Listen to the Saints: The Dignity of the Priesthood Destroys the Idol of ‘Equality’

‘Jesus died,’ says St. Alphonsus Liguori, ‘to institute the priesthood.’

Pope Francis kisses a priest's hands during his weekly general audience in the San Damaso courtyard on June 16, 2021, at the Vatican.
Pope Francis kisses a priest's hands during his weekly general audience in the San Damaso courtyard on June 16, 2021, at the Vatican. (photo: Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images)

The dignity of the priesthood, esteemed throughout Church history as the most superior dignity of all, is under attack today by a pervading secular dogma of social equality. 

And yet for the early Church Fathers and most of Church history, the supremacy of priestly dignity was incontrovertibly unequal and more important than the dignity of any other vocation. 

In his epistle to the Christians of Smyrna in the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch called the priesthood “the apex of dignities,” while St. Ephrem the Syrian described the priestly vocation as “an astounding miracle, great, immense and infinite” whose dignity “surpasses all understanding.” 

In The Duties and Dignity of the Priest, 18th-century St. Alphonsus Liguori helps explain why the Church has always viewed the dignity of the priesthood as paramount, and by no means equal to other vocations, due to a priest’s astonishing gift to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

“The entire Church cannot give to God as much honor, nor obtain so many graces, as a single priest by celebrating a single Mass,” he writes. A priest, in celebrating the Mass, gives greater honor to the Lord “than if all the men by dying for God offered to him the sacrifice of their lives,” he adds. 

“Jesus died to institute the priesthood,” St. Alphonsus continues, pointing out it was not necessary for him “to die to redeem the world as a drop of his blood, a single tear, or prayer was sufficient to procure salvation for all,” but to institute the priesthood, “the death of Jesus Christ has been necessary.”

He says, “Had he not died, where would we find the victim that the priests of the New Law now offer, a victim altogether holy and immaculate, capable of giving to God an honor worthy of God?” 

The saint lists the great powers and faculties given to a priest, from confecting Jesus in the Eucharist and holding the “power of the keys,” to “delivering sinners from hell” and “changing them from the slaves of Satan into the children of God.” He also points out that God himself is “obliged to abide by the judgment of his priests, and either not to pardon or to pardon, according as they refuse or give absolution, provided the penitent is capable of it.” 

The dignity of the priest is so great, St. Alphonsus writes, “that he even blesses Jesus Christ on the altar as a victim to be offered to the eternal Father.” It is for these duties, he explains, that priests are called vicars of Christ and the representatives of God on earth. 

But with the gift of such superior dignity, much will be expected, and the consequences for sin on the part of the priest all the greater. 

St. Alphonsus explains how the virtues of a priest should surpass those of the laity. “Priests should be holy, because God has placed them in the world as models of virtue,” he says. With this in mind, he warns how grievous it is for a priest to sin, “because he sins in view of the light.” How much better would it be a for a priest who falls into sin “to have been a poor uninstructed peasant, who had never known the law!” 

Quoting St. John Chrysostom, he continues: “The sin to which the priest consents may be committed by many seculars, but his chastisement shall be far more severe because his blindness shall be far greater than theirs.” 

And in the words of St. Jerome: “Great indeed is the dignity of priests, but great also is their perdition, if in the priesthood they turn their back on God.” 

Perhaps if the priest’s supreme dignity and exalted responsibility were rediscovered in today’s Church, so many of our contemporary ecclesiastical ills might be healed.