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.

The unintended witness of a well-thumbed breviary

The unintended witness of a well-thumbed breviary

During my silent retreat, which has just ended, all the retreatants prayed the Divine Office in common.

The Divine Office, aka the Prayer of the Church, aka the Liturgy of the Hours, is a series of vocal prayers constituting psalms, hymns, scripture readings, intercessory prayers and other sacred texts. It is an ancient form of prayer — an adaptation of the Jewish prayers which our Lord himself would have prayed with his disciples, and maybe also as a child, with Our Lady and St Joseph.

People are often surprised to learn that priests are not obliged to pray the Mass every day. Daily Mass is certainly encouraged, and strongly recommended. Hence this advice from St Bede, a Doctor of the Church:

“A priest who without an important reason omits to say Mass robs the Blessed Trinity of glory, the angels of joy, sinners of pardon, the just of divine assistance, the holy souls in Purgatory of refreshment, the Church of a benefit, and himself of a medicine.”

Nonetheless, daily Mass is encouraged, not required. Praying the Divine Office, on the other hand, is required. Clergy and religious all over the world pray the Office every day, and a growing number of lay faithful also pray it, privately or in common.

These sacred texts can be prayed all in one sitting (it would take about an hour), but that’s not ideal. The prayers are intended to sanctify different “hours” in the day. Sometimes life in the parish obliges me to pray Evening Prayer at midday, or Morning Prayer late at night, because that’s the only time available to pray. (Never let the perfect become enemy to the good!) So it’s nice, on retreat, to pray the hours as intended, at the corresponding time.

Which brings me to this:

My neighbour’s breviary — the prayer books which contains the texts of the Divine Office.

That breviary would have resembled my own breviary once, which I acquired eleven years ago, when I joined the seminary. I don’t use mine much — I tend to use the Universalis app on my iPhone — so my breviary is more or less in mint condition:

This is not my actual breviary. You know you need to pray more if your prayer books are still wrapped in plastic!

This is not my actual breviary. My prayer life can always improve, but none of my prayer books are wrapped in their original plastic!

Every day of the retreat I looked at that breviary in awe. It is a testament to 40 years of daily prayer, observed faithfully. The breviary’s owner has in fact been praying the Office since the 1950s, but the English translation was only published in 1973. I won’t name him, to save him embarrassment (not that he frequents blogs), but by all accounts this priest is a holy man of God, as devoted to the spirit of poverty as he is to prayer.

I received many helps and graces during my retreat, and this priest’s unintended witness is one of them.


Blessed be God.

New prayer book for youth

New prayer book for youth

Today I joined 300 or so pilgrims at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, where Archbishop Hart prayed a blessing over us and commissioned us to join the pope in Poland for World Youth Day later this month.

In addition to the blessing and commission, we received briefings and tickets and a host of related goodies, like a green and gold combination of pilgrim T-shirt and hat:


What really caught my eye, though, was that Prayer Book for Youth which the Melbourne Vocations Office has published in honour of Pope St John Paul II. It’s a great new resource, which seeks to be something of a one-stop shop for young Catholics becoming acquainted with traditional forms of prayer.

There are adaptations of the Divine Office — I particularly like the Night Prayer. There are popular devotions like the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. You’ll find traditional formulae of Catholic doctrine, a guide to spiritual discernment, and prayers authored by saints old and new. The book concludes with several lengthy quotations from St John Paul II to youth, on the priestly vocation, the married vocation, and the universal call to sanctity.

Each chapter title is accompanied by a black and white photo of the pope, and several of these photos I have not seen before. The chapter on sacramental confession incorporates a famous photo of John Paul II with Ali Agca, his would be assassin. The pair strike a pose which evokes confession, and although no sacraments were ministered that day, grace abounded and a very real reconciliation took place.


The guide to a good confession which constitutes this chapter is very familiar to me. I prepared it for last year’s Adelaide Catholic Youth Festival, in collaboration with my good friend and neighbour in Mt Gambier, Fr Michael Romeo. I’ve blogged before about Fr Romeo’s heroic efforts at the ACYF to promote eucharistic adoration and sacramental confession. The guide to confession he commissioned from me, and a guide to eucharist adoration he commissioned from Adelaide’s Fr Peter Zwaans, are now featured in this excellent new prayer book.


I’m not saying you should get the JPII Prayer Book for Youth because of the material I prepared for it. I’m recommending it because it positively teems with great content, from all quarters — most notably the saints. It is beautifully presented and easy to use. Best of all, it’s free! Keep your eyes peeled, because its public circulation began today.

What holiness looks like

What holiness looks like

Last week, my homily resembled ‘damage control.’ I had to “contextualise” one of the readings — also known as spin.

If you were at Mass, you might recall hearing St Paul warn against marriage. Celibates, he argued, are free to serve the Lord. But married people are preoccupied by worldly worries, and they’re obliged to please their spouse at the expense of God.

