The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 2, Chapter 8

Summary: The Excellence of the Priestly Grace

Chapter Eight


In this chapter we will consider the pre-eminent and superabundant cause of the priestly grace; its principal purpose —the celebration of Mass; its secondary purpose—the sanctification of souls; the foundation of priestly holiness; the splendour of the sacramental grace of the priesthood.

The pre-eminent cause of this excellence

This is to be found in the holiness of Christ, a holiness which is innate, substantial, and uncreated, in so far as its determining principle is the grace of the hypostatic union, or the Word who takes possession of Christ's humanity. This is the source of the infinite value of all his activity. Now, in his final prayer for the Apostles Christ spoke as follows: "And for them do I sanctify myself that they also may be sanctified in truth" (John xvii, 19). That is to say: Father, I offer and sacrifice myself to you (cf. Bossuet, Meditations sur I'évangile, II, 66° jour), for in this verse "to sanctify" means "to sacrifice." Therefore a priest must sacrifice himself if he is to be another Christ. Cf. Rom. xv, 16: "So much I owe to the grace which God has given me, in making me a priest of Jesus Christ for the Gentiles, with God's gospel for my priestly charge, to make the Gentiles an offering worthy of acceptance, consecrated by the Holy Spirit": that is to say, I must show the Gospel to be holy both in preaching the truth and in working for the conversion of the Gentiles.

Sanctifying grace should be found in all the faithful, but in a special way in the priest. The holiness of a Christian consists in reproducing in oneself the life of Jesus Christ, our head: "We have all received something out of his abundance" (John i, 16). Sanctifying grace effects what its name signifies—it makes those who are justified holy. And so St. Paul refers to all the faithful in the state of grace as "saints." But there are varying degrees of this grace, as St. Paul says: "Each of us has received his own special grace, dealt out to him by Christ's gift" (Ephes. iv, 7); and besides, some people make better use of actual grace in preparing themselves for sanctifying grace, which they then use more effectively than others. Cf. St. Thomas, la Ilae, q. 112, a. 4. This ought to be especially true of the priest, so that we may find in him a fitting share in the holiness of Christ —the pre-eminent cause of all our holiness.

The primary purpose of this grace

The primary purpose of the priestly grace is the worthy celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. "For the serving of Christ in the sacrament of the altar a greater interior holiness is required than that demanded for the religious state" (St. Thomas, Ha Ilae, q. 184, a. 8). And that is why the solemn promise of celibacy, which is contained in the vow of chastity taken in the Western Church before receiving the diaconate, is eminently suited to the priesthood. St. Augustine wrote in his sixtieth letter to Aurelius (n.i): "Amongst those who stay in the monastery as monks, we will only accept for the clerical state those who are more virtuous and more perfect." The same condition is expressed in the Decree of Gelasius, which is often quoted by St. Thomas—for example, Ila Ilae, q. 184, a.8, 4a obj.

This teaching is of the highest importance, and secular priests are deluding themselves if they think that only those in religion need make a serious effort for perfection. Some are of the opinion that so long as they remain in the state of grace, that is sufficient, since they are not bound to strive for that degree of interior perfection desired by a Carmelite nun or by other religious orders. That view is certainly not shared by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. In fact, there have been many saintly religious—such as St. Pacomius—who feared the responsibility of the priesthood and refused priestly ordination. We must never lose sight of the high degree of holiness required for the worthy celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. And this is the primary purpose of the priesthood.

The secondary purpose of the priestly grace

The secondary purpose of the grace which the priest receives at ordination is the sanctification of the faithful. If the priest has the care of souls, he has a special obligation to strive for holiness of life, because of his duty towards the mystical body of Christ. In no other way will he be able to sanctify the souls committed to his charge, or avoid the dangers of the world which are not to be found in a monastery. (Cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit.)

