On March 16, during an audience for approximately 70 members of the Congregation for Clergy, Pope Benedict XVI announced a special Year for Priests. Beginning with vespers in St. Peter's Basilica on June 19 -- the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus -- and concluding with a World Meeting of Priests in St. Peter's Square on June 19, 2010, Catholic priests throughout the world are called by the pope to participate "in a spiritually intense new life ... which was inaugurated by the Lord Jesus and which the apostles made their own."
At the beginning of the Year for Priests, let's look at eight extraordinary priests whose lives and actions, rooted in their faith and their vocation, had a profound impact in the world. Please note: We've limited our selection to men who remained ordinary priests, who never rose to the rank of bishop or beyond.
St. Jerome (c. 345-420)
Jerome was brilliant but thin-skinned, saintly yet combative, unswervingly loyal to his friends, but resentful of anyone who dared to criticize him or his work. Yet for his personality quirks, Jerome is invaluable in the history of biblical studies. He devoted 40 years of his life to producing a new, accurate Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments. Since Latin was the primary language of the Roman Empire at the time, Jerome was offering ordinary Christians a Bible they could read.
Jerome's education had consisted of studying the Roman and Greek classics, which he loved. When he began to study Hebrew in order to read the books of the Old Testament in their original language, he found it difficult, almost painful, to make the transition from the polished, elegant phrases of the classical authors to the rough syntax of the Hebrew Bible. He complained that Hebrew was a language of "hissing and broken-winded words." The difficulties of Hebrew frustrated him, and he gave up repeatedly, only to return again and again until at last he mastered it.
Jerome began by producing a new, improved Latin translation of the Psalms, the four Gospels, the epistles and the Book of Revelation. In his spare time, he quarreled with Rome's upper-class Christians and the Roman clergy whom he considered vain and worldly. After several years of squabbling, Jerome left Rome for the Holy Land. He settled in Bethlehem where he began to work on his translation of the Old Testament -- a Herculean labor that occupied the last 26 years of his life.
Jerome's retreat to the Holy Land was not a retreat into an ivory tower; his scholarship did not blind him to suffering. In 410 the Goths sacked Rome and the Holy Land was flooded with Roman refugees. Countless frightened, impoverished exiles came to his monastery door asking for help. We have a letter of Jerome's written during the crisis. "I have set aside my commentary on Ezekiel," he wrote to a friend, "and almost all study. For today we must translate the words of the Scriptures into deeds."
St. Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was about 25 years old when he enrolled at the University of Cologne in Germany to study under St. Albert the Great, one of the renowned polymaths of the Middle Ages. At the university, Thomas' fellow theology students nicknamed him "the Dumb Ox" because this obese young friar sat in the lecture hall without ever uttering a word. One day, Albert called on two students to debate a difficult theological question; one of the students he chose was Thomas. The first student spoke, confident that his explication of the problem was definitive. When Thomas responded, his classmates were astonished: his analysis of the problem was a model of clarity -- it also demolished the superficial explanation put forth by the first student. "You call him the Dumb Ox," Albert said to the class. "The bellowing of that ox will be heard throughout the world."
Albert's assessment was correct. St. Thomas went on to become one of the greatest, most influential theologians the Catholic Church has ever known. At first glance his work appears daunting -- all those big, fat books lined up on the library shelf. But once you begin reading the text you discover the genius of Thomas Aquinas: on every page he presents a logical, orderly commentary of Christian theology and philosophy. Aquinas explores how far human reason can take us in understanding Catholic doctrine and where reason must be assisted by divine revelation. Aquinas' books aren't the type that you sit down and read cover to cover, like a mystery novel, but if you are looking for a clear, orderly explanation of what the Church believes regarding a particular point of doctrine, Aquinas is your man.
Aquinas was one of those rare priests who was a profound intellectual and a great mystic, as we see in hymns all of us have sung -- Pange lingua on Holy Thursday and Tantum ergo at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. These beloved songs of praise to Our Lord in the Eucharist come from the office St. Thomas wrote in 1264, at the command of Pope Urban IV, for the new feast of Corpus Christi. Thomas designed the Corpus Christi liturgy as a teaching device that draws upon the Old and New Testament, the writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, to assert a great truth -- the Real Presence of Our Lord, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament -- while looking forward to the day when the veil of bread and wine will vanish and we will see Christ face-to-face.
