The Priest is Not His Own by Fulton Sheen

The Priest is Not His Own by Fulton Sheen, San Francisco, 
Ignatius Press, 1963.


Since Christ was Sacerdos-Victima, priests must also be victims.

“And if the reader would like to hear that chord struck a hundred times, he may now proceed” (10).

1: More Than a Priest

“The priesthood of Christ was different from that of all pagan priests and from the Levitical priesthood of the family of Aaron. In the Old Testament and in pagan religions, the priest and the victim were distinct and separate. In Our Lord, they were united inseparably” (11).

Represented by the Cross, Jesus united God and man as a priest-victim. There are 3 kinds of priest-victims: (1) Abel – blood sacrifice, (2) Abraham – voluntary sacrifice, (3) Melchizedek – sacramental sacrifice.

Shown in the Eucharist, we too must die by offering ourselves as victims to give life to others. Just as Christ was recognized in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35), so we too must offer ourselves (Rom 12:1) and be broken, mortified, and made a victim in order to make Christ known.

“If we at Mass eat and drink the Divine Life and bring no death of our own to incorporate into the death of Christ through sacrifice, we deserve to be thought of as parasites on the Mystical Body of Christ. Shall we eat and give no wheat to be ground? Shall we drink wine and give no grapes to be crushed? The condition for incorporation into the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ and into His glorification is incorporation into His death” (19).

“The communion rail is a place of exchange. The people give time and receive eternity; they give self-denial and receive life; they give nothingness and receive all” (20).

2: The Priest is Like Jacob’s Ladder

Every priest is another Jacob’s ladder:

  1. Vertical relation to Christ in heaven – Our vocation derives from Him (Heb 5:4), all the effectiveness of our priesthood comes from Him (Heb 7:25) and our specific relation as priests is to the top of the ladder. We must be intercessors like Christ.
  2. Horizontal relation to men on earth – We must represent sinful humanity (Heb 5:1-2). If we start (as we must) at the bottom of the ladder, having compassion on all men, nothing that happens to others is foreign to us. Their grief is our grief, their poverty our poverty. The priest must bring the whole of humanity to the altar, where he joins heaven and earth together (44).

“Our effectiveness at the bottom of the ladder depends on our communication with the top” (46).


  1. Separation from the world – Although we are in the world, we are never of it, for our High Priest has called us out of this world. Separated from the world. Separated unto God. “In proportion in which we seek what the world can give, we become unable to give what the world needs” (48).
  2. Loss of our ego – We must eliminate our ego and become empty vessels for the heavenly treasure. “Our personality must be submerged in the Person of Christ as to think with Him, will what He wills and make Him the source of our responsibility and our power” (51).
  3. The Importance of Ex Opere Operantis – Although all priests – by virtue of their ordination – confer grace in the sacraments ex opere operato, all priests must surrender their egos – their whole personalities – to the Person of Christ in order to be fruitful ex opere operantis in all other duties (console, preach, convert, foster vocations, counsel, etc).

3: Spiritual Generation

“Increase and multiply” is a law of sacerdotal life no less than of biological life (57). The priest is pledged to celibacy is not because human generation is wrong but because it must yield so that he can devote himself wholly to a higher form of spiritual generation.  The key to begetting children in Christ through the conversion of souls and the fostering of vocations is our union with the Christ-Victim (John 12:32).

“But if the priest is thus a father, then God may properly inquire of him as to where are his offspring… When we go before the judgment seat of God, each of us will be asked, “Whom have you begotten in Christ?” Woe to those who are barren!” (61)

“Every priest should ask himself how many adults he baptized in the past year as the fruit of his zeal and how many fallen-away Catholics he brought back to the Father’s house (63).

“No deep conviction is aroused in the incredulous until they see the scarred hands and the broken heart of the priest who is a victim with Christ. The mortified priest, the priest who is detached from the world – these inspire, edify and Christify souls” (64).

4: The Holiness of the Priest

“The moral and spiritual life of the priest is related in two ways to the Mystical Body of Christ:

  1. The priest’s holiness helps to make the faithful holy.
  2. The sanctity of the Christian community, in turn, helps to make the priest holy – Our Lord asked us to pray for labourers! Prayer expresses the Christian community’s yearning for labourers.

Just as Jesus consecrated Himself for our sakes through sacrifice (see John 17:19), so priests must consecrate themselves for the sake of the faithful through sacrifice.

