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The Mystery of the Priesthood

February 17, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Prayer, Vocations

The Mystery of the Priesthood

Because I work at a seminary, I have gotten to know quite a few priests over the years. Many of them have become good friends. Some have left the ministry for one reason or another. All of them have grappled with the meaning of their unique vocation.

Simone Weil explained that we do not know anything without suffering. Suffering is the price of true knowledge. I think this is true to the extent that one suffers in love, for love. Good priests understand this. They have come to realize who they are because they have discovered the secret of giving themselves away. But what they have discovered is true for all of us. We only truly discover who we really are by giving the gift of ourselves in love. Giving the gift of self – this involves suffering – because one cannot love another except at one's own expense. Because the priest must live out this gift of self in a very public way — the priest is a great sign, a witness, for the rest of us about what our humanity is all about. He reveals this to us through a suffering love for Christ, for the Church and for those entrusted to his care.

There is another important thing about priests who are willing to suffer this kind of knowledge – they are always men of great prayer. By this, I do not mean that they are always great contemplatives – at least in the popular sense. Some of the priests I know complain that their prayer seems shallow. But whether one feels one's prayer is deep or shallow is not important. What is important is that one is faithful to the gift of prayer entrusted to him. When we are faithful to the gift of prayer – even if it seems shallow — it makes our prayer great. That is, in part, why I can say that these are men of great prayer. Their life of prayer is an expression of a constant mature love, a humble cry of the heart. Sometimes this may be joyful and consoling. Often, it is dry and offered in the midst of the severest struggles. It is like a lamp of hope – and what such priests very seldom realize is that this small still light not only helps them find their own way – but for some of the rest of us, that humble light is just what we need to go on.

A lamp in the darkness. It was a great privilege to go on pilgrimage to the Grande Chartreuese and pray with them. In the main chapel at midnight I sat in darkness, shivering in the cold, covered with a blanket. It was pitch black — except for the far wall of the sanctuary. There a vigil candle flickered – The only source of light in the silent darkness. Then, out of this silent darkness, a voice called out and a whole choir of monks, there hidden in the dark, broke out. They chanted psalm after psalm, in the silent darkness, by heart, with nothing but that candle lit to give light (expect for an occasional flash of an electric lamp when a younger monk needed to see the text).

It struck me that that lamp in the darkness is not only a sign of Christ's presence but a symbol of the prayer of the Church — the prayer taken up by priests and the prayer to which we are all invited. It is a prayer of vigilant love, waiting on the Lord in hope. The silent cold darkness was a symbol of this world where God seems so absent at times – but that He has never abandoned. Only by suffering the cold and the darkness with vigilant love would one ever come to know how the Lord is present in such a place. But for those who are willing, like the priests I know, such prayer warms the heart. It is a true encounter with Christ which teaches us to love like him – to suffer in love, to give ourselves in love, to become our true self.


Art photography: Simone Weil (1909—1943) – a French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist of Jewish origin, 17 November 2013, unknown photographer, PD-US, copyright expired; Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse, in Saint-Pierre-de-Chartreuse (Isère, Rhône-Alpes, France), 24 July 2006, own work, Floriel, CC, GNU; both Wikimedia Commons. [Feature image mirror detail of Clerical Clothing, KF, 11 September 2005, PD-Worldwide, Wikimedia Commons.]


Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • Mancipium Mariae

    Thanks for this article. As a priest, I understand your points above from experience and I pray that many see it too and pray and make sacrifices for us. We need the graces badly. God bless you brother and Mary keep you.

  • Karen Howard

    Though this is a beautiful article about the sacrifices and depth of prayer of our priests that serve as witness for many of us, I wish you would include the many consecrated religious women and men who may not be ordained yet provide the same witness and model for us with their unceasing prayer. They, too, are a blessing to us!

    • Karen, thanks for your comment and support. I am a consecrated religious and have taken several classes from Dr. Lilles through Avila Institute. Knowing him, I have no doubts about his high, high esteem for religious men and women. There is only so much he can include in one article, and I’m sure his omission–although notice he did mention the monks from the Grand Chartreuse–is no indication of his lack of appreciation for any who serve the Church, including lay men and women. God bless you and thank you again for your support.

      • Aimliz

        “The Mystery of the Priesthood” is a great post about it’s title. Like Sister mentioned, I don’t think he meant to leave anyone out. He was just writing about one topic. I’m sure the future will hold a post or two about other consecrated religious as well. It would be neat to read more about them as well!

