The Why of Countless Unknown Heroic Priests

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Silhouettes of Quiet Priests who altered time and eternity

Every true priest has therefore been a builder of Christian civilization for he encrypted the codes for its construction each time he wrote the words of eternal life on the hearts of his people and each time he gave them the “Bread of the Strong” and the oils for struggle.

All because their hearts burned for the honor of God and the eternal salvation of souls.

Among all the lesser-known heroes, there are some who are known to us because of their connection to the stars of Catholicism.

For instance, the world knows much about St.Patrick, but were it not for the relatively unknown  St. Germain of Auxerre (c.378- c.448) who helped prepare the future apostle, Patrick might never have become the Apostle of Ireland”: “Since the glory of the father shines in the training of the children, of the many sons in Christ whom St. Germain is believed to have had as disciples in religion, it should be enough  to mention in passing of a very  famous one, Patrick, the special Apostle of the Irish nation as the record of his work proves. Subject to that most holy discipleship for 18 years, he drank in no little knowledge of Holy Scripture from the stream of so great a well-spring”.[1]

An example of an even  more “undercover” influence is that of the priest who impressed the writer Walter David Michael Jones (1895-1921) who wrote under the pseudonym  Dai Greatcoat. Raised as a Welsh Protestant, he converted to the Catholic Faith and one of the milestones in his journey to the Church’s doors was his contact with an unknown priest just doing what he should be doing  during the bloody fighting on the Western Front of World War I:

“I don’t know whether I ever told you of my first sight of a Mass… I noticed what had been a farm building… a byre or outhouse of some sort still stood there… What I saw through the small gap in the wall was not the dim emptiness I had expected but the back of a sacerdos  in a gilt hued  planeta [chasuble]two points of flickering candlelight no doubt lent an extra sense of goldness to the vestment and a golden warmth seemed, by the same agency, to lend the white altar cloths and the white linen of the celebrant’s alb and amice and maniple…..You can imagine what a great marvel it was for me to see through that chink in the wall, and kneeling in the hay beneath the improvised mensa [table] were a few huddled figures in khaki. I didn’t think I ought to stay long as it seemed rather like an uninitiated bloke prying on the Mysteries of a Cult. But it made a big impression on me… I felt immediately that oneness between the Offerant and those toughs that clustered round him in the dim-lit byre – a thing I had never felt remotely as a Protestant at the office of Holy Communion in spite of the insistence of Protestant theology on the ‘priesthood of the laity’.”[2]

Another intimate glimpse into the way an “ordinary” priest affected the future of souls was given by Raïssa Oumansoff (1883-1960) a  beautiful Jewish woman who was both poet and philosopher. Although raised in a pious Hebrew family, she was atheistic as a Sorbonne university student. There she met and fell in love with the brilliant  young Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) who was agnostic but like her was searching. One day in a Parisian park they both vowed to commit suicide if they did not discover life’s meaning. Not long afterwards in 1904 they received the gift of  the Catholic Faith  and Jacques, with the steadfast support of his beloved –and deeply insightful – Raïssa, would go on to make some significant contributions to Catholic philosophy.  In this moving excerpt from the autobiography, Raissa narrates their first meeting with the priest who would be their spiritual director:

“On our way for the first time to Father Clérissac’s in Versailles, we recalled with much emotion  those first steps we had taken towards the Church when, three years earlier, we had mounted the steps to Montmartre, in answer to the call of him who was to become our godfather. We were now accomplishing our first important advance, not indeed towards the Church but into the very bosom of that Church where for two years we had been like lonely children and like beggars; beggars for Heaven, for truth, and for peace, receiving our comfort, not from the hands of men, but from the divine life of the Sacraments.

“Now, we felt, our period of solitude and loneliness was nearly ended, and it was time to begin learning to live in the world without yet conforming to the world – on account of the Gospel, which we wished to follow. We were aware that we would have to learn to hold fast to our Faith in difficult circumstances, and that we would have to pray to God more than ever to keep and to allow to grow within us that life of grace received in baptism, without at the same time refusing to ourselves a fair increase of the life of human experience.

“We quite naively entertained these great desires, seeing in them the natural aspiration of every Christian living in the world. And it seemed very simple to go and say to a man of God: “Direct us towards their accomplishment.”

“Jacques and I received a flashing and penetrating gaze from two deep-set eyes full of secrets and knowledge, and before those eyes we felt completely young and ignorant.