In the 2,000 years since, the Church has said a whole lot more about the goodness of marriage, and that includes Paul himself! A few years later he described marriage as “a great sacrament” (or mystery), which both illustrates, and can be modelled on, Christ’s love for the Church. Devotion to one’s spouse doesn’t have to detract from God; it can be a means to worship God, and witness to the Lord’s love.

I like to think Paul was impacted by the example of the Church’s first generation of married couples. The same thing happens today. A priest friend and I often swap our homily notes, and in response to my homily last week, Fr Michael alerted me to the heroic example of Chiara and Enrico Corbella.

This young couple lost their two oldest children to a congenital condition which reduced their life span to half an hour. Those who can spare 20 minutes can watch Chiara tell the story of her first pregnancy. It’s a moving account of joy, sorrow, prayer and supernatural outlook:

Chiara and Enrico’s third child was born safe and sound. But tragically, Chiara was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the pregnancy, and died about twelve months after Francesco’s birth.

The letter Chiara and Enrico wrote Francesco on his first birthday is an inspiring and credible lesson in holiness:

Dear Francesco,

Today we celebrate your first birthday, and we were asking ourselves what we can give you that will last through the years. So we have decided to write you a letter. You have been a tremendous gift to us in our lives because you have helped us to look beyond our human limits. When the doctors wanted to scare us, your life that was so fragile gave us the strength to go forward.

For what little we have learned during these years, we can tell you only that love is the centre of our lives, because we are born from an act of love, we live for love and to be loved, and we die to know the true love of God. The goal of our life is to love and to be loved, always ready to learn how to love the others as only God can teach you. Love consumes you, but it is beautiful to die consumed, exactly like a candle that goes out only when it has reached its goal.

Anything that you do in life will make sense only if you look at it in view of eternal life. If you are truly loving, you will realize this from the fact that nothing belongs to you, because everything is a gift. As St Francis says, “The opposite of love is possession.” We loved your brother and sister — Maria and Davide — and we love you, knowing that none of you are ours, that none of you were for us. And this is how it should be for everything in life. Nothing that you have ever belongs to you, because it is a gift that God gives you so that you can make it bear fruit.

Never be discouraged dear son. God never takes anything away. And if He seems to take away, it is because He wants to give you so much more. Thanks to Maria and Davide, we are even more in love with eternal life and we have stopped fearing death. God has taken from us only in order to give us a heart that is bigger and more open to welcome eternity already in this life.

In Assisi, we fell in love with the joy of the friars that live believing in God’s providence. So we ask the Lord for the grace to believe in this providence that they spoke of — to believe in this Father that truly does not make you lack anything. Brother Veto helped us on this journey in believing in this promise. We got married without anything, but we put God in first place and believed in the love that He asked us to show, taking a big leap. We have never been disappointed. We have always had a house and much more than we have ever needed.

Your name is Francesco because St Francis changed our lives, and we hope that he can be an example also for you. It’s beautiful to have examples of lives that remind you that you can expect the greatest joy already on this earth, with God as our guide. We know that you are special and that you have a great mission. The Lord has wanted you from eternity, and He will show you the road to follow if you open your heart. Trust Him. It is worth the while.


Mamma e Papa.

It is beautiful to have living reminders of the promises God makes us. Therein lies the reason and the power of celibacy for the kingdom, lived with love and generosity. But marriage, too, can serve as a great witness, as Chiara and Enrico show us.

Three years a priest

Three years a priest

Three years ago today — three years already! — I was ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

I have to admit, this anniversary would have passed me by, except that my grandmother called last night to congratulate me. Which meant she also inadvertantly reminded me.

I think if she hadn’t called, I’d have realised today’s anniversary when I prayed this morning’s Office of Readings, which commemorates the Feast of Ss Cornelius and Cyprian. That would have jogged my memory.

But actually, it wouldn’t have come to that because dozens of other friends have also contacted me today, sending me their congratulations. I may have forgotten, but others didn’t. Thanks everyone!

The last few days have been a wonderful way to celebrate. On Saturday, I attended the ordination of three priests and six deacons in Melbourne, among whom are some of my dearest friends.

Here’s some photos taken by Junray Rayna, a Sandhurst seminarian who will himself be ordained a deacon this Saturday:

This was a great way to celebrate the anniversary of my own ordination. I was able to renew my promises and my consecration, and to share with my brothers the joy of priesthood.

In his homily, Archbishop Hart remarked on the value of friendships forged in the seminary, but he added that as important and blessed as this fraternity is, a priest’s relationship with the people entrusted to him is even more important and grace filled. I know what he means. The following day’s First Communion celebrations in Hamilton were another excellent way to celebrate the anniversary of my ordination. Nothing compares to preparing children to receive into themselves the Real Presence of Jesus Christ . . . except maybe all the other sacraments a priest is called on to minister!

Still, Ordinations and First Communions are my two favourite days in the year (after Easter and Christmas). So this last weekend was a great double whammy which has renewed my gratitude for the holy priesthood. Deo gratias.