        • Elizabeth

          Without the priest there would be no Catholic Church, there would be no Eucharist. It is the priest who brings God to earth in the Eucharist, where bread and wine are substantially changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The priest has an indelible mark on his soul and he is ontologically connected to the Eucharist. Yes, this is a mystery, but it is real.

          Regarding the tragedy of priests leaving the priesthood, St. Therese of Lisieux offered her last Holy Communion for a priest who had left the priesthood.

          If you do not love priests, you do not love the Church, because Jesus Christ instituted the Church and the priesthood.

          Let us all examine our consciences regarding envy…and particularity the envy we may have
          regarding priests. We must ask the Holy Spirit for light, without it we cannot recognize envy. Envy is what crucified Christ.

          • Aimliz

            Well stated, God Bless you.

  • Jeanette

    Prayer for Priests and Religious

    O Jesus, our great High Priest, hear our humble prayers on behalf of Thy servants. Give them a deep faith, a bright and firm hope, and a burning love which will ever increase in the course of their life. In their loneliness, comfort them. In their sorrows, strengthen them. In their frustrations, point out to them that it is through suffering that the soul is purified, and show them that they are needed by the Church; they are needed by souls; they are needed for the work of redemption.

    O Loving Mother Mary, Mother of Priests and religious, take to your heart your children who are close to you because of the power which they have received to carry on the work of Christ in a world which needs them so much. Be their comfort, be their joy, be their strength, and especially help them to live and to defend the ideals of consecrated celibacy. Amen

  • patricia

    Priests are Spritual Fathers thru the heart of Christ who is the priest of all priests. I am reminded of this especially the self giving of time energy and suffering our priest freely give for to help us get closer to God. One exercise to keep in the spirit of gratitude in which I did not always do. To thank out priests for thier time and homily every time when attending mass. For they represent Christ in that we are thanking God. This has become a common practice in which my husband and my mother now practices. We should always be greatful of all our priests for they trully carry Christ’s Cross. With out priest we could not have Jesus in the Eucharist. Christ’s true presence with us. O Mary Mother of all priests we ask for your protection and intercession for all priests. amen

  • zelmo1954


    Congregation for the Clergy

  • kokyjo

    I no longer refer to myself as a priest as I left the Roman Catholic priest ministry almost 30 years ago. Though I don’t refer to myself as a “priest” any longer, I experience a deeper calling and a deeper satisfaction as a friend and counselor than I ever did in active Church ministry. I guess my early decisions for priestly ordination were simply incomplete. I love the beauty and company of a woman. She enriches my priestly activities. She helps me to “connect” with myself, with others and with the mystery of creation. With her care and support, she helps me to transform my pain and suffering into a gift for the church, which I refer to as the individuals who walk the challenging journey of life in faith.

    There is really no need for priests as a “professional class” in the Church. Unfortunately, many men signed up for this job. Suffering can be a wonderful gift. It can also be a great burden. there are many unhappy Priests pursuing their own egotistical desires — Examples seem unnecessary here as one need only look at page 2 of your local newspaper.

    I know some great priests whose lives are dedicated to the holy work of transforming pain and suffering into joy and fulfillment. I’m grateful for their service. Noone needs to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in order to participate in the glorious work of salvation. Salvation is about tranforming “waste” into COMPOST—-creating ANEW!

    • Jeanette

      Re: “There is really no need for priests as a “professional class” in the Church. Unfortunately, many men signed up for this job.” I don’t understand what you really mean by this. Are you saying there is no need for Holy Orders?

      The Catholic Church teaches that when a man participates in priesthood, he participates in the priesthood of Christ Himself. All men who, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, have become priests (or bishops) participate in Christ’s priesthood. And they participate in it in a very special way. They act in persona Christi Capitis, in the person of Christ, the Head of His Body, the Church.

      • Jeanette ­ I suspect he means that some priests become priests for the wrong reasons. I had to re-read his comments over a few times as my first reaction was along the lines of your comment.

        • kokyjo

          I don’t really have much use trying to decide “right or wrong”, “good or bad” reasons for becoming a priest or leaving the priesthood, for that matter. I believe that the Catholic Church still teaches about the “priestly” ministry of all believers whether male or female, ordained or “unordained”. I don’t require formal authorization by the Cathoic church ( as in Fr. or Monsignor or His Eminence or other Latin designations) to fulfill my calling to be “priestly”, kingly and prophetic. The guy who mops the snow off the floor in the back of church has a “priestly” calling, no less than the one adorned in robes and incense and some theological training at the other end of the church. Both are equally Necessary.