Jesus’ sacerdotal prayer on Holy Thursday night, like the prayer He had given the apostles on the earlier occasion, contains 7 petitions. The first Our Father was for everyone, but this Our Father is for priests alone. It sums up the virtues and other qualities that distinguish the priest:

  1. Perseverance: Jn 17:11
  2. Joy: Jn 17:13 – The “joy” set before us is similar to that with which He embraced the Cross. But the victory is certain. We have already won! Only the news has not yet leaked out! (76)
  3. Deliverance from evil: Jn 17:15
  4. Holiness through sacrifices: Jn 17:17
  5. Unity: Jn 17:21
  6. Our Lord’s constant companions: Jn 17:24
  7. Enjoyment of His glory in heaven: Jn 17:24

“Priest-victim leadership begets a holy Church” (76).

“The specific thing Christ directed every priest to repeat and renew was the sacramental symbol of His death. The living out of this death is sanctification” (76).

The cross must be taken up daily because there is a ransom price on every soul. Some of them cost much. They require a great sacrifice.

Our Lord made His impact through His Cross (Jn 12:32).

We must take no rest and give God no rest.

What we are, the Church is; what the Church is, the world is (78).

Only labourers, not idlers, are acceptable instruments. The priest must study to perfect his mind, not wearying the people with stale repetitions (81).

Every slightest failing on our part brings the community under the judgment of God. Every least increase of priestly virtue brings it blessing (83).

5: The Holy Spirit and the Priest

“Since the priest is an alter Christus, he must know the role the Spirit played in Christ’s life. At every moment of His life, the Saviour was completely under the guidance of the Spirit” (92).

“Each priest must first win the spiritual victory alone and within himself, before he can repeat that victory in the lives of others” (93).

The Spirit allows us to become both priest and victim.

The Spirit tells the priest the whole scope of his work as days roll on.

It is the Spirit Who makes us more priestly day by day because He takes the things of Christ and reveals them to us, bringing to remembrance all the words of Christ (Jn 16:14; 14:26) (97).

“The fruitful kind of emptiness is that of a nest, which the dove of the Holy Spirit can fill, or the emptiness of a flute, through which the breath of the Holy Spirit can pipe the joyful tunes of being one with Christ” (101).

“Every priest, when he goes before the Lord for judgment, will be asked, “Where are your children?” The vocation of the priest is primarily to beget souls in Christ. Shall we mount the pulpit and denounce unnatural birth control in the flesh, while we practice it in our spirit? Shall mothers be blamed for not having more children when our baptismal records show no souls begotten in Christ in years?” (104).

6: The Spirit and Conversion

The work of conversion is accomplished by the Holy Spirit through the use of human means (108). Conversion is a metanoia, a change of character, becoming a new man.

The priest must never think that his own preaching or zeal won the convert (108). Losing is the condition of gaining in the realm of the Spirit… Every exhaustion of spiritual energy by a priest creates a vacuum for a richer endowment of the

Losing is the condition of gaining in the realm of the Spirit… Every exhaustion of spiritual energy by a priest creates a vacuum for a richer endowment of the Spirit until souls become his passion (Isaiah 40:29).

We priests are only spiritual farmers; we till the soil, God drops the seed. We make no converts. We must never count up our converts, or we will one day begin to think that we, not the Lord, made them (111).

Our zeal for conversions will go through three stages: a heavenly prayer, exhausting identification with others and finally, the healing of the soul (113).

The condition of all apostolate is a realization that heaven grants it (113).

The worth of our efforts is in proportion to the expanse of sympathy and feeling we have for unconverted souls. The depth of a priest’s compassion is the measure of his apostolic success (114).

“The relationship between the love of the Holy Spirit and our sympathy for souls. He who prays, sympathizes; he who has the Spirit has a body that takes up a cross daily for his people; he whose eyes sweep the heavens for the Spirit has the keener gaze for the lost sheep of the earth. The habitual communion with God is the root of the priest’s compassion. Pity is second; Our Lord is first” (114).

7: The Spirit of Poverty

Poverty is not an economic but a spiritual condition. Poverty of spirit is based on the example of Christ (2 Cor 8:9). His poverty was voluntary.

“The Catholic priest ought to be remarkable for his detachment from worldly things…” ~ Pius XI

The poorer in spirit you become, the richer in Christ you become.

