Two Very Old Priests

Father L. is 84 years old, is recovering from a stroke and has difficulty with his speech. With his lids swollen and eyes very red, he can barely see. I am 90 years old, can hardly stand for more than five minutes and suffer from periodic dizziness. Since neither of us felt up to the stress and pressure of the public worship, we decided to concelebrate the Easter Mass in the small but beautiful house chapel. 

All around us and throughout the Christian world, alleluias were being sung to the Victorious Christ, lilies were strewn and displayed in His honor, and lighthearted Christians strutted in spiffy new finery. Yet, we felt in the quiet of that little space, even our threadbare vestments, to be completely in tune with the liturgical splendor and spiritual joy of such a great Feast. 

There was no choir with glorious arrangements of classic music or congregation. There was only profound, meaningful silence. The Holy Father with his spectacular liturgy in Rome, the Archbishop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Pastor of our local Church, St. Paul the Apostle, all with overflowing congregations, were no more pleasing to the Father in Heaven than were we. 

Indeed, as we concelebrated, with our stiff and aching joints and our creaky, raspy voices, we felt the palpable presence of the Holy Spirit. We devoutly recited the Renewal of our Baptismal Vows and our rejection of the evil one. We repeated the sacred words of the Master as we called Him to the altar. 

We felt deeply the holiness of what we were doing. The sense of the Resurrection of the Lord was poignantly upon us especially this Easter. Perhaps it is because relatively soon we will meet Him who died for us personally and whose resurrection gives us hope and assurance of out own. 

After such a soaring spiritual experience, the confident, almost snobbish, dismissal and discouragement of Mass without a congregation by some liturgical savants, seemed to us, as we savored the delights of God, to be not only irrelevant but even nonsensical. The ancients among us often relate the instruction of the late Pope John Paul II the Great and his insightful encyclical De Eucharistia (No. 31). 

In this powerful admonition he strongly urges priests to say Holy Mass every day even without a congregation. His reasoning is astonishingly simple. The basic vocation of all children of God is holiness. Even granting the multiplex interpretations of that word, all of us sense that it is essential that we strive to get closer to God and His ways. 

While it is elementary that priesthood is a social sacrament bestowed, not basically for a priest’s benefit but meant primarily to serve God’s people, it likewise is fundamental that serving God’s people shrieks out for faithful and holy priests. The devastation thrust on Catholics by unholy priests needs no recall. Priests, because of the multitude of gifts bestowed upon them, are more responsible in the quest for holiness than perhaps most of the human race. 

I remember my own ordination 63 years ago on May 1. I chose as my personal mantra the old, old insight about the day of one’s ordination: “When it was given to me to offer what is not given to angels to offer — to offer God back to God.” If anything under God has protected me through all my trials and temptations it has been that. It has reminded me, like St. Paul, that I must be vigilant about this gift, lest after preaching to others, I myself might fall! 

Every priest somewhere in his internal experience has encountered the terrifying sense of Corruptio optimi est pessima. The “optimi” refers not to personal character traits but to the melding of the priest’s soul with that of Jesus in the most pervasive way possible. Each priest “knows” in the depth of his unconscious that he, through the Sacrament of Holy Orders, is Alter Christus and as such is held to the most stringent of expectations. 

This can make for a certain neurotic outcome of a priest’s mentality but at the same time, if understood properly, it can make for that required but elusive quality — priestly holiness. And history more than hints at such elusiveness. Dante had some fun assigning so many unfaithful priests to lower circles of hell. Even the jolly and saintly Thomas More is alleged to have opined that there are not many priests in heaven!

No Greater Holiness Contact Point

“To whom much is given….” The responsibility of priests to pursue holiness is absolute in its implication. There may be priests who are hopelessly superficial or narcissistic or lazy or selfish or avaricious or lustful. There may be stupid priests, but they are so easily forgiven. It is the gifted and uber-intelligent, those who “know better” who had best beware. However, any priest, whoever he is, coming face to face every day with Jesus himself in the Eucharist can manage any weakness or sin. There is no greater holiness contact point than the Mass. This is the supreme encounter with the Holy. 

Unless he is a borderline personality, the priest who celebrates the Mass every day would, in all probability, grow in awareness of who and what he is (and consequently become more sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit) or, should he be sadly lacking basic priestly traits, become uncomfortable and anxious and ultimately seek spiritual and emotional resolution. Blessed John Paul II was not only very bright but also close to the voice of the Holy Spirit. 

In the light of the above, the claims of some of us that we are “too busy” to say daily Mass seem frightfully hollow. But the attempted exculpation by using the rigidities of liturgical purists that there is “no congregation” seems existentially ludicrous. Freud would have a field day with such an allegation of motivation. 

I am a dinosaur priest with foreign mission experience, seminary teaching background, years in radio and television. I hold a Ph.D. in psychology and a license to practice professionally. I am from the streets, and I know life. I know well the loneliness and frustrations of the priesthood. 

If I am asked for a vote, I enthusiastically vote to jettison legalisms of stuffy academics who rarely muck around in the rough stuff. Ask priests like Father L. who bears the emotional and spiritual scars of front-line combat. Ask the papal giant, Blessed John Paul II the Great. If one has to choose, let it be on the side of common sense and holiness. It seems to me that getting up to say Mass (especially in the winter) is better for one’s priestly soul than grabbing another 30 winks and promising that I’ll make it up to Him by being nice to someone today. How we can kid ourselves! 

I would hate to be bored with heady arguments which hardly touch where the spiritual pragmatism is. I would be further dismayed should advocates pummel me with New Age talking points. The whispers of God and the unvarnished realities are far more convincing than platitudes from the Ivy League. From the cold symmetrical logic of the intelligentsia, Good Lord, deliver us. TP 

FATHER LLOYD, C.S.P., a Paulist priest ordained in 1948, has been a State of New York licensed psychologist for 30 years with a Ph.D. in psychology from NYU. He likes to say “I am half Russian Jew and half Irish but ALL Catholic. My parents were Vaudevillians and I was a classic ‘dirty neck kid’ from San Juan Hill in West Side Manhattan.”