          • Dear Kokyjo – Your point is a good one. The Church is working toward the goal of co-responsibility of the mission of the Church. However, I am sensitive to the idea of drawing such a strong equality that the elevated status of the priesthood is brought too low. So, while I generally agree with your comments, I think it is out of sync with Church teaching to say that a layperson “has a “priestly” calling, no less than the one adorned in robes and incense.” The key wording here is “no-less.”

          • kokyjo

            It didn’t seem to matter to Jesus who was more and who was less, who was greater and who was lesser, even who was right and who was wrong. I guess his selection of Peter, the wonderful flip-flopper and “First Priest”, was best evidence of God’s indifference to “More” or “less”. Surely, there were more reliable, dependable, honest, and orthodox candidates available. I

          • Are Jesus’ teachings and official Church teachings ever in conflict from your perspective?
            Sent from my iPad

          • kokyjo

            The tricky word in your question is “official”. Does “official” refer to what is written and pronounced by the pope, as in “infallibility”?
            Generally, I would say that Conflict is an important and necessary component in any experience of creation—whether in the creation of a thunderstorm (which involves warm winds and cooler winds), the creation of new understandings in a relationship(which involve human differences regarding preference, etc.) , the creation of the universe (conflict between the dark and the light) and on and on. I think it only makes sense that the two are in conflict, just as the Scriptures represent a “text in travail”. The SS are not a book that contains all the “right” answers, though many wish it were so. The Sacred Scriptures are inspired stories of people who discover their True Self in the belly of the whale (darkness, aloneness and sometimes suffering).

          • Official – we can start with the Catechism… Any conflict between Jesus and the Catechism?

          • kokyjo

            Baltimore catechism?? Which catechism??

          • Are you being funny?

          • Camila

          • kokyjo

            not funny at all! what catechism are you referring to? Does it have a name?

          • the Catechism of the Catholic Church

            Sent from my iPad

          • Claire A

            The only one I can think of is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19 concerning the exception to the rule on divorce.


            Dear Dan: I agree with your reply to Kokyjo. I graduated from an Anglican seminary many years ago and have since converted to Catholicism and was received into the Church at Easter 2013. I know from personal experience that the man who answers to ‘priestly calling’ and is ordained has a standard different from the one sitting in the pew.

          • joan

            so happy you are home. are you married with children?


            Joan: Yes, I am married with four children. We will celebrate our 54th. anniversary on July 15th. this year.

          • joan

            Father, you and your family are a beacon of light! After 54 years, I bet we could all look at you and your family and say see how they love one another.

            I am truly confused and heartbroken. I spoke with a young woman whose father was a Catholic Priest. He had fallen in love and was forced to make a choice to leave the Priesthood if he wanted to continue a relationship with her. He left, married, and had 2 children, a boy and a girl. The boy grew up to become a Catholic Priest. The girl was deeply affected in many ways, as she had communicated to me, that her father, although, did what he had to do to be accepted back into the church, could no longer be a Catholic Priest.

            Why? Why this separation, this division? I want you and your family with us, and i want this priest and his family with us.

            In all of God’s Love, why are you there and he isn’t? Can you tell me where i can look to learn God’s Law with this type situation? Or does the Roman Catholic Church just have a specific rule of its own that it now makes exceptions for? … to say nothing of God’s Law.

            Please, most respectfully, if you cannot refer me to where i can look and learn God’s Law regarding this type situation – i can not, at this time, continue discussion on this. Thank you so much.

          • Camila


            What do you mean by “co-responsibliity of the mission of the Church”?

          • Do a search on Archbishop Chaput and the role of the laity.

            Sent from my iPad

          • Camila

            Super, Thanks!
            Found some very interesting articles!

          • Camila

            Dear kokyjo,
            I think (I haven’t thought a lot about this yet, so I might be drawing haste conclusions here) but nevertheless….I think what you say here is precisely the problem with the misunderstandings of Vatican II. The lay has work to do, the religious have work to do, the priests have work to do. We are part of one body with different function. While we are all called to a priestly, kingly and prophetic role they are lived differently in each vocation. In my priestly role as a mother of five I am called to pray for my children and offer sacrifices for them (sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, fasting, prayers etc…) in my kingly role I am called to serve my husband and my children and in my prophetic role I am called to be a model of faith – to “walk the talk” to be holy myself, set apart, as a an example of holy living.
            My husband can’t consecrate the Eucharist, but neither can my parish priest procreate more children so that heaven may be populated for the greater glory of God.

            It causes me great sadness to imagine you brining everyone down to the common demonator as though we all are the ‘same’ just because we share in our priestly call. This is not so.

