Abbot Baldwin of Ford (d. 1191) begins his exhortation to priests by quoting from the
Acts of the Apostles 20:28:
Consider yourselves and the whole flock in which
the Holy Spirit has made you bishops, to govern the
Church of God, which He has purchased with His
and speaks about the importance of the priest considering himself first and then the flock.
Those who involved with the business of the salvation of others should take care for their own salvation. Those who are entrusted with watching over moral discipline ought to live their own lives correctly. Those who must first account for themselves should begin with themselves and not neglect themselves. He suggests that the priest consider what he is with others, what he is for others, what he is above others, and what he is below
Priests are like all other men in terms of the fact that we are subject to suffering and bound to the necessity of dying. We are still within the reach of temptations and can be conquered by them. It is by virtue of the fact that we suffer from human weakness that we can have compassion for the weaknesses of others.
By virtue of the mission we have been given, Abbot Baldwin refers to priests as angels of peace in whom God has placed the word of reconciliation. The Prophet Malachi shows that we can be angels when he says, “The lips of a priest guard knowledge, and men will seek the law from his mouth, for he is the angel of the Lord of Hosts” (Ml 2:7).
If we are indeed angels than our life is in heaven, for we are not of the flesh but of the spirit. [We are] like ministering spirits sent to minister for the sake of them who receive the inheritance of salvation (Heb. 1:14). We are sent from God, who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a consuming fire (Ps. 104:4). As ministers of God we should not only be called a flaming fire, but all—and rightly—a consuming fire; we should flame like the seraphim, like those close to God, consuming and enlightening the hearts of those in our charge so that they, too, may burn with the heat of our fiery eloquence and none of them find any place to hide from its heat.2
While priests are considered angels according Abbot Baldwin, wicked priests are compared to wicked angels (demons). Priests can be compared with angels because of the similarity of their office and should always associate themselves with good angels.
Wicked priests are those who have fallen from heaven and do not stand in the truth, so they have lost their angelic dignity. It appears that, therefore, that it is to such men as these, [men] who no longer deserve the name of angels, that the psalmist’s threat is addressed: “You shall die like men and fall like one of the princes” (Ps. 82:7).
In addition to comparing the holy priesthood to the angelic life, Abbot Baldwin goes on to compare priests to gods. The power we have received comes, not from men, but from God Himself. After all, who is able to forgive sins, but God alone? Yet the power to forgive sins has been given to us, for the God of gods, the Lord has spoken and said,
“Whatever you loose upon earth shall also be loosed in heaven” (Mt. 18:18). By this power, God is always represented by His priests on earth, and because we are representatives of the one true God, we are called gods and we are gods. Through our ministry, God is always present to those who seek Him, not only by the presence of our ministry, but by our representing his authority and power.3
The dignity we have received as priests comes not from anything that we have done, but is a gift freely bestowed upon us by God Himself. As priests we should be both feared and honored: feared as judges, honored as fathers; feared for our power, honored for our holiness. If a priest is lacking in holiness then it is he who should be afraid, for
God is his judge. ‘For God stands in the Divine assembly, in the midst of the gods He gives judgment’ (Ps. 82:1). There is always the temptation when one is given authority to use such authority for one’s own personal advancement and honor. God knows His own and those who seek their own interests and not those of the Lord Jesus cannot hide: they are only imitations of priests, like images of god or idols of abominations in the temple. (Ez. 16:36). If the worship of God is given to an idol it is idolatry, and in the same way, if those who are not called by God (as Aaron was) take honor to themselves, they unjustly usurp the honor due to the gods—that is, to holy priests. The [following] text clearly refers to them: ‘Whoever gives honor to a fool is like someone who casts a stone into the heap of mercury’ (Pr. 26:8).4 As priests of the Lord, we are to show reverence for the power we have received as befits ministers of Christ and consider how great is our dignity.
We have considered our dignity and how we are above others because of our holy calling, but now we must reflect upon how we are below others by virtue of our humility as servants. We are not to think that we are being insulted, for it was the psalmist who said, ‘The earth will be filled with the fruit of your works; it will bring forth grass for cattle and herbs for the service of men’ (Ps. 104:13-14). We are cattle and servants of men. It is also written, ‘The giants, and those that dwell with them, groan under the waters’ (Jb. 26:5). We are like giants whose stature is greater than that of others in accordance with our pre-eminent dignity; but we are giants groaning under the waters of the people, burdened with a multitude of cares and concerns.
We are gods and guides of souls and should give special consideration to the difficulty of governing souls, of accommodating ourselves to the character of each, of conforming ourselves to all so that even though we are lords of all, we are no way different from servants. St. Paul shows us the nature of this law of service when he says, ‘Though I am free from all men, I made myself the servant of all. I became all things to all men so that I might save all’ (1 Cor 9:19, 22).
