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What Makes a Good Priest?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 02, 2008

What makes a good priest? I’ve found the answer in fine book by Dominican Father Basil Cole entitled The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood. From the title, you might think the book is about a conspiracy against priests. But that’s only true if you regard the work of the Devil and the temptations of human vice a conspiracy. Rather, Fr. Cole is concerned to explain the vices to which priests are often prone, and which vitiate their ministries. Clearly this also implies a standard of goodness, but let’s take the bad news first.

Temptation and Vice

Following a general discussion of the lengths to which the Devil will go to lead priests astray, Fr. Cole surveys nine vices through which priests most commonly fall: pride, vainglory, ambition, envy, avarice, gluttony, lust, anger and acedia (spiritual apathy). Drawing heavily on the chief mentor of both his Order and the Church—the book’s subtitle is “The Contributions of Thomas Aquinas”—Fr. Cole clarifies the nature and operation of each of these vices and shows how each one can ensnare the unwary priest, destroying both his spiritual life and his work.

These chapters engage priests precisely where they too often find themselves. For example, the chapter on vainglory deals with the temptation posed by praise, which is often desired by those drawn to public roles. The chapter on ambition is a veritable treatise on the question of whether a priest can ever morally desire to become a bishop. Envy is discussed in the context of the brotherhood of the cloth in which, inevitably, some are recognized for their achievements while others go unnoticed. One by one, Fr. Cole examines these “hidden enemies” specifically as they attack priestly ministry.

Of course knowing how not to be bad is not quite the same thing as knowing how to be good. If the book did nothing more than detail priestly vices, it would disappoint for lack of both a reference point and a goal. Fortunately Fr. Cole avoids this problem by devoting the first three chapters of the book to what a priest is, and what makes a priest good. The first chapter provides an excellent introduction to the nature of the Catholic priesthood according to the clear teachings of the Church. The second emphasizes “the priest as bridegroom and spiritual father”. And the third focuses on the proper priestly attitude toward study. These three chapters together provide as fine an introduction to what makes a good priest as I have ever seen.

Prayer and Contemplation

If I were to attempt to summarize in one word what Fr. Cole is driving at in these three chapters, that word would be “contemplation”. Every priest must be united to Jesus Christ, the High Priest, and must live his entire vocation in persona Christi. The author rightly insists that this can be accomplished only through prayer—deep and constant prayer which rises to the level of contemplation: “When the priest does not know how to contemplate through mental prayer, or even through the rosary, he becomes a working functionary who loses the sense of his own mystery and the mystery of his bride the Church as well” (42). If a priest falls into feverish activity (pursued compulsively or for its own sake), “he quickly loses a relish for prayer, both liturgical and private.” Fr. Cole quotes some wise words from Aquinas, which should guide the spirituality of even the busiest priest:

It is the function of the active life to ponder a truth interiorly so that we may be guided by it in external actions; it is a function of the contemplative life to ponder on an intelligible truth interiorly and take delight in the consideration and love of it. Thus, Augustine says, Let them choose for themselves the better part, that is, the contemplative life, let them dedicate themselves to the word, yearn for the sweetness of truth, occupy themselves with saving knowledge. (ST II-II 181, 3)

Fr. Cole emphasizes that all priests must learn to contemplate (or, perhaps more precisely, to dispose themselves properly for contemplation), even though most are called to the active ministry and so will not live a contemplative lifestyle. “We may not always be able to meditate,” he notes, “But we can always drop our masks and turn our heart to him who loves us and hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed.” (55)

It is in this context that the life of the priest unfolds, a life of prayer and union which must lie at the heart of the priest’s identity as a bridegroom of the Church and a spiritual father to the Church’s children. It is also in this context that the priest must wage his continuous battle against those “hidden enemies”—those vices—which occupy the later chapters of the book. Finally, it is this context of contemplative prayer which must inform and shape what Fr. Cole calls a “quasi-sacrament” for the priest, namely study.

Christian Study

By their very role in the life of the Church, priests are inescapably called to an especially deep understanding of the truth. Hence all priests are called to study. Unfortunately, this can be a temptation in itself, a temptation to be recognized as an “expert”, or to be considered a source rather than a servant of truth, or to substitute mere cleverness for deeper insight. Instead, study must be the handmaid of contemplation, another means of uniting oneself with that full truth which is Jesus Christ. To underscore this point, it is sufficient to quote from the conclusion to the chapter on study:

To think of study as a mere game of the mind and having no bearing on the life of prayer is an illusion…. The key to opening up the treasure of divine truth is…to acquire this virtue of studiousness and integrate it with the theological virtues, and prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. When this happens, then a true spirituality of study is alive and active not only in an individual priest but also in religious communities and seminaries, dioceses, and even university faculties.

As I’ve indicated, the chapter on study does not mark the end of Fr. Cole’s book. Rather, it closes off the section on what makes a priest good and lays the groundwork for a penetrating (one might say studious) analysis of those vices which are, as we have seen, the priest’s hidden enemies. But the first three chapters, and especially the second in which contemplation emerges as the key, are the necessary foundation for all that follows. Thus The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood provides both a lucid explanation of what it takes to become a good priest and a practical reflection on the vices which too often ruin the work. For priests and seminarians, this is essential reading.

[Basil Cole, OP, The Hidden Enemies of the Priesthood: The Contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas (The Society of St. Paul / Alba House, New York, 2007) Paperback, 234 pp., $22.95.]

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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