Dignity of the Priest: Part II

St. Alphonsus Liguori

See also Dignity of the Priest: Part I

The Dignity of the Priest Surpasses all other Created Dignities

Thus the sacerdotal dignity is the most noble of all the dignities in this world. "Nothing," says St. Ambrose, "is more excellent in this world." It transcends," says St. Bernard, "all the dignities of kings, of emperors, and of angels." According to St. Ambrose, the dignity of the priest as far exceeds that of kings, as the value of gold surpasses that of lead. The reason is, because the power of kings extends only to temporal goods and to the bodies of men, but the power of the priest extends to spiritual goods and to the human soul. Hence, says St. Clement, "as much as the soul is more noble than the body, so much is the priesthood more excellent than royalty." "Princes," says St. John Chrysostom, "have the power of binding, but they bind only the bodies, while the priest binds the souls."

The kings of the earth glory in honouring priests: "It is a mark of a good prince," says Pope St. Marcellinus, "to honour the priests of God." "They willingly," says Peter de Blois, "bend their knee before the priest of God; they kiss his hands, and with bowed down head receive his benediction." "The sacerdotal dignity," says St. Chrysostom, "effaces the royal dignity; hence the king inclines his head under the hand of the priest to receive his blessing." Baronius relates that when the Empress Eusebia sent for Leontius, Bishop of Tripoli, he said that if she wished to see him, she should consent to two conditions: first, that on his arrival she should instantly descend from the throne, and bowing down her head, should ask his benediction; secondly, that he should be seated on the throne, and that she should not sit upon it without his permission: he added that, unless she submitted to these conditions he should never go to the palace. Being invited to the table of the Emperor Maximus, St. Martin, in taking a draught, first paid a mark of respect to his chaplain, and then to the emperor. In the Council of Nice, the Emperor Constantine wished to sit in the last place, after all the priests, and on a seat lower than that which they occupied; he would not even sit down without their permission. The holy king St. Boleslans had so great a veneration for priests, that he would not dare to sit in their presence.

The sacerdotal dignity also surpasses the dignity of the angels, who likewise show their veneration for the priesthood, says St. Gregory Nazianzen. All the angels in heaven cannot absolve from a single sin. The angels guardian procure for the souls committed to their care grace to have recourse to a priest that he may absolve them: "Although," says St. Peter Damian, "angels may be present, they yet wait for the priest to exercise his power, but no one of them has the power of the keys—of binding and of loosening." When St. Michael comes to a dying Christian who invokes his aid, the holy archangel can chase away the devils, but he cannot free his client from their chains till a priest comes to absolve him. After having given the order of priesthood to a holy ecclesiastic, St. Francis de Sales perceived, that in going out he stopped at the door as if to give precedence to another. Being asked by the saint why he stopped, he answered that God favoured him with the visible presence of his angel guardian, who before had preceded him, but afterwards walked on his left and refused to go before him.

It was in a holy contest with the angel that he stopped at the door. St. Francis of Assisi used to say, "If I saw an angel and a priest, I would bend my knee first to the priest and then to the angel."

Besides, the power of the priest surpasses that of the Blessed Virgin Mary; for, although this divine Mother can pray for us, and by her prayers obtain whatever she wishes, yet she cannot absolve a Christian from even the smallest sin. "The Blessed Virgin was eminently more perfect than the apostles," says Innocent III; "it was, however, not to her, but only to the apostles, that the Lord entrusted the keys of the kingdom of heaven." St. Bernardine of Sienna has written: "Holy Virgin, excuse me, for I speak not against thee: the Lord has raised the priesthood above thee." The saint assigns the reason of the superiority of the priesthood over Mary; she conceived Jesus Christ only once; but by consecrating the Eucharist, the priest, as it were, conceives him as often as he wishes, so that if the person of the Redeemer had not as yet been in the world, the priest, by pronouncing the words of consecration, would produce this great person of a Man-God. "O wonderful dignity of the priests," cries out St. Augustine; "in their hands, as in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, the Son of God becomes incarnate."

Hence priests are called the parents of Jesus Christ: such is the title that St. Bernard gives them, for they are the active cause by which He is made to exist really in the consecrated Host.

Thus the priest may, in a certain manner, be called the creator of his Creator, since by saying the words of consecration, he creates, as it were, Jesus in the sacrament, by giving him a sacramental existence, and produces him as a victim to be offered to the eternal Father. As in creating the world it was sufficient for God to have said, "Let it be made, and it was created.” He spoke, and they were made, so it is sufficient for the priest to say, "Hoc est corpus meum," and behold the bread is no longer bread, but the body of Jesus Christ. "The power of the priest," says St. Bernardine of Sienna, "is the power of the divine person; for the transubstantiation of the bread requires as much power as the creation of the world."

