The Sins of Priests

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 presents a legal case of sorts, which convicts ancient Israel of numerous deficiencies and calls for their repentance. The case 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 of which to repent.

As we consider the sins of the priests enumerated below, please understand that neither the biblical text nor my commentary should be construed as meaning that all or even most priests are like this. Sadly, though, sins and shortcomings are far too common among the clergy. 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.

Shoddy Sacraments

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?” 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. While the injunction regarding blemished and polluted animals has changed, the intrinsic problem remains: careless 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, sometimes egregious violation of liturgical norms. Although some violations are minor, 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.

A priest cannot be expected to clear up every problem in the Liturgy the day he walks through the door, but proper liturgical formation of the faithful with due regard to charity and patience is one of his essential tasks as pastor of souls—and he should begin with himself. The liturgy, both its mechanics and its 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. Proper attire and decorum are important ways that we communicate our love for God and one another. Priests should be properly vested, prepare their sermons prayerfully, 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 sponsored the construction of some of the most beautiful churches. They also supplied some of the finest art and liturgical implement. It is important that we keep what they have bequeathed to us in good repair. Further, priests can and should teach the 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 and not just the utility of man. In the recent past, many of the faithful have been shocked and hurt by the senseless “wreckovation” of sanctuaries and altars. Thanks be to God, many people today are growing in their appreciation of 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 that the shoddy, perfunctory, “anything goes” celebration of the Sacred Liturgy says something about our hearts, our priorities, and what we value.

Priests 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 concluding with this: But all things should be done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40).

Burdens not Blessings? Behold your Barrenness!

“What a weariness this is!” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts … And now, O priests, this command is for you. 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. 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. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may hold, says the Lord of hosts. 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, their children would suffer many curses. While priests today do not have children of their own, thousands call us “Father”!

In our day, the sins and omissions of 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, and irreverent. Some have even been guilty of grave sins and violations of their state in life. In addition, far too many priests and religious have left the sacred call they agreed to live for life.

All of this has resulted in many troubles for the faithful. Some are 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, who do not listen to God or lay to heart His teaching and stand in awe of His name.

In this way, the flock is often harmed 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 one from Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Zech 13:7). This is why the sins of priests are so serious and why the faithful must pray for them fervently. 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 notions that the Gospel is too burdensome for the faithful and therefore fail to preach it or to encourage the faithful to live it.

Sacerdotal Silence

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. 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. 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, 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 commonplace in the Church today. Some priests prefer to play it safe, fearing to preach about the issues of the day out of human weakness. Others do not believe certain teachings themselves or think them impractical in modern times. Still others have turned aside from the truth, preaching and teaching outright dissent—and by preaching corruption they cause many to stumble.

It is tragic as well that so many priests are permitted to mislead the faithful without being 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; he should refute error. He must also guard it from misunderstanding and see that it is presented in balance with other truths in Scripture and Tradition. St. Paul says this of a presbyter: 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 incomplete teaching, wherein a priest chooses which truths he will teach or emphasize and which he will not. 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.

Sadly, some of these rebukes concerning incomplete teaching must still be made today. Encourage your priests when they speak confidently and clearly. Thank them; 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 isn’t always welcomed. Even the prophets needed support from the 7000 who had 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, however, that the world also has many hard-working, dedicated, loyal, and holy priests. Yet, as these passages remind us, priests can lose their way. They can forget the glory of the liturgies they celebrate, refer to their office and the gospel as burdensome, and growing too silent out of fear or laziness.

Pray for priests!

12 Replies to “The Sins of Priests”

  1. You mention proper attire for priests. I am turning the tables and pointing a finger at many of the parishioners. So many of them dress inappropriately for mass. Granted, if a person is poor then it is understandable. However, if they arrive in the parking lot of a parish in an automobile that is worth north of $10,000, I see no reason why they can’t dress better than what they consider as casual attire. Then the are those unfortunate people who show up in what I consider indecent clothing. The Lord deserves better than this.

  2. Thankfully our parish is pretty good in respect of the points you make. But I do know of a parish not far away that I occasionally attend, where the liturgy is typically horrible. The priestly leadership appears absolutely tone death as regards the liturgy. It is not a diocesan parish by the way, it belongs to a religious order. So I get the point you make. We deserve better, God deserves better.

  3. You “hit the nail on the head” Msgr Pope. Also, various priests and deacons often lack character needed to effectively lead and counsel; some do well in discouraging.

    Summorum Pontificum was part of a curse on priests and laity – an “anti-Liturgy” to highlight the divisive and idolatrous hearts of men, and I believe that God does not accept the offerings of those who doubt and disobey and seek fashions and fissures instead of what the Spirit directs in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

    1. I must respectfully but heartily disagree with Taylor’s assertion; Summorum Ponificum is, contrary to his belief, a great grace to the Church. I attend the Tridentine Mass in Syracuse, NY on Sundays. The attendance at this Holy Sacrifice of the Mass continues to grow steadily, there is public recitation of the Holy Rosary as well as the Sacrament of Confession before Mass begins. There is ALWAYS a long line for Confession. Outside of the Rosary, there is otherwise a complete prayerful silence. Men and women are by and large admirably dressed: men in jacket and tie, women in dresses, and many with chapel veils. Many in attendance include those under thirty years of age; also there are quite a number of families with five or more children. Following Mass, the majority of the people will remain for several minutes of silent, personal prayer, including the lighting of votive candles as well as visiting the side altars. We alternate between a senior priest who generally offers Low Mass, and a younger, FSSP-trained priest who offers High Mass. The music is Gregorian, the Liturgy is directed to the worship of Holy God; the preaching is fearless and refreshing, it includes the spiritual direction needed to aid us who strive to overcome personal sin: these holy priests have one goal, and that is the salvation of souls! For those who might dismiss this renewal of the practice of the Holy Faith as merely “going back” to pre-conciliar times, I claim that it is more accurately characterized as a “getting back on track” following the derailment of Catholic life that occurred after the last council.

