St. John Chrysostom on the Priesthood

By Bryan Cross

In the Latin Church, today is the memorial of St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople and one of the thirty-three Doctors of the Church. He was born in Antioch around A.D. 347, and died on September 14, 407, in exile during a forced march. Today, in honor of St. Chrysostom, I wish to consider six brief selections from his work titled, “On the Priesthood.”

In this work, “On the Priesthood,” St. John Chrysostom is engaged in a dialogue with his friend Basil, who had just accepted the call to the priesthood. St. Chrysostom is seeking to explain to Basil the nature of the dignity of the priestly office, and so he turns to the Eucharist, of which he writes:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith! (On the Priesthood, Book III.4)

Here St. Chrysostom speaks of the priest in his role as one who offers the Body and Blood of Christ to the Father in the Holy Eucharist. St. Chrysostom shows how the divine presence and condescension of Christ in the Holy Eucharist elevates immeasurably the dignity of the priestly office. The greatness of the office of the Catholic priest is shown by the greatness of the Sacrifice he offers:

Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvelous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvelous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless? (On the Priesthood, Book III.4)

The priest praying at the altar in the mass, says St. Chrysostom, is the Elijah of the New Covenant, calling down not fire from Heaven, but calling down the Holy Spirit that by the grace of the sacrament the souls of the faithful may be enlightened. To despise the priestly office is to be “stark mad and senseless,” for only one who did not understand the divine work the priest does in his role in the Eucharistic sacrifice would have no regard for the office of priest. What then is the magnitude of the gift of the priestly vocation, the superior dignity of the office of priest?

For if any one will consider how great a thing it is for one, being a man, and compassed with flesh and blood, to be enabled to draw near to that blessed and pure nature, he will then clearly see what great honor the grace of the Spirit has vouchsafed to priests; since by their agency these rites are celebrated, and others nowise inferior to these both in respect of our dignity and our salvation. For they [i.e. priests] who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them [i.e. the angels], “Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) They [i.e. political rulers] who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below, God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, “Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained?” (John 20:23) What authority could be greater than this? “The Father has committed all judgment to the Son?” (John 5:22) But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. For they have been conducted to this dignity as if they were already translated to Heaven, and had transcended human nature, and were released from the passions to which we are liable. Moreover, if a king should bestow this honor upon any of his subjects, authorizing him to cast into prison whom he pleased and to release them again, he becomes an object of envy and respect to all men; but he who has received from God an authority as much greater as heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies, seems to some to have received so small an honor that they are actually able to imagine that one of those who have been entrusted with these things will despise the gift. Away with such madness! For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious? (On the Priesthood, Book III.5)

The dignity of a priest is a divine dignity, because the authority of the priest is as much greater than heaven is more precious than earth, and souls more precious than bodies. Since no one can enter into the Kingdom of Heaven except by being regenerated through the water of baptism, and eating the Flesh of the Lord and drinking His Blood, and since these holy sacraments are accomplished only by means of the holy hands of the priest, therefore the priestly office has an immeasurable dignity, because it is only through the office of priest that we are able to avoid the fires of hell and win the crown of heavenly glory. This is a noble and weighty responsibility.

These verily are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed Head. Wherefore they might not only be more justly feared by us than rulers and kings, but also be more honored than parents; since these [i.e. our parents] begot us of blood and the will of the flesh, but the others [i.e. the priests] are the authors of our birth from God, even that blessed regeneration which is the true freedom and the sonship according to grace. The Jewish priests had authority to release the body from leprosy, or, rather, not to release it but only to examine those who were already released, and you know how much the office of priest was contended for at that time. But our priests have received authority to deal, not with bodily leprosy, but spiritual uncleanness— not to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away. Wherefore they who despise these priests would be far more accursed than Dathan and his company, and deserve more severe punishment. For the latter, although they laid claim to the dignity which did not belong to them, nevertheless had an excellent opinion concerning it, and this they evinced by the great eagerness with which they pursued it; but these men [i.e. those who despise the Catholic priesthood], when the office has been better regulated, and has received so great a development, have displayed an audacity which exceeds that of the others [i.e. Dathan and company], although manifested in a contrary way. For there is not an equal amount of contempt involved in aiming at an honor which does not pertain to one, and in despising such great advantages, but the latter exceeds the former as much as scorn differs from admiration. What soul then is so sordid as to despise such great advantages? None whatever, I should say, unless it were one subject to some demoniacal impulse. For I return once more to the point from which I started: not in the way of chastising only, but also in the way of benefiting, God has bestowed a power on priests greater than that of our natural parents. The two indeed differ as much as the present and the future life. For our natural parents generate us unto this life only, but the others unto that which is to come. And the former would not be able to avert death from their offspring, or to repel the assaults of disease; but these others have often saved a sick soul, or one which was on the point of perishing, procuring for some a milder chastisement, and preventing others from falling altogether, not only by instruction and admonition, but also by the assistance wrought through prayers. For not only at the time of regeneration, but afterwards also, they have authority to forgive sins. “Is any sick among you?” it is said, “let him call for the elders of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up: and if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15) Again: our natural parents, should their children come into conflict with any men of high rank and great power in the world, are unable to profit them: but priests have reconciled, not rulers and kings, but God Himself when His wrath has often been provoked against them. (On the Priesthood, Book III.6)

