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.

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