      I don’t wish to disparage the holiness of priests who offer the Novus Ordo, I have known many good and holy men who have done, and still do so. But I’ve seen 48 years of poorly done Masses, with the laity displacing the priests from proper and fitting functions, not to mention the profane, secular music, and not failing to notice how boys are repulsed by feminized liturgies. Is it surprising that teenaged boys and young men seem to be missing in the pews? Is it surprising that there is so high a proportion of homosexual priests nowadays? Has the Novus Ordo, with its multiple variations, it’s priest-as-personality-centered orientation, it’s banal music, and it’s apparent socio-politically preoccupied “Prayer of the Faithful”, as well as its hugging and handshaking, and the ever-present din of chatter before and after Mass, is it leading the Faithful towards eternal salvation and the beatific vision? Is it truly the way we are to respond to the admonition that “to whom more is given, more will be asked

      1. You don’t know how much I envy your being able to attend such masses! It annoys me no end when a priest gets creative with the Eucharistic prayer or there’s dancing around the altar, or when people come to Mass wearing skimpy clothing that looks like it belongs on a beach. The Latin Mass is reverent and beautiful.

        And we do need to pray for our priests. If I weren’t obligated to attend Mass every Sunday, I would have walked out during one homily some years ago when the priest was preaching that abortion is not sinful if you believe it to be OK. And I know of a FSSP priest who was under pressure for saying sodomy is sinful.

        Bring back our Catholic Faith!

  4. When I was in the novitiate in 1968 I was fortunate to have known a priest who was ordained in the 19th century. He rode horseback through the Rockies visiting mining towns. I have no doubt that while in formation God placed him in my life as a model of priesthood. Most of us priests are cut from the same cloth. We spend most of our time living our sacramental witness caring for the spiritual and charitable needs of those God has placed in our journey. Do we sin? Of coarse! Just as St. Peter and all the saints. But, we get up and, do penance for our sins, and, try to be faithful. Fidelity to Confession, prayer, and a devout celebration of Holy Mass provide for a joyful, if not a sacrificial priesthood.

  5. There are without a doubt liturgical issues needing an address, some are solved easier than others. If your pastor or parish priest is lacking give him a series of Fr. Francis Martins Word Proclaimed Institute, for Christmas.
    I have a much less daunting issue, much easier to solve, and one that sits at the feet of the faithful. I have watched, in too many churches, at communion, faithful charge the altar, in herds, to assist in the distribution of the Holy Eucharist. Faithful personally taking anything from the alter makes me cringe. The abuse is so overlooked that most parish websites have scheduled for every Sunday! This privilege was NEVER intended to be “ordinary” hence the term “Extra-ordinary”.How do you schedule something that’s extra-ordinary? Answer: You cant. Pasters PLEASE follow the USCCB General liturgy Guides, in order to lessen the risk for desiccation of the Eucharist.

    Copy from the
    1) When the size of the congregation or the incapacity of the bishop, priest, or deacon requires it, the celebrant may be assisted by other bishops, priests, or deacons. If such ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are not present, “the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, i.e., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may also depute suitable faithful for this single occasion (GIRM 162).”

    The celebrant needs to take back his authority at the altar. Giving a signal as to the number of assists (if any) he wants to assist.

  6. This is such a refreshing message. We need to pray without ceasing for our priests and deacons, that they may have the courage to preach the fullness of God’s truth. I believe the world and the Church are in this state – not because we’re delivering the hard messages of the path to salvation – but because for many decades we’ve omitted the hard messages entirely.

    Bowing to the larger culture, we fail to ever talk clearly about sin and the need for repentance. People are incredibly confused on moral issues and our Church is not providing clarity – as was evidenced by the “lukewarm” response following the Synod in the Youth. To the larger culture, “we’re listening” effectively means, “we’ll consider redefining what is sinful.” A tremendous opportunity to provide clarity to our youth was missed. This lack of moral clarity and fearfulness of losing man’s approval is having a devastating effect on the spiritual lives of both the clergy and the lay faithful.

    Pray the Rosary for our clergy. They need it now more than ever.

  7. Malachi 2:7 – “It is the duty of priests to teach the true knowledge of God. People should go to them to learn my will, Because they are messengers of the Lord Almighty.” Ref: Good News Bible (Catholic Study Edition)

  8. To make an analogy, Msgr. Pope is like an elite MLB pitcher. He throws heat and has great command of his pitches. If we had more like him, the Church would not have all of the problems it faces today.

    If only more of our bishops were cut from the same cloth. Unfortunately, too many of them should be playing for a single A minor league club somewhere.

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