A Silent Priest is a Dead Priest – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory the Great

102214A former Archbishop of Washington was known to often remark, “There’s nothing deader than a dead priest.” Some wondered as to the meaning of this expression, and those who knew him the best explained that it was a sort of version of the old Latin expression Corruptio optime pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst thing of all).

Of all the men on the planet who need to be alive, vocal, clear, and active, the priest is one of the most critical. For if he is doing as he should, and like a herald, summoning the faithful to be true to the gospel. He can reach thousands, who in turn can reach thousands more. But if he fails, the whole chain of the gospel is broken at the critical link and falls to the ground.

The same Archbishop also told us priests that if we did not go to bed tired most nights, something was wrong. There is nothing deader than a dead priest.

Two images from Pope St. Gregory the Great come to mind in this regard. He writes them in his Pastoral Rule, which is must reading for every priest. But every father of a family and every leader in the Church can also benefit from Gregory’s reflections. Both images are drawn from the ancient Jewish Law in reference to the priests and Levites.

The first image pertains to the priest’s duty to work hard:

Both the breast and the right shoulder [of the sacrificed animal] are offered to the priest for food so that he may learn from the sacrifice that he has received to offer a corresponding sacrifice to the Creator of all things (Lev 10:14-15). Thus, not only is he to have right thoughts in his breast, but by putting his own shoulder to good works he invites to sublime heights those who watch him (Pastoral Rule II.3).

So, it is not enough for the priest to be learned in orthodoxy. That is clearly essential. But he must also be willing to work hard in proclaiming and teaching the doctrinally orthodox faith by patient and persistent work. He teaches not with words only, but also by his works and by his manner of life.  He cannot merely speak of prayer, he must pray; he cannot merely warn of greed, he must live simply and humbly; he cannot merely speak of chastity, he must live chastely; he cannot merely counsel love, he must love. To adapt an old expression, he must live faith, heart and shoulder above the rest.

The second image pertains to his duty to speak, to preach:

Moses was enjoined that when a priest goes into the tabernacle, he should be canvassed with little bells, a sign that he must have a voice for preaching, or else by his silence he provoke the judgment of Him who sees everything from above. For it is written, “So that the sound is heard is heard when he entered and exits the sanctuary in the sight of the Lord, so that he may not die” (Ex 28:35). For the priest who enters and exits will die if a sound is not heard from him because he provokes the wrath of the hidden Judge if he goes about without the sound of preaching.

The bells are appropriately described as being inserted into his vestments because what else are we to understand the vestments of the priest to be but good works? The psalmist attests this when he says, “Let your priests be clothed with righteousness” (Ps 131:9). The little bells therefore are fixed to the vestment to signify that the works of the priest should be proclaimed by the sound of his voice and the way of his life (Rule II.4).

Pope Gregory’s ability to see the significance of seemingly small things is magnificent. Here he draws on the simple truth that the High Priest, gone into the Holy of Holies, wore a vestment with sounding bells. And as long as he moved and said the prayers the bells rang, signaling that he was alive before the Lord of Glory. But if the bells (of preaching) fell silent, then he was surely dead, for no sound came from him. All that could be done was to drag his dead body from the Holy place by the rope that was tied to his ankle.

The Image is clear: no sound, no life. A silent priest is a dead priest. And there is nothing deader than a dead priest. He is good for nothing but to be dragged from the Holy Place and buried underfoot.

Let priests and bishops who have ears hear. Let all leaders in the Church who have ears hear! Let parents, catechists, teachers, and elders hear! Let us heed Gregory’s warning: to be silent is to be dead, good for nothing but to be dragged off and buried.

23 Replies to “A Silent Priest is a Dead Priest – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Gregory the Great”

  1. Indeed there is none happier than the servant who collapses from joyous fatigue after having served the Lord faithfully from sun up to past sundown keenly aware there is yet an eternity before him to rest…

  2. I truly enjoyed this article and took it to heart because much of what was said of the priest also pertains to the deacons. Although the author mentioned bishops, priests, catechist, parents, elders etc…He forgot to mention deacons who like the priests are ordained ministers and part of the hierarchy of the Church.

