Haerent Animo, Pope St. Pius X

Why are Catholic priests obliged to sanctify themselves more fully?

On priestly sanctity

Some excerpts from the Apostolic Exhortation to the Catholic clergy given by Pope St. Pius X on August 4, 1908.

The obligation of priestly sanctity

Anyone who exercises the priestly ministry exercises it not for himself alone, but for others. For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in the things that pertain to God.[1] Christ himself taught that lesson when he compared the priest to salt and to light, in order to show the nature of the priestly ministry. The priest then is the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Everyone knows that he fulfills this function chiefly by the teaching of christian truth; and who can be unaware that this ministry of teaching is practically useless if the priest fails to confirm by the example of his life the truths which he teaches? Those who hear him might say, insultingly it is true, but not without justification: They profess that they know God but in their works they deny him;[11] they will refuse to accept his teaching and will derive no benefit from the light of the priest.

Christ himself, the model of priests, taught first by the example of his deeds and then by his words: Jesus began to do and then to teach.[2]

Likewise, a priest who neglects his own sanctification can never be the salt of the earth; what is corrupt and contaminated is utterly incapable of preserving from corruption; where sanctity is lacking, there corruption will inevitably find its way. Hence Christ, continuing this comparison, calls such priests salt that has lost its savor, which is good for nothing any more, but to be cast out and to be trodden on by men.

These truths are all the more evident inasmuch as we exercise the priestly ministry not in our own name, but in the name of Jesus Christ. The Apostle said: Let man so consider us as the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God;[3] for Christ, therefore, we are ambassadors.[4] This is the reason that Christ has numbered us not among his servants but as his friends. I will not now call you servants; . . . but I have called you friends, because all things whatsoever I have heard from my Father I have made known to you; . . . I have chosen you and appointed you that you should go and bring forth fruit.[5]


St. Charles Borromeo gave apt expression to this thought when, in his discourses to the clergy, he declared:

If we would only bear in mind, dearly beloved brethren, the exalted character of the things that the Lord God has placed in our hands, what unbounded influence would not this have in impelling us to lead lives worthy of ecclesiastics! Has not the Lord placed everything in my hand, when he put there his only-begotten Son, coeternal and coequal with himself? In my hand he has placed all his treasures, his sacraments, his graces; he has placed there souls, than whom nothing can be dearer to him; in his love he has preferred them to himself, and redeemed them by his Blood; he has placed heaven in my hand, and it is in my power to open and close it to others... How, then, can I be so ungrateful for such condescension and love as to sin against him, to offend his honor, to pollute this body which is his? How can I come to defile this high dignity, this life consecrated to his service?"

Nature of priestly holiness

We must now consider what is the nature of this sanctity, which the priest cannot lack without being culpable; ignorance or misunderstanding of it leaves one exposed to grave peril.

There are some who think, and even declare openly, that the true measure of the merits of a priest is his dedication to the service of others; consequently, with an almost complete disregard for the cultivation of the virtues which lead to the personal sanctification of the priest (these they describe as passive virtues), they assert that all his energies and fervor should be directed to the development and practice of what they call the active virtues. One can only be astonished by this gravely erroneous and pernicious teaching.

Our predecessor of happy memory in his wisdom spoke as follows of this teaching:[6]

To maintain that some christian virtues are more suited to one period than to another is to forget the words of the Apostle: Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.[7] Christ is the teacher and the model of all sanctity; all who desire to take their place in the abode of the blessed must adapt their conduct to the standard which he has laid down. Now Christ does not change with the passing of the centuries: He is the same yesterday and to-day and forever.[8] The words: Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart,[9] apply to men of every age; at all times Christ reveals himself obedient unto death;[10] true for every age are the words of the Apostle: They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh, with the vices and concupiscences."[11]


While insisting on these truths, we would likewise admonish the priest that in the last analysis, it is not for himself alone that he has to sanctify himself, for he is the workman whom Christ went out... to hire into his vineyard.[12] Therefore, it is his duty to uproot unfruitful plants and to sow useful ones, to water the crop and to guard lest the enemy sow cockle among it. Consequently, the priest must be careful not to allow an unbalanced concern for personal perfection to lead him to overlook any part of the duties of his office which are conducive to the welfare of others. These duties include the preaching of the word of God, the hearing of confessions, assisting the sick, especially the dying, the instruction of those who are ignorant of the faith, the consolation of the sorrowing, leading back the erring, in a word, the imitation in every respect of Christ who went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil.[13]

In the midst of all these duties, the priest shall have ever present to his mind the striking admonition given by St. Paul: Neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.[14] It may be that we go and sow the seed with tears; it may be that we tend its growth at the cost of heavy labor; but to make it germinate and yield the hoped for fruit, that depends on God alone and his powerful assistance. This further point also is worthy of profound consideration, namely that men are but the instruments whom God employs for the salvation of souls; they must, therefore, be instruments fit to be employed by God. And how is this to be achieved? Do we imagine that God is influenced by any inborn or acquired excellence of ours, to make use of our help for the extension of his glory? By no means; for it is written: God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world God has chosen to confound the strong, and the humble and contemptible things of the world God has chosen, the things that are not, in order to bring to nought the things that are.[15]



Since, as everyone realizes, holiness of life is the fruit of the exercise of the will inasmuch as it is strengthened by the aid of divine grace, God has made abundant provision lest we should at any time lack the gift of grace, if we desire it. We can obtain it, in the first place, by constant prayer.

There is, in fact, such a necessary link between holiness and prayer that the one cannot exist without the other.

