A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 14: The Special Obligation of the Priest and the Religious to Tend to Perfection

Since we have spoken of the general obligation by which every Christian, according to his condition, must tend to perfection in virtue of the supreme precept of the love of God, it seems fitting to treat briefly the special obligation which exists on this point for the religious and for every priest, whether he has made the vows of religion or not. We must show here especially how the virtue of religion ought ever to be increasingly under the influence of the virtue of charity, of a stronger and purer love of God.


This obligation is based on religious profession; the grace of religious profession is not transitory but permanent if the religious is faithful. As St. Thomas says: "Properly speaking, one is said to be in the state of perfection, not through making an act of perfect love, but because he binds himself permanently and with a certain solemnity to what leads to perfection." (1) "Both these conditions are competent to religious and bishops. For religious bind themselves by vow to refrain from worldly affairs, which they might lawfully use, in order more freely to give themselves to God. . . . In like manner, bishops bind themselves to things pertaining to perfection, when they take up the pastoral duty, to which it belongs that a shepherd 'lay down his life for his sheep.' " (2)

Strictly speaking, the religious thus makes "profession to tend toward perfection." "Not as though I had already attained," says St. Paul, "or were already perfect; but I follow after, if I may by any means apprehend, wherein I am also apprehended by Christ Jesus." (3) As a result, the religious does not commit a sin of hypocrisy because he is not perfect, but he would commit it if he did not tend more sincerely to perfection. In his case, this special obligation is identified with that of observing his three vows and his rule.(4) But this obligation must always be considered in its relation to the general obligation based on the great precept of the love of God and one's neighbor. When this is done, the religious life keeps all its loftiness and appears not only under its canonical or juridical aspect, but with its great spiritual meaning.

From this point of view, we see the true import of this principle, which must not be understood in a material and mechanical fashion by multiplying the vows without reason: "It is better and more meritorious to do one and the same deed with a vow than without." (5) It does not follow from this statement that vows should always be multiplied in order to have greater merit; but the religious ought to observe his three vows better and better by more profoundly penetrating the three following reasons given by St. Thomas in the section where he explains this principle:

1) The vow is an act of the virtue of religion or of latria which is superior to the virtues of obedience, chastity, and poverty; the acts of these virtues it offers as worship to God.

2) By a perpetual vow, especially if it is solemn, man offers to God not only an isolated act, but the faculty itself. It is better to give the tree with its fruits than to offer the fruits alone.

3) By the vow, the will fixes itself firmly and irrevocably in the good. It is more meritorious to act thus, just as, on the other hand, it is more grave to sin by a will that is obstinate in evil.

When a person lives according to this spirit, he grasps more and more concretely and vividly what theology teaches: namely, that by the three vows, which belong to the very essence of the religious state, the religious, as St. Thomas shows,(6) separates himself from what would hinder his affections from being wholly directed toward God. If he does not take back his offering, he offers himself totally to the Lord as a holocaust. His state is thus a state of separation from the world, especially from the spirit of the world, and a state of consecration to God.

Three things especially may hinder his affection from being completely directed toward God: the concupiscence of the eyes or the desire of exterior things, the concupiscence of the flesh, and the pride of life, the love of independence. These he renounces by his three vows; then he offers to God exterior goods through poverty, his body and his heart through religious chastity, his will through obedience. He has nothing more that he can offer and, if in reality he does not take back what he has given, but practices ever more perfectly, with a greater love of God and of his neighbor, the three virtues corresponding to the three vows, he truly offers to God a perfect sacrifice meriting the name of holocaust. His life is thus, with the Divine Office, the daily accompaniment of the Sacrifice of the Mass. His life is an act of worship, and even an act of latria offered to God, by the virtue of religion. This is true especially if the religious, far from taking back his gift once he has bestowed it, often renews his promises with greater merit than when he made them for the first time. In fact, merit grows in him with charity and the other virtues, and thereby his consecration to God becomes increasingly intimate and complete.

What is the end of this triple renunciation and triple oblation or consecration? St. Thomas (7) answers that it is union with God, which ought daily to become more intimate, and, as it were, the prelude of eternal life. The religious ought to reach it by the imitation of Christ, who is "the way, the truth, and the life." Christ, as man, was completely separated from the spirit of the world, and as united to God as is possible. By the grace of personal union with the Word, His nature was wholly consecrated, His intellect rendered infallible, His will impeccable; in Him all thoughts, every act of the will, and all the emotions of His sensibility were from God and were directed to God. The sovereign dominion of God has never been as completely exercised as in the sacred humanity of the Savior.