  3. The imagery of the bells is very interesting, and seems also to be an analogy for both the mystical life, and the life of the good father. That is, we may not know WHAT the priest (or father) is doing, but we know THAT he is doing something. The bells signify activity, but they do not tell us what the activity is. This can serve as a basis for creating trust in others, particularly those who lack insight into the real activities of the priest or father. For the innocent or the naive, it is sometimes good that they remain ignorant of the WHAT, but are confident in the THAT.

    Sometimes I will ask someone what their mother did for them and they can recount numerous and specific examples readily. When I ask them what their father did for them, many people have a much harder time explaining in any detail, other than to note that he was “a good provider”, or a “mechanic” or a “doctor”, etc. They know what his job was, but not so much what he did for them in particular. However, when I ask how their mother was happy (if she was) people tend to realize the connection with the father; that is, the sense of security in the mother (that the children channel) comes through the activity of the father, who is present to the the child, but whose actions are more hidden. Perhaps this serves as an analogy with God the Father.

  4. Great reflections on the priesthood. Shakespeare reiterated the same sentiment as “corruptio optime pessima” in one of his sonnets. “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

  5. The pedophile scandal was (and still is) so corrosive to the Church specifically because priests and bishops were involved, directly and indirectly. I know so many wonderful inspiring joyful priests; it would break my heart if one of them strayed. How hard it must be for the vast majority of faithful priests to have to bear the burden and clean up the mess made by the wayward few.

    1. David what a great point now if only the secular school system can get their act together and stop producing pedophile teachers who teach sex-ed with glee and the parents have less choice of what is being taught. Never mind the fact that to get rid of a problem government anointed teacher is next to impossible. I have more pedophile teachers in my school district and I know not one Priest who is even a problem. Focus your brain on God and his love for you and forget the diatribe of this tire old as the hills tune. I dare you to talk to a real Priest and pay him the respect as one who brings the Heart of Christ to you.

  6. Thank you, Monsignor, for your tireless and faithful witness. You are in my prayers. May the intercession of Our Blessed Mother and all the angels and saints protect and preserve you.

  7. There is nothing more important than that the faithful pray for priests. If you want holy priests you better pray for them. And from personal experience, if you pray daily for priests…the Lord will do wonderful things for you.

  8. A priest in my parish used to say all the time, “There’s nothing deader than a dead priest.” He used it as a caution—a reminder to those who think otherwise that everyone is replaceable. Life goes on, and you’ll quickly be forgotten as someone else takes your place.

    Now, though, he thinks otherwise.

    His new phrase: “There’s nothing deader than a dead deacon.”

  9. Monsignor, thank you for this column. I will remember the ‘bells’ thing at Holy Mass on Sunday.

  10. These can also be applied to Christians and much more to Catholics. If we fail to reflect the person of JESUS CHRIST in us for those who seek GOD then we are deader than dead as well. That was why once a communist then read the Holy Bible and truly was amazed of its revolutionary teachings but quickly quipped, ‘If only that the Christians lived these teachings there no need for any other ideologies to surface in the societies of this world.’ FATHER, may I through YOUR Blessings reflect YOUR SON in me that I may become a channel of YOUR Grace to those who seek the Truth. Thank you, Monsignor for your reflection for you teach us to go deeper in the sea of Faith. YHWH SHEKINAH!!!

    1. its called a typo. But you do appear very smart anyway.

      Perhaps though I could have come up with some sort of arcane explanation such as saying, “Come on man, any first year latin student wouldn’t miss that this is Late medieval latin which uses the genitive of place to which but only in conjunction with the ablative of military procession, in which this expression exists as a subordinate clause….Therefore of course optime is required! But only in parts of Northern Italy in which this sort of Latin construction was used.”

      1. Not so smart. I was trying to point out the mistake politely and didn’t even think of suggesting a “typo.” I figured that if I saw the error others did too.

  11. I believe the Latin phrase is misquoted. It is “corruptio optimi pessima”, not “corruptio optime pessima”.

  12. Thank you Msgr for the reminders! May all of us be fully alive in all things necessary for the salvation of souls and the sanctification of the faithful. God bless you!

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