The priest must be a man of prayer, mortified, and humble. His wisdom and prudence must be supernatural, and his intention must always be upright and pure. He must possess that strength of will which is born of great charity and zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. He should never revolt against adversity, and in all his work he should have Christ's interest at heart, not his own (Phil, ii, 21). "We are Christ's incense offered to God ... a life-giving perfume where it finds life" (II Cor. ii, 15). "We carry about continually in our bodies the dying state of Jesus, so that the living power of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies too" (II Cor. iv, 10). That is to say, the priest must share not only in the priesthood of Christ but also in his state of victim to the degree determined by the will of God for the saving of the souls committed to his care.

This is the meaning of the following words of St. Thomas (II-II, q. 184, a. 8): "By holy orders a man is appointed to the loftiest ministry of serving Christ himself in the sacrament of the altar. For this he requires a greater interior holiness than that demanded of a person in the religious state." It is also required for his ministering to souls, for his priestly apostolate.

True, a simple religious who is not a priest—such as a lay brother—is in virtue of his profession a victim, because he offers himself to God by the practice of the three vows of poverty, absolute chastity, and obedience. But a priest, even if he is not a religious, when he offers the body and blood of Christ on the altar, has a greater obligation than a lay brother or sister to unite himself in spirit to the spotless Host which he holds in his hands. Also, his incessant labour for the sanctification of souls imposes on him a similar obligation.

This duty of perfection should be taken frequently as a subject for the priest's meditation and contemplation, and also as a motive for praise: "quantum potes tantum aude, quia major omni laude."

If a religious has a special and serious obligation of striving for perfection in view of his religious profession, with even greater reason does the same obligation hold for a priest in view of his ordination and his duties towards the sacramental body of Christ and towards the mystical body of Christ. St. Jerome wrote in the 125th letter to Rusticus: "So act and live in the monastery that you make yourself suited for the clerical state." This is quoted by St. Thomas, Ha Ilae, q. 184, a. 8, obj. 4 and ad 4.

The author of the Imitation wrote as follows for a religious who became a priest (bk. iv, c. 5): "Behold, 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 art 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 men, but with the angels in heaven, or with perfect men upon earth . . ."

True, he must not turn his back on sinners, or even on those who are spiritually blind, but his dealings with them must be ruled by a friendly desire to recall them to the state of grace: "I have come to call sinners, not the just" (Matt, ix, 13.). He must be priestly in his behaviour towards everyone.

The proximate source of priestly holiness

The holiness of the priest is based on the sacramental grace which he receives at his ordination. This grace, as we said earlier on, adds to sanctifying grace a modal reality which confers a right to the graces necessary to fulfil the priestly functions in a holy manner, whereas the character enables a priest to perform those functions validly.1 This modal reality added to sanctifying grace is like a feature of the spiritual countenance of the priest, and it is meant to continue growing until death—in the same way as sanctifying grace and charity. On the other hand, the indelible character of the priesthood— which gives a man the power to carry out his priestly tasks validly—does not permit of growth, any more than does the validity itself. Sacramental grace, therefore, gives the priest a right to fresh and loftier actual graces for an increasingly holier celebration of his Mass, and he will actually receive them if he is generous and faithful to his vocation. "A special grace has been entrusted to thee ... do not let it suffer from neglect. Let this be thy study, these thy employments, so that all may see how well thou doest. ... So wilt thou and those who listen to thee achieve salvation" (I Tim. iv, 14-16). See also St. Thomas's Commentary on this passage.

The priest has been given five talents, which are meant to yield a profit: "The man who had received five talents came forward and brought him five talents more. . . . And his master said to him, Well done, my good and faithful servant; since thou hast been faithful over little things, I have great things to commit to thy charge; come and share the joy of thy Lord" (Matt, xxv, 20-21). But the servant who hid his talent in the earth was punished for his waste of opportunity. That is why St. Paul says: "A special grace has been entrusted to thee ... do not let it suffer from neglect."

