Today is the release date of Kevin Wells’ most recent book, Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz. Wells continues his search for the authentic spiritual fatherhood of the priest, which he began in The Priests We Need to Save the Church through the example of his uncle, Monsignor Tommy Wells. Venerable Aloysius “Al” Schwartz’s life and priesthood is nothing short of astonishing and a testament to the power of grace, mercy, love, sacrifice, and salvation demonstrated through a life of complete surrender to Christ crucified. What Fr. Al accomplished in his missionary work and priestly ministry can only be attributed to the working of Almighty God.
Throughout Wells’ book it is clear Fr. Al understood that to be a priest is to be a spiritual father and the guardian of souls. He understood that his life was meant to be offered up for the salvation of souls, especially those spiritual sons and daughters Our Lady of Banneux entrusted to his care by the tens of thousands. Fr. Al had very little time for bureaucratic notions of the priesthood and his run-ins with the hierarchy at times further witnessed to this fact. He understood when he laid down his life on the cold marble floor of of Saint Martin of Tours Church in Washington D.C on June 29, 1957 that his life belonged entirely to Christ through Our Lady, Virgin of the Poor.
To understand the spiritual fatherhood of Fr. Al and the call of spiritual fatherhood given to priests at ordination day, we must look to the woman of his heart; for it is women who are entrusted by God with drawing out the fatherhood—both natural and spiritual—of men. For the priest, that woman is first-and-foremost Our Blessed Mother. All other holy women sent to help a priest along the way are meant to be an image of Her in some way. Fr. Al met His Queen through her title as Virgin of the Poor while he was in seminary. Her love pierced his heart and soul, leading him out into the world as a spiritual father. He was also strengthened throughout his priestly ministry by his spiritual mother, Sister Gertrude.
It was not at Fatima, Lourdes, or even Guadalupe that Fr. Al Schwartz met His Mother and Queen. While he was a seminarian in Belgium, he heard her call and found her in the poor, simple country village of Banneux. Our Lady had appeared to 12-year-old Mariette Beco eight times in 1933. It was through the apparition of Our Lady of Banneux that he met the Virgin of the Poor, who would lead him to become the spiritual father of tens of thousands of the poor. He surrendered his entire life and priesthood to her care shortly before ordination. Totally hers, he spent the rest of his days on earth trying to please her through in tireless devotion to the poor.
The message of Our Lady of Banneux to Mariette was in many ways a school for drawing out his spiritual fatherhood in prayer. Wells says:
During the early years of his priesthood, Father Al would spend untold hours in contemplation of her few words (less than eighty in total). Turning over the messages from Mary’s eight apparitions in his head, he would piece together a system that would structure his own incomprehensibly fruitful work for the poor.
What was this message? It was a message that seems radical by today’s understanding of the priesthood in developed countries. He saw in Her words a calling to self-denial, mortification, deep prayer, poverty, and a spiritual fatherhood that seeks to carry the burdens of others. This calling is nothing short of complete surrender to crucifixion with Christ.
The priesthood in the West in many ways has become too comfortable and it shows. Fr. Al confronted these issues in his own day, but in many ways it has worsened. The evidence can be seen in watered down doctrine, materialism, comfort, and an over-emphasis on bureaucratic and administrative forms of priesthood. While places like Africa are overflowing with priests—so much so they are sending them to the West—many of our dioceses can barely seem to ordain one man a year. Fr. Al’s priesthood provides insight into what needs to be done to renew the priesthood in our own day.
The answer is the Cross of Jesus Christ. The priest must once more reclaim his identity as priest and victim. It is through embracing full union with the Eternal High Priest—who is the Victim offered to the Father in the Spirit for our salvation—that the priest comes to live his full identity and spiritual fatherhood. Authentic spiritual fatherhood can only be lived on the Cross and it is Our Blessed Mother who draws her priest-sons to the Cross. This is why a crucified priest must be a Marian priest. Her tender, motherly, feminine love leads him to union with Her son and leads him to surrender his life for his spiritual children. This is how she draws out his spiritual fatherhood. Leading the priest “to do whatever He tells you (John 2:5)” even to the point of death.
Wells recounts a part of Fr. Al’s diary where he tells his