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The Special Obligation of the Priest And the Religious to Tend to Perfection

St. Thomas said, "Properly speaking, one is said to be in the state of perfection, not through making an act of perfect love, but because he binds himself permanently and with a certain solemnity to what leads to perfection.” (1)


Religious bind themselves through their vow to detach from the world in order that they may devote their lives entirely to God. So it is with bishops, who bind themselves to their pastoral duty, laying down their lives for their sheep.

In this way, Garrigou-Lagrange (2) writes, the religious professes to tend toward perfection. St. Paul wrote in this regard, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I follow after, if I may by any means apprehend, wherein I am also apprehended by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3: 12).

The religious, then, does not commit a sin of hypocrisy for not being perfect. Rather, the hypocrisy lies in a failure to tend sincerely to perfection—in other words, observing his vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

St. Thomas writes, in Summa Theologica (3) that, "It is better and more meritorious to do one and the same deed with a vow than without." (4) This, again, confirms the increased level of perfection in the act of binding oneself. Garrigou-Lagrange adds that there is greater merit in observing one's vows in a manner in which the religious increases the level of observance over time, than in multiplying vows for greater merit (translation: quality, not quantity).

St. Thomas explains the importance of a vow:

The vow is an act of the virtue of religion or of latria, (5) which is superior to the virtues of obedience, chastity, and poverty; the acts of these virtues, it offers as worship to God.

By a perpetual vow, especially if it is solemn, man offers to God not only an isolated act, but the faculty itself. It is better to give the tree with its fruits than to offer the fruits alone.

By the vow, the will fixes itself firmly and irrevocably in the good. It is more meritorious to act thus, just as, on the other hand, it is more grave to sin by a will that is obstinate in evil.

By vowing to observe the evangelical counsels (chastity, poverty, and obedience), the religious separates himself from anything that distances him from God, and in essence, offers himself as a holocaust. This separation is not only from the things of this world, but from the spirit of the world, as well, resulting in a state of consecration to God.

The three wounds of the soul (6) (concupiscence of the eyes or the desire of worldly things, concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life) are common worldly distractions that can interfere with a religious' ultimate focus on God. These "wounds" are healed through the profession of his three vows—desire for worldly things through poverty, concupiscence of the flesh through chastity, and pride of life through obedience.

He has nothing more that he can offer and, if in reality he does not take back what he has given, but practices ever more perfectly, with a greater love of God and of his neighbor, the three virtues corresponding to the three vows, he truly offers to God a perfect sacrifice meriting the name of holocaust.

His life is thus, with the Divine Office, the daily accompaniment of the Sacrifice of the Mass. His life is an act of worship, and even an act of latria offered to God, by the virtue of religion.

This is true especially if the religious, far from taking back his gift once he has bestowed it, often renews his promises with greater merit than when he made them for the first time. In fact, merit grows in him with charity and the other virtues, and thereby his consecration to God becomes increasingly intimate and complete.

The result of this triple renunciation and triple oblation is union with God, which should increase in intimacy over time. It is the special obligation of the religious to aspire for perfection in relation to in relation to charity, the supreme precept of love. For the three evangelical counsels are, in themselves, stepping-stones to the attainment of perfection of charity, or close union with God.

A very close bond exists between the three religious virtues (chastity, poverty, and obedience) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity).

So truly, it has been said, that the hope of eternal beatitude is as the soul of holy poverty, which abandons earthly goods for those of eternity.

Charity is the soul of religious chastity, which renounces an inferior love for a much higher one.

Faith is the soul of obedience, which fulfills the orders of superiors as if they were revealed by God Himself. Thus, the religious life leads truly to contemplation and to close union with God.

Because a priest's holy functions demand greater interior sanctity than a lay brother or sister, he has a special obligation to progress in charity continually, until death. His ordination not only requires a state of grace and special aptitudes, but also an initial, superior perfection (bonitos vitae). In fact, as spiritual director to souls, the priest should be in the illuminative way and the bishop, in the unitive way of the perfect.

In addition, the effects of ordination are the sacerdotal character, an indelible participation in the priesthood of Christ, and sacramental grace, which makes possible the fulfillment of the priestly functions in a holy manner, as should be the case in a worthy minister of Christ. (10)

This sacramental grace is like a modality which is added to sanctifying grace, and which gives the right to receive actual helps for the holy, and indeed for the increasingly holy, accomplishment of the acts of the priestly life.

