The Dignities and Duties of the Priest

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


-----------------------------Chapter Seven-----------------------------
The Sacrilegious Mass

Purity Required in the Priest to Celebrate Worthily

"WE must needs confess," says the holy Council of Trent, "that no other work can be performed by the faithful so holy and Divine as this tremendous mystery itself." [Session 22] God himself could not enable man to perform a more sublime or sacred action than the celebration of Mass. Oh! how much more excellent than all the ancient sacrifices is our Sacrifice of the Altar, in which we immolate not an ox, nor a lamb, but the very Son of God? The Jews, says St. Peter of Cluny, had an ox; the Christians have Christ: the Sacrifice of the latter as far transcends that of the former, as Christ is more excellent than an ox." The same author adds, that to servants a servile victim was suited, but for friends and children was reserved Jesus Christ-----a victim that has delivered us from sin and eternal death. Justly, then, has St. Laurence Justinian said, that there is no oblation, greater, more profitable to us, or more pleasing to God, than the offering that is made in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

According to St. John Chrysostom, during the celebration of Mass the Altar is surrounded by Angels, who are present to pay homage to Jesus Christ, the Victim offered in Sacrifice. And St. Gregory asks, "who doubts that at the very hour of immolation, at that voice of the priest, the heavens are opened and the choirs of Angels are present at that mystery of Jesus Christ?" St. Augustine says that the Angels assist as servants to the priest who offers the Sacrifice.

Now the Council of Trent teaches that Jesus Christ Himself was the first that offered this great Sacrifice of His Body and Blood, and that He now offers Himself by the hands of a priest chosen to be His minister and representative on the Altar. St. Cyprian says that "the priest truly holds the place of Christ," and that, therefore, at the Consecration, he says This is My body: this is the chalice of My blood. To His disciples Jesus Himself said, He that heareth you, heareth Me . . . and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me.

The priests of the Old Law the Lord commanded to be clean, merely because it was their duty to carry the sacred vessels: Be ye clean, you that carry the vessels of the Lord. "How much more clean," says Peter de Blois, "should they be who carry Christ in their hands and in their body?" How much greater purity shall God demand from the priests of the New Law. who must represent the person of Jesus Christ on the Altar, in offering to the eternal Father His Own very Son! Justly, then, does the Council of Trent require that priests celebrate this Sacrifice with the greatest possible purity of conscience: It is also sufficiently clear, that all industry and diligence are to be applied to this end, that it be performed with the greatest possible inward cleanness and purity of heart.'" This, says the Abbot Rupert, is what is signified by the Alb with which the Church commands the priest to be covered from head to foot in the celebration of the holy mysteries.

It is but just that priests should honor God by innocence of life, since He has honored them so much above others, by making them the ministers of this great mystery. "Behold, O priests," says St. Francis of Assisi, "your dignity; and as the Lord has honored you on account of this mystery, so be careful on your part to love and to honor Him." But how shall a priest honor God? Is it by the costliness or vanity of his dress? No, says St. Bernard, but by sanctity of life, by the study of the sacred sciences. and by labor in holy works.

How Great is the Crime of the Priest that Celebrates Mass in Mortal Sin

But does the priest that celebrates in mortal sin give honor to God? As far as regards himself, he treats the Lord with the greatest dishonor that can be offered to Him, by despising Him in his own person. For by his sacrilege he appears, as far as in him lies, to defile the immaculate Lamb, Whom he immolates in the Consecrated Host. To you, O Priests, says the Lord by the Prophet Malachy, who despise My name, . . . you offer polluted bread upon My altar, and you say, wherein have we polluted Thee? "We," says St. Jerome, in his comment on this passage, "pollute the bread, that is, the body of Christ, when we unworthily approach the Altar."

God cannot raise a man to a greater elevation than by conferring on him the sacerdotal dignity. How many selections must the Lord have made in calling a person to the priesthood. First, he must select him from a countless number of possible creatures. He must then separate him from so many millions of pagans and heretics, and, lastly, he must make choice of him from the immense multitude of the faithful. And what power does God confer on this man? If the Lord bestowed only on one man the power of calling down by his words the Son of God from Heaven, how great should be his obligations and his gratitude to the Lord! This power God grants to every priest. Lifting up the poor out of the dunghill, that he may place him with princes, with the princes of His people. [Ps. 62: 6]