My vocation

My vocation

I remember a time when my blog posts were exclusive to my blog. Those were the days when I had much more time to write. Those were the days before I was a priest!

Now that I am a priest, time is at a much greater premium. Anything I write will end up here, sooner or later. So here’s something I wrote today for an entirely different audience.

1. Why did you become a priest?

When I was nine or ten years old, I read The Story of a Soul, by St Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse taught me that God wants all of us to be saints, and she taught me how to be a saint. That conviction waxed and waned over the years, but it never left me.

When I finished school and moved out of home, I started going to the occasional weekday Mass as well as Sunday Mass, and soon I fell into a crowd of young Catholics who knew their faith – and knew Jesus Christ – much more deeply than I did. My resolution to pursue holiness was renewed. This had nothing to do with the priesthood though – it just meant falling in love with God, living a good life, and starting again whenever I fell away.

For a long time, I believed I could be a saint and be a husband and father and pursue a professional career. St Thomas More was an inspiring example. When I realised, through prayer, that God was calling me to be a priest I was shocked. This was not something that I wanted, but I knew this is what God wanted, so I signed up for the priesthood. God knows better than us what will make us happy.

2. Have there been many times that you have struggled with your faith?

My faith is shaken when I’m confronted with suffering.

About half way through my seminary training, a film was released in cinemas which related the crimes and cover-up of paedophile priests in America. My bishop saw it, and he recommended I watch it. So one Saturday evening, I went alone. (It’s not really the sort of movie you’d invite friends to watch.) I don’t cry at movies, but this time I did. At the end of the film, as people moved out of the cinema, I overheard a lot of derogatory remarks about priests and the Church. I walked back to the seminary, and sat alone in the chapel. I wasn’t really alone of course – I was sitting in front of the tabernacle. I asked myself why on earth I was giving my life to an institution which was capable of the evil I just watched on film. But I didn’t just ask myself questions – I asked Jesus a lot of questions too.

This is just one example. As a priest, I encounter people suffering in all sorts of different ways. This often challenges my faith, and I have to take it to prayer. If I don’t pray about it, it becomes an obstacle between me and Jesus. I become remote from him. This is my biggest struggle with faith. I think there’s symmetry in that. Goodness – especially the goodness of the saints – inspires my faith and nourishes it; evil and suffering challenge and even undermine my faith.

Two or three times in my life I have doubted the whole thing. “Maybe it’s all made up,” I suddenly think. “My whole life is a lie.” But this is a more superficial struggle. I keep praying and serving the Lord, and as suddenly as those doubts appeared, they just as suddenly disappear.

3. If you weren’t a priest what would you be?

Before I discerned a priestly vocation, I was pursuing a political career. Maybe I’d be working for a politician, or maybe I’d be in parliament myself. I’d probably be married by now, and maybe I’d have a few kids. I was very attached to these dreams once, but now they seem distant and unreal. I may as well imagine living 1,000 years in the future, or 1,000 years in the past.

4. Have you ever regretted being a priest?

When I realised God was calling me to be a priest, I grieved a lot. I had to bury my dreams of a career and family. The day I signed up for the seminary, I was very sad. I met the vocations director in his office, near St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, to start the application process. After our meeting I walked into the cathedral and knelt before our Lord in the tabernacle. I thanked him for the grace of my priestly vocation, but I asked another favour from him. “You’ve called me to be a priest. Now help me to love that calling.” At that time, I had no love for my calling at all.

Eight months later, I finally started my seminary training. By then, my prayers had been answered. God gave me a love for my vocation. In the ten years since, I have never regretted saying yes to God. I only regret those times when I have been less generous with him. It’s not enough just to say yes to God once. It has to be repeated every day, since our circumstances are always changing, and the implications of God’s will change too.

5. What has been your best moment as a priest?

The greatest days of my life were the day of my ordination and the day of my first Mass. That was the culmination of eight years study and discernment, and the beginning of my life as a priest.

On a more day-to-day level, I think my favourite moment of priestly life is hearing confessions. People suffer a lot, but they have so much faith in God, and they come to him with a humility and simplicity that moves me. In a sense, I’m an eavesdropper, listening in on a very personal encounter between God and one of his children. I learn so much from these encounters. I learn how to grow in humility; how to become more child-like. Very often, I find myself giving someone advice which must come from the Holy Spirit, because even as I’m saying it to someone else, I’m thinking, “This is good advice! I’ll follow it myself.” The Holy Spirit is a great teacher.

6. Is there any advice you could give to anyone thinking about becoming a priest?

Anyone contemplating a priestly vocation should first resolve to be a saint. A saint is someone who loves God more than they love themselves. This is what we’re created for, and God gives everyone the means to become a saint. The world needs saints.

Spend time with Jesus. Get to know him – by reading about him and thinking about him, but especially by talking to him.

Fall in love with God. That’s my advice.

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