A 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.