Someone dear to me left the Catholic faith. With little effort, I can name a few hundred friends, former classmates, and acquaintances who’ve abandoned the faith.
This person, though, is dear to me.
Everyone reading this knows of one who’s left Catholicism. Many of this set, like me, mourn a dear one who’s fallen away. It’s like a death. Why is our grief immense? Why do we shed St. Monica-sized tears for these poor lost ones? Answers are multitudinous; but here are a few:
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- They’ve left the one true Church, founded by Christ and given over to St. Peter.
- They’ve left the divine sacraments.
- They’ve imperiled their soul.
What do we do for these lost lambs who so heavily burden our souls by their abuse of God’s mannerly gift of free will? What do I do for the lost lamb in my own life? More to the point, what must I do?
Of late, the Curé d’Ars, St. John Vianney, has come to mind. In meditative consideration of what he might mention to me to help draw back the lost one, I’ve found myself in a blood-stained corner of a boxing ring with Sonny Liston. Merely browsing the yellow-highlighted parts of Vianney’s biography by Abbe Trochu the past few weeks has been like riding the back of a leopard and ducking tree branches in a jungle.
In my Irish imagination, I’ve come to take the holy Curé with me, decade-by-decade, into the savagery of the Rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries. He grips my forearm and moves me into the R-rated version of the nursery rhyme, where he motions for me to follow the red-fleeced Slaughtered Lamb wherever He goes.
Christ sweats blood in His Gethsemane prayer. At his parish in Ars, Vianney often spent the night in prayer, kneeling on wood without the aid of a counterbalance.
Christ is flogged. Vianney used the tool of discipline, a small whip, to scourge and bloody his shoulder blade.
Christ is crowned. Vianney was known to wear unseen sharp-tipped bracelets and taut chains around his torso.
Christ shouldered the splintered cross. Vianney spent as many as twelve hours each day carrying the weight of penitents’ sins in his claustrophobic, wooden confessional.
Christ expires; Satan has lost. Vianney’s visiting sister, Marguerite, was awakened by crashing noises outside her brother’s presbytery one night: “He cannot hurt you; as for me, he torments me,” Vianney told her. “He seizes me by the feet and drags me about the room. It is because I convert souls to the good God.” It is said that Satan set his bed on fire.
It is in these untamed places that Vianney has evinced his mortified priesthood. In this split screen of my Irish imagination, Vianney has made clear what bringing back my loved one must resemble: it will demand mimicry and the cost of hard penance. It will demand great love.
Here on this Holy Thursday as we commemorate the birth of the priesthood, I wonder how it has become that this priest – this patron of all parish priests – has been forsaken. The Curé in today’s Church is mostly regarded as a wild man of rigidity – a neurotic tyrannical about the whiff of even a single venial sin. His manner has been canceled, shoved long ago behind locked rectory doors as a disowned Catholic heirloom and priestly biohazard.
Behind that locked door, though, is the still-beating heart of the solution to this fading Church and fallen world.
As a priest in an age of failing faith, the Curé set his face like flint pursuing souls and crucifying himself with Christ. Driven out of bed each morning out of burning love for Christ, he knew the proper response to bringing an uncatechized generation to God was preaching the furnace of the Gospel, tirelessly praying, and taking up severe penances for souls. He dared to love his little flock as Christ loved from the cross.
Today’s Bride of Christ limps forward as custodian of what is rapidly becoming a ghost Church. Hundreds of parishes throughout America will be shuttered in the next few years. As tens of thousands flee the Catholic Church each year like the Israelites from Pharaoh, numberless priests schedule weekly golf outings, dine at fine restaurants, and open rectory doors a few days a week for cooks and maids. Many of these same priests do not adore Christ. They do not pray their Office. Many barely offer confession.
On the point of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Vianney’s splintered home, in a very real way, had become his confessional. For most of the 41 years of his priesthood, he arose at 3 a.m. to the peal of Angeles Bells to begin his day, where he processed to his confessional. This is love—not priestly mania.
He knew thousands of burdened souls had traveled from distant towns, awaiting his absolution in the moonlight. The Paris-to-Lyon railway line opened a special window for those who often waited two days and slept outdoors just to confess their sins. From 1845 until his death in 1859, upward of 20,000 French pilgrims annually traveled to have their sins absolved by the uncommon priest.
