Primer for Priests: A Dominican’s Advice for Good Habits, Virtue and Sanctity That Will Edify Lay Readers, Too

BOOK PICK: ‘Alter Christus’

‘Alter Christus’
‘Alter Christus’ (photo: Sophia Institute Press)

Alter Christus

Priestly Holiness on Earth and in Eternity

By Father Ezra Sullivan, OP

Sophia Institute Press, 2022

240 pages, $17.95 (look for online sale price)

To order: Alter Christus | Sophia Institute Press or (800) 888-9344

How can a priest develop good habits? What are priestly habits anyway? How can a priest become a better preacher? What does hell look like for an unrepentant bad priest? A new book seeks to answer these questions — and more.

Alter Christus, written by Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, a professor at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, offers hands-on advice for priests in their daily lives and presents a vademecum for the road to good habits, virtue and sanctity.

Contrary to common opinion, holiness is not some lofty ideal hanging in the clouds; it is something deeply personal and achievable, something which reveals the incarnate nature of man.

“Saintliness might be called the complex habit that encompasses all virtues to a heroic degree, coherently unifying the powers and inclinations of the individual and directing them to the love of God above all, and then to love of neighbor according to a person’s particular state of life,” Father Sullivan explains. But as with all human beings, the priest does not enjoy good habits by nature; he too has to earn them. And on top of human habits, he has to develop “priestly habits.” This book is the manual for his journey.

Taking into consideration life before seminary, Father Sullivan sets out to smooth the rough edges of the “rough-hewn statue” that is every priest. He elaborates three chief obstacles in the formation of priestly virtues: slowness, overzealousness and complete self-sufficiency. The chief of these is the “Pelagian temptation,” ubiquitous in modern society.

Father Sullivan presents a middle ground, one that avoids all pitfalls: “Priests know in theory that they depend upon God for everything and that they need deeper union with Him. But until that realization animates their interior life and moves them to seek God out through prayer, it remains a theoretical truth to them and not one actualized in their lives.”

Priestly formation has to be Trinitarian, he emphasizes. The priest is called to be a spiritual father and must develop a strong relationship to God the Father. The book lays out the nature of God the Father, the nature of priestly spiritual fatherhood, and the dangers that come with it.

The priest is called to be an alter Christus, another Christ. In order to do this, the priest must become Christlike in all ways. The book presents false ways of understanding this Christoformity: “The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.”

The author also describes the nature and role of the Holy Spirit, the priest’s particular relation to him, and the obstacles which arise in trying to form a Spirit-filled life and presents remedies against them.

Temptations like “ultra-supernaturalism,” meaning a false equivocation of a Spirit-filled life with emotionalism, arbitrariness, and even “chaos” in the spiritual dimension of the soul are common but can be remedied. The apostles seemed like drunken men to the pagans, but the apostolic behavior guided by the Spirit was all but madness and chaotic. The apostles did not allow their passions to take over in those moments, but, rather, were guided by their reason. The Tradition calls this “sober intoxication,” with the emphasis on “sober.”

However, as the priest’s ministry may call him to service at any hour of the day — or night — Father Sullivan goes on to describe the journey of the spiritual life, inviting the reader to embark on a “night of spiritual theology,” where emotions, the imagination and memory play a more prominent role. Precisely in moments of “spiritual darkness” the priest must look upon the Virgin Mary, the angels and saints as guiding examples of firmness of will and faith. As the moon shines light in the darkness of the night, the Virgin Mary mirrors divine light in moments where God seems eclipsed.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the living spiritual life. Here, the author underlines the central truths of the Catholic faith: that divine grace is necessary for salvation and that saving grace comes chiefly through prayer and sacraments: “Ask, and it shall be given to you” (Matthew 7:7). The book presents Christ’s way as the chief example of prayer and offers remedies to some obstacles to prayer such as busyness of life, distractions and spiritual dryness.

Next, Father Sullivan tackles the subject of sin. The priest has to battle sin as his chief obstacle in the religious life. This begins with the acknowledgement of sin.

“Every age and every individual struggles to avoid acknowledging sin, but ‘sin blindness’ is endemic to the modern world,” writes Father Sullivan. He explains how sin blindness is caused by ignorance about the true nature of evil and its disastrous consequences, which goes hand in hand with a false understanding of mercy.

“Even good priests are subject to conditions that can blunt their sensitivity to sin. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt,’ the old adage goes.” The book offers an in-depth analysis of sin by looking at the dignity of the One whom it offends, the gravity of the sin itself and the injuries caused by sin. A priest’s sin is specifically evil, since it — while destroying the natural order of things — also presents a “revolt against God’s sacred authority,” a violation of his holiness and ingratitude for the great gift of holy orders.

The book sheds light on two specific sins that affect the priest most: “These two are, first, sins against divine grace, especially in the celebration of a sacrilegious Mass; and second, acedia, a pernicious but often hidden and forgotten vice.”

Priests are primarily shepherds, but they must act with that given authority in order to truly guide the Church and her people. Here, Father Sullivan presents three abuses of this power along with their remedies: A priest shall never be tyrannical, but rather serve; he should never work as functionary, but instead work as a true and loving disciple of Christ; and a priest shall never be immature, but must take up his cross in a mature way and follow his King, Jesus.

The book, written by a member of the Order of Preachers, ends with some welcome advice on preaching. The closing chapter deals with the Last Things, the priest in eternity, and what happens to those who miss their calling to be holy and good. What does it mean to be a priest in hell? Father Sullivan sheds some shocking light on unfortunate truths and also how to avoid them and what purification for imperfect priests must look like.

While serving as a trusty manual for priests, the book also appeals to the lay reader, with its rich overview of the spiritual life, the place of prayer, meditation, saints, angels, the Virgin Mary, and so forth in it, and how to overcome common obstacles. Concrete suggestions help every faithful Christian to embark on the adventure of the spiritual journey and allow a glimpse of the spiritual fruit that can be expected from such an endeavor.

Alter Christus flows with a legible yet instructive style, countless examples and stories from saints, including Sts. John Vianney, Basil, Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori, Pope Pius X, Philip Neri, John Bosco and Faustina Kowalska. It is a reassuring read that reveals the priest’s true identity and encourages him to embrace holiness. It is richly steeped in theology and based on solid philosophy and psychology.

It does not reinvent the wheel — but it does not have to: It ventures inwards and finds in the depth of the human heart the spiritual truth about man and the true and perennial novelty of the Good News.

Jan Bentz, Ph.D., native to Germany, teaches philosophy at Blackfriars, Oxford. He has worked in journalism for more than a decade based in Rome, covering the Vatican. His academic work focuses on Thomistic metaphysics and Medieval thought in relation to modernity.