          • kokyjo


            I didn’t intend to imply that we are all the same. The call to holiness is universal. My intention is to invite everyone “up” to our common denominator — our ordinariness and our sanctity. Clearly, this is a paradox. Both are true. We are sinners AND we are saints. I generally try to avoid the traps related to our dualistic language. I remember a Benedictine priest in the seminary I attended. This was one of the few jewels I recall him saying: “It’s not about Either/Or. It’s about Both/And”. Catholic instruction has for a long time relied on the first one almost exclusively. For me, the words of salvation can really be understood and lived most fully by embracing the second. We are Both sinners and saints. Perhaps, It’s only by being a good sinner that we become the best saints we can be.

  • Patti Day

    When we are faithful to the gift of prayer – even if it seems shallow – it makes our prayer great.

    Lord, Let me keep this locution before me, especially when I am tempted to be inconstant.

  • Karen Howard

    Dear Sister Dorcee,
    I’m sure Dr. Lillies did not mean to slight non-ordained religious men and women, for I, too, enjoy his articles and insights, but I do think we need to be more explicitly inclusive today about the many gifts within our Church. We prayed in our parish this weekend for all pastors and for more young men in our congregation to consider the priesthood, which is a good thing, but there are a number of young women in our congregation, too, and they need to hear that they are needed and valued as witnesses, not so much for the ordained priesthood, but in the many other ways their lives can build up the Church. So, too, our young men who may be called to non-ordained roles, and the rest of us lay folks. We are all called to be those witnesses for Christ to one another. We may just need to hear that a little more often. God bless, Karen

  • joan

    We are all the same in God’s eyes. He builds His Church, the Body of Christ, through us. We don’t do it, He does. The Priest, through Sacrament of Holy Orders and extensive education is indeed expected to lead the laity to holiness, however, one can’t give what one doesn’t have. It is most sad to me that the Institution almost has a type of creation of its own. (pride, power, honor) Yes, the Church does intrepret and guide, however, God’s Law is God’s Law and there is an order to His Law.

    Yes, there are men that have not received Holy Orders and cannot consecrate, however, Priests can procreate. It is the Institution that has justified celibacy, and rightly so, however, to mandate it is not God’s Law. Some are called to celibacy, but all are called to chastity.

    One cannot make one’s self Holy, most especially, through a mandate, only God reads the heart.

    Kokyjo speaks with Love. He worships God with his wife. They grow through and with each other in Him towards Holiness. The distraction is very loud, but i hear you, Kokyjo.

  • joan

    RE: discussion between myself and Frtrue@att — am i the only one, please, that questions this? Yes, it’s a mystery. Thanks be to God, He knows, and in Him I trust (best i can). I do know i could grow and faith and Love–i am in trouble as my heart is heavy in the church. The Body of Christ – He’s the only way. What is happening? And why does it feel SO wrong.

  • judeen

    scripture talks about the priest hood.. and every man is a priest to their own family.. the authority , guide , protector, and moral leader … so too a priest is all of these in the house of the Lord…women have many other gifts… a man is a spiritual protector also.. this is why men are priests… the authority God has given them is great… as too every excersit should be a man… He is also called to be chaste… a man is a protector of chasity and virginity… respect of women children and weak and the old… it is very powerful.. and also stronge enough to fight a strong demon of lust… … as a person is pure.. so God dwells with in them and Gods Power is with them… this is also in scripture.. pruity is a very Holy place to be… and as a man offers His life and wants to God and becomes Gods servent to stand firm in the truth and word of God .. to fight for us… for He fasts for us… prayes for us.. and lives to protect us… and offer prayers to God for us and with us…

  • Kelly Moore

    It truly was a heartfelt article. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, and a college student. I was Catholic through the R.C.I.A. for about 5 years, then God spoke to my heart. I left the church to answer my calling to ministry. I plan to go to seminary after college, whereas, I am seeking to be a Presbyterian pastor. My father was a protestant pastor, Baptist. No matter what denomination, if called by God, you seek the pastoral vocation in, it is a sacrifice of ones self. It is a tough job for any pastor. You are a counselor, teacher, minister, comforter, and a lot more. It takes a very special individual to lead a church. Yes, we are all called to minister, we just have to let the Holy spirit lead us to where we are needed and where He calls us.

    As far as prayer, I feel mine is shallow, at times, too. I make times in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings to pray. I just believe prayer brings us closer to God, and it is essential for our spiritual life and walk with the Lord.

    1 Peter 2:9….But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

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