The splendour of the priestly grace

This must be judged from the purpose for which it is conferred—for the devout celebration of Mass and for the priest's ministry to souls. So, because of its purpose, this sacramental grace possesses a sublime character from the very moment of its conferment. Not even the angels themselves are called to this service of the altar, which is only surpassed in its dignity by the divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It might be asked—how is it possible for a man who is in every way inferior to the angels to receive such an extraordinary grace? Theologians reply that, just as the eagle is superior to man in possessing wings and a keener vision—although man himself is of a higher nature—so also the priest is superior to an angel in virtue of his power to consecrate and absolve, and also in virtue of his priestly grace, although angels certainly belong to a higher class of beings. Even in a small degree this sacramental grace of Orders is of outstanding excellence and as precious as a diamond.

This grace is a permanent and intimate gift of the priest. Being a modality of sanctifying grace, it is received into the very essence of the soul, and thus exerts an influence on all its powers, sanctifying both its internal and external actions. It reveals itself in the charity of the priest, in his prudence, in his piety, etc. St. John Chrysostom has said (De Sacerdotio, bk. iii, c. i)2: "Since the priesthood is so divine in character . . . who can doubt that the choicest of all graces have been allotted to Ordination?" And St. Ambrose writes in his letter to the church at Vercellae (Ep. 63, n. 64): "The life of a priest should manifest the same superior excellence as the grace of the priesthood." Generally speaking, therefore, the faithful priest receives more guidance and help and strength than do the ordinary faithful.

Denis states in his book de Hierarch. eccl., c. v, n. 8: "Priests have been fully and finally prepared for sacred learning and the power of contemplation by their priestly consecration." By their priestly grace they receive a special disposition for a deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith, for the discernment of spirits, and for prayer or the raising of their mind to God.

This is not surprising, seeing that priests are called to preach the word of God and to apostolic action. Now, as St. Thomas points out (Ila Ilae, q. 188, a. 6): "Sacred learning and preaching have their origin in an abundance of contemplation." In the ordinary course of events their preaching of the mysteries of salvation must spring from their life of contemplation, otherwise they will not be speaking as they should ex abundantia cordis. Their sermons will be nothing more than historical or apologetic commentaries, and this will not suffice for imparting the divine life to their hearers.

Fr. Olier, Traité des Saints Ordres, I lie Partie c. 6, expresses a similar opinion when he says that for the comforting of the poor and the sorrowing, the priest must possess inexhaustible charity. (Cf. Fr. Giraud, II, 497.) If the priest attains to a high state of prayer, this will be of immense benefit not only to himself but also to many other souls. That is the opinion of St. Teresa, when speaking of the soul which reaches the prayer of union or the fifth mansion (c. 4). It is this grace of union with Christ which is the culmination of our priesthood rather than a host of external achievements, or the writing of books, or the learning which is expressed in them.3 And this will be brought into effect if the priest is continually striving to imitate in his life Christ our Lord—in his way of thinking and loving and willing and acting. That was the aim of St. Paul: "For me, life means Christ; death is a prize to be won" (Phil, i, 21).4 "Yours is to be the same mind which Christ Jesus shewed . . . he dispossessed himself" (Phil, ii, 5). "Arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. xiii, 14), "so that the living power of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies too" (II Cor. iv, 10, 11) —in other words, by a life of innocence, of chastity, of simplicity, of charity, and of all the virtues. "Our mortal nature must be swallowed up in life" (II Cor. v, 4).

This is the desire of every good priest, but even more so is it the ardent desire of Christ himself. He is far more anxious than we are to raise us up to himself: "who for us men came down from heaven and was crucified for our salvation." St. Paul says (Gal. ii, 20): "True, I am living, here and now, this mortal life; but my real life is the faith I have in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

St. Augustine writes in his Enchiridion, c. 53: "The events of Christ's life were so ordered that the life which the Christian leads in this world might be modelled upon them, not in any mere mystical sense, but in reality. For it is said of his crucifixion: 'Those who belong to Christ have crucified nature, with all its passions, all its impulses' (Gal. v, 24)—of his burial, 'in our baptism, we have been buried with him, died like him' (Rom. vi, 4)—of his resurrection, 'that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father's power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence' (Rom. iv, 4)—of his ascension into heaven and of his sitting at the right hand of the Father, 'Risen, then, with Christ, you must lift your thoughts above, where Christ now sits at the right hand of God. You must be heavenly-minded, not earthly-minded; you have undergone death, and your life is hidden away now with Christ in God' (Coloss. iii, 1-3)."5

