The Book of the Prophet Malachi is set forth as a kind “riv” (a Hebrew word for a lawsuit, indictment, or controversy) by God. The Lord sets forth a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient Israel of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case that God presents shows a body of evidence that is just as true today as it was then. God has plenty to say and we have much to hear, much to repent of.
I am going to examine the Book of the Prophet Malachi in two successive posts. Today’s post is about the sins of the priests. Tomorrow’s post will focus on the sins of the people.
As we look to the sins of the priests enumerated here, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed to mean that all or even most priests are like this. But, sadly, the sins and shortcomings of the clergy are far too common. As priests must strive to be better and more holy, so also must the laity remember to pray for us.
With that in mind, let’s consider the sins of the priests (as listed by Malachi) in three basic areas.
I. Shoddy Sacraments
6 “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? So says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. You say, ‘How have we despised thy name?’ 7 By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, ‘How have we polluted it?’ By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. 8 When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil? Present that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. 9 And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the Lord of hosts. 10 Oh, that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire upon my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. 11 For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. 12 But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised (Malachi 1:6-12).
Those are strong words indeed. And while the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem too often remains: the shoddy celebration of the Liturgy and the sacraments.
One of the most common complaints from the faithful regards priests who violate liturgical norms and/or allow others to do so. Few things offend charity and unity as much as the open and often egregious violation of liturgical norms. And while it is true that some violations are smaller matters in themselves, why not just celebrate the Liturgy as it is set forth in the books? There are of course options, and not every complaint of the faithful is accurate or fair, but God’s people have endured several decades of exotic and often egocentric liturgical experiments, which are not approved and which take the focus off God and the proper worship due Him.
Not every priest can clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of God’s people with due regard to charity and patience is an essential task for the pastor of souls. And the priest should begin with himself. The liturgy, both in terms of its mechanics and its deeper spiritual significance, should be his study and his great love.
Another problem that can emerge is inattentiveness to the dignity and beauty of the Mass and the sacraments. Beauty and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one other. Priests should be properly vested, prayerfully prepare their sermons, and avoid mannerisms that are inappropriate or overly casual. Opulence is not necessary, but priests should ensure that liturgical appointments are clean, in good repair, and of proper dignity.
Decades ago, poor immigrant communities were responsible for building of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest liturgical implements and art. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach today’s faithful to follow the example of these recent ancestors of ours by seeking to build and maintain worthy Churches, erected for the glory of God not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by senseless “wreckovations” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God that many today are growing in appreciation for the older churches and are seeking to preserve them.
If God was offended by the offering of a lame or sick animal, why should we think He is pleased with “just any old stuff” in the Sacred Liturgy? God does not need our gold chalices or our tall churches, but He knows how we are made. And the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.
Priests above all must avoid all conscious violation of liturgical norms, make central the devoted study of liturgy, and inspire respect among the faithful for the Sacred Liturgy. St. Paul summarizes well his liturgical teaching of 1 Cor 11-14 by saying, But all things should be done decently and in good order (1 Cor 14:40).
II. Burdens not blessings? Behold your Barrenness!
13 ‘What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts…. 21 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. 2 If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. 3 Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung upon your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence. 4 So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. 5 My covenant with him was a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him, that he might fear; and he feared me, he stood in awe of my name (Malachi 1:13, 2:1-5).
The priests of that ancient Jewish time had families, and God warned that if the fathers did not obey, the children would surely suffer many curses. And while priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father”!
And here in our times is the warning of God that the sins and omissions of the priests surely have brought trouble upon the faithful. We have been through a period in which too many priests have been rebellious, unfaithful to Church teaching, slothful, unprepared to preach, un-prayerful, irreverent, and even guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. Far too many priests and religious have also left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.
All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some have been left discouraged and angry, most are poorly catechized and ill-informed on critical moral issues. Many are confused by priests and bishops who have openly dissented and, as the text says, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of God’s name.
As such, the flock is often cursed by this poor priestly leadership and example. Eighty percent of Catholics no longer attend Mass. Many of those who do attend are barely in communion with the Church’s teaching, and struggle to live the glorious vision set forth in the Gospel.
Sadly, this text from Malachi echoes a similar text from Zechariah, Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of the priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray especially for them. For indeed not only are priests subject to targeted attack by Satan, they are also especially susceptible to grandiosity, pride, and the sin of craving human respect.
Pray that priests do not become weary of exhortation, or speak of their office as a “burden.” Pray, too, that they do not succumb to modern and soft notions that the Gospel is too “burdensome” for the faithful to live, and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful.
This leads to the third sin of the priests that is mentioned by Malachi.
III. Sacerdotal Silence
6 True instruction was in [Levi’s] mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 7 For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. 8 But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, 9 and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction.” (Malachi 2:6-9)
Silent pulpits are all too common in the Church today. Some priests prefer to “play it safe,” fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Other priests do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others, as the text says, have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent. As such, the text further says, they cause many to stumble by preaching corruption.
It is tragic as well that so many are permitted to mislead the faithful and are not disciplined for it by their religious superiors.
The text says that a priest should guard knowledge. That is, he should protect it from those who would distort it and should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in the balance of others truths in the Scripture and in Tradition. St. Paul says of a presbyter (a priest), He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9).
The text of Malachi also warns against partiality, wherein a priest picks and chooses what truths he will teach or emphasize. St. Paul said to the elders at Miletus, Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:26-27). Yes, the whole counsel, the complete truth, is to be taught by the priest.
Malachi rebukes the priests of his day for their partial preaching and, sadly, some of these rebukes must still be made. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them and give them support, even if they challenge you. The job of a priest is not to be popular but to be a prophet. It’s tough work and it doesn’t always bring cheers. But even the prophets need support from the 7000 who have still not bent the knee to Baal or kissed him (cf 1 Kings 19:18). Pray for priests and encourage them to announce the whole counsel of God.
These are some of the sins of the priests that God sets forth. Let us not forget that the world also has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these texts remind us, too easily priests can lose their way; forgetting the glory of the liturgies they celebrate; referring to their office and the gospel as burdensome; and growing too silent out of either fear or laziness.
Pray for priests!
In tomorrow’s post, I will discuss the sins of the faithful, as listed in the Book of Malachi.