Project Canterbury

The Holy Priest

by the Rt. Rev. Wm. E. McLaren, S.T.D.
Bishop of Chicago

Milwaukee, WI: The Young Churchman, 1899. 176 pp.

The Duty of Sanctity.

THE cultivation of the Christian virtues with intention to aim at that measure of holiness, which our Lord Jesus Christ exemplified, and which He has required of His disciples, is more than the privilege of a few choice spirits—it is a duty obligatory upon all, and especially upon those who are called to the Holy Priesthood of His Church, since they are required as His undershepherds to be "wholesome examples and patterns of the flock of Christ."


THE holy priest is pledged by the very nature of the Divine Being to seek the utmost attainable conformity with His will and nature.

God is ineffably holy. Consummate spiritual excellence is the very essence of our idea of Him. Although we contemplate His moral attributes separately, it is only out of deference to our own weakness: in point of fact what we call attributes are an infinite synthesis of moral perfections, so glorious, so resplendent with beauty, so inconceivably rich in all the qualities which are naturally innate in Divine Being, that nothing as perfectly expresses their general charm and splendor as the ascription, Holy! Holy! Holy!

The pages of revelation testify to God's moral beauty, but it is personally illustrated in utmost perfection in the incarnate Christ, who is the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person; and this manifestation of the spiritual perfection of God arrests the attention and commands the admiration of the world. But its power is immeasurably deepened when the heart of man reaches an experimental knowledge of God, when belief passes into trust, when life transcends its own finite sphere and rests in the infinite love of God. Then, as never before, man discovers the awe-inspiring holiness of God, and then, as never before, with a glow of simple faith, he yields to the attractive power of that ideal purity which would draw all souls to itself. "As He which called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy."

God is, therefore, at once the model and motive of holiness. Holiness in man is the reproduction of His moral beauty and perfectness. It would be an immoral thought to conceive of Him as less than holy, and as immoral to think of Him as assenting to a lower standard for man. It would, therefore, be in the worst sense a dishonor to His very nature should His creatures propose to themselves a less perfect ideal. A low standard of moral character among the people is the inevitable result of a priesthood not aiming at the highest possible sanctity, but the worst of it is that there is but slight reflection of God's sanctity, notwithstanding He has most urgently commanded His image to be perfectly reproduced.

The obligation which rests upon a Christian priest to perfect holiness in the fear of the Lord is implied in his vocation to the ministry.


Vocation rests not upon favoring environment, or natural circumstances, but upon the predestination of God, who makes His will manifest: (1), in the internal pressure of conscience duly enlightened; (2), in the outward dispositions of His providence, and (3), in the Church's perception that a man has this twofold call. "No man taketh this honor to himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron."

The call is individual, like that which came to Samuel at midnight in the temple's silence. It says to each one, "Thou art the man" of the divine selection, and great is the favor thou hast found in the eyes of the Lord; forget not the solemn citation: its bugle-note, resounding in memory's chambers, shall revive drooping courage, freshen thy sense of vocation, and to the end of life remind thee that thou art called pre-eminently to a life of holiness, and that thou shalt serve Christ best when thou art most like Christ.

The call is to a separate life—to a consecrated order, having peculiar functions; but also to a distinct type of character, in the acquisition of which the priest must spend his best strength and make every needed sacrifice. The call is a calling out from and a separation unto, severance going before consecration; and consecration involving specific traits which are peculiar to the office. In a good sense, all Christians contribute to the solidarity of the Christian priesthood, but there is a priestly character which is impressed upon those only who receive the sacrament of Holy Order, and that character has its perfect fulfilment only in the most exalted acquisitions of sanctity.

The call is to that state of life wherein the priest shall find his best opportunity of working out his salvation. "Take heed to thyself and to the doctrine; continue in them; for in so doing thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee." He may, therefore, with certainty infer from the call to the ministry that divine wisdom has selected this as for him the most favorable environment, the most propitious career, the safest path to heaven. Many are they who would have been lost, if they had not given heed to the summons of the Master to serve Him in the ministry.


The obligatory character of this summons to cultivate holiness appears in striking relief in the vow wherewith vocation meets its response.