And St. Augustine has written, "O venerable sanctity of the hands! O happy function of the priest! He that created (if I may say so) gave me the power to create him; and he that created me without me is himself created by me!" As the Word of God created heaven and earth, so, says St. Jerome, the words of the priest create Jesus Christ. “At a sign from God there came forth from nothing both the sublime vault of the heavens and the vast extent of the earth; but not less great is the power that manifests itself in the mysterious words of the priest." The dignity of the priest is so great, that he even blesses Jesus Christ on the altar as a victim to be offered to the eternal Father. In the sacrifice of the Mass, writes Father Mansi, Jesus Christ is the principal offerer and victim; as minister, he blesses the priest, but as victim, the priest blesses him.

Elevation of the Post Occupied by the Priest

The greatness of the dignity of a priest is also estimated from the high place that he occupies. The priesthood is called, at the synod of Chartres in 1550, the seat of the saints. Priests are called Vicars of Jesus Christ, because they hold his place on earth. "You hold the place of Christ," says St. Augustine to them, "you are therefore his lieutenants." In the Council of Milan, St. Charles Borromeo called priests the representatives of the person of God on earth. And before him, the Apostle said: “For Christ we are ambassadors. God as it were, exhorting by us.”

When he ascended into heaven, Jesus Christ left his priests after him to hold on earth his place of mediator between God and men, particularly on the altar. "Let the priest," says St. Laurence Justinian, "approach the altar as another Christ." According to St. Cyprian, a priest at the altar performs the office of Christ. When, says St. Chrysostom, you have seen a priest offering sacrifice, consider that the hand of Christ is invisibly extended.

The priest holds the place of the Saviour himself, when, by saying "Ego te absolvo," he absolves from sin. This great power, which Jesus Christ has received from his eternal Father, he has communicated to his priests. "Jesus," says Tertullian, "invests the priests with his own powers." To pardon a single sin requires all the omnipotence of God. "O God, who chiefly manifests Thy almighty power in pardoning and showing mercy," etc., says the holy Church in one of her prayers. Hence, when they heard that Jesus Christ pardoned the sins of the paralytic, the Jews justly said: Who can forgive sins but God alone? But what only God can do by his omnipotence, the priest can also do by saying "Ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis;" for the forms of the sacraments, or the words of the forms, produce what they signify.

Cardinal Hugo represents the Lord addressing the following words to a priest who absolves a sinner: "I have created heaven and earth, but I leave to you a better and nobler creation; make out of this soul that is in sin a new soul, that is, make out of the slave of Satan, that the soul is, a child of God. I have made the earth bring forth all kinds of fruit, but to thee I confide a more beautiful creation, namely, that the soul should bring forth fruits of salvation." The soul without grace is a withered tree that can no longer produce fruit; but receiving the divine grace, through the ministry of a priest, it brings forth fruits of eternal life. St. Augustine says, that to sanctify a sinner is a greater work than to create heaven and earth.” And hast thou,” says Job, “an arm like God, and canst thou thunder with a voice like him?” Who is it that has an arm like the arm of God, and thunders with a voice like the thundering voice of God? It is the priest, who, in giving absolution, exerts the arm and voice of God, by which he rescues souls from hell.

According to St. Ambrose, a priest, in absolving a sinner, performs the very office of the Holy Ghost in the sanctification of souls. Hence, in giving priests the power of absolving from sin, the Redeemer breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” He gave them his own Spirit, that is, the Holy Ghost, the sanctifier of souls, and thus made them, according to the words of the Apostle, his own coadjutors: we are God's coadjutors. "On priests," says St. Gregory, "it is incumbent to give the final decision, for by the right that they have received from the Lord, they now remit, now retain sins." St. Clement then, had reason to say that the priest is, as it were, a God on earth. God, said David, stood in the congregation of the gods. These gods are, according to St. Augustine, the priests of God. Innocent III has written: "Indeed, it is not too much to say that in view of the sublimity of their offices the priests are so many gods."


How great, then, says St. Ambrose, the disorder to see in the same person the highest dignity and a life of scandal, a divine profession and wicked conduct! What, says Salvian, is a sublime dignity conferred on an unworthy person but a gem enchased in mire?

Neither doth any man, says St. Paul, take the honour to himself, but he that is called by God as Aaron was. For Christ did not glorify Himself that He might be made a high priest; but He that said unto Him, "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten Thee."

Let no one, he says, dare to ascend to the priesthood, without first receiving, as Aaron did, the divine call; for even Jesus Christ would not of himself assume the honour of the priesthood, but waited till his Father called him to it. From this we may infer the greatness of the sacerdotal dignity. But the greater its sublimity, the more it should be dreaded. "For," says St. Jerome, "great is the dignity of priests; but also, when they sin, great is their ruin. Let us rejoice at having been raised so high, but let us be afraid of falling." Lamenting, St. Gregory cries out, "Purified by the hands of the priest the elect enter the heavenly country, and alas! Priests precipitate themselves into the fire of hell!" The saint compares priests to the baptismal water which cleanses the baptised from their sins, and sends them to heaven, "and is afterwards thrown into the sink."

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