The number of persons to whom God has given this power does not diminish the dignity or the obligations of the priesthood. But what does the priest do that celebrates in the state of sin? He dishonors and despises the Lord, by declaring that so great a Sacrifice is not deserving of the reverence which would make him dread the sacrilegious oblation of it, says St. Cyril.
"The hand," says St. John Chrysostom, "that touches the sacred Flesh of Jesus Christ, and the tongue that is purpled with His Divine Blood, should be purer than the rays of the sun." In another place he says "that a priest ascending the Altar should be possessed of purity and sanctity which would merit for him a place in the midst of the Angels." How great, then, must be the horror of the Angels when they behold a priest, who is the enemy of God, stretching forth his sacrilegious hands to touch and eat the immaculate Lamb! "Who," exclaims St. Augustine, "shall be so wicked and daring as to touch the most Holy Sacrament with polluted hands!" Still more wicked is the priest that celebrates Mass with a soul defiled by mortal sin. God turns away His eyes that He may not behold such horrible impiety. When, says the Lord, you stretch forth your hands, I will turn away My eyes, for your hands are fu// of blood. [Is. 1: 15] To express the disgust that He feels at the sight of such sacrilegious priests, the Lord declares that He will scatter the dung of their sacrifices over their faces: I will scatter upon your face the dung of your solemnities. [Mal. 2: 3] It is true, as the Council of Trent teaches, that the holy Sacrifice cannot be contaminated by the malice of priests. [Session 22] However, priests who celebrate in the state of sin defile, as far as in them lies, the sacred mystery; and therefore the Lord declares that He is, as it were, polluted by their abominations. Her priests have defiled My sanctuaries, . . . and I was profaned in the midst of them.[Ezec. 22: 26] Alas! O Lord, exclaims St. Bernard, how does it happen that some of those that hold a high place in Your Church are the first to persecute You! This is, indeed, too true, as St. Cyprian says, that a priest who celebrates Mass in the state of sin insults with his mouth and hands the very body of Christ. Another author, Peter Comestor, adds, that the priest who pronounces the words of Consecration in the state of sin spits, as it were, in the face of Jesus Christ; and when he receives the most Holy Sacrament into his unhallowed mouth he, as it were, casts the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ into the mire. But why do I say that he casts Jesus Christ into the mire? The soul of a priest in sin is worse than mire; and, as Theophilactus says, the mire is not so unworthy of receiving the Divine flesh as the heart of a sacrilegious priest. The sacrilegious priest, then, says St. Vincent Ferror, is guilty of greater impiety than if he cast the most Holy Sacrament into a sink. Such, too, is the doctrine of St. Thomas of Villanova.

The sins of a priest are always most grievous on account of the injury that they do to God, Who has chosen him for His Own minister, and has heaped so many favors upon him. It is one thing, says St. Peter Damian, to violate the laws of a sovereign, and another to strike him with your own hands. This is what the priest does that offers Sacrifice in the state of mortal sin. It is one thing to transgress edicts which the king has promulgated, and another to wound him with our own hands. No one sins more grievously than the priest that offers Sacrifice unworthily. When we sin in any other way we, as it were, injure God in His property, but when we unworthily offer Sacrifice we dare to lay violent hands upon His person. This was the sin of the Jews who had the daring audacity to offer violence to the person of Jesus Christ. But St. Augustine teaches that the sin of the priest that offers Sacrifice unworthily is still more grievous: "Those that unworthily offer Jesus Christ in Heaven sin more grievously than the Jews who crucified Him when He was upon earth." The Jews did not know the Redeemer as priests do. Besides, as Tertullian says, the Jews lay hands on Jesus Christ only once, but the sacrilegious priest dares frequently to repeat this injurIous treatment. It is also necessary to remark, that, according to the doctrine of theologians, a priest by the sacrilegious celebration of Mass is guilty of four mortal sins: 1. Because he consecrates in the state of sin; 2. Because he communicates in the state of sin; 3. Because he administers the Sacrament in the state of sin; and 4. Because he administers it to an unworthy person, that is, to himself, who is in mortal sin. [Cfr. our Moral Theology, I. 6, n. 35, and V. Hic dicimus, 9]

This made St. Jerome foam, through zeal, against the Deacon Sabinian. "Miserable wretch!" said the holy Doctor, "how has it happened that your eyes have not grown dim, that your tongue has not been twisted, that your arms have not fallen to the ground when you dared to assist at the Altar in the state of sin." St. John Chrysostom teaches that a priest that approaches the Altar with a soul stained with mortal sin is far worse than a devil. For the devils tremble in the presence of Jesus Christ. We read in the life of St. Teresa that when she was going to Communion one day she saw with terror a devil on each side of the priest who celebrated Mass in the state of mortal sin. The devils trembled in the presence of the Holy Sacrament, and manifested a desire to fly away. From the Consecrated Host Jesus said to the Saint, "Behold the force of the words of Consecration, and see, O Teresa, My goodness which makes Me willing to place Myself in the hands of My enemy for your welfare, and for the welfare of every Christian!" The devils then tremble before Jesus in the Holy Sacrament; but the sacrilegious priest not only does not tremble, but, as St. John Chrysostom says, he audaciously tramples on the Son of God in his own person. In the sacrilegious priest are verified the words of the Apostle: How much more do you think he deserveth worse punishments who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath esteemed the blood of the testament unclean by which he was sanctified?[Heb. 10: 20] Then, in the presence of that God at Whose beck the pillars of Heaven tremble, and the whole earth and all things in it are moved, [Job 26: 11] a worm of the earth dares to trample on the blood of the Son of God!

