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What Makes a Holy Priest?


Jeffrey Bruno

Rev Thomas Berg - published on 11/13/14

There's more to it than meets the eye.

With the news saturated with elections and myriad international crises, it’s likely we missed the fact that last week the Church celebrated 
National Vocation Awareness Week.  As stated on the USCCB website, it is a week dedicated “to promote vocations to the priesthood, diaconate and consecrated life through prayer and education, and to renew our prayers and support for those who are considering one of these particular vocations.”

It’s no secret that the best catalyst for vocations is the personal holiness of those who have already embraced the call. Young men are attracted to the priesthood first and foremost by the holiness of the priests they have known — a fact borne out in just about every vocation story.

Which leads me to share a few thoughts on the whole question of priestly holiness.

In the final moment of the rite of priestly ordination, at the presentation of the gifts to the altar, the bishop in turn presents the newly ordained priest with the paten and chalice. The bishop entreats him:  “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

In other words, once upon a time in our lives we priests made a commitment to pursue genuine holiness of life, and strive — amidst our own struggles and sinfulness — to remain faithful to that commitment through a life of on-going conversion, a life that would ordinarily include daily personal prayer time, frequent confession, Eucharistic and Marian devotion, an annual retreat, and regular spiritual direction — to model our lives on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.
I believe the reality of sexual abuse by a small percentage of Catholic priests in recent decades, and the harm wreaked upon the lives of so many innocent Catholic men and women, has become a constant motivation toward greater personal holiness in the present generations of Catholic priests.

But how would an average Catholic recognize genuine priestly holiness? By what standards could we assess it?

To the external observer, we may or may not fit the often superficial, pietistic criteria of “holiness” at play in the minds of some.  To be sure, the genuine holiness of priests is normally not measured by the categories that are available to superficial observation. Add up all the observable elements you want:  “Father is such a good preacher,” “Father is so reverent at the altar,” “Father visited my dad in the hospital and got him to got to confession,” “Father is so dedicated to the homeless shelter,” “Father celebrates the Latin mass,” “Father wears the cassock on Sundays” and so on. It does not necessarily follow from such a list that “Father is a holy priest.” These externals may or may not be confirmations of genuine holiness of life because, again, that holiness is really determined by elements that oftentimes elude the common categories by which certain individuals evaluate their priests.

The patent message of both Old and New Testaments is that personal holiness is nothing other than fidelity to Yahweh. Personal holiness means to possess a growing and lived affinity with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in docility to his Word, and to the promptings of his grace. And as the Catechism notes, “charity is the soul of the holiness to which all are called.”

The Catechism further elucidates the nature of holiness among the people of God when it reiterates two central assertions made in the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium: there is genuine sanctity to be found already among the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, who are also, in turn, all called — universally — to holiness:

The Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect” [LG, 48.3]. In her members perfect holiness is something yet to be acquired: “Strengthened by so many and such great means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state — though each in his own way — are called by the Lord to that perfection of sanctity by which the Father himself is perfect [LG, 11.3].

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