“As Father Clérissac spoke, telling us of the difficulties in what we were seeking, I admired his noble and ardent face with its strong, clear-cut features, the brow furrowed by wrinkles and crowned by a brush of gray hair, and the perfect folds his white Dominican robe made around him, making him resemble a personage in one of Fra Angelico’s paintings. The program he proposed was severe. The face of the Father was also severe, in spite of his painful sensitivity which showed through the formal rigidity of his bearing. Willingly he took our souls in his care, and for the five years which followed until his premature death at the age of fifty, he was our friend and guide. Not once did he betray the magnificent impression he made upon us at that first interview…

“The moral and intellectual stature of Father Clérissac stands out in high relief in this book, exactly as we had the privilege of knowing him, and it is easy to see how he could not fail to attract and captivate us. He loved truth, he loved intelligence. How often we heard him say: “Christian life is based on intelligence….Before everything else,God is truth. Go to him and love him under this aspect.” He thought like Saint Augustine that eternal bliss consisted in the joy of Truth – gaudium de veritate.  He loved the Church and delved ceaselessly and profoundly into her mystical character of participation in Jesus Christ, her leader and the Holy Ghost, her animator. He said: “Let  us embrace the Church for eternal and divine reasons,” and not because she is “a cause defensible before reason and history.”

“He  loved everything that had life, that was beautiful and sincere.”

“From Léon Bloy to Father Clérissac we had been led from one man of the Absolute to another man of the Absolute; both had an heroic faith, an unshakable fidelity, and both were intransigent concerning our obligations in regard to Truth, hating mediocrity”[3]

A twentieth century Pope, John XXIII, would also recall the influence exercised in his young years by another man of God . When the seminarian Angelo Roncalli was twenty years old he met Father Francesco Pitocchi whom he asked to be his spiritual director:

“I had at last found what I had so long desired and what, ever afterwards, whether near or far from him, I was to retain, a safe and trustworthy adviser, the kindest and most faithful of friends, and above all a father, a real father, whose wise and persuasive words were such as to form and nourish Jesus Christ in my soul, and so train it to manhood in Christian and priestly life.”

“I used to go to see Father Francesco when he came to the seminary, generally twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and many of my companions did the same…..We had the impression that this man of God really cared for the soul of each one of us as if the Lord had sent him for that one alone; such was the interest he showed in our weaknesses and in our puny efforts to overcome them, which he supported with fatherly kindness. When we left him, kissing the cross on his stole or his hand raised in absolution or blessing, we felt as it were new vigor, pleasurable and powerful, an enthusiasm, a great enthusiasm, to do good, which, in spite of so many failings – I speak for myself – was the best part, the beauty and the joy of our youth as seminarians.”[4]

Then there was the priest who was  “the standard” of St.John Vianney: Fr.Bailey, the pastor of the parish to which the Bishop had assigned him as an associate pastor.

“Once the Abbe Vianney was given permission to hear confessions, his first penitent was his own rector [ Fr.Bailey]; so that he who was later to hear the confessions of thousands upon thousands of sinners – and sinners deeply stained- began his work by hearing the confession of a saint.

“A saint always thinks that he is a sinner. Even by comparison with the ordinary human standard, he is always so to some slight extent, and obviously more so by the standard of the perfection of holiness which is always before him. Fr.Bailey before his death handed over his instruments of penance to Jean-Marie.

“‘Here, my poor Vianney’, he said, as we find [his words] related by Father Monnin,  ‘hide them. If people found them after my death they would believe that I had done something by way of expiation for my sins, and so they would leave me in Purgatory till the end of the world’.

“If a saint speaks thus, it is not easy to save one’s soul. That was the moral to be drawn and the principle from which the life of penance and of apostolic labor flowed for the young priest  who had just lost the guide he guided; this was the living example by which he was to live by: the golden reed by which he was henceforth to measure others – and to measure himself. Memories like this are a precious heirloom, but heavy with responsibility. With his three-cornered hat,his old coat, a few sticks of furniture – just that and no more – the Abbe Vianney set off next day for an obscure village of Les Dombes to which he had just been appointed.[5]

For Pope Benedict XVI the impression caused by  a priest of his youth is still fresh:

“I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting death in the act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person.”[6]

For Blessed John Henry Newman, the unsung hero was an “un-intellectual” priest, with a strong Italian accent, Blessed Dominic Barbieri:

 “I am this night expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist”, wrote Newman from Littlemore on the night of October 8th, 1845 when he was about to ask  for admission to the Church, “ who, from his youth, has been led to have distinct and direct thoughts, first of the countries of the North, then of England. After thirty years’ (almost) waiting, he was without his own act sent here. But he has had little to do with conversions. I saw him here for a few minutes on St. John Baptist’s day last year. He is a simple, holy man; and withal gifted with remarkable powers. He does not know of my intention; but I mean to ask of him admission into the one Fold of Christ.”

[1] HEIRIC OF AUXERRE in his Miracles of St. Germain.

[2]DAVID JONES, Dai Greatcoat: A Self-Portrait of David Jones in His Letters, Faber and Faber, 1980, p.248-249.

[3]RAISSA MARITAIN,  We have been friends together: Adventures in Grace. Image Books, New York,1961, p. 175-177.

[4] POPE JOHN XXIII, Journal of a Soul, Mc-Graw Hill Book Co., New York, 1965, pp.431-440.

[5] HENRI GHÉON, The Secret of the Cure d’Ars, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1929,  p.37.

[6] Benedict XVI, Letter to Priests, June 18th, 2009