Now, the religious makes profession to follow Him; but, whereas Christ came from above, the religious comes from below, from the region of sin, and he must separate himself progressively from all that is inferior in order to consecrate himself more and more intimately to God. Then will be realized in him the exhortation of St. Paul: "Seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead; and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory." (8) In his commentary on this epistle, St. Thomas says: "Do not taste the things of the world, for you are dead to the world; your life is hidden with Christ. He is hidden as far as we are concerned because He is in the glory of God His Father, and likewise the life which comes to us from Him is hidden, according to these words of Scripture: 'O how great is the multitude of Thy sweetness, O Lord, which Thou hast hidden for them that fear Thee, which Thou hast wrought for them that hope in Thee' (Ps. 30:20). 'To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna, and will give him . . . a new name written, which no man knoweth but he that receiveth it'" (Apoc. 2: 17).

This spiritual manna, remotely symbolized by the manna of the desert, is the food of the soul; it is infused contemplation, which proceeds from living faith illumined by the gifts of the Holy Ghost. Thus, says St. Thomas, the active life (or the exercise of the moral virtues) disposes to the contemplative life of union with God,(9) and especially, "virginity is directed to the good of the soul in respect of the contemplative life." (10) As a result, every religious life tends to the more and more perfect fulfillment of the precept of divine love and to very close union with God.

Therefore it is advisable always to consider the special obligation of the religious to tend to perfection in its relation to the general obligation which is based on the supreme precept of love. The latter rises far above the three evangelical counsels, since they are only means or instruments to reach more rapidly and surely the perfection of charity or close union with God, which radiates on one's neighbor in a way that is increasingly fruitful.(11)

Thus, under the inspiration of the three theological virtues, the three religious virtues find full exercise. A very close bond is established between them; so truly, it has been said, that the hope of eternal beatitude is as the soul of holy poverty, which abandons earthly goods for those of eternity. Charity is the soul of religious chastity, which renounces an inferior love for a much higher one. Faith is the soul of obedience, which fulfills the orders of superiors as if they were revealed by God Himself. Thus the religious life leads truly to contemplation and to close union with God.


Since a religious (even a simple lay brother or a sister) has a special obligation to tend to perfection, with even greater reason the same obligation holds for a priest, even though he is not a religious. True, the priest who lives in the midst of the world is not, properly speaking, in the "state of perfection"; if he became a religious, he would have an additional merit, that of the vows of poverty and obedience.(12) Nevertheless he ought to tend to perfection, properly so called, by reason of his ordination and of his holy functions, which demand a greater interior sanctity than that required by the religious state (13) in a lay brother or a sister. This special obligation is not distinct from that of accomplishing holily and worthily the various duties of the priestly life. In virtue of the supreme precept, they must even be fulfilled more and more perfectly with the progress of charity, which ought to grow until death.

The basis of this obligation is ordination to the priesthood and the lofty character of the acts for which it is conferred. This ordination requires, not only the state of grace and special aptitudes, but an initial perfection (bonitas vitae) superior to that required for entering religion.(14) The priest, in fact, ought to enlighten others, and it would be fitting that he himself should be in the illuminative way, as it would be fitting that the bishop should be in the unitive way of the perfect.

In addition, the effects of ordination are the sacerdotal character, an indelible participation in the priesthood of Christ, and sacramental grace, which makes possible the fulfillment of the priestly functions in a holy manner, as should be the case in a worthy minister of Christ.(15) This sacramental grace is like a modality which is added to sanctifying grace, and which gives the right to receive actual helps for the holy, and indeed for the increasingly holy, accomplishment of the acts of the priestly life. This grace is like a feature of the spiritual countenance of the priest, who ought to become a minister ever more conscious of the greatness and the holy exigencies of his priesthood.

Priestly ordination is certainly superior to religious profession, and the special obligation of tending to perfection which it establishes is surely not less. This is why during the ceremony of ordination the bishop tells the candidate for the priesthood that he must henceforth "study to live in a holy and religious manner, and to please God in all things." If even everyone of the faithful, each according to his condition, must by reason of the supreme precept of the love of God, tend to the perfection of charity, with even greater reason is this true of the priest. We read in St. Matthew: "For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound." (16)

Speaking on this subject to the minister of God, the author of The Imitation of Christ says: "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 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 man, but with the angels in heaven, or with perfect men upon earth." (17)

In relation to Christ present in the Eucharist and to His mystical body, the priestly functions show better than even ordination does, this special obligation to tend to perfection. When the priest celebrates the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he is like the figure of Him in whose name he speaks, the figure of Christ who offered Himself for us. The priest should be a minister conscious of the greatness of his functions, and he ought to strive for an ever closer union in heart and soul with the principal Priest who is at the same time the sacred Victim, sacerdos et hostia. To mount the altar steps without the firm will to grow in charity would be hypocrisy, or at least an indirectly culpable negligence. Daily the minister of Christ ought to say with greater sanctity: "Hoc est enim corpus meum. . . . Hic est calix sanguinis mei." His Communion should be substantially more fervent each day by reason of a greater promptness of the will in the service of God, since the sacrament of the Eucharist ought not only to preserve but to increase charity in us.