Here St. Chrysostom contrasts the dignity of the Catholic priesthood with the dignity of natural parenthood, and with the Jewish priesthood. He gives reasons showing why the Catholic priesthood far exceeds the other two in dignity. Natural parents can give earthly life, but the priest through baptism gives eternal life, and true freedom, through grace. Our natural parents are unable to heal diseases, but the Catholic priest, through the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, can raise up the sick man. The Jewish priests had the authority to examine those who had been released from leprosy, and declare them clean. But “our priests,” i.e. Catholic priests, have the authority to deal with spiritual uncleanness (i.e. sin), not merely to pronounce it removed after examination, but actually and absolutely to take it away, through the sacraments of baptism and penance.

The Priest’s relations with his people involve thus much difficulty. But if any inquire about his relations with God, he will find the others to be as nothing, since these require a greater and more thorough earnestness. For he who acts as an ambassador on behalf of the whole city — but why do I say the city? On behalf of the whole world indeed — prays that God would be merciful to the sins of all, not only of the living, but also of the departed. What manner of man ought he to be? For my part I think that the boldness of speech of Moses and Elias, is insufficient for such supplication. For as though he were entrusted with the whole world and were himself the father of all men, he draws near to God, beseeching that wars may be extinguished everywhere, that tumults may be quelled; asking for peace and plenty, and a swift deliverance from all the ills that beset each one, publicly and privately; and he ought as much to excel in every respect all those on whose behalf he prays, as rulers should excel their subjects.(On the Priesthood, Book VI.4)

The dignity of the office of priest can be shown by the nature of his intercession. He intercedes by the authority of Christ, to the Father on behalf of the whole world. Only our most excellent men should be selected for such a role, for the role is so great that no one is worthy of it, yet no one should despise its dignity.

And whenever he invokes the Holy Spirit, and offers the most dread sacrifice, and constantly handles the common Lord of all, tell me what rank shall we give him? What great purity and what real piety must we demand of him? For consider what manner of hands they ought to be which minister in these things, and of what kind his tongue which utters such words, and ought not the soul which receives so great a spirit to be purer and holier than anything in the world? At such a time angels stand by the Priest; and the whole sanctuary, and the space round about the altar, is filled with the powers of heaven, in honor of Him who lies thereon. For this, indeed, is capable of being proved from the very rites which are being then celebrated. I myself, moreover, have heard some one once relate, that a certain aged, venerable man, accustomed to see revelations, used to tell him, that he being thought worthy of a vision of this kind, at such a time, saw, on a sudden, so far as was possible for him, a multitude of angels, clothed in shining robes, and encircling the altar, and bending down, as one might see soldiers in the presence of their King, and for my part I believe it. Moreover another told me, without learning it from some one else, but as being himself thought worthy to be both an ear and eye witness of it, that, in the case of those who are about to depart hence, if they happen to be partakers of the mysteries, with a pure conscience, when they are about to breathe their last, angels keep guard over them for the sake of what they have received, and bear them hence. (On the Priesthood, Book VI.4)

Here St. Chrysostom returns to the nature of the Eucharist, and shows how what takes place in the Eucharist places the priest in a rank too noble and lofty to measure. The one who calls down the Holy Spirit in the liturgy of the Eucharist, ought to be one whose tongue and soul are of the greatest purity. For the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is such that angels stand by the priest, and all around the altar, in honor of Him [i.e. Christ] who lies upon the altar under the appearance of bread and wine. And, says St. Chrysostom, those who receive the Viaticum (i.e. the Holy Eucharist received when in danger of death) when they are about to breathe their last breath, are guarded by angels for the sake of what they have received.

The Body and Blood of Christ, whom the priest with his hands offers to the Father in the mass, and whom the priest with his hands gives to the people to eat and drink, is of infinite worth, being divine. And hence the priest in his priesthood partakes in this divine dignity.

Christ is still calling men to the vocation of the priesthood.