The Catholic who, by God’s grace, strives earnestly to live in that genuine interior freedom we call the "state of grace," that is, a life characterized by the absence of deliberate concessions to mortal sin — this Catholic is, indeed, holy, in a real albeit imperfect (not yet complete) way. We might call such a state a first degree of holiness, even if characterized by struggles, and by plenty of deliberate falls in matters less serious. Such a person might not “seem” holy according to certain pietistic standards, but there is genuine sanctity present in such a person nonetheless, in possession as they are of the necessary foundation on which greater personal sanctity can be built.
The same applies to the priest. So, we really can’t speak of genuine holiness in a priest who habitually and callously exposes himself to moral hazards, rationalizing behavior, allowing his conscience to become clouded, and conceding to what he knows to be gravely disordered behaviors, particularly in matters of chastity, and in behaviors that — given one’s own peculiar temperament and struggles — could quickly become addictive.
That being said, one can also think of many priests who have been down this road, but have repented: who today expiate the errors of their past adhering to a twelve-step program to overcome an addiction; who with genuine humility have perhaps spent time in a recovery facility; men who regularly approach the sacrament of penance; who capitalize on their own experience of weakness to counsel, guide and encourage others in similar struggles.
Again, according to certain pietistic standards, such priests might not “seem” very holy — which is just to evince the superficiality of such standards. The priest who struggles mightily with his own foibles, who perhaps struggles day in and day out with the gnawing incitation of the addictive behavior he has renounced, who repents, who has regular recourse to Penance, who prays as best he can, who bears all of this for love of God and for love of the people of God, who bears all of this with genuine humility — this is a truly holy priest.
Indeed, one can’t insist enough that the biggest indicators of priestly holiness of life boil down to a few things that often escape external observation: Is this man genuinely humble? Does he live with profound interior detachment from himself, from others, from what he has, and from what he does? Does this man pray? Does this priest have a vibrant commitment to seek intimate union with Jesus Christ every day through a personal prayer time (for example, by means of a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament as many good — and holy — priests do each day)?
The priest cannot give what he does not have. A priest who is empty of Jesus interiorly will inevitably end up offering the faithful, not Jesus, but simply himself. His interiority will be filled not with light, inspiration, growing virtue, patience and pastoral vibrancy, but with what Thomas Merton so aptly described as the “warm darkness” of one’s own sensible nature.
Tragically, not a few priests end up there — in the muck of self-absorption, cynical, living in spiritual mediocrity, their personal covenantal relationship with Jesus in tatters. And this constitutes a great suffering for the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
While many priests in this sad condition can and do manage to reach retirement in such a state, I believe that more fall to the wayside. For most, perseverance in the priesthood in such an interior state is hardly tenable.
That’s why another less than obvious indicator of personal holiness in a priest is his endurance and perseverance in active ministry, especially when this has entailed years of all kinds of adversity — internal and external. I am speaking here of long years of frequent, hard, gritty — and often unseen and unnoticed — acts of virtue: endless acts of keeping one’s composure, holding one’s tongue, sustaining positive thoughts, giving the world a pleasant semblance and a smiling face while interiorly traversing untold turmoil, the on-going exercise of patience, giving the benefit of the doubt, forgiving, gritting one’s teeth and just bearing it again and again. This is especially true of my brother priests, (and they are the majority) who have lived and will live out their priesthood in parish ministry.