Consequently St. Thomas says: "By holy orders a man is appointed to the most august ministry of serving Christ Himself in the sacrament of the altar. For this requires a greater inward holiness than that which is requisite for the religious state." (18) This is why, as we read in the same article, other things being equal, the priest who places an act contrary to holiness sins more grievously than a religious who is not a priest.

The sanctity becoming to the minister of God at the altar is thus described in The Imitation of Christ: "The priest, clad in sacred vestments, is Christ's vicegerent that he may suppliantly and humbly pray to God for himself and all the people. He has before and behind him the sign of the cross of our Lord, that he may ever remember the passion of Christ. . . . Behind him he is marked with the cross, that he may learn to suffer meekly for God's sake all the evil that men may do him. He wears the cross before him that he may bewail his own sins; and on his back, that through compassion he may lament the sins of others, and know that he is placed as mediator between God and the sinner. . . . When a priest celebrates, he honors God, he edifies the Church, he helps the living, he obtains rest for the departed, and makes himself partaker of all good things." (19)

Likewise he should say the Divine Office with dignity, attention, and true piety. This great prayer of the Church is like the accompaniment of the Sacrifice of the Mass; it precedes it as a prelude, and it follows it. The Office is the canticle of the spouse of Christ from dawn until dark, and it is a great honor to take part in it. During its recitation the great intentions of the Church (for example, the pacification of the world through the extension of the kingdom of Christ) should be kept in mind.

Lastly, the priest has a special obligation to tend to perfection that he may accomplish his functions well in relation to the mystical body of Christ. For the sanctification of souls, he shares in the office which belongs first of all to the bishop, whose cooperator he should be. Thus the Council of Trent says: "Nothing leads the faithful more surely to true piety than the good example of the priest. The eyes of men rest on him as on a mirror of perfection to be imitated. So he ought to order his life, his manners, his exterior, his gestures, and his words in such a way that he may always preserve the gravity, moderation, and piety that he should have." (20) The priest who lives in the midst of the world is not obliged to make the vow of poverty, but he ought to be free from attachment to worldly things, willingly bestowing them upon the poor. He ought also to obey his bishop and to be the servant of the faithful in spite of difficulties and sometimes even of calumnies.

The need of this perfection appears especially for the work of preaching, of hearing confessions, and in the direction of souls. That preaching may be living and fruitful, the priest must speak from the abundance of his heart. St. Thomas even says that preaching should "proceed from the fullness of contemplation," (21) from the living, penetrating, delightful faith in the mystery of Christ, in the infinite value of the Mass, in the value of sanctifying grace and of eternal life. The priest should preach like a savior of souls, and he should work incessantly for the salvation not only of a few, but of many souls. He should not have received the priesthood in vain.

Likewise for the ministry of confession and direction, the priest must have a burning and luminous soul, a "hunger and thirst for the justice of God"; otherwise his ministry may become a danger to him; instead of saving souls, he himself may fall. If life does not ascend, it descends; and that it may not descend, it must rise like a flame. Especially in the spiritual life, he who does not advance, falls back. Finally, souls of whom the Lord is asking much, at times have recourse to the priest, and they should be able to find in him real help that they may walk truly in the way of sanctity. They should never have to go away without having, so to speak, received something.

We have been particularly impressed with what has been said on this subject by a friend of the Cure of Ars, the venerable Father Chevrier, a priest of Lyons, who accomplished immense good in that city.(22) He used to tell the priests whom he trained that they should always keep the crib, Calvary, and the tabernacle before their eyes. The crib, he would say, should remind them of poverty; a priest should be poor in his dwelling, his clothing, and his food. He should be humble of spirit and of heart in his relations with God and man. The greater his poverty in this regard, the more he glorifies God and is useful to his neighbor. The priest is a man who is despoiled.

Calvary should remind him of the necessity of immolation; he ought to die, to his body, to his own mind, his will, his reputation, his family, and the world. He ought to immolate himself by silence, prayer, work, penance, suffering, and death. The more a priest dies to himself, the more life he possesses and gives to others. The true priest is a crucified man.

The tabernacle should remind him of the charity he ought to have. He ought to give his body, mind, time, goods, health, and life. He should give others life by his faith, doctrine, words, prayer, powers, and example. The priest should be like good bread; he is a man who is consumed.

This was the teaching of Father Chevrier, who opened a catechism class in Lyons for the most abandoned children. To gain admission it sufficed "to possess nothing, to know nothing, to be worth nothing." His supernatural life was such that he made true Christians and often great Christians of many of these children. With a minimum of material resources, he thus reaped a truly exceptional supernatural harvest.