A priest's vow is the willing, intelligent, and heartfelt promise of a free man, made, in the presence of witnesses, to the Most High God, by which promise he binds himself for life to certain specified duties and to all their implications, objective and subjective. Here are seven distinct features:

1. The vow is not enforced, but freely made by a free agent.

2. It is done with a good understanding of the act.

3. It is done toto corde, as an act of love.

4. It is public.

5. It is of the nature of an oath before God.

6. It is not temporary as to its term.

7. Its subject-matter is definite—specified or implied.

As to its nature the priestly vow involves three things:

1. The renunciation of everything, internal and external, which is inconsistent with the vow. As in confirmation a person solemnly owns himself "bound to believe and to do" certain things, so here the priest acknowledges obligations which are to bind him like chains, and require of him the sacrifice of many former liberties. He becomes douloV Cristou and finds in this sweet servitude true liberty.

2. The consecration of all that he is or has, or ever expects to be or to have, to the glory of Christ and the service of His Church. This perfect consecration is not the consecration of a perfect man. He has nothing save his nothingness to offer, but with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

3. The resolution of his fixed heart that he will aim at the highest attainable degree of absorption in the blessed will of God, ever pressing on to know Him better, to live in holy familiarity with His majesty, and by the power of humility to make less of self as God becomes more and more to him, so that self shall take no pleasure in the things of nature except as they are necessary, and no pleasure in anything out of God. Any other ideal of life would be belittling.


The priest is pledged to seek the best gifts of grace by the character of his duties and the relation he bears to the great High Priest.

By his ordination he is brought into fellowship with One who was not only "without sin" but was also radiant with the spiritual splendor of heaven. The Word made flesh was clothed with "the glory as of the only begotten of the Father." It is necessary continually to reanimate our apprehension of His awful purity, not so much because of any doubt that He was and is immaculate, as because all of our personal contact with humanity is with imperfect humanity. Instinctively, we correlate moral deficiency with the nature of man, and for this reason we require a strong effort and many of them to renew and maintain with firm adoration the conception of a Man "holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens." It is this wonderful Christ whom the priest represents. "Qui mihi ministrat, me sequatur."

This relation involves a virtual impartation of His mediatorial functions to His agents. He is the One Great Sacerdos; as a bloody offering the One Great Sacrifice was "once for all;" but His eternal priesthood did not cease, as the imperfect priesthood of the old law did with the dying priests. "This man, because He liveth forever, hath an unchangeable priesthood." As our priest, He hath "entered into heaven now to appear in the presence of God for us," but, as our priest, He has come again. "I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you." He has come to do for us what could not be done on earth did He not do it. Without His potential presence, we should have neither the sign nor the grace of a. sacrament, while the Church would be a rope of sand without coherence or corporeity. Truth would be perpetual fluctuation, and the great Interposition would have dropped to the level of a historic incident and been superceded ages ago by new devices of religion.

But His promise has been fulfilled—He is with His Church, and shall be to the end of the world. He does not "dwell among us" in visible majesty as when S. John beheld Him "full of grace and truth."

"He walketh no more by blue Galilee's shore,
And Gethsemane's prayer has dissolved in thin air,"

but He is with us still. What He did in the flesh, seen and heard of men, He is doing instrumentally.

The One Essential Priest, He pours out His power upon a delegated priesthood. The principle is— "in Christ's stead." It is Christ's priestly work that is done, and the virtue is from Him alone. The representative priest stands at the Gate Beautiful of the Church, to baptize, to absolve, to offer sacrifice, to teach, to evangelize, to perform every function to which he was called, doing all "in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth," but ever protesting, "ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? * * * His name, through faith in His name, hath made this man strong."

The great priest, then, is the potential baptizer, confirmer, absolver, sacrificer; and thus hath the Church ever taught. Said S. Augustine: "Paul baptizes, Christ baptizes; Peter baptizes, Christ baptizes; Judas baptizes, Christ baptizes."

This representative relation can bear to the priest's heart but one message, and that is—"be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." Every act of his priestly life presupposes his personal holiness, and is, if rightly used, a grace to that end.

Behold him as he ascends the steps of the altar! At that holy spot, he is to say and do, definitely, what the Son of God did and said at the Last Supper. O, solemn moment—to take the bread into his hands, and to break it, and to say the very Words!—to lay his hand on the bread, and say, "This is My Body;" to take the cup into his hand, as did the Lord on the same night in which He was betrayed, and utter over it the same omnific Words!—and then to make before the Majesty of heaven, with these holy gifts now offered, the commanded Memorial, and give to His disciples His very Body and Blood! O, to be called and commissioned to do for Christ what Christ did in the "large upper room," and in His name to perpetuate the tremendous objective reality of those Holy Mysteries, what manner of man ought a priest to be! What alterations of dominant motive should come to him! What new departures of character are demanded of him! What purity, what humility, what dying to the world and living unto God, should be his!


