed all over with oil, but you shall remain without unction. The Mass, the Divine Office, preaching, hearing confessions, assisting the dying, attending at funerals, are exercises that should excite new fervor; but after all these functions you shall remain dry, without peace, dissipated, agitated by a thousand temptations. I will begin to vomit thee out of My mouth. Behold how God begins to vomit you out of his mouth.

A Priest Cannot be Satisfied with Avoiding Grievous Sins

Some priests may say it is enough for me to avoid mortal sins and to save my soul. No, answers St. Augustine, you that are a priest, and therefore obliged to walk in the narrow way of perfection, shall not even save your soul by treading the broad way of tepidity------"When you say it is enough, you are lost." St. Gregory says that they that are to be saved as Saints, and wish to be saved as imperfect souls, shall not be saved. And this our Lord one day gave Blessed Angela of Foligno to understand: "They that are enlightened by me to walk in the way of perfection, and through tepidity wish to tread in the ordinary path, shall be abandoned by me." It is certain, as we have seen in the above, that a priest is bound to be holy, as well on account of his dignity as the familiar and minister of God, as on account of his office of offering to God the Sacrifice of the Mass, of mediator for the people before the Divine Majesty, and of sanctifier of souls by means of the Sacraments. The reason is that he may walk in the way of perfection, that God loads him with so many graces and special helps. Hence, when he exercises his ministry with negligence, amid defects and faults, without even detesting them, God pronounces a malediction against him. Cursed be he that doth the work of the Lord deceitfully. This malediction consists in abandonment by God. "God," writes St. Augustine, "is accustomed to abandon the negligent." The Lord, says the Saint, usually abandons souls favored by His special graces, when after all His gifts they neglect to live according to the perfection to which they are called. God, observes a certain author, wishes to be served by His priests with the fervor with which the seraphim serve Him in Heaven; otherwise He will withdraw His graces and permit them to sleep in tepidity, and thence to fall, first into the precipice of sin and afterwards into Hell." The tepid priest, weighed down by so many venial sins and by so many inordinate attachments, remains, as it were, in a state of insensibility. Hence the graces received and the obligations of the priesthood make but little impression upon him, and therefore the Lord shall justly withhold the abundant helps that are morally necessary for the fulfillment of the obligations of his state; thus he shall go from bad to worse, and with his defects his blindness shall increase. Perhaps God is bound to make his graces abound in those that are parsimonious and ungenerous to him? No, says the Apostle, he who sows little shall reap but little.

The Lord has declared that to the grateful that preserve his graces he will multiply his favors, but from the ungrateful he shall take away the gifts that had been bestowed upon them. For to everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall abound; but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away. Besides, St. Matthew says that when the master receives no fruit from the vineyard, he takes it away from the husbandmen to whom he had given it, and after punishing them consigns it to others. He will bring these evil men to an evil end, and will let out His vineyard to other husbandmen, that shall render Him fruit in due season. He afterwards adds: Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and shall be given to a nation yielding the fruits thereof. That is, God shall take out of life the priest to whom he gave the care of his kingdom, or of procuring his glory, and shall entrust his interests to others who will be grateful for his favors and faithful to his graces.

Hence it happens that from so many sacrifices, so many Communions, and so many prayers offered in the Office and in the Mass, many priests draw little or no fruit. You have sowed much, says the Prophet Aggeus, and brought in little,  . . . and he that earned wages put them into a bag with holes. Such the tepid priest! He lays up all his spiritual exercises in a bag with holes; and thus no merit remains, but on the contrary, in consequence of committing many defects in the performance of these exercises, he always renders himself more deserving of chastisement. The tepid priest is not far from perdition. The heart of a priest should, as Peter de Blois says, be the altar on which the fire of Divine love always burns. But what proof of burning love for God does the priest give who is content. with avoiding mortal sin, but takes no trouble to abstain from displeasing God by light faults. "It is a sign of a very tepid love," says Father Alvarez, "to restrict the proofs of love only to the omission of very grave faults against God, and to be troubled very little about offending him with little faults."

To become a good priest, a man requires not the common graces, nor a small number of graces, but special and abundant helps. But how can God be generous and abundant in his graces to him who is appointed to serve him, and who serves him so badly? St. Ignatius of Loyola sent one day for a lay brother who led a very tepid life, and said to him: "Tell me, my brother, for what purpose have you entered religion?" The lay brother answered, "To serve God." "And is it thus," replied the Saint, "you serve him? Had you told me that you came to serve a cardinal or an earthly prince, you should be more deserving of compassion; but you tell me that you have come to serve God, and do you serve him so badly?" Every priest enters into the court, not among the servants, but among the familiars of God, who have continually to treat confidentially with Him on matters of the utmost importance to His glory. Hence a tepid priest dishonors God more than he honors Him; for by his negligent and imperfect life he shows that he regards God unworthy of being served and loved with greater fervor. He declares that in pleasing God he does not find that felicity which is sufficient to make the soul perfectly content; he declares that his Divine Majesty is unworthy of the love that obliges us to prefer His glory to all self-gratification.