Vianney knew the paradoxical, brutal fruit of real romance was the daily and simple deaths for one’s lover. Accordingly, he slept often on the floor, frequently fasted for two-to-three-day spans, celebrated Mass with blistering fevers, and ate rotten potatoes. It was through these mortifications of love and his acceptance of his identity as the Slaughtered Lamb that he saved countless thousands of his dear lost lambs. Accordingly, Satan mercilessly attacked him, until one day he allegedly told the priest, “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.” It was through these mortifications of love and his acceptance of his identity as the Slaughtered Lamb that Vianney saved countless thousands of his dear lost lambs.Tweet This
Is this Catholic folklore? Did Satan say it? Does it matter?
There is a major identity crisis today in the priesthood. It is a rupture, or at the very least an attempt to disconnect from the burden of its deep-rooted identity as one who offers sacrifice. It is fair to say that hundreds of seminary rectors over the past half-century have strived to invert the essence of the priesthood. All these years later—perhaps more than ever—priests are encouraged to “take care of themselves,” to “not take on too much work,” and to “learn how to say ‘no.’” Unsurprisingly, a priest I know has been told several hundred times over the past few years: “Father, you look tired. You need to get more rest.” Each time, the priest responds incredulously: “Why would you ask me to reject my identity?”
This priest, though, and others like him, offer their lives as tipped-over chalices of persevering spiritual work to redirect this restless world. These faithful priests tread the blood trail of Calvary. Most of them awaken each day to a Holy Hour, where they beg for the courage, stamina, and magnanimity to embrace the duty of their sacred office, which they know is inextricably bound to offering sacrifice. As mediators of God’s graces, they’ve crucified their priesthoods to Christ for the salvation of souls. Their delights are found in the cross, not at four-star restaurants, extended beach vacations, or golf courses.
As it concerns golf, my uncle, Msgr. Thomas Wells, fell in love with the sport late in his priesthood. He was encouraged early in his priesthood to “get out of the office” on his off day. After discovering the game, he often relaxed with priest friends and others once a week on Maryland golf courses. I’ve often thought of my uncle—a priest for 29 years in the Archdiocese of Washington until his murder in 2000—and what he would think of the times in which we live.
I knew him well; having grown up in his shadow and traveled the world with him. We shared countless conversations about his love for the priesthood. Were he alive today, I am not sure he’d be golfing often, if at all. He would have looked about and perceived a world under civilizational collapse. He’d see a president who calls himself Catholic but promotes things of Satan. He would have seen a pitiless time in the Church he loved, one that has taken on a rapier-like pummeling by sins of its own making.
I have to imagine now, 23 years following his death—which occurred two years before the first wave of clergy scandals became public—he would have reengineered his habits and recommitted himself to lost souls. That would have necessitated the temporary or full-time banishment of his golf clubs. His impulse was always for the rescue of souls.
But it isn’t my uncle of happy memory that I’ve been reflecting on regarding my dear lost one. It is Vianney, who of late has become like an immovable icon in me. He keeps grabbing my arm and pulling me to the purifying crucible of the cross. It has become quite unsafe during this week of Christ’s agony. He keeps taking me to the bloody places below the cross.
Strangely, now he points to Beloved John. Vianney finally speaks to me, reminding me of why I’ve mentally sought him. This man was the only disciple to walk the end of the line. Will you do the same for your dear one?
As I consider the cost, the Curé has already moved past me and my indecisiveness. He is craning his neck and looking into the wound where angels gather the last of the spotless blood spilling from His unbeating Sacred Heart. With his tangle of straggly white hair blowing wildly in the wind, he cries into the growling sky: “See—He has just redeemed humanity.” He wails, hands clasped, tears falling, “Will you live this hard-core penance of the cross? Will you love him?”
I answer into the riot of noise. The dead are rising from tombs beneath blackened skies, and cowardly onlookers are stampeding from the brow of the quaking hill and sidestepping splitting boulders, “Father, I can’t hear you!”
He screams louder, with all he’s got: “Kevin, the Church has stopped crying for its lost ones. Will you cry—will you die for your lost one out of love?”
As I open my mouth to respond, he points like Scrooge’s last ghost. Wordlessly, he motions me to Mary, who is weeping. These are the tears of hope, tears of joy.
The Curé smiles and speaks his last words: “The lost have been saved, and she knows the measure of love it took.”