The loneliness of the priest

The loneliness of the priest

A holy priest was buried this week. Fr Luke Pirone, OFM. The death of priests like him seems like a great loss, but I suppose their ministry of prayer may be more fruitful than ever in the next life.

I’m thinking now of St Thérèse’s prophetic remarks: “My mission – to make God loved – will begin after my death. I will spend my heaven doing good on earth.”

Having said that, I have no desire to canonise Fr Luke. Quite the contrary. He would insist on his need for ongoing prayers, and I echo his request. Pray for this humble friar, who served God faithfully, who loved God passionately, but who was, like all of us, a sinner too.

Monsignor Cappo preached at the Vigil Mass the day before Fr Luke’s funeral. For many years, Fr Luke was Msgr Cappo’s assistant priest in the Adelaide parish of Hectorville. The monsignor remarked that for a long time he thought Fr Luke was lonely. But eventually, he realised that he wasn’t lonely, he simply chose to be alone.

For example, every year Fr Luke received multiple invitations to parishioners’ places for Christmas dinner. He always refused. He always spent Christmas Day at home. He wouldn’t leave the presbytery. He said he was on call for any emergency. But primarily, he spent the day reading scripture and contemplating the wonder of Christmas and the sacred humanity of Christ.

At the same time, Fr Luke aroused a lot of affection in the people to whom he ministered. The numbers at his funeral, which spanned generations, attested to that. People loved him. Some families “adopted” him. They showed their gratitude and affection by inviting him to family gatherings. (He refused on Christmas Day, but there were other occasions when he happily accepted an invitation.)

Others cooked meals for him and dropped them off at his place. Others left produce at the presbytery door. I can see why it might be said that Fr Luke was often alone, but never lonely. A holy priest, I think, must foster a contemplative spirit. He longs, like Fr Luke, “to be alone with the Alone.”

I’m reminded of St Josemaría’s thoughts on the loneliness of priests. When Josemaría informed his father that he wished to join the seminary, José Escrivá — a pious and thoughtful man — congratulated his son, but warned him that the priest leads a lonely life:

My father answered me, “But my son, are you taking into account that you will not have a love here on earth? A human love? You won’t have a home. But I will not stand in your way.”

And two tears came to his eyes. This was the only time I ever saw my father cry.

“I will not oppose it. In fact, I will introduce you to someone who will give you some guidance.”

Many years later, St Josemaría concluded his father was mistaken. The life of the priest is not lonely.

“People who say that we priests are lonely are either lying or have gotten it all wrong. We are far less lonely than anyone else, for we can count on the constant company of the Lord, with whom we should be conversing without interruption. We are in love with Love, with the Author of Love!”

I think that’s right. As a priest I’ve felt really lonely, truly isolated, when I have wrestled with distressing matters I have heard in the confessional. In this situation — unless there’s a canonical matter which needs clarifying — the priest has no human recourse. No one to turn to. No one to confide in. No one except our Lord, waiting in the tabernacle, longing for his people to visit him and adore him. Longing especially for the company of his priests. How the Lord loves his priests.

Insofar as the priest is lonely, it’s one of the greatest privileges of priesthood I think. In ordinary circumstances, when a priest is emotionally mature, and generous with his people, the gratitude and affection of the lay faithful, and the fraternity of brother priests too, accompanies him. And when such a priest does find himself lonely, I think it is only when our Lord means for this priest to be lonely, because he desires a unique relationship with him. An exclusive intimacy.

God knows us all so well. He knows his priests well. We are weak men. Wretched. And it’s only when we are deprived of human consolations that we turn to him, and show him the love and affection he desires from us. It is a great thing to be a priest. And it is a privilege to have known, and learnt from, Fr Luke. May he rest in peace.

Fr Luke spontaneously venerates the just-anointed hands of Fr Michael Romeo, during the sign of peace at Fr Michael’s ordination.

You walk weird, and you don’t even know it

You walk weird, and you don’t even know it

So I watched an online video yesterday which blew my mind. There’s plenty of dissent in the Youtube comments, but that’s par for the course. I find it pretty compelling.

Roland Warzecha runs a European martial arts school in Hamburg, and he’s apparently obsessed by all things medieval. In a video he published a month ago, he claims that medieval Europeans walked very differently to you and me. They walked “toe to heel,” not “heel to toe.”

So many lessons can be derived from this revelation. Here are two which captured my imagination:

  • So much of what we do, we do unconsciously. It has never occurred to me that we might walk differently from medievals. It raises the question: what else do we think and do almost instinctively, which people in other ages didn’t think or do? And what don’t we think or do, which people in other ages thought or did all the time? While all of us are free agents, we are nonetheless substantially conditioned by our environment, and we don’t even know it.
  • Human beings are lazy. If a shortcut is available, we’ll take it. It’s not really much of a surprise that an evolution in footwear has changed the way we walk. Technological change is always prompting behavioural change. A century ago, people spent the best part of a day doing laundry. I don’t know anyone who still launders that way. We all use automatic washing machines now. What about your smartphone? I bought my first iPhone (second hand) in 2009. Now my digital devices are an integral part of my life. Who has time to check their e-mail on a desktop?

That brings me to this Sunday’s Gospel. The villainous vineyard tenants slay the landowner’s servants, and then they seize and kill his son too, hoping to steal his inheritance. I think something similar has happened in our own time, via insidious secularisation. Our Lord has been “seized and thrown out of the vineyard” by a post-modern culture which in the name of tolerance removes mention of the name and person of Jesus Christ. Our Lord is removed, and we ourselves are replaced as the “heirs of the vineyard.”

Pope Francis warns against this:

“Secularization reduces the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. By completely rejecting the transcendent, it produces a deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64.)

I think that medieval walking video shows how all of us — including the most devout believers — are susceptible to this. You and I live in a secular age. Consequently, invariably, you and I are secular in our thinking and our doing, and we don’t even know it. As Marshall McCluhan sagely observed, “fish did not discover water.”

Here’s the danger: we become the centre of everything we do. We decide what is true and what is right. We mould God into what we want Him to be. When instead, we should permit God to mould us into what He wants us to be.

But there are many remedies available to us. St Paul provides one in the Second Reading:

Fill your minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. (Phil 4:8.)

We must fill our minds. We need good formation. We need constant formation, to counteract the secular environment we inhabit. One such example is the reading of Sacred Scripture — especially the life of Christ in the Gospels — every day.

I recommend ten minutes scriptural reading every day, followed by ten minutes of contemplation. That means sitting still, doing nothing for ten minutes. Ideally, your mind is filled with thoughts related to the scriptures you just read. But even if your mind is instead filled with all the things you must do today, and all the things you didn’t get done yesterday, sitting still for ten minutes is a worth activity.

The merit lies in doing, not thinking. A 20 minute respite, consisting of ten minutes of scriptural reading, and ten minutes “wasting time with God,” helps foster a contemplative spirit. It is profoundly counter-cultural. And unless you want to join the mob who seize our Lord and throw him out of the vineyard, counter-cultural is what you must be.

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