The holy priest is pledged to the highest possible sanctity by the special responsibility which rests on his order to set forward the kingdom of heaven among men.

He knows that Christ Jesus is on His mediatorial throne, that all power is given unto Him in heaven and in earth, and that "He must reign till He hath put all things under His feet." He exults in the sure dawning of the day, when, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. In the confidence of this perfect hope, he can hear the trumpet of the seventh angel, shouting, "the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever."

But (with a sad heart, and, sometimes, with weary plaint, How long, O Lord?) he sees that final victory is the "far off divine event;" nor has he forgotten S. Paul's farewell words to the presbyter-bishops of Ephesus, "Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ownselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." Yes, times of refreshing will be succeeded by times of depression. Ages of faith shall merge into ages of unbelief. Through valleys, as over mountains, the ark of God shall be borne forward.

And how evident it is that these alterations correspond to the character of the people who profess and call themselves Christians. If they are dominated by the spirit of the world, the Church languishes. When they seek first the kingdom of righteousness, the Church arises and shines.

That it is the will of God to subject the cause of heaven to the vacillations of earth is the testimony of history, and that it shall be thus to the end is taught us by S. Peter, for he says, "In the last days shall perilous times come."

The holy priest analyzes the common responsibility of the Church to find it as much an individual as a general obligation, and that he is personally answerable for all that he can do.

But a further step in the analysis reveals to him the larger influence on the fortunes of religion which is exerted by one who fully exemplifies its principles in his interior character. Not what a priest does, but what he is, makes him a power for good. He must take heed to the doctrine, but first to himself, says S. Paul. How can he bring disciples to perfection, who does not seek perfection? To build up the Church, he must be growing unto an holy temple in the Lord. How can he keep the Faith if he has not faith? Where is his honor, his manhood, when he is aiming to do for others what he does not do for himself? How can he accomplish heaven-blessed results when the love of God beats low in his heart? It is one thing to carry the cross as a banner—quite another to bear it as a burden which bruises the flesh and crushes out self-love. Ah, what happiness is his when he considers how his daily spiritual life (in itself worthy no future but oblivion) is contributive to the final triumph of Christ, and how closely lie is thus conformed to the likeness of the Son of God, who, in the unutterable intimacy of His communion with the Father, said, "As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself that they also might be sanctified through the truth."


The current activities of the day, tending to exteriority and material standards of success, demand heroic fidelity to God in the inner life of the Christian priest.

There is intense activity in all that pertains to external growth. The stream rushes and swells, and even lashes itself into foam, but it is not the deep-flowing river. In the sphere of the individual Christian life there is much truth in the remark of the late Bishop of Brechin: "The tear-stained book of private prayer of Lancelot Andrewes, the dying meditations of Richard Hooker on the 'number and nature of angels and their blessed obedience and order, without which peace could not be in heaven,' are almost as unreal to this age as the rapturous communings of Ignatius in the cave at Manresa, or the mysterious exhibitions of Divine Love which visited Francis of Assisi on the mountains of Alvernia." We are tempted to plead in extenuation that we live in the age of steam and electricity, and that we must be governed by the spirit of our time. Yes, but steam is an invisible vapor, generated in secret tubes, and electricity, before it flashes, must be begotten in the darkness. Spiritual development cannot be healthful unless its forces have their genesis in the quiet retreats of prayer. Work is a vain thing, if we do not get away from it very often that we may have time to practise silently that interior self-possession of the heart, through detachment from all created things, which will keep our souls calm, and pure, and right before God, and so enable us to do really effective service in external things. The remark applies with peculiar force to those priests who are serving God in the whirl of great cities, and are not so wholly deafened by the clangor of the age but that they can still hear the Aeolian music of the Spirit breathing upon the strings of their hearts, and reminding them of that higher life which is "quietness and assurance forever."

Priests should trace the line of their descent. Follow it back, step by step, till they reach the first apostles. It brings them to the presence of the Lord. There He stands among His disciples with the dew of the morning upon His garments, and from their number He chooses out twelve to be His apostles, upon whom He will build the foundations of His Church. But where has He been through the night that preceded this first ordination? We must go to S. Luke for the answer: "And it came to pass in those days that He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God; and when it was day He called unto Him His disciples, and of them He chose twelve whom He also named apostles." The voice which commissioned them has gone out into all the world and through all the ages, calling men to the apostolic ministry, but calling them to no less lofty ideal of that ministry than He Himself exemplified. What need had He for retiracy and recollection, for self-possession and serenity, which they do not more than share? What privileges had He under the shadow of the Almighty which may not in kind, if not in degree, be theirs?

