The Necessity of Christian Zeal

Zeal for your house consumes me. — John 2:17

The disciples thought of this verse from Psalm 69 (PS 69:10), in relation to Jesus when they witnessed his cleansing of the Temple. Zeal is one of those attributes that does not get mentioned much these days. My bet is that many young people have never heard the word “zeal” used. When it is used, it is usually in a negative way, as when someone is described as a “zealot,” bringing to mind some sort of fanatical nut of whom you want to steer clear.

Yet, religious zeal is something that is not only positive, but one could argue that it is essential to fully living a Christian life. Zeal is not merely enthusiasm. True zeal springs from authentic love. One might say that zeal is a manifestation of strong love in action for the beloved. If one truly loves Jesus Christ, one will look for ways to serve him wholeheartedly. Christ’s own zeal was born from His love of the Father.

Zeal in priests

Priests should have zeal—for Christ and for the salvation of others. This is manifested in their preaching, their seeking out the lost, and any way they spend themselves in the work to save souls. A friend sent me a reflection by Fr. Richard Tomasek, SJ, who recently died. In the reflection, this dedicated priest spoke about his own priestly zeal and how it was inspired in him by other priests he had known, and from reading the lives of the saints. As he lay ill with cancer, preparing for his own death, Fr. Tomasek wrote: “No matter where I am … my prayer and passion is for the salvation of souls and the building up of the Church. The recent beatification of Pope John Paul II underlines for the Church and for me the primacy of zealous evangelization. Though I now ‘pray for the Church and the Society’ as I deal with cancer, my zeal only grows as I strive to ‘fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body the Church’” (Col 1:24).

Zeal in marriage

Zeal is not just for priests. It is also a necessity in the vocation of marriage. One will often hear spouses express their love for one another (a very good thing!). But many couples rarely, if ever, consider their spouse’s salvation and the role they play in it. In marriage, the spouses entrust themselves to each other and are in many ways responsible for helping their spouse get to heaven. Marriage is not simply for this world. While the marriage itself will end with death, the effects of the marriage—the souls of the children and the spouses—will last for eternity. When the Church speaks of “the good of the spouses” as being one of the ends of marriage (along with the procreation and rearing of children), the eternal good of the spouses (their salvation) is included as part of marriage’s purpose. If more couples can keep the long view of eternity and the goal of heaven in their married life, it cannot help but strengthen their married love and the way they view and support each other.

To be clear, zeal is not hysterical. Rather, it is a manifestation of love directed firmly and persistently toward the good of another. In the Christian life, zeal is directed toward the loving service of God and the desire to lead others to Him. 

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at

Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. attended the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and obtained a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering in 1982. From 1982-1985 he worked in Houston, Texas, when he left his occupation to pursue a call to the priesthood. He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Knoxville in June 1990. Bishop Johnston pursued graduate studies at the Catholic University of America, where he obtained a licentiate in canon law (1996). On March 31, 2008, he was ordained as the sixth bishop of the diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.