St. Francis Xavier
St. Francis Xavier set a very high standard for missionaries: it is estimated that in 11 years he brought 40,000 converts into the Church.
An early companion of St. Ignatius Loyola, Xavier was one of the first Jesuits and the first Jesuit missionary sent overseas. On his 34th birthday, April 7, 1540, Xavier sailed with a convoy of ships bound for Portugal's colony at Goa, India. The voyage took 13 months, and Francis was seasick through most of it.
The Portuguese had been in Goa for 31 years, and the city was well-furnished with churches, monasteries, even a bishop, but most of the Portuguese population of the town were cruel, dissolute, vicious men who abandoned the illegitimate children they had with Indian women, tortured their slaves, despised the helpless and regarded India as their personal property that they could pillage as they wish. With so much work to be done in Goa, Francis began his mission there.
He kept up an exhausting routine that included visits to the city prison and hospitals, saying Mass for the lepers, and teaching the catechism to children and slaves. But one of his toughest assignments was trying to convince the Goa Portuguese to live like Catholics instead of like godless despots.
After months in Goa, Xavier moved to the Pearl Fishery Coast, where he enjoyed tremendous success converting the Paravas people. He wrote home that on some days he baptized so many that afterward he could barely lift his right arm. But Japan was the country he longed to visit. With the help of three Japanese Christians he began to study the language; when he received permission to travel to Japan, his Japanese language skills were uneven, but total immersion in Japanese society soon made him fluent. He won 100 converts at Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, and two thousand converts in and around Kyoto. But Francis could never stay in one place long. He wanted to bring the Gospel to China.
Once again he turned for help to a convert, a Chinese named Anthony, who agreed to teach him Mandarin. Xavier struck a bargain with a Chinese merchant who, for an exorbitant fee, agreed to put him ashore on the coast of China. But the merchant reneged on the deal, abandoning Francis and Anthony on Shang-chwan Island, about 100 miles southwest of present-day Hong Kong. Fortunately, a Portuguese ship was in the area and the captain tried to help Xavier, but by then the great missionary was ill, running a high fever and often delirious. Francis Xavier died on that desolate island and was buried there, but his body lay in its obscure grave only a short time. The Portuguese recovered and enshrined Xavier in the Church of the Good Jesus in Goa.
St. Jean de Brebeuf (1593-1649)
In 1625, at age 32, St. Jean de Brebeuf became one of the first five Jesuit missionaries to travel to Canada to bring the Catholic faith to the Hurons. He was ideally suited for his task: He was blessed with great strength and stamina, he had a natural gift for learning languages, foreign cultures and unfamiliar customs did not trouble him, and he had great patience. He was also incredibly productive: once he became fluent in the Huron language, he compiled a Huron phrase book and wrote Huron grammar to help future missionaries, translated a catechism into Huron, and even wrote a Christmas carol in Huron.
Although the Hurons admired Brebeuf's many fine qualities -- they even gave him a Huron name, Echon, He-Who-Carries-the-Load, a tribute to his physical strength -- they were not inclined to convert to Catholicism. Initially, the only Hurons the Jesuits baptized were dying infants and dying adults (which led the Huron sorcerers to say that baptism must be lethal). In 1635, during a severe drought, the Huron sorcerers claimed that the wooden cross that stood before the Jesuits' cabin was the cause and should be torn down. Brebeuf suggested the Hurons join him and his fellow missionaries in repenting for their sins and praying for God's mercy. The priests began a novena of Masses and daily processions through the village, all in honor of St. Joseph. On the ninth day, the rains came and some Hurons began to have second thoughts about the Christian God. In time, de Brebeuf and his fellow Jesuits would convert virtually the entire Huron nation.
But there was something else remarkable about him, and the French missionaries, and the French in Canada in general. Unlike other European colonists in the Americas who abused, enslaved or exterminated the people of the New World, the French respected the Indians. It was French policy to make Catholics of the tribes, but the French colonial government as well as the Jesuit missionaries did not expect the Indians to abandon their ways and live like Europeans any more than Jesuit missionaries in Asia expected the Chinese or the Japanese to give up their culture. The Jesuits only discouraged those Huron customs that violated the tenets of the Catholic faith, such as polygamy.