St. Thomas comments as follows on I Tim. iv, 14: "A special grace has been entrusted to thee ... do not let it suffer from neglect : because he who receives grace should not be careless about its use, but make it productive of good. The servant who hides his master's money in the ground is punished because of his sloth (Matt. xxv). Therefore, do not let the grace which is in you suffer from neglect . . ."

"Let this be thy study: so that you may always be mindful of the duties attached to your office (either of the episcopate or of the priesthood). . . . That is—think frequently of all that relates to the care of your flock. These thy employments: all your energy must be directed to that one end. And why? So that all may see how well thou doest. 'A lamp is not lighted to be put away under a bushel measure' (Matt. v). 'Give proof to all of your courtesy. . .' (Phil. iv). Two things claim thy attention, thyself and the teaching of the faith. Some there are who devote so much care to the teaching of the faith that they pay very little attention to themselves: but the Apostle says that he should attend first of all to himself, and then to his teaching. . . . Thus Jesus began to do and to teach. Spend thy care on them: that is, keep working at them earnestly. . . And thus your effort will yield abundant fruit. So wilt thou and those who listen to thee achieve salvation . . . 'Starry-bright for ever their glory, who have taught many the right way. . (Daniel xii, 3). And the Apostle continues by saying: 'Instead of finding fault, appeal to an older man as if he were thy father, to younger men as thy brothers, to the older women as mothers, to the younger (but with all modesty) as sisters'."

In the course of his commentary on 2 Tim. iv, 2: "Preach the word, dwelling upon it continually, welcome or unwelcome; bring home wrong-doing, comfort the waverer, rebuke the sinner", St. Thomas says: "The preacher of the word must always be preaching at the right moment, in actual fact, but, according to the erroneous view of his audience, he has to preach at the wrong moment, because the preacher of the truth is always welcome to the virtuous and always unwelcome to the evil . . . He is bound to preach from time to time to evil-minded men in order to convert them. That is why St. Paul says: 'welcome or unwelcome.' 'Cry aloud, never ceasing'" (Isaias lviii).

The universal extent of this priestly grace

The extent or diffusion of this grace should correspond to its splendour, or to its growth in intensity. It should spread to all the virtues, to all souls, and to every part of the Church.

In the first place, the priest is meant to possess all the virtues connected with charity, together with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, so that—in the words of the Roman Pontifical— "every kind of righteousness may shine forth in him." He should set an example of charity towards God and his neighbour, of supernatural wisdom, justice, steadfastness, mercy, fortitude. He must be upright, learned, mature in his behaviour and in all his undertakings. He should possess perfect faith and exemplary chastity. In fine, his life should be one of complete integrity so that the pleasing influence of his virtues may be a source of joy to the Church, the bride of Christ. Therefore the priest should be a man of discretion, not given to excessive laughter or speaking. His speech should be thoughtful and well-chosen, which requires a spirit of habitual silence. He will then be able to say a great deal—and something of enduring importance—in a few words.

Secondly, the universal extent of the priestly grace should reveal itself in its influence on the souls under the priest's care. The priest should give himself completely to others by devoting to them his entire strength, mind, time, and health. This he will do by means of his ministry, prayer, sacrifices, and example. In spite of all their failings the souls under the priest's care should receive his diligent attention, so that he may bring them safely through the perils of this life. He should give particular attention to the distressed and the poor—the sorrowing members of Christ's mystical body.