Poverty of spirit does not begin with an act of the will to do with less; it begins with the Spirit of Christ in us. External poverty follows the internal. Indifference to the accumulation of possessions follows zeal for Christ. The greater the concern with material things, the less is the dedication to the Spirit (126).

3 aspects of priestly poverty can be distinguished. In the priest’s personal life, poverty directs him to limit himself to the strict necessity. In his apostolate, poverty of spirit inspires him to use spiritual means to attain his apostolic goals. In his use of resources, poverty obliges him to count only on God (126-7).

The priest must seek in particular a spirit of poverty in regard to time and self-satisfaction… Siesta time is not sacred; the day off is not sacred. These legitimate recreations are expendable if a soul can be saved (128).

The lazy priest always has less time than the zealous priest because the former is thinking in terms of the interruptions to his leisure, while the latter is seeking the opportunity to be another Christ. The priest’s time is not his own; it is Our Lord’s (128).

The virtue of poverty is too rich in content to be limited to money (129).

The poverty of self-satisfaction – There is no such thing in priestly spirituality as being satisfied because we have done our duty… The less there is of self-satisfaction, the more zeal there is in Christ’s service… When we think of all the Lord has done for us, we can never do enough… We are worthless servants when we have done our best… To our Redeemer alone belongs the merit and glory of our services; to us belongs nothing but the gratitude and humility of being pardoned rebels (131).

8: The Spirit and Preaching and Praying

Preaching is not the act of giving a sermon; it is the art of making a preacher. The preacher then becomes the sermon (132).

The absence of an inner spiritual life makes sermonizing dull, stale, flat and unprofitable… Trafficking with the Word of God one Sunday after another without prayer and preparation does not leave a priest the same; it leaves him worse… The priest who has not kept near the fires of the tabernacle can strike no sparks from the pulpit (133).

How much more our words would burn as we preach if we prepared our sermons before the Eucharistic Lord; if our meditation each morning was on the subject of next Sunday’s sermon; if, before preaching, we prayed for five minutes to the Holy Spirit for Pentecostal fire; if we kept the Scriptures ever open near us, that we might gird ourselves with their truth when mounting the pulpit! (134)

The most important subject for sermons is repentance. Why? Because it is the first act of a soul that turns back to God, the first stroke that severs sin from the heart (136).

3 kinds of prayers in the Spirit should be of special concern to every priest:

  1. His unsaid prayers – the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and illuminating what we should really pray for.
  2. His prayers made up of crosses – The priest devoted to the Spirit knows that the Spirit has prepared him for his crosses. The priest will never complain if he sees that the Spirit is the author of his trials (142). Once we understand that all trials come from the Lord, those lose their bitterness, and our heart is at peace.
  3. His breviary – “If laborare est orare, then is it not sometimes true of the breviary that orare est laborare?” (144). The breviary is not a personal prayer; it is an official prayer and therefore is weighted down “with the burden of the Churches.” And until we realize that we are vocalizing the prayer of the Church, will we understand both its beauty and its burden? (145) “If the breviary be approached as a work, as a wrestling with God, as an intercession on the cross, as something intended to bring us not consolation but struggle, we shall eventually learn to enjoy the battle and turn it to the glory of God” (145). Aids to the breviary: (1) Pray it in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, (2) Connect psalms to today (suffering to Church, kingly psalms to Christ, etc), (3) Often appeal to the Holy Spirit during the recitation, (4) Offer certain hours for specific intentions, (5) Don’t do anything else while praying it.

9: The Spirit and Counseling

The concern of the priest as a counselor is solely with those souls who do not belong in the domain of medicine and psychiatry. However, this does not restrict him to the care of normal souls, for those who are abnormal because of a denial of guilt fall equally under his jurisdiction. It is the task of the priest, and he enjoys the power of the Spirit, to regenerate and progressively remold all such souls into the divine image (149).

The aim of all counseling is to move the person from the realm of the flesh to the realm of the Spirit (see Romans 8:5) (149).

The best guides of souls are saintly priests and priests who have suffered in union with Christ (152).

Priestly counseling is basically the application of Redemption to the individual (153).

Conscience is always enlightened when sin is seen as hurting someone we love (155).

Close, intimate, personal contact with affliction and grief is the key to counseling in the Spirit… Counseling is touching where there is disease or misfortune; it is not the simple giving of advice (160).

10: The Priest as Simon and Peter

No other Apostle arouses so much sympathy in the priest’s heart as Peter. He seems very close to each of us in his conflicts and emotions, his strength and his weakness, his resolve to be heroic and his disastrous failure to live up to his aspiration (162).