But, alas! what greater calamity can befall a priest than to change redemption into perdition; Sacrifice into sacrilege, and life into death? Great, indeed, was the impiety of the Jews who drew Blood from the side of Jesus Christ; but far greater is the impiety of the priest who receives from the chalice the same Blood and insults it. Such is the thought of Peter de Blois; he adds, while borrowing the words of St. Jerome: "Shame on the perfidious Jew; shame on the perfidious Christian: the Jew caused the Blood to flow from the side of Christ; the Christian, the priest, causes the same Blood to flow from the chalice in order to profane it . . ." Of such priests our Lord complained one day to St. Bridget, saying, "They crucify My Body more cruelly than the Jews did."  A learned author says that the priest who celebrates in the state of sin is guilty, as it were, of murdering before the eyes of the eternal Father His Own Son."

Oh! what an impious treason. Behold how Jesus Christ complains, by the mouth of David, of the sacrilegious priest: For If My enemy had reviled Me I would verily have borne with it, . . . but thou, a man of one mind, and My familiar, who didst take sweetmeats together with Me. [Ps. 54: 13] Behold an exact description of a priest who offers Mass in the state of sin. If my enemy, said the Lord, had insulted Me, I would have borne the offense with less pain; but you whom I have made My familiar, My minister, a prince among My people, to whom I have so often given My Flesh for food-----you have sold Me to the devil for the indulgence of passion, for a beastly gratification, for a little earth. Of this sacrilegious treason the Lord complained to St. Bridget: "Such priests," He said, "are not My priests, but real traitors; for, like Judas, they sell and betray Me." St. Bernardine of Sienna teaches that such priests are even worse than Judas; because Judas betrayed the Savior to the Jews, but they deliver Him up to devils by receiving Him into their sacrilegious breasts, which are ruled by devils.

Peter Comestor observes that when a sacrilegious priest begins the prayer Aufer a nobis iniquitates nostras, etc. ["Take away from us our iniquities, etc."], and kisses the altar, Jesus appears to reproach him, and say: Judas, do you betray me with a kiss?  And when the priest, says St. Gregory, extends his arm to communicate, I think I hear the Redeemer say what he said to Judas, "Behold the hand that betrays me is with me on the Altar." Hence, according to St. Isidore of Pelusium, the sacrilegious priest is, like Judas, entirely possessed by the devil.
Ah! the Blood of Jesus Christ, so much insulted, cries more powerfully for vengeance against the sacrilegious priest than the blood of Abel did against Cain. This Jesus Himself declared to St. Bridget. Oh! what horror must God and His Angels feel at the sight of a sacrilegious Mass!

This horror the Lord made known in the following manner, in the year 1688, to his servant Sister Mary Crucified, of Palma, in Sicily. At first she heard a doleful trumpet, which uttered, in a tone of thunder, audible over the entire earth, the following words: Ultio, pœna, dolor [vengeance, punishment, pain]. She then saw several sacrilegious ecclesiastics singing psalms with discordant voices, and in a confused and irregular manner. She next saw one of them rise up to go to the Altar and say Mass. While he was putting on the sacred vestments, the church was covered with darkness and mourning. He approaches the Altar, and, in saying the Introibo ad altare Dei, the trumpet sounds again and repeats, Ultio, pœna, dolor . In an instant the Altar appeared to be surrounded by flames of fire, which denoted the just fury of the Lord against the unworthy celebrant; and at the same time a great multitude of Angels were seen with swords in their hands as if to execute vengeance on him for the sacrilegious Mass which he was going to offer. When the monster came near the Consecration, a crowd of vipers sprung from the midst of the flames to drive him away from the Altar; these vipers represented his fears and stings of conscience. But they were all useless; the impious wretch preferred his own reputation to all these stings of remorse. Finally he pronounced the words of Consecration; and instantly the servant of God felt a universal earthquake, which caused Heaven, earth, and Hell to tremble. She saw Angels around the Altar bathed in tears; but the Divine mother wept still more bitterly at the death of her innocent Son, and at the loss of a sinful child. After a vision so tremendous and dismal, the servant of God was so overpowered with fear and sorrow that she could do nothing but weep. The author of her life remarks that it was in the same year the earthquake happened which produced such havoc in the city of Naples and in the surrounding country. Hence we may infer that this earthquake was a punishment for the sacrilegious Mass at which Sister Mary was present.