Finally, not even the Church suffering in Purgatory nor the Church triumphant in Heaven are excluded from the far-reaching influence of the priestly grace. The author of the Imitation of Christ writes in bk. iv, c. 5, n. 3: "When a priest celebrateth, he honoureth God, he rejoiceth the angels, he edifieth the Church, he helpeth the living, he obtaineth rest for the departed, and maketh himself partaker of all good things." When he celebrates with reverence and devotion he is raised up to Heaven among the unseen choirs of angels.6 In this way are verified the words of St. Paul: "Risen, then, with Christ, you must lift your thoughts above, where Christ now sits at the right hand of God. You must be heavenly-minded, not earthly-minded" (Coloss. iii, 1-2). This perfect priestly life becomes, so to speak, the beginning of eternal life: "He, in giving life to Christ, gave life to us too . . . raised us up too, enthroned us too above the heavens, in Christ Jesus" (Ephes. ii, 5-6).

In a similar way the priest is also in union with the souls in Purgatory, when he prays for them during the Mass and infallibly applies to them the fruits of the sacrifice, for he obtains for them cool repose, comfort, and release from their sufferings.

The priest who celebrates his Mass devoutly spreads terror amongst the ranks of the demons, because the eucharistic sacrifice has limitless value in resisting evil—just as much as it has in causing good. The devils find themselves face to face with an insuperable obstacle when they are opposed by the hostile and fearsome victim offered in the Mass together with his precious blood. So far as they are concerned, no better description could be given of the church in which this sacrifice is offered than that contained in the Mass of the Dedication of a Church: "This is a fearsome place: it is the house of God, the gate of heaven: it shall be named the palace of God." The devils look on the Mass as a sacrifice to be greatly feared, for they recognize only too well from its effects the infinite value of the Mass: "Thou believest that there is only one God . . . but then, so do the devils, and the devils shrink from him in terror" (James ii, 19). On many occasions souls have been freed from the grip of an evil spirit as soon as Mass has been offered for their release.

In his 17th Conference, Fr. Charles de Foucauld states that one Mass gives more glory to God than do the deaths of all the martyrs and the collective praise of the angels; for, whereas the martyrdom of men and the homage of angels have no more than a finite value, the Mass possesses an infinite value. But at the same time that does not mean that one Mass would be sufficient. Each one adds something to the other, just as in the life of Christ not a single one of his theandric meritorious acts was redundant, because each of them added something to the one preceding. Every one of them had been offered by the Saviour from the very first moment of his entry into the world.

Thus we witness the universal extent of the priestly grace spreading to all the virtues, to souls in every walk of life, and to the Church militant, triumphant, and suffering. It is by this means that Christ continues to exert his influence on souls through his priests whether they are baptizing, absolving from sin, celebrating Mass, distributing Holy Communion, blessing marriages, instructing children, or helping the dying. If the ministry of priests ever ceased, the world would plunge into paganism. Priests who are apostolic and offer their Mass with purity of mind and heart are raising up "stones that live and breathe, into a spiritual fabric" (i Peter ii, 5). They give joy to the saints in Heaven and are glorifying God almost unceasingly. They are spreading the kingdom of God and gradually destroying the evil in the world.

1Cf. St. Thomas, Summa, III, q. 62, a. 2, and commentators; also Supplementum, q. 35, a. 1.

2This reference would appear to be incorrect, and I have been unable to trace the quoted statement. Tr.

3Cf. St. Bernard, who is quoted by Fr. Giraud, op. cit., II, p. 518.

4As already noted, St. Thomas states in his Commentary on this Epistle that as the huntsman lives for the chase, the soldier for his military service, the student for his study, so must the Christian live for Christ alone. He must be the continual object of his thought and love.

5Cf. Fr. Giraud, II, p. 512; also Fr. Olier, l'imitation de Jesus Christ, Traité des Saints Ordres, III, ce. 4-5.

6St. John Chrysostom writes in his treatise On the Priesthood, bk. vi, c. 4: "At that moment (of consecration) the Angels are present round the priest, the entire realm of heavenly powers raises its voice in praise, and choirs of Angels fill the sanctuary to do honour to him who is sacrificed." Also St. Gregory the Great, Dialog., bk. iv, c. 58: "Choirs of angels are present, the low and the high consort together, earth is joined to heaven, the seen and the unseen are united as one."