Be attentive, dearly beloved priests; let us tremble lest all the grandeurs and honors by which God has raised us to such an elevation among men should only terminate in our eternal damnation. St. Bernard says" that the solicitude of the devils for our destruction should make us solicitous in laboring for salvation. Oh! how active are our enemies in seeking the perdition of a priest. They desire the fall of one priest more ardently than that of a hundred seculars; as well because the victory over a priest is a far greater triumph than a victory over a layman, as because a priest that falls brings many others with him to perdition. But as flies avoid boiling water and run to that which is tepid, so the devils do not tempt the fervent as violently as they tempt the tepid priest, whom they often succeed in bringing from tepidity into the state of mortal sin. Cornelius à Lapide says "that the tepid when assailed by any strong temptation are in great danger of yielding to temptations, because they have but little strength to resist; hence it is that in so many occasions of danger they often fall into mortal sin."

It is necessary then to labor to avoid faults that are willfully and deliberately committed. It cannot be denied that, except Jesus Christ and the Divine Mother, who by a singular privilege have been free from all stain of sin, all other men, even the Saints, have not been exempt at least from venial sins. The heavens are not pure in his sight, says Job. St. James says, "In many things we all offend." "Thus every child of Adam must," as St. Leo has written, "be defiled with the mire of this earth." But it is necessary to attend to what the Wise Man says on this subject: For a just man shall fall seven times, and shall rise again. He that falls through human frailty, without a full knowledge of the malice of the act, and without a deliberate consent, rises easily: shall fall and rise again. But how can he rise who knows his defects, commits them deliberately, and instead of detesting them, takes complacency in them?

"If we commit faults," says St. Augustine, "let us at least confess and detest them, and God will pardon them. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." To obtain the remission of venial faults, Louis de Blois says that it is enough to confess them in general. And in another place he writes that such sins are more easily canceled by turning to God with humility and love than by stopping to dwell upon them with too much fear. St. Francis de Sales also has written that as the daily faults of spiritual souls are indeliberately committed, so they are indeliberately taken away. He meant to say what St. Thomas teaches, that for the remission of venial sins "it is sufficient to detest them either explicitly or even implicitly, for example, by a fervent act of the love of God." The holy Doctor then says: "The remission of venial sins is brought about in three ways: 1. By infusion of Divine grace; in this way by means of the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments such sins are remitted; 2. By acts that include a movement of detestation, and thus by a general confession of sins, by striking the breast, by reciting an Our Father, we obtain the remission of such sins; 3. By every act of religion towards God and the things of God, such as the receiving of the blessing from a bishop, to take holy water, to pray in a consecrated church." Speaking of the Holy Communion, St. Bernardine of Sienna says: "It may happen that after Communion the soul finds itself so absorbed in God that all venial sins disappear before the fervor of its devotion."

The Venerable Louis da Ponte used to say: "I have committed many faults, but I have never made peace with my faults. Many make peace with their defects, and this shall cause their ruin." St. Bernard says that as long as a person detests his imperfections, there is reason to hope that he shall return to the straight path; but when he commits faults knowingly and deliberately, and when the commission of them excites neither fear nor remorse, they shall by degrees bring him to ruin. Dying flies, says the Holy Ghost, spoil the sweetness of the ointment. Dying flies are the faults that are committed but not detested; for they remain dead in the soul. "When a fly," says Denis the Carthusian, "falls into a sweet-smelling ointment and remains therein, it will injure the ointment and its good odor. If we apply this to the spiritual life, the dead flies represent our idle thoughts, illicit affections, voluntary distractions-----things that spoil the sweetness of the ointment, that is, the sweetness attached to the exercises of piety."

St. Bernard writes, that to say this is a light sin is not a great evil, but to commit it, and take complacency in it, is an evil of great moment, and shall, according to the words of St. Luke, be severely chastised by God. And that servant that knew the will of his Lord, and did not according to His will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. It is true that even spiritual persons are not free from light transgressions; "But," says Father Alvarez, "they daily diminish the number and grievousness of their faults, and afterwards efface them by acts of Divine love." Whoever acts in this manner shall acquire sanctity: neither shall his defects hinder him from tending to perfection. Hence Louis de Blois tells us not to be disheartened by these little faults, because we have several means of expiating them: "If every day we fall several times, it will depend entirely on us to employ every day the means of atoning for our faults." But how can he that entertains an attachment for any earthly good, and voluntarily falls and relapses into that attachment without any wish to get rid of it, advance in the way of God? The bird that escapes from the net instantly takes flight; but as long as it is held even by a slender thread, it remains on the earth. Every little thread of attachment to this world," says St. John of the Cross, "impedes the spiritual progress of the soul."

Let us, then, guard against falling into this miserable state of tepidity; for, according to what has been already said, to raise a priest from such a state a most powerful grace is necessary. But what reason have we to think that God will give such a grace to priests that provoke him to vomit them out of his mouth? Some person that has fallen into this miserable state may ask, Is there, then, no hope for me? There is ground of hope in the mercy and power of God. The things that are impossible with men, are possible with God. It is impossible for the tepid priest to rise, but to raise him up is not impossible to God. However, a desire, at least, is necessary on our part. How can he that does not even desire to rise hope for the Divine aid? Let him that has not even this desire ask it of God. If we pray, and persevere in prayer, the Lord shall grant both the desire and the grace to rise. Ask, and you shall receive. God has promised, and His promise cannot fail. Let us then pray, and say with St. Augustine, "Let my merit be Thy mercy." Lord, I have no claim or merit to be heard by You, but, O eternal Father, Your mercy and the merits of Jesus Christ are my merits. To have recourse to the most holy Virgin is also a great means of rising from a state of tepidity.