This grace is like a feature of the spiritual countenance of the priest, who ought to become a minister ever more conscious of the greatness and the holy exigencies of his priesthood. (11)

The obligation of tending to perfection is proportional to the level of one's station in life. Priestly ordination, which is superior to any other station in life, requires a holiness that is equally superior. "For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound” (Matt. 13: 12).

Christ states to Thomas à Kempis in The Imitation of Christ:

Thou art made a priest and art consecrated to celebrate. See now that faithfully and devoutly, in due time, thou offer up sacrifice to God, and that thou show thyself blameless.

Thou hast not lightened thy burden, but art now bound by a stricter bond of discipline and obliged to greater perfection of sanctity. A priest ought to be adorned with all virtues and set the example of a good life to others. His conversation should not be with the popular and common ways of man, but with the angels in heaven, or with perfect men upon earth.”

When the priest celebrates Mass, he represents Christ, who offered Himself for us. Thus, he should be ever conscious of the magnitude of his actions, always striving for closer union in heart and soul with "the principal Priest who is at the same time the sacred Victim, (sacerdos et hostia). To ascend to the altar without that desire would be hypocrisy. (12)

Every day that he says, “Hoc est enim corpus meum" ("For this is My body"), and "Hic est calix sanguinis mei" ("For this is the chalice of My blood") it should be with greater fervor than the day before and an increased desire for perfect and humble service of God.

St. Thomas states: “By holy orders a man is appointed to the most august ministry of serving Christ Himself in the sacrament of the altar, for this requires a greater inward holiness than that which is requisite for the religious state." (13) This implies culpability for acts contrary to holiness to be greater for the priest than a religious who is not a priest.

In this regard, Thomas à Kempis writes, in The Imitation of Christ:

The priest, clad in sacred vestments, is Christ’s vicegerent that he may suppliantly and humbly pray to God for himself and all the people. He has before and behind him the sign of the cross of our Lord, that he may ever remember the passion of Christ.

Behind him he is marked with the cross, that he may learn to suffer meekly for God’s sake all the evil that men may do him. He wears the cross before him that he may bewail his own sins; and on his back, that through compassion he may lament the sins of others, and know that he is placed as mediator between God and the sinner.

When a priest celebrates, he honors God, he edifies the Church, he helps the living, he obtains rest for the departed, and makes himself partaker of all good things. (14)

The Divine Office, Garrigou-Lagrange adds, complements the Sacrifice of the Mass as both a prelude and a culmination, and is a great honor in which to partake. Always, during its recitation, the intentions of the Church should be remembered.

The priest also has a special obligation to tend to perfection that he may serve the mystical body of Christ in an all-encompassing and effective manner. “Nothing leads the faithful more surely to true piety," the Council of Trent states, "than the good example of the priest. The eyes of men rest on him as on a mirror of perfection to be imitated. So he ought to order his life, his manners, his exterior, his gestures, and his words in such a way that he may always preserve the gravity, moderation, and piety that he should have." (15)

Nowhere is there a greater need for perfection than when preaching, hearing confessions, or directing souls. It is blatantly obvious to parishioners, after the very first sermon, the state of their priest's interior life.

Preaching, Garrigou-Lagrange insists, should be living and fruitful.

[It should be] spoken from the abundance of a priest's heart, from the living, penetrating, delightful faith in the mystery of Christ, in the infinite value of the Mass, in the value of sanctifying grace and of eternal life. The priest should preach like a savior of souls, and he should work incessantly for the salvation not only of a few, but of many souls. He should not have received the priesthood in vain. (16)

St. Thomas writes that preaching should "proceed from the fullness of contemplation." (17)

Those who are blessed with a spiritual director, who himself, is striving for perfection, sit mesmerized during sermons. Those who are not, often find themselves glancing at their watches, browsing through the church bulletin, or drifting off to thoughts of their to-do list. This is not a matter of a proficiency in public speaking, for the Holy Ghost speaks through the priest who is striving for holiness.

Metaphor alert!
It has been said that if one finds himself cast overboard into the sea along with his children, that he should first put on his own life jacket, for he cannot save his children if he does not first save himself.

