An Exhortation to the Clergy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 01, 2011

Are all priests and bishops beset with the evils of concupiscence, covetousness, pride of life and continuous involvement in secular affairs? The answer is “yes” if we mean they are beset with these temptations, but of course it is “no” if we mean they are constantly beset with these sins. Yet there is a tradition of preaching to priests and bishops as if they really are nearly universally beset with these sins.

I said a week or so ago that I’d return from time to time to Fr. John Saward’s marvelous new anthology, Firmly I Believe and Truly: The Spiritual Tradition of Catholic England. In this case, my purpose will be to make a point about effective Catholic preaching.

I grant that it may be a very bad idea to preach to the laity as if they are all hardened sinners about whom not a good word can be said, though this may well be warranted for more advanced souls who are capable of understanding how far they still have to go. But it is, I think, a good idea to take off the gloves when preaching to those—such as priests and bishops—who have been spiritually trained, who have assumed immense spiritual responsibilities, and who must be held to a high standard for the sheer good of the Church.

A practitioner of this highly salutary approach is found in Fr. John Colet, an immensely popular preacher and writer in the late 15th and early 16th century, whose comprehensive Daily Devotions were circulating in more than twenty editions some 200 years after his death. In the present case, however, I am referring to the text of the single sermon of Colet’s which has survived, his Exhortation to the Clergy in Convocation, delivered in 1511 and published in Latin in 1512.

The sermon is based on Romans 12:2: “Be not conformed to this world, but be you reformed by the renewing of your mind; that you may prove what is that good will of God, well-pleasing and perfect.” Colet notes that this is said to all Christians, “but most chiefly to Priests and Bishops” for “Priests and Bishops are the light of the world.” He begins by pointing out that, in this passage, St. Paul forbids one thing and commands another. He forbids that we be conformed to this world. He commands that we be reformed by the renewing of our minds. Thus Colet divides the sermon into two parts. The anthology and this analysis include the first part only; the link above provides the entire text.

Colet wastes no time in warming to his theme:

Be not conformed to this world. By the word world, the Apostle meaneth the ways and manner of secular living; which chiefly consist in four evils of this world, that is, in devilish pride, carnal lust, worldly covetousness, and secular business. These are in the world as St John witnesseth (cf. 1 John 2:16). For he saith, All that is in the world is either the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life. These same things now are and reign in the Church, and ecclesiastical persons; so that we may seem truly to say, All that is in the Church is either the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or pride of life.

On second thought, it is not a bad thing for the laity to hear this once in a while as well. At least if you are bothering to read this column (which, let’s face it, already indicates an above average commitment to spiritual growth), you can take this to heart and respond accordingly—for we all fall far short of the mark.

Under the heading of the pride of life, Colet condemns “how much greediness and appetite of honour and dignity is seen nowadays in Clergymen”. This failing includes running “(yea almost out of breath) from one benefice to another, from the less to the greater, from the lower to the higher.” Moreover, most of the higher clergy “carry their heads so high, and are so stately, that they seem not to be put in the humble Bishopric of Christ, but rather in the high Lordship and power of the world.”

Under the heading of carnal concupiscence, Colet charges that “in this most busy age, the far greater number of priests mind nothing but what doth delight and please their senses.” They occupy themselves in feasts and banquets, spend their time “in vain babbling”, are addicted to hunting and hawking (or perhaps hobbies and sports), and “in a word drowned in the delights of this world.”

Under the heading of covetousness, “which St John calls the lust of the eyes, and St Paul, idolatry,” Colet claims that “this abominable pestilence hath so entered into the minds of almost all priests, hath so blinded the eyes of their understanding, that we see nothing but that which seems to bring unto us some gain.” Referring to common practices in his own day, he specifically condemns “so much suing for tithes, for offerings, for mortuaries, for delapidations, by the right and title of the Church, for which things we contend as eagerly as for our lives.”

Finally, under the heading of continual secular occupation, Colet condemns those habits “wherein Priests and Bishops nowadays do busy themselves, becoming the servants rather of men than God, the warriors rather of this world, than of Jesus Christ.” Citing St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he points out that “no man who is a good soldier of Christ, or that warreth for God, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life, is turmoiled with secular business” [2:3]. This strikes close to the heart in our own era as well, perhaps even at some very common pursuits of the various national episcopal conferences:

For we are mediators and intercessors unto God for men: which St Paul witnesseth writing to the Hebrews, Every Bishop, saith he, taken of men, is ordained for men in those things that be unto God, that he may offer gifts and sacrifices for sins [Heb. 5:1]. Wherefore those Apostles, that were the first Priests and Bishops, did so much abhor all manner of meddling in secular things, that they would not minister the meat that was necessary to poor people, although it were a great work of virtue.

Colet concludes this part of the sermon by drawing upon St. Bernard’s famous point that the bad example of the clergy is far worse even than heresy itself:

By which words he sheweth plainly, that there be two kinds of heresies; one arising from perverse teaching, and the other from naughty life: of which two this latter is far worse, and more perilous; reigning (now) in priests, who do not live like themselves: not priestly, but secularly, to the utter and miserable destruction of the Church of God.

It seem they don’t make them like they used to, doesn’t it? I mean in terms of laying down the real challenge. But with a reminder like this, they certainly could: “Wherefore you Fathers, you priests, and all you of the clergy, at last rouse and look up from this your sleep in this forgetful world; and being well awaked, hear St Paul crying unto you, Be you not conformed to this world.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: timothy.op - Dec. 02, 2011 12:39 AM ET USA


  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 01, 2011 6:52 PM ET USA

    Another great lesson for Advent. If we ever needed holy priests, holy men of God, it is today. Priests must pray and pray often. We must pray and pray often for priests. Someone once said, “The priest and the future priest must find in his priesthood all his religious and apostolic virtues, and firstly the virtue of religion; hence he will respect the primacy of God’s love, divine praise, adoration and prayer.”