Throughout the 1640s the Jesuits expanded their missions throughout French Canada, but at the same time they were conscious that their situation was becoming increasingly dangerous. The Iroquois, a confederation of five tribes, were the bitter enemies of the French and the Hurons, and in the 1640s they began raiding Huron villages, slaughtering the inhabitants and carrying off prisoners whom they either tortured to death or kept as slaves.
Before dawn on March 16, 1649, an Iroquois war party stormed over the palisade of the Mission of St. Louis. Many of the Hurons escaped into the forest, many Huron warriors died defending their families, and many more were taken prisoner. Among the captives were Father de Brebeuf and Father Gabriel Lalemant who had arrived in Canada only seven months earlier. The deaths the two Jesuit martyrs endured at the hands of the Iroquois is too gruesome to describe here.
St. Jean de Brebeuf is a national hero in Canada, a favorite son of the Society of Jesus. And since 1925, Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant, along with five other Jesuits martyred by the Iroquois, have been venerated as saints.
During his life, people said Father Athansius Kircher was a man who knew everything. Among his many fields of expertise, he was archaeologist, mathematician, biologist, philologist, astronomer, musicologist and physicist. He could read Latin and Greek, of course, but also Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic and Persian, as well as many modern languages.
Father Kircher was a German Jesuit whose superiors sent him to Rome to teach at the Collegio Romano, the finest of all the schools operated by the Society of Jesus. He intended to teach mathematics, but while in Rome, Father Kircher became fascinated with ancient Egypt. He immersed himself in the study of Egypt's history, its religion, its philosophy, and he came to the conclusion that Egypt was the first great civilization in the Mediterranean world and the source for every civilization in the region that followed. He was so passionate about his work that he convinced himself that he had deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. In fact, his "translation" was wildly off the mark. The key to translating Egyptian hieroglyphs would not be found until more than 100 years after Father Kircher's death, when French troops uncovered the Rosetta stone in the Egyptian desert.
Nonetheless, Father Kircher was the first to attempt to study Egyptian civilization in a systematic way, and so he is considered the father of Egyptology. He was a man of unlimited curiosity who saw the hand of God in the workings of the natural world and the course of human history.
Even if "The Four Seasons" is your favorite piece of classical music, you can be excused if you did not know that composer Antonio Vivaldi was a priest. Shortly after he was ordained in 1703, he developed a chest condition (possibly severe asthma, or perhaps angina). His physicians and his religious superiors (Vivaldi was ordained as a diocesan priest for Venice, Italy) felt he wasn't up to the strain of parish work, so he was assigned as the music teacher and choir director at La Pieta, an orphanage for girls. Soon he was composing violin sonatas that his best students performed before enchanted audiences. When he published a collection of concertos for violin and orchestra, it became a best-seller. He followed this initial success by publishing more of his music.
His style tended to be joyful, even flamboyant, and audiences as well as musicians couldn't get enough (Johann Sebastian Bach was one of Father Vivaldi's most devoted fans). And Father Vivaldi was not only a prolific composer, he was fast, but because some of his work has been lost, we can only make rough estimates of his total output: approximately 550 concertos for orchestra, 106 sonatas for chamber ensembles, 50 operas, 40 cantatas, one oratorio, and 60 hymns, psalms, and motets, including his exuberant settings for the Gloria and the Magnificat. His music made him an international celebrity, and emperors, kings and aristocrats competed to bring him to their courts to perform, or at least conduct, and if they were very lucky, to compose something for the host.
Father Vivaldi's popularity made him a target for rivals. Scuttlebutt claimed that he was involved in a love triangle with a singer, Anna Giro, and her half-sister Paolina. He denied the rumor, insisting that he had remained true to his priestly vows, but the gossip never went away, and in the end undermined his reputation as a priest and his career as a composer. Today that calumny is virtually forgotten, and only his glorious music remains.
It's safe to safe that Father Demetrius Gallitzin was the only Russian prince ever to become a pioneer priest on the American frontier. He was born in The Hague, where his father was serving as Catherine the Great's ambassador to The Netherlands. Demetrius was raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, but in 1787 he followed the example of his mother and converted to Catholicism.