Likewise, a priest who strives continually for perfection—a task that ends only upon death—will emanate holiness without even trying. This level of spirituality draws others like a tractor beam and sets a benchmark, so to speak, for their own holiness.

Garrigou-Lagrange writes that without a burning and luminous soul, a "hunger and thirst for the justice of God," a priest's ministry may become a danger to him, causing him to fall.

If life does not ascend, it descends; and that it may not descend, it must rise like a flame. Especially in the spiritual life, he who does not advance, falls back.

Finally, souls of whom the Lord is asking much, at times have recourse to the priest, and they should be able to find in him real help that they may walk truly in the way of sanctity. They should never have to go away without having, so to speak, received something. (18)

The venerable Father Chevrier, a priest of Lyons and friend of St. John Vianney (19) was in the habit of telling priests whom he trained that they "should always keep the crib, Calvary, and the tabernacle before their eyes." (20)

The crib, he would say, should remind them of poverty; a priest should be poor in his dwelling, his clothing, and his food. He should be humble of spirit and of heart in his relations with God and man. The greater his poverty in this regard, the more he glorifies God and is useful to his neighbor. The priest is a man who is despoiled.

Calvary should remind him of the necessity of immolation; he ought to die, to his body, to his own mind, his will, his reputation, his family, and the world. He ought to immolate himself by silence, prayer, work, penance, suffering, and death. The more a priest dies to himself, the more life he possesses and gives to others. The true priest is a crucified man.

The tabernacle should remind him of the charity he ought to have. He ought to give his body, mind, time, goods, health, and life. He should give others life by his faith, doctrine, words, prayer, powers, and example. The priest should be like good bread; he is a man who is consumed.

St. Paul put it simply when he said, “But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less” (2Cor. 12:15).

St. Isidore's (21) writings reiterate the words of St. Thomas, St. Paul, and Garrigou-Lagrange, that bishops should be in the state of perfection (in statu perfectionis exercendae) and that the religious state is one in which man tends to perfection (status perfectionis acquirendae).

It is necessary that he who will be raised up to teach and instruct the people in virtue, should be holy in all things, and in no way reprehensible. He who convinces another of sin, should himself be free from sin.

First of all, he who seeks to admonish others to live well ought to correct himself; so that in all things he himself may furnish an example of living and incite all to good work by teaching and work.

His speech should be pure, simple, open, full of gravity and honesty, sweetness and grace, treating of the mystery of the law, of the doctrine of faith, of the virtue of continency, of the discipline of justice, admonishing by various exhortations each and every one according to the profession and quality of established customs.

. . . whose special office it is to read Scripture, to peruse the canons, to imitate the examples of the saints, to practice vigils, fastings, and prayers; to have peace with his brethren, not to tear to pieces any of those committed to his care; to damn no one unless he be proved guilty, to excommunicate no one unless he has been tried.

He ought to be outstanding alike in humility and authority, so that he may not cause the vices of his subjects to grow through excessive humility. Nor should he exercise the power of severity without moderation, but should be so much the more cautious toward those committed to his care, as he fears to be more severely examined by Christ.

He will also have charity, which is supereminent among all gifts, without which all virtue is nothing. Charity is, indeed, the guardian of chastity. Humility, moreover, is the place where it is kept.

He will likewise have, among all these things, eminent chastity: thus, as his mind is given to Christ, he should be spotless and free from carnal impurity.

Among these things, it behooves him to take care of the poor with careful distribution, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, receive pilgrims, redeem captives, protect widows and orphans, show prudent care in all things, provide with careful discretion.

Next: The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life According to the Fathers and the Great Spiritual Writers


(1) IIa IIae, q. 184, a.4.
(2) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989
(4) Summa, IIa IIae, q.88, a.6.
(7) Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 216
(8) Ibid., p. 218
(9) Summa, q.189, a.1 ad 3um; 184, a.7 f.; Supplement, q.36, a.1, 3; q.40, a.4
(10) Ibid., Supplement, q.35, a.1, 2
(11) Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 219
(13) IIa IIae, q. 184, a.8
(14) The Imitation, Bk. IV, chap. 5
(15) Council of Trent, Sess. XXII, chap. I
(16) Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 221
(17) Summa, IIa IIae, q. 188, a.6
(18) Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 222
(20) Antoine Lestra, Le Pere Chevrier, 1935