“The Beautiful Hands of the Priest”


"We need them [the priest's hands] in life's early morning, We need them again at its close." Singer mentions the clasp of friendship, and priest's hands at the altar, absolution, marriage, and "when death-dews on our eyes are falling."


Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan: "A Father Crowley of Dunsallagh gave Tom the words of this poem on a type-written sheet about 1963 and asked him could he put a tune to it?" - BS

Hm. The cynic in me can't help but wonder, Just what had that priest been doing with his altar boys that he needed such propaganda? It is Catholic doctrine that the sacraments come through the church -- but it is also very basic Catholic doctine that the sacraments are made efficacious by God, *not* the particular priest involved, who may in fact not be in a state of grace. The power is all in the church collectively, not the priest; it is the sacrament, not the one who administers it, which acts.

This is not a recent doctrine; the church had to face the issue very early on, in the face of the Donatist heresy and related doctrines such as Novationism, which held the contrary opinion that the state of the minister did matter. The Novationists arose after the Decian persecution of 250; many had fallen away from the faith during the troubles, but wanted readmission to the church after Gallienus's edict of toleration in 260. Pope Cornelius was willing to forgive, but Novation felt that there was no possibility of forgiving the apostate; he split from the church and was declared Bishop of Rome, with his sect lasting for a few centuries (see David Christie-Murray, _A History of Heresy_, Oxford, 1976, p. 96).

The Donatists were a slightly later but rather stronger version of the same thing. They arose in the aftermath of Diocletian's persecution (from 303). The persecution did not end until 312. And, in 311, a new bishop of Carthage had been needed. Caecilian was consecrated bishop by Felix of Aptunga, who was considered to have gone along with the persecution, so many in the diocese refused to accept Caecilian's ordination. A rival sect arose, with Majorinus their first bishop. He soon died, to be replaced by Donatus (from 316), who gave the group its name. According to Lars P. Qualben, _A History of the Christian Church_, revised edition, Nelson, 1936, p. 123, "The [Donatist] party held that the traditors, or those who had surrendered copies of Scripture in the recent persecution, had committed a mortal sin." The sect seems to have endured until at least the Vandal, and perhaps the Islamic, conquest.

According to Christie-Murray, pp. 96-97, "Augustine wrote copiously against the Donatists, helping to establish the principle, which has remained that of the western Church, that the sacraments are not dependent for their validity upon the moral character if the men by whose hands they are administered but are valid in themselves, deriving their efficacy from God.?

Similarly Qualben, pp. 123-124: ?the character of a minister does not affect his official acts. All the acts of the church are valid acts, though the officials may be unworthy men."

Admittedly a fine distinction for a layperson to make -- but one that every Catholic clergyman should know!

Nonetheless this is a very Irish sort of a piece. Tim Pat Coogan, _Eamon de Valera: The Man Who Was Ireland_ (1993; I use the 2001 Dorset Press edition), p, 3, pretty well sums up the peculiar situation in that nation: "The parish priest was the Irish peasant's spokesman and bulwark against authority, an ever-present eternity. The consolation and support that the better priests gave their flocks was reciprocated by a respect for the clergy generally only equalled today by that accorded to an imam in a fundamentalist Arab village." - RBW


  • Tom Lenihan, "The Beautiful Hands of the Priest" (on IRTLenihan01)


  1. Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan 31, "The Beautiful Hands of the Priest" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Roud #5218
  3. BI, RcBeHaPr


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1974 (Munnelly/Deasy-Lenihan)
Found in: Ireland