Like Peter, every priest has two “natures”: a human nature, which makes him another man, and a priestly nature, which makes him another Christ (162).

It is significant that the first one chosen by Jesus to be a Christian priest was given a new name to represent his new character. He did not, however, lose his old name. Instead, he now had two names. He was, at one and the same time, Simon and Peter. Simon was his natural name; Peter was his vocation. As Simon, he was the son of Jona. As Peter, he was the priest of the Son of God. Peter never entirely got rid of Simon. But once called, Simon never ceased to be Peter. Sometimes it is Simon that rules; at other times, it is Peter (163).

In every priest, either Simon has the mastery or Peter (165).

The turning point in the spiritual life of a priest is not only his vocation, his calling. It is also that moment when he becomes obedient to the Spirit. This is a kind of second ordination.

Peter and Judas – “Every bad priest is close to being a good one; every good priest is in danger of being a bad one. The line between sanctity and sin is a fine one.”

Steps in the fall of a priest:

  1. Neglect of prayer – Simon Peter’s sleeping in the Garden (Mark 14:37). “The constant giving out of self needs replenishing from above. As channels through which the waters of life pass to the people, the priest must devote unceasing care and prayer to keep himself clean and holy” (176).
  2. Substitution of actions for prayer – Simon Peter’s sword swinging (John 18:10) represents the priests who engage in a “heresy of action” (Pius XII) and false zeal, neglecting the priest’s primary duty – sanctification of self. All labora, but no ora. 
  3. Lukewarmness: Giving up mortification – Just as “Peter followed Him at a long distance” (Mt 26:58), so the priest has an inner uneasiness about being too close to the Lord (179).
  4. Satisfaction of creature wants, emotions & comforts – Peter warmed himself by the fire and chatted with the servant girls (Mark 14:54). Once the spirit of a priest grows cold, the enemies of Christ – the world, the flesh, and the devil – quickly find a way to provide the “fire”, the comfort and the company (183).

11: The Return to Divine Favor

Horrible as is this condition, the fall of the priest, it is not necessarily final. Although Peter denied the “man”, God would still love the man, Peter!

Like Peter, every priest at one time or another gets out of step with Christ, follows behind, communes with worldly company and secular fires. Christ, nevertheless, treats him as He treated Peter. He constantly turns to look upon him… This is the essential point for every follower of Christ to keep in mind when he sins – the Lord turns first (187).

The next lesson Our Lord taught Peter was that love must constitute the basis of pastoral office (190). The confession of love must precede the bestowing of authority, for authority without love is tyranny (192).

12: Melchizedek and Bread

Reasons we are called priests “in the line of Melchizedek”:

  1. It is eternal, as symbolic of Christ (Heb 7:3).
  2. Melchizedek is a priest and a king (Gen 14:18).
  3. The “greatness” of Melchizedek (Gen 14:20) was a foretelling of the greatness of Christ (Heb 7:4-8).
  4. Sacramental and unbloody (Gen 14:18).
  5. Our Lord Himself was of ancestry distinct from that of the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:14-18)

“The bread of the Old Testament was thus the presence of the people before the Lord, but the Bread of the New Testament is the Presence of the Lord before the people” (205).

13: Judas and the First Crack in the Priesthood

The fall of Judas was not due to avarice but rather lack of faith and trust in the Lord (John 6:71-2).

The first rupture in the soul of Judas was when Our Lord said He would give man His Body and His Blood for food. The total collapse came the night of the Last Supper, when Our Blessed Lord fulfilled that promise. Here is unmistakable evidence that fidelity and holiness, on the one hand, and betrayal and disloyalty, on the other, are linked to the Eucharist, the Bread of Life. The first crack in the priesthood comes in our attitude toward the Eucharist: the holiness with which we offer Mass, the sensitiveness of our devotion to the Blessed Sacrament (217).

The lesson is clear. We are Eucharistic priests. Watch a priest say Mass and you can tell how he treats souls in a confessional, how he ministers to the sick and poor, whether or not he is interested in making converts, whether he is more concerned about pleasing the Lord Bishop than the Lord God, how effective he is in instilling patience and resignation in those who suffer, whether he is an administrator or a shepherd, whether he loves the rich, or the rich and the poor, and whether he gives only money-sermons, or Christwords. The moral rot of the priesthood starts with a want of lively faith in the Divine Presence, and the sanctity of the priesthood starts there too (229).