The words of Chrysostom on this matter are an exact expression of the truth: "I consider that it is obvious to everyone that it is impossible to live virtuously without the aid of prayer;"[16] and Augustine sums up shrewdly: "He truly knows how to live rightly, who rightly knows how to pray."[17]

Christ himself, by his constant exhortations and especially by his example, has even more firmly inculcated these truths. To pray he withdrew into desert places or climbed the mountain alone; he spent whole nights absorbed in prayer; he paid many visits to the temple; even when the crowds thronged around him, he raised his eyes to heaven and prayed openly before them; when nailed to the Cross, in the agony of death, he supplicated the Father with a strong cry and tears.


Daily meditation

A point of capital importance is that a certain time should be given daily to meditation on the eternal truths. No priest can neglect this practice without incurring a grave charge of negligence and without detriment to his soul. The saintly abbot, Bernard, when writing to Eugene III, his former pupil who had become Roman Pontiff, frankly and emphatically admonished him never to omit daily divine meditation; he would not admit as an excusing cause even the many weighty cares which the supreme pontificate involves. In justification of this advice he enumerated with great prudence the benefits of the practice of meditation:

Meditation purifies the source from which it comes, the mind. It controls affections, guides our acts, corrects excesses, rules our conduct, introduces order and dignity into our lives; it bestows understanding of things divine and human. It brings clarity where there is confusion, binds what is torn apart, gathers what is scattered, investigates what is hidden, seeks out the truth, weighs what has the appearance of truth, and shows up what is pretense and falsehood. It plans future action and reviews the past, so that nothing remains in the mind that has not been corrected or that stands in need of correction. When affairs are prospering it anticipates the onset of adversity, and when adversity comes it seems not to feel it, in this it displays in turn prudence and fortitude."[18]

This summary of the benefits which meditation is calculated to bring is an instructive reminder not only of its salutary effect in every department, but also of its absolute necessity.


Spiritual reading

It is of great importance that the priest should combine his daily divine meditation with the constant reading of pious books, especially the inspired books. That was the command that Paul gave to Timothy: Attend unto reading.[48] The same lesson was taught by St. Jerome when instructing Nepotianus on the priestly life: "Never let the sacred book leave your hands"; and he gave the following reason for his advice: "Learn that which you are to teach; holding to that faithful word which conforms to doctrine, that you may be able to exhort with sound doctrine, and refute the opponents." What great advantages are gained by priests who are faithful to this practice! With what unction they preach Christ! Far from flattering and soothing the hearts and minds of their audience, they stimulate them to better things, and arouse in them the desire of heavenly things.

The command of St. Jerome: "Let the sacred books be always in your hands,"[19] is important for another reason also, a reason which concerns your own personal welfare.

Everyone knows the great influence that is exerted by the voice of a friend who gives candid advice, assists by his counsel, corrects, encourages and leads one away from error. Blessed is the man who has found a true friend;[20] he that has found him has found a treasure.[21] We should, then, count pious books among our true friends. They solemnly remind us of our duties and of the prescriptions of legitimate discipline; they arouse the heavenly voices that were stifled in our souls; they rid our resolutions of listlessness; they disturb our deceitful complacency; they show the true nature of less worthy affections to which we have sought to close our eyes; they bring to light the many dangers which beset the path of the imprudent. They render all these services with such kindly discretion that they prove themselves to be not only our friends, but the very best of friends. They are always at hand, constantly beside us to assist us in the needs of our souls; their voice is never harsh, their advice is never self-seeking, their words are never timid or deceitful.

There are many striking examples of the salutary effects of the reading of pious books. Outstanding is the case of Augustine whose great services to the Church had their origin in such reading:

Take, read; take, read; I took (the epistles of Paul the Apostle), I opened, I read in silence; it was as though the darkness of all my doubting was driven away by the light of peace which had entered my soul."[22]

In our own day, alas! it is the contrary that happens all too frequently. Members of the clergy allow their minds to be overcome gradually by the darkness of doubt and turn aside to worldly pursuits; the chief reason for this is that they prefer to read a variety of other works and newspapers, which are full of cunningly propounded errors and corruption, rather than the divine books and other pious literature.

Be on your guard, beloved sons; do not trust in your experience and mature years, do not be deluded by the vain hope that you can thus better serve the general good. Do not transgress the limits which are determined by the laws of the Church, nor go beyond what is suggested by prudence and charity towards oneself. Anyone who admits this poison into his soul will rarely escape the disastrous consequences of the evil thus introduced.


Given in Rome, at St. Peter's, 4 August 1908, at the beginning of the sixth year of our pontificate.


1 Acts 1:1.

2 Mt. 5:13.

3 I Cor. 4:1.

4 I. Cor. 5:20.

5 Jn. 15:15-16.

6 Letter Testem Benevolentiae to the Archbishop of Baltimore (22 January 1899. ASS XXXI, p. 476) condemning "Americanism."

7 Rom. 8:29.

8 Hebr. 13:8.

9 Mt. 11:29.

10 Phil. 2:8.

11 Gal. 5:24.

12 Mt. 20:1.

13 Acts 10:38.

14 1 Cor. 3:7.

15 I Cor. 1:27-28.

16 De precatione, orat. I.

17 Hom. IV.

18 1 Thess. 5:17.

19 Ep. LVIII ad Paulinum, n. 6.

20 Ecclus. 25:12.

21 Ecclus. 6:14.

22 Confessions, L. VIII, C. 12.