At age 22, Gallitzin traveled to the United States. In Baltimore he asked Bishop John Carroll for admission to attend St. Mary's Seminary, the only seminary in America at the time, and three years later Bishop Carroll ordained Gallitzin a priest. He sent Father Gallitzin to serve as a missionary priest to Catholics along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border; his residence was Conewago, Pa., where there was a chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a Catholic population of about 1,000 living in the settlement and the surrounding neighborhood.
About a year after his ordination Father Gallitzin received a request from a dying woman who wished to become a Catholic. The woman lived at McGuire's Settlement in the Allegheny Mountains, about 150 miles from Conewago, yet Father Gallitzin arrived in time to receive her into the Church. He remained in McGuire's Settlement for a time and learned that the founder of the place, Daniel McGuire, had bequeathed 400 acres to the Catholic Church. This frontier outpost already had a small community of Catholics, and Father Gallitzin believed that it would be an ideal central location for serving Catholics scattered across western Pennsylvania. Drawing upon his fortune, he bought more land and received Bishop Carroll's permission to move his residence to McGuire's Settlement. Out of his own funds he had a log chapel erected, as well as a small house for himself. He offered the first Mass in the chapel on Christmas Eve 1799. He renamed the settlement Loretto, after the famous shrine of Our Lady in Italy.
More Catholics did move into the region, drawn by the opportunity to purchase good farmland inexpensively and the presence of a priest. But they did not all settle in Loretto. For 20 years Father Gallitzin was the only Catholic priest in a vast area that stretched from the southern border of Pennsylvania to Lake Erie, from the Susquehanna to the Potomac rivers. To assist the settlers he built sawmills and gristmills and established other necessary industries -- again, all out of his own pocket.
After 41 years serving the spiritual and temporal needs of the settlers of the Alleghenies, Father Gallitzin died in Loretto. Today, the Catholics of Loretto -- some of them descendants of Father Gallitzin's parishioners -- are working and praying for the canonization of their prince-priest.
John Maria Oesterreicher
Johannes Oesterreicher was born into a Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic. While studying at the University of Vienna, he read the works of Cardinal John Henry Newman, which convinced him to convert to Catholicism and enter the seminary. Oesterreicher was ordained in 1927 and became a parish priest in Austria.
The second significant influence on Father Oesterreicher's life was the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. He began denouncing the Nazis hatred of the Jews as a kind of heresy, and went on to publish a journal, The Fulfillment, that exposed the evils of Hitler's regime and the Nazi philosophy while revealing to his readers how Judaism and Christianity shared the same religious roots and urging them -- Jews and Christians -- to set aside centuries of suspicion and work to understand and respect one another's ancient faiths.
Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 made it impossible for Father Oesterreicher to remain in the country; he moved to Paris where he continued to speak out against the Nazis in weekly radio broadcasts. When the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Father Oesterreicher escaped to Spain and from there immigrated to the United States. There, in 1953, he founded the Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.
During the Second Vatican Council, Father Oesterreicher served on the panel that wrote the document Nostra Aetate, the council's groundbreaking declaration that rejected anti-Semitism as evil, declared the Jews were not "accursed by God," and repudiated the claim that the Jewish people collectively and for all time were guilty of the death of Jesus Christ.
In spite of his best efforts, Father (later a monsignor) Oesterreicher was often a target for a host of critics that included ordinary Catholics and Jews, officials in the Israeli government, and Christian and Muslim Arabs. Such criticism was inevitable given that the monsignor's life work involved the competing claims of history, theology and the volatile politics of the Middle East. As he said in a 1983 interview with a reporter from Our Sunday Visitor, "The fact that I foresee the possibility of deepening, fruitful relations [between Christians and Jews] but still have no certainty that this indeed will happen, keeps me on my toes."
For the rest of his life Msgr. Oesterreicher worked to help Christians and Jews understand one another. He revered the faith into which he had been born while remaining true to the faith to which he had converted. "I don't know what will happen," he said in his OSV interview. "But I will do everything in every hour of my life to see that these relations become what they ought to be, according to the loving will of God."
During that March 16 audience, Pope Benedict reminded his visitors that Catholic priests must be "present, identifiable and recognizable -- for their judgment of faith, their personal virtues and their attire -- in the fields of culture and charity which have always been at the heart of the Church's mission." These eight men, each in their own extraordinary way, made a lasting contribution to the Church and to the world.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV's Catholic Cardlinks series and of "Saints Behaving Badly" (Doubleday, 2006).