The priests I admire the most are probably not those you would expect
“No one is ever holy without suffering.”
―Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited”
May 6, 2020 (Sons of St. Joseph) — I have been around the world of traditional (trad) Catholicism for over 20 years; strangely I shipwrecked onto the shores of this strange land almost immediately after I was cast adrift from a place that seemed a universe away. For all of my adult life, I lived in and around the gay male environs of the Castro District in San Francisco — with occasional excursions to West Hollywood and Chelsea/Greenwich Village in New York City. How and why I ended-up here, I didn’t know; part of it was my own doing. Although I was slightly adrift — I kept floating back to the same place — the gay world. Momentarily, I thought I was back in the Catholic Church. There were colorful statues and a marble altar that was reminiscent of the parish I attended when I was a boy; most of the churches in San Francisco were historic and beautiful; unlike the ugly concrete bunker that doubled as a theater-in-the-round where I was confirmed as a teenager after my family moved. But these architectural masterpieces were a standing ruin; nothing that resembled Catholicism remained inside — instead, Christ’s “garment sprinkled with blood” had been replaced by the rainbow flag. (Rev. 19:13)
The priest told me to go back. I wondered: To what?
As a result — I returned to my empty lifeboat and prayed for rescue. I constantly scanned the horizon for a passing ship, but I saw nothing. Then, I thought I spotted a bright star in the distance. I tried to follow it — feverishly paddling through the water with my hands; going against the tide, I gradually neared a location where the star seemed directly overhead. Then, I crawled onto the beach and kissed the sand.
In the morning, I found myself in a mysterious land. In the churches, I heard only Latin; the priest had his back to me; and young men (many with their large families) actually attended Mass. These priests were composed and compassionate yet purposefully isolated. I liked this — they didn’t exhibit a desperate and almost neurotic need to be liked; therefore, for the first time in my life — I heard the truth. Yet, their words, as difficult as they might have been for me to hear, did not elicit a flight response inside me; I didn’t want to throw myself upon the churning waves once again. I wanted to remain nearby. After being lost for so long, and nearly dead, I knew that these men could help me survive. Anyway, I had nowhere else to go — like the ancient mariners, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, I knew there was nothing except an almost endless sea.
Slowly, I passably learned the language and came to understand the meaning in every gesture performed at Mass — I watched with keen interest as the priest made the sign of the cross over the chalice — with his arm and hand in a certain precise position; there were no extraneous gestures like the flurry of fluttering, waving, and high-fives that took place at the most raucous versions of the Novus Ordo. But as a child during the disco-era, I had come to oddly revolt against the experimentation and freedom extolled by the “human potential” movement of the 1970s; I longed for disciple and purpose; in traditional Catholicism, I found it. Yet, I never felt as if I were being unduly repressed or that some sort of “change” was a requirement; instead, they gave me the freedom to make an informed decision; whether to follow the actual teachings of the Catholic Church (not their own interpretations of them/or what they thought those teachings might look like in 20 or 100 years) or to reject them. I chose to stay.
In secular society, this is why so many generations of miseducated and wayward men are instinctively attracted to the clear and straightforward directives of pseudo-priest Jordan Peterson and his message of “clean up your room” and “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Reminds me of what a traditional priest once said to me while I was in the midst of a somewhat overwrought spiritual battle inside my head; he simply stated: “Keep it simple.”
“Courageous and truthful words will render your reality simple, pristine, well-defined and habitable.” —Jordan Peterson
Over the next couple of years, I further explored traditional Catholicism. In this world, I was quickly dumbfounded by the obvious reassertion of what I previously dismissed as outdated gender-norms. I remembered how masculinity and femininity are idolized and turned into caricatures within male homosexuality through the images of the macho-man and the drag-queen. While dismissing gender as a social construct, the LGBT community simultaneously embraced the extremes; on a cultural basis, this phenomenon is witnessed in the popularity of male Marvel superheroes and Kim Kardashian. But the reality and the unique quality inherent in the sexes is only fully realized through the complementarity of male and female within the family. I started to appreciate this fact due to my observations of the Catholic families who attended the traditional Mass. Unlike the rather bizarre and false dichotomy in gay partnerships, though often based on physiological differences that include such duel categorizations as top/bottom, butch/fem, passive/aggressive, the profound harmony between a man and woman is completely lacking in same-sex couples; for years I tried to deny this reality, until I could no longer pretend that gay male sex wasn’t permanently damaging my body or that of my partners.
Seated in the last pew of the church, instead of focusing on the Mass, oftentimes I would watch the various young families in attendance. Years earlier, when I was openly gay and nearly suicidal, I’d sit for hours in a San Francisco park and watch the parents play with their children. Even in the middle of the most liberal city in the US — I could not help noticing the sometimes-stark physical differences in the sexes; it became most apparent when the fathers carried blankets, baskets, and a small boy from the car to a shady spot on the grass, while the mother walked behind with a single plastic water bottle. Yet, no one appeared to be chauvinistic or demeaned — the man was happy that he could hulk around the kid’s toys and the family’s lunch; while the kids exhausted themselves with dad playing frisbee, the mom organized everything under the sheltering coolness of a large tree. In the church, the mom and dad anchored each end of a pew with the kids placed between them. Remarkably well-behaved, their children did not look to be bored or oppressed; neither was I. When male/female and family is in sync, so is society — and this was reflected in the Mass.