‘The greater one is, the more he should humble himself in all things’ (Sir. 3:20). Humility in honor is itself the honor of honor and the dignity of dignity. No dignity deserves the name of dignity if it scorns humility, for just as humility engenders honor so, too, it preserves it. Someone who is truly humble does not strive for honor; when he receives honor, he does not snatch at it through ambition, but because of his humility he is himself snatched away to honor. Humility without honor is sufficient in itself for honor, but honor without humility only brings upon itself confusion.
By the example of His humility, Christ bears down upon us like a great and weighty mass, driving us to humility, so that we might be subject to those who are subject to us. We are to labor more than all since we labor for all. We are not only servants of men, but slaves of men, like oxen who tread the grain, like beasts who serve the needs of men with their labor.
By reason of our ministry the fruits of the earth are owed to us, but what do we owe in return? First, all that we have; then ourselves, all that we can do all, all that we are. We should give them most gladly, like St. Paul who says, ‘I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls’ (2 Cor 12:15). We are debtors, not only to the one part of the flock committed to us, but to the whole flock; to all and to each, to the wise and the foolish (Rm. 1:14).
We must also consider the flock in which the Holy Spirit has established us. They have not received the spirit of this world, but the Spirit which is from God. Those who are led by the spirit of this world are not established by the Holy Spirit and are not chosen by God as Aaron was chosen. They seek the glory of men, not the glory which comes from God and although they may find glory and favor in the eyes of men, in the eyes of God they are confounded, for God has rejected them (Ps. 53:6).
As priests, we are not like this, whom the Holy Spirit has made to govern the Church of God. The Holy Spirit has placed us here, and our function, in accordance with the two duties of a governor, is to direct and correct in righteousness and judgment. We are to enthrone ourselves in thrones of righteousness, for righteousness and judgment are the foundations of God’s throne. Through our righteousness and judgment the throne of God should be prepared in those who have not yet offered themselves as seats for God to be enthroned; in those, that is, who have have not yet begun to subject themselves to God in obedience. It should also be prepared in those who have fallen, so that with God’s help they may be set on their feet, since God puts His hand under them (Ps. 37:24).
A major aspect of our priesthood is that we are very much public figures. The eyes of all are upon our righteousness and our judgment. On these virtues hang the salvation of those in our charge and the life of many. For our life is a mirror of holiness, an example of honesty, a seal of righteousness. There are many in the Church who look to us, as in a mirror, and see in their faces either the grace of beauty or the stain of disfigurement. They see in us what they ought to imitate and the model to which they long to be conformed. The life of those in our charge is symbolized by soft wax which can receive the exact image of the seal of our holiness. If we love Christ, we must love righteousness as well.
Christ was made a victim for sin, and, as the good shepherd, laid down his life for his sheep, leaving us an example so that we might follow in His steps. Just as Christ, poured out His blood for His church, He also poured out His charity for Her. Priests are exhorted to live and to find their distinctive holiness in pastoral charity—in selfless self-giving for the flock entrusted to them—after the model of Jesus who came to serve, not to be served, who laid down His life for the sheep. It is the pastor’s self-forgetful love for the flock that empowers his ministry that integrates the variety of tasks that a shepherd’s ministry requires that leads him to holiness through the pouring out of his life for others.5
In us, as priests, Christ has put His trust so that through us the heart of the Her spouse may trust in Her. Therefore, just as we love Christ, and just as He can put His trust in us, so we must guard His bride in our faithfulness. We must protect Her jealously, not for our sakes, but for His so that we may present Her as a chaste virgin to her bridegroom, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
To say that this is a tall order is a major understatement. However, we must remain mindful of the fact that we are not acting alone without any support or aid. Through our fidelity to our prayer life and reception of the sacraments, we remain in constant contact with Our Lord Jesus and are assured by the fact that He told us that He will not leave us as orphans that it is He who is working in and through us as we serve the needs of those we are called to minister to. The priest must strive to become daily what ordination has already made him: specially configured to Christ; specially configured to Christ the Shepherd who guides and provides care and who laid down His life for the sheep; specially configured to Christ the Head who governs and leads and who came to serve, not to be served; specially configured to Christ the King who reigns now in triumph but whose earthly throne was the Cross on which He laid down His life; specially configured to Christ the Prophet, the Teacher, the Evangelizer who announced the Kingdom and taught us its ways and who did so by His living and His dying and His rising. This is the path of his priestly conversion: to become what ordination has already made him through the daily tasks that his vocation lays before him each day.6
1) Bell, David N. (trans) The Spiritual Tractates of Baldwin of Ford Vol. 2 CF 41 (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Studies, 1986), p. 118
2) Bell, p. 119
3) Bell, p. 121
4) Bell, p. 122
5) O’Keefe, Mark Priestly Wisdom: Insights from St. Benedict (St. Meinrad, IN:
Abbey Press, 2004), p. 118
6) O’Keefe, p. 130