But, exclaims St. Augustine, what more horrid impiety can be conceived than that the tongue that calls down the Son of God from Heaven should be, at the very same moment, employed in outraging His majesty? Or that the hands that are bathed in the Blood of Jesus Christ should be, at the same time, polluted with the blood of sin. To the sacrilegious priest St. Bernard says: O unworthy wretch! If you wish to commit the enormous crime of celebrating Mass in the state of sin, at least procure another tongue, and do not employ that which is washed in the Blood of Jesus Christ; procure hands different from those which you stretch out to touch His sacred Flesh. Oh! let the priest who wishes to live at enmity with God at least abstain from sacrilegiously offering Sacrifice on His Altar! But, no! says St. Bonaventure: he will, for the sake of the miserable stipend that he receives, continue to commit a sin of such horrible enormity. Perhaps he expects that the sacred Flesh of Jesus Christ which he offers in Sacrifice will deliver him from his iniquities? Shall the holy flesh, says the prophet Jeremias, take away from thee thy crime in which thou hast boasted? No: the contact of that sacred Body, as long as you remain in the state of sin, shall render you more guilty and more deserving of chastisement. He, says St. Peter Chrysologus, who commits a crime in the presence of his judge can advance no grounds of defense.

What chastisement does not the priest deserve who, instead of carrying with him to the Altar flames of Divine charity, brings the fetid fire of unchaste love! Speaking of the punishment inflicted on the sons of Aaron for having offered strange fire, St. Peter Damian says: "Let us take care not to mingle unholy fire, that is, the flames of lust with the salutary Sacrifices."

Whosoever, adds the Saint, shall dare to carry the flame of lust to the Altar, shall certainly be consumed by the fire of God's vengeance. May the Lord, then, says the holy Doctor in another place, preserve us from ever adoring on the Altar the idol of impurity, and from placing the Son of the Virgin in the Temple of Venus, that is, in an unchaste heart! If the man that came to the feast without the nuptial garment was cast into darkness, how much greater vengeance shall fall on him who approaches the Divine table not only not clothed with a decent garment, but exhaling the stench of his impurities? says the same St. Peter Damian.' Woe, exclaimed St. Bernard, to him that separates himself from God; but still greater woe to the priest who approaches the altar with a guilty conscience. Speaking one day to St. Bridget of a priest who had sacrilegiously celebrated Mass, the Lord said that He entered into the soul of that priest as a spouse for his sanctification, and that he was obligated to depart from it as a judge, to inflict the punishment merited by the sacrilegious reception of His Body.

If the sacrilegious priest will not abstain from celebrating the Divine mysteries in the state of sin, through horror of the insult, or rather of so many insults, offered to God by sacrilegious Masses, he ought at least to tremble at the awful chastisement prepared for him. St. Thomas of Villanova teaches that no punishment is sufficient to avenge a crime so enormous as a sacrilegious Mass. "Woe," he says, "to the sacrilegious hands! Woe to the unclean breast of the impious priest! Every punishment is inadequate to the sin by which Christ is despised in this Sacrifice." Our Lord once said to St. Bridget that such priests are cursed by all creatures in Heaven and on earth. A priest, as we have said in another place, is a vessel consecrated to God; and as Balthasar was chastised for having profaned the vessels of the Temple, so says, Peter de Blois, shall the priest be punished who unworthily offers sacrifice: "We see priests abusing vessels consecrated to God, but near them is that hand and that terrible writing: Mane, Thecel, Phares-----numbered, weighed, divided." Thou art numbered: a single sacrilege is sufficient to put an end to the number of Divine graces. Thou art weighed: such a crime is enough to make the balance of Divine justice descend to the eternal perdition of the sacrilegious priest. Divided: enraged at such an enormity, the Lord shall banish and separate you from Himself for eternity. Thus, then, shall be verified the words of David: Let their table become as a snare before them. The Altar shall become for the sacrilegious priest the place of his punishment, where, remaining obstinate in sin, he shall be bound in the chains of Hell, and shall be made the perpetual slave of Satan. For, according to St. Laurence Justinian, they that communicate in mortal sin adhere with greater pertinacity to sin. This is conformable to the doctrine of the Apostle, that he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself. Hence St: Peter Damian exclaims: O priests of God, who offer to the eternal Father His Own Son in Sacrifice do not beforehand immolate yourself as a victim to the devil.