O, my God, when shall some strong voice strike the souls of ordered men, and rouse them to life? When shall devotion to secondary things be made to blush over its presumption? When shall this abounding interest in everything but the one thing needful hide its shameless face? Are we never again to have among us men who shall illustrate their vocation as imitators (mimhtai) of God?

An English ecclesiastic has well said (and O that his words may not fall on stony places!) : "We are assured every week of the year that we are passing through an ecclesiastic crisis of some kind or other, and what we really have to do, and what Christians have really to think about, is how they are going to face this or that political problem. What is going to be their duty towards this problem of disestablishment, and that great problem of another kind ? And you would judge that was the main thing which Christianity had to be doing; it was to be forever adjusting itself to this or that particular situation, and learning to confront this or that of the world's great movements as it appears. This is just what our Lord bids us not to do. The point is whether we are nourishing the fundamental basis of spiritual life. This is forever and forever the real question."


Every other conceivable aspect of the subject emphasizes the obligation which rests upon ordered men to be able ministers of the new testament, not of the letter, but of the spirit.

1. While the holiest of men only dimly reflect God, and while it is unfair to judge Him by their best, it is still true that the honor of God is very much involved in the character of those who profess to be His, and especially of those who are called in addition to be "ensamples to the flock." Their best attainments dimly yet truly reflect God. On the other hand, those who are half-hearted or no-hearted as to the higher walks of the life of faith, raise, in the mind of the world—the great critical world so ready to detect falseness!—the question whether or not religion is a reality, than which no proposition could be more destructive of reverence for God's person and of consideration for His will. It is a thought which pierces like a stiletto to think of the depressed condition of interior religion among the people, matched, if not occasioned, by the spiritual laxity of their priests, and then to reflect that His Divine Majesty is tried and condemned for their lukewarmness. O, what manner of men, what crucifiers of self, ought priests to be, seeing how decisive their influence upon the laity, and seeing how God's way is known upon earth by the walk and conversation of priests and people who profess to love Him.

2. Everyone should secretly put to himself this question, Am I held and hereafter to be held accountable only for my life as it is? for this present poor measure of response to the command, Be holy? Or, must I answer now and in that day for what God's law has enjoined and God's grace made possible? There are diversities of gifts and of vocations, neither can every disciple be counted "among the seraphim." In grace, as in nature, one star differeth from another star in glory. But no Christian man has any vocation to hide his light under a bushel. If it is only a spark, a single ray, he must shine as a light (fwsthr=light-source) in the world. O, hour of crisis, when a priest perceives that all his tendencies are in the direction of conventional respectability, and that he is held back from nobler planes of character by earthly passions and aims! God help him to be strong in that hour, and especially help that one who, having humble gifts and "hard lines," is tempted to hide his Lord's money in the earth!

3. Motives of action grounded on future exposure to penalty or consequence rest lightly on the conscience at present, but surely current events do not show that law to have been repealed which fixes the character of the harvest by the nature of the seed that is sown. "For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption, but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting." O, heart-searching Father, if Thou art exposed to the indignity of being judged of men according to the character of Thy people, there is coming a time when they shall be judged of Thee, and may they spare themselves the consternation of the judgment-seat by present courage in the acquisition of holiness! Restore to them the grace of fear and trembling, lest for their ears dulled and eves closed it shall be to them that "whosoever hath not from him shall be taken away even that he hath."

4. It ought to be a great deal to the priest in the way of stimulus to consider the intensity beyond our power to conceive it of the interest which the Father of spirits has in the revival of spiritual reality among us. Naturally the Creator's delights are with the sons of men, and His joy grows with their growth. It is a false humility which shrinks from being and doing what God has enjoined and what is well-pleasing in His sight. There is far too little of that better sort of lowliness which thinks so little of present attainments that it hungers and thirsts to be conformed to the whole will of God.

5. No priest is too young to give serious thought to this: "The night is far spent, the day is at hand." Only a few moments are left to those who have squandered years of opportunity. How many can he count upon who is presuming upon his youth and postponing the supreme issue of his life? It is high time to awake out of this sleep of spiritual apathy and sloth—to break this spell of worldly conformity and professionalism in the ministry. "Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armour of light."

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