On successive June Saturdays, I watched two friends lay face down, their nose, palms and kneecaps resting on cold, hard marble floors. I found myself studying these young men as supplications of saints fell heavy upon them as snow covers winter fields.
These two men — one from America, the other from a foreign land — fell like tipped-over totem poles after bishops from different diocese intoned, “My dear people. Let us pray that God, the all-powerful Father, will pour out abundantly the gifts of heaven on these, his servants, whom he has chosen for the office of priest.” The ancient plea cued my two friends, and the priestly aspirants standing beside them, to lay fully prostate on cathedral floors in order to properly obtain the intercession of saints — forty saints to be exact, called upon, individually by name. As the men lay like stones for eight or so minutes, it seemed unseen forces were trying to engineer them into giants. They will need to be giants now.
Ancient names reverberated into the cavernous cathedrals, seemingly rattling the many heavy portraits of the Virgin Mary adhered to surrounding walls. The classically-trained cantor beckoned. Worshippers thundered supplicatation in the timeless sing-song interplay.
St. Mary … Pray for us!
St. Michael … Pray for us!
St. Peter and St. Paul … Pray for us!
Perhaps because I am from a family of priests, I’ve been invited to attend several ordinations, arguably the Catholic Church’s most hallowed and dramatic liturgy. Like clockwork, it is always at the Litany of Supplications where I become riveted, in the manner of a child at a circus who awaits to gawk at the man on the tightrope. It’s at this point where the sightless supernatural dimension of our faith seems to pour out like gallons of Canan wine. With each swing of the thurible, increasing choruses of holy angels seem to fill the cathedral, invisibly paying witness to men slipping into the skin of Christ in persona Christi. Are angels able to shed joyful tears?
I wasn’t riveted this year. I just listened to the supplication of the saints. Thereafter, my thoughts pivoted to a forsaken place; a place I’d never considered. As the names of martyrs, mystics, indefatigable reformers, apostles, brave popes and sweat-stained servants reigned down, I saw my friends as orphans. The irony being, of course, was that they were surrounded by hundreds of fathers.
Irish saints Brendan and Patrick were summoned. … Pray for us. Their emerald native Catholic land seems to have become all but paganized. Do angels shed tears of sadness?
St. John Vianney. … Pray for us. The saint spent 12-plus hours each day of his priestly life absolving sin from inside his second home – his splintered, claustrophobic confessional. Many thousands of Catholic parishes throughout the land offer confessions for just 45 minutes each Saturday.
St. Perpetua and St. Felicity … Pray for us. These women met their martyrdom in a cacophonous coliseum at the hands of wild animals and gladiators for their refusal to soften the true words of Jesus Christ. I haven’t heard a priest in more than a dozen years homilize on the forbiddance of every form of contraception, the sanctity and sacramentality of marriage, the lie of homosexuality, and of my daily requirement of striving for holiness.
St. John of the Cross … Pray for us. The Spanish mystic lived in a state of intense interior prayer. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been encouraged by priests to lead my family in a rosary or a weekly family Holy Hour — or even simply to kneel in prayer alongside my children and wife each night.
St. Ignatius of Antioch … Pray for us. Igantius said just prior to his martyrdom: “[Let] me to be eaten by the beasts, through whom I can attain God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts that they may be my tomb, and leave no trace of my body, that when I fall asleep I be not burdensome to any. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ.” Priests have never requested that I embrace a daily form of mortification, self-denial or to incorporate a vigorous spirit of asceticism into my life.
St. John the Baptist … Pray for us. This cousin of Christ launched out into the stark wilderness of Judea to proclaim Jesus as Savior, choosing to make the desert his home to both subdue his flesh and allow his voice to grow in potency. He lost his head for it. Judgement is perilous to my soul, but I do wonder about the number of bishops and priests that have stood on altars this past month at ordinations who’ve been part of the sexual disorder – actively or tacitly – that has poisoned our Catholic faith like an invisible gas. Are angels able to redden in shame?
We could go on with the unseemly symmetry here. But we’ll stop with St. Joseph, the father of Jesus Christ in this age of anti-fatherhood. It does seem a startling new form of fatherlessness has slipped, subterraneously, into our Catholic hierarchy and into so many rectories throughout the land. Pew Research polls show that millions of Catholics are fleeing from the faith like the Israelites from Pharaoh. Is it because of this new form of priestly fatherhood that so often has been revealed to what seems a hidden bachelorhood?
I spent three hours last night at a veterinarian hospital with my 11-year-old daughter, Shannon and our 170-lb. Saint Bernard “puppy” Zeus, who’d been limping around our house the past few days. It turns out 3-year-old Zeus has cancer in his front left leg; a sad and common reality for enormous dogs, as I learned last night. The tender-eyed veterinarian called me – not Shannon — back into the X-ray room. As I stepped in — Zeus’s fat tail wagging maniacally — she pointed to the gray mass that covered the screen, the one that was thinning Zeus’s bones. It seems he’ll probably need to be put down before his leg snaps. The vet said there are indications the cancer has spread.
I walked back into a small waiting room; Shannon sitting alone on a chair. Zeus, more than twice her size, sleeps in her bed each night. It is a nightly comedy sketch. “Dad, is Zeus going to be okay,” she asked from the waiting room, still imagining his limp was a result of falling awkwardly into a backyard hole. “What did the doctor say?”
My eldest daughter Gabrielle leaves for college in two months to a town more than 12 hours away from home. To some degree, my time as her father is all but up – at least it is on the level of the only fatherhood she’s known. With this realization, some sharp-edged questions have arisen like a last sunrise as summer days inch closer into autumn.
How had I done as Gabby’s father? Where did I fail her, how often, and to what degree? Did small triumphs cohere, or disintegrate into impermanence? Could my love for Gabby be measured by its sacrificial dimension, or was it given lazily? Was I a man who truly fought for her, or just a dad who yielded? As her father, I held an impulse to shape her character and lead her to authentically-lived Catholicity — but did my spiritual parenthood align with God’s will, or just my own?
The confluence of these questions brings me to the only one that really matters: was I a father who had led my daughter to heaven? The categorical, correct answer will be given to me at judgment day.
After one of the ordinations, as I pulled away from the cathedral, I turned onto a road that passes into a trendy neighborhood. The small urban town has a growing cultural scene, strong community bonds and a kind-hearted atmosphere — a place where, as the town’s website states, “change and charm collide.”
Just outside the shadow of this massive cathedral, I drove past five houses in a row with rainbow flags flapping lightly in the breeze on the resplendent early afternoon. I quickly wondered if my priest-friend had chosen the same route home — or to wherever he was headed in the aftermath of becoming a newly-birthed priest of God. I prayed for intercession.
St. Joseph … Pray for him.
St. Joseph … Pray for us.