Such is the ideal of the priesthood which every priest ought to keep before his eyes, at the same time recalling what St. Paul says: "But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls; although loving you more, I be loved less." (23) He would do well also to recall the words of Christ: "I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also." (24)


"It is necessary that he who will be raised up to teach and instruct the people in virtue, should be holy in all things, and in no way reprehensible. He who convinces another of sin, should himself be free from sin. First of all, he who seeks to admonish others to live well ought to correct himself; so that in all things he himself may furnish an example of living and incite all to good work by teaching and work. For him a knowledge of Scripture also is necessary; for if the life of a bishop is so holy, to him alone, thus living, it is profitable. Besides, if he shall be learned in doctrine and speech, he can also instruct others and teach his people, and repulse adversaries who, unless they can be refuted and convicted, may easily pervert the hearts of the simple.

"His speech should be pure, simple, open, full of gravity and honesty, sweetness and grace, treating of the mystery of the law, of the doctrine of faith, of the virtue of continency, of the discipline of justice; admonishing by various exhortations each and every one according to the profession and quality of established customs. . . whose special office it is to read Scripture, to peruse the canons, to imitate the examples of the saints, to practice vigils, fastings, and prayers; to have peace with his brethren, not to tear to pieces any of those committed to his care; to damn no one unless he be proved guilty, to excommunicate no one unless he has been tried. He ought to be outstanding alike in humility and authority, so that he may not cause the vices of his subjects to grow through excessive humility. Nor should he exercise the power of severity without moderation, but should be so much the more cautious toward those committed to his care, as he fears to be more severely examined by Christ.

"He will also have charity which is supereminent among all gifts, without which all virtue is nothing. Charity is, indeed, the guardian of chastity. Humility, moreover, is the place where it is kept. He will likewise have, among all these things, eminent chastity: thus, as his mind is given to Christ, he should be spotless and free from carnal impurity. Among these things, it behoves him to take care of the poor with careful distribution, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, receive pilgrims, redeem captives, protect widows and orphans, show prudent care in all things, provide with careful discretion. Hospitality should likewise be outstanding in him, that he may receive all with benignity and charity. If, indeed, all the faithful would like to hear those words of the Gospel: 'I was a stranger, and you took me in,' how much more, should the bishop, who ought to be the receiver of all diverse peoples?"

This page shows clearly what should be understood by the commonly accepted expression, that bishops are in the state of perfection (in statu perfectionis exercendae) to be exercised. Hence it is fitting, as has so often been said, that they should be in the unitive way.

The religious state is one in which man tends to perfection, status perfectionis acquirendae. To form a proper idea of it, one should read and meditate on the admirable pages in the Rule of St. Benedict on religious perfection and union with God, which ought daily to become more intimate in a life consecrated to the Lord. It would be profitable to study also what is said from the same comprehensive point of view about religious perfection by Blessed Humbert of the Romans, in his Expositio Regulae B. Augustini et super Constitutiones Fratrum Praedicatorum.(26) This work is a golden book for the formation of religious and for their preparation for the different offices to which obedience may assign them.



1. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a.4.

2. Ibid.,a.5.

3. Phil. 3: 12.

4. Cf. Salmanticenses, Theol. moralis, IV, De statu religioso, initio, nos. 10-25.

5. Summa, IIa IIae, q.88, a.6.

6. Ibid., q. 186, a.7.

7. Ibid., q. 184, a.5: "For religious bind themselves by vow to refrain from worldly things which they might lawfully use, in order more freely to give themselves to God, wherein consists the perfection of the present life."

8. Col. 3: 1-4.

9. See IIa IIae, q.182, a.4: "The active life precedes the contemplative life because it disposes one to it."

10. Ibid., q.152, a.4.

11. Ibid., q. 184, a. 3: "Primarily and essentially, the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of our neighbor, both of which are the matter of the chief commandment of the divine law. . . . Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the counsels. . . which are directed to the removal of things that hinder the act of charity."

12. Ibid., a.6.

13. Ibid., a.8.

14. Ibid., q.189, a.1 ad 3um; 184, a.7 f.; Supplement, q.36, a.1, 3; q.40, a.4.

15. Ibid., Supplement, q.35, a.1, 2.

16. Matt. 13: 12.

17. The Imitation, Bk. IV, chap. 5.

18. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a.8.

19. The Imitation, Bk. IV, chap. 5.

20.  Council of Trent, Sess. XXII, chap. I.

21. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 188, a.6.

22. Antoine Lestra, Le Pere Chevrier, 1935

23.  See II Cor. 12:15.

24. John 13: I5.

25.  Ex libro II Officiorum ad S. Fulgemium, chap. 5.

26. Ed. Berthier, Rome, 1889.