Another year, another celebrity priest ends his career in scandal. No doubt there are many cautionary lessons to learn from these sad stories about the spiritual dangers of fame and the need to always watch and pray. But I learned something else.
It occurred to me that the images of the Catholic priesthood I will always remember aren’t of priests on a stage — or even priests in the pulpit — but by priests in action, doing what only priests can do.
For instance, I will never forget the priest we knew in Washington, D.C., who came to visit my family in Connecticut.
We were chatting in the front room with Father in late summer after dinner one day when we heard the screeching of tires on the road outside and then a giant “bang!” This bang was accompanied by our house’s lights going out. Someone had run into an electrical pole.
In the time it took me to turn to the window, Father was up and out the door, grabbing his jacket and running down the street. He crossed traffic, rushed to the car’s side, and helped the four teens in the accident assess their situation, helped them out of the car, and called 911 from his cell phone. But he hadn’t run to the site to save their bodies: He ran to save their souls. He asked if any of them were Catholic and was ready to give absolution if anyone was dying.
It was inspiring to see a priest think of souls as soon as he heard an accident.
In another image of the priesthood, the priest’s presence of mind was just as impressive, though it was practically in slow motion.
My mom was growing weaker every day from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in November 2006. The priest from a neighboring town would visit her periodically on his rounds. After she lost her voice, she confessed to him via dry erase board. After she lost the ability to write, I am not sure what she did. Eventually, she couldn’t swallow, either, and lost the ability to receive Communion in any normal way. But she could still be anointed.
We were still in Arizona the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and I felt it was my duty to try to get anointing of the sick for my mother. The only Sunday Mass available in my parents’ small Arizona town was celebrated by a priest from a nearby town at the fire station. As the priest vested, I approached him and encouraged him to make another visit to the house — please, as soon as he could. That afternoon, if possible.
He said he would, but then stopped and said he saw no reason not to anoint her right then and there. He started Mass late that day, after blessing Mom with oil and granting her absolution by the fire station door.
It is a good thing he did. She died the next day. The consolation that priest gave her and us was irreplaceable.
Another priest I will never forget also administered unexpected sacraments. He was working in a small Mexican border town. I don’t remember how, but my brother and I ended up volunteering with him one week. This priest was a late vocation who had once been a university professor in California. He was a pro-life activist when he entered the seminary. He was sent to the hinterlands after serving in several parishes, but instead of bemoaning his outcast state, he began organizing catechetical groups and charitable outreach for his Mexican flock.
We witnessed him working from early each morning until late each night, and then we saw how his parish became a small village on Sunday. It exploded in music, vending booths and food.
There was not yet a culture of sacramental planning in the makeshift suburbia where he ministered, so on Sunday, he was prepared for anything. If a couple approached him dressed as bride and groom, he blessed the marriage they usually already had. If a small boy came in a white jacket, he gave him first confession and first Communion. You could see the deep appreciation these people — many of whom lived in tin shacks — had for this tireless priest.
But the greatest priestly action I have ever seen was at Mass on a hot summer Sunday at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn.
This was back before the parish had air conditioning. It was tough for the congregation, but worse for the visiting priest who said Mass in the summer. He had diabetes and some kind of degenerative nerve disorder that made his hands shake.
“It’s hot for you,” he would joke. “But I’m up here wearing a horse blanket!”
This priest’s homilies were excellent, showing him to be a great student of Catholic social teaching, but the moment that is burned in my memory happened during the Eucharistic prayer.
Father was slowing down through the first part of the prayer, like an old record player that needed to be cranked. When he started the consecration, it sounded like he was going to stop altogether.
But after he started the consecration, it quickly became clear that nothing could make him stop.
“Take this,” pause, “all of you,” pause, “and” … long pause … “eat it.”
He took a long gasping breath and looked like he wouldn’t recover. A parishioner ran to his side. The priest made it clear he wasn’t about to leave the altar, so the parishioner brought a chair for him to rest on.
“This … is … my … body … which will be … given up … for you.”
He lifted the host with shaky hands. We watched in rapt silence.
He slowly worked through “When the supper was ended, he took the cup …”
And then a replacement priest had been brought over from the rectory.
But Father wasn’t about to stop halfway through the consecration.
Word after agonizing word, he got to the end of the consecration.
By then, an ambulance had come. After he elevated the chalice, he was carried away on a stretcher.
Then the replacement priest stepped up to the altar. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” he said.
Talk about alter christus. Watching that priest was like watching Our Lord consecrating the Eucharist — from the cross.
“Mom, why wouldn’t he stop?” the kids asked their mother in the car.
“Because he’s a priest,” said April. “That’s what priests do.”
She was right. It is vitally important that priests preach and that they do it well. But preaching isn’t the most important thing priests do. A priest doesn’t need to be talented, interesting or well-read to do the most important things priests do.
When you really need a priest, any priest will do.
I remember when Cardinal John O’Connor of New York died. I was executive editor of the Register. We asked a priest who had known him for years to write a reminiscence. We were disappointed by what we got back. We expected memories of the charm and larger-than-life personality of the great archbishop of New York. Instead, we got an almost catechetical treatment of the role of the bishop and a dry pronouncement that Cardinal O’Connor filled that role perfectly. We ran it, but I didn’t understand why the priest would take that approach.
I understand now. Reducing a priest to his job description doesn’t short-change his importance; it elevates it. It means a priest is important not for who he is, but for his unique relationship with Christ and his vital ability to act in our lives in Christ’s place.
The priestly title “Father” means a lot more than the name that follows it — which is why I didn’t use the names of the priests in this article. A priest is far more than the force of his personality.
He is Christ for us. Without him, we are lost. With him, we are saved.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.