14: Why Make a Holy Hour?

What concrete recommendations may be given to the priest to make him worthy of the supernal vocation to which he is called? One immediate and essential answer is the Holy Hour. But why make a Holy Hour?

  1. Because it is time spent in the Presence of Our Lord Himself. If faith is alive, no further reason is needed.
  2. Because in our busy life it takes considerable time to shake off the “noonday devils,” the worldly cares that cling to our souls like dust. Like the road to Emmaus experience.
  3. Because Our Lord asked for it (Mt 26:40). It is our Simon-nature that needs the hour.
  4. Because as St. Thomas tells us, the priest’s power over the corpus mysticum follows from his power over the corpus physicum of Christ. All power flows from the altar, the tabernacle.
  5. Because the Holy Hour keeps a balance between the spiritual and the practical. The Holy Hour unites the contemplative to the active life of the priest.
  6. Because revelations made by the Sacred Heart to saintly souls indicate that still unexplored depths of that Heart are reserved for priests.
  7. Because the Holy Hour will make us practice what we preach.
  8. Because the Holy Hour makes us obedient instruments of the Divinity. The effectiveness of priests has little or nothing to do with their natural endowments.
  9. Because the Holy Hour helps us make reparation both for the sins of the world and for our own.
  10. Because it will restore our lost spiritual vitality.
  11. Because the Holy Hour is the “hour of truth.” We see ourselves as the Judge sees us and our sins are placed before our eyes as a re-crucifying of Our Lord.
  12. Because it reduces our liability to temptation and weakness.
  13. Because the Holy Hour is a personal prayer. The Mass and the Breviary are official prayers. They belong to the Mystical Body of Christ. They do not belong to us personally. The priest who limits himself strictly to his official obligation and adoration is like the union man who downs tools the moment the whistle blows. Love begins when duty finishes (236).
  14. Because meditation keeps us from seeking an external escape from our worries and miseries.
  15. Finally, because the Holy Hour is necessary for the Church. Judgment begins with the Church – with us. We must keep our priesthood holy for the sake of the world.

15: How to Make a Holy Hour

Ideally before Mass. Every single day. Coffee if needed. Focus on meditation & prayer of the heart (20 min of breviary max). It must become not merely a habit, but part of a priest’s nature.

“The best book for meditation is the Bible. But since many of its depths need to be explained, a good spiritual commentary is valuable… Read the Scriptures or any solid spiritual commentary book, until a thought strikes you. Then close the book, and talk to Our Lord about it. But do not do all the talking. Listen also… We learn to speak through listening, and we grow in love of God through listening” (244).

Allow no difficulty in making the hour to be an excuse for giving it up. When making it is a pleasure, we can think of ourselves as priests; when it is an effort, we can remember that we are also victims (245).

The body should always take the position that seems best for exciting the soul’s internal devotion.

It is best to kneel during the Holy Hour, for it indicates humility, follows the example of Our Lord in the garden, makes atonement for our failings and is a polite gesture before the King of Kings (247).

16: The Eucharist and the Body of the Priest

One effect of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament is a more lofty concept of the body.

Since the great High Priest emphasized His Body as the source of sanctification for souls, then must not the priest, who touches that Body of Christ in the Eucharist, see his own body incorporated in that same Eucharistic Lord? (258)

This respect for the body will manifest itself in 2 ways:

  1. The purity of body – the purity of the priest is spiritual before it is physical, a reflection of faith, a reverence for the mystery. “Asceticism is the fence around the garden of virginity” (260). “Purity is such a reverence for the mystery of creativeness that it will suffer no schism between the use of the power to beget and its divinely ordained purpose” (263).
  2. The spirit of sacrifice – Expressing our priestly lies in sacrifice prevents piety from becoming emotional. Nothing gives so much power to the words of the priest in the pulpit, the classroom or the home as his self-denials (267). The priest is not his own.

The body of the priest is the temple wall, his senses its gate, his mind the nave, his heart the altar-priest and his soul the holy of holies (259).

17: The Priest and His Mother

Every priest has two mothers: one in the flesh, the other in the spirit. As Mary “mothered” all men at the Cross, so the priest “fathers” them.  In the Passion, Mary teaches compassion to the priest. Every woe, every wound in the world is ours as a priest.

No priest is his own. He belongs to the Mother of Jesus, once and always the Priest-Victim (278).

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