Unlike the priests I occasionally encountered in San Francisco, who alternately wavered from effete to transgender, these men were similar to the fathers seated in the pews: they were decisive and focused; but they were also present. The dad in front of me didn’t simply bookend his kids at the end of the pew — he wasn’t merely a body that alternately went to work, sat in front of the TV, or immediately plugged into the computer — he was actively engaged.
The priests I met in the traditional Catholic world were strong men, but they were not bruisers. Fidelity and a commitment to the truth lends a certain gravitas. For instance, besides the bookish and thin Jordan Peterson, a cadre of lost young men have similarly coalesced around the diminutive Ben Shapiro.
After a while, I realized that the traditional Catholic world was not an island, but like San Francisco, it was situated on a peninsula. Somewhat removed from the rest of the country, hence San Francisco’s longtime reputation as a radical last bastion for the disfranchised the disillusioned. And, after growing-up in parochial schools during the 1970s and 80s, there was nothing more radical than Catholic liturgical and moral conservatism. Many of us who crashed onto this world came from different backgrounds; but our common denominator was a personal search for truth and stability in a relativistic and chaotic society; we were an odd group, but like the castaways on “Gilligan’s Island” — we were a family.
Generally, many of the priests were very much the same as those early refugees to San Francisco. They too had become disillusioned by the status-quo; with scandalous liturgical abuses and the propensity for priests and prelates to avoid the tougher social issues such as contraception and homosexuality. But they seemed to inhabit two rather distinct areas on this traditional Catholic peninsula. Those most distant from the mainland world of Novus Ordo Catholicism were the priests who came from traditional orders that only offered the traditional Latin Mass (TLM); some of the younger priests had been raised in the world of traditional Catholicism. The others, occupying a sort of isthmus, closer to where this peninsula joined the mainland, were priests incardinated in their particular dioceses, who, despite a large amount of resistance in the 1980s and 90s, were somehow able to learn the rubrics of the Mass (often on their own) and occasionally offer the TLM to the public; this all took place before the 2007 “Motu Proprio” issued by Benedict XVI. Many of these priests had endured corrupt seminaries in the 1970s and 80s. A number of these men kept their orthodoxy as a carefully guarded secret — arranging clandestine group-discussions with other like-minded seminarians. If they survived the always lingering threat of harassment or expulsion from rectors and professors, they again had to withstand intimidation and oppression from their local ordinaries. Once assigned to a parish, I watched in saddened disbelief as “good” priests were frequently regarded as suspect and even openly ridiculed by more progressive lay-Catholics who were usually ensconced in various liturgical and pastoral councils. I knew a few priests who collapsed under this constant pressure; I haven’t blamed them, in fact — I still believe they are courageous.
The Catholic priests who have been able to persevere, outside of a traditional religious order, are a tremendous inspiration to me. They have suffered; and that suffering has made them holy. This does not mean that seminarians and priests from the traditional orders have not had to undergo their own trials, but they have been somewhat sequestered from the confusion and turmoil in the Catholic Church — I fully recognized this when I first began to regularly attend Mass at a traditional parish overseen by a religious order that solely offered the TLM, I thought I had stepped back in time to a pre–Vatican II era. I will never forget speaking to a bishop with a rather liberal reputation about my experiences at the traditional Benedictine Abbey of Fontgombault in France; with noticeable disdain, he dismissed my obvious enthusiasm with this statement: “That is not the Church…it’s not real. It’s a phantasm…it never existed.” I thought to myself: That is what you have tried to make us believe. But a few stalwart priests have kept tradition alive — despite the likes of you.
During the canonization process of St. Bernadette, the advocates for her sainthood repeatedly stated that the apparitions at Lourdes alone were not sufficient to guarantee that her cause would move forward; according to “Butler’s Lives of the Saints”:
[Bernadette] was canonized in 1933…not for her visions but for her life of prayer, simple devotion, and straightforward obedience both to the Rule and to whatever God required her to undergo.
A biographer once described Bernadette’s life after the end of the apparitions as “humdrum in the extreme.” The hagiographies of Bernadette also consistently recount the often-unkind treatment she endured at the convent in Nevers where she spent the final years of her short life as a nun who was often relegated to the most menial tasks; the persecution she underwent while under the supervision of the intractable Sister Marie Therese Vauzou was forever immortalized in the movie version of “The Song of Bernadette.”
As has become incredibly evident during the COVID-19 crisis, and the closing of the churches, priests who have “humdrum” lives have become heroic; like St. Bernadette nothing about them is “humdrum.” Through the creative utilization of social media, priests (particularly those known for their devotion to the traditional liturgy and a steadfast adherence to Catholic doctrines and teachings) have emerged as inspirational figures representing bravery and solidity in a world dominated by weak and reactionary Church leaders. Good priests have suffered — and continue to do so. Like in myself, the outside world — through its continued slide into perversity and indifference — causes a certain amount of pain; for it is difficult to watch mankind, and in particular those we know and love, fall deeper into disorder and damnation. But much darker forces, within the Church, create an even more intense agony that is extremely acute. It makes us want to run away; but we don’t. Instead, gallant priests have remained and selflessly offered solace to the rest of us who suffer along with them.
“And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” (2 Tim. 3:12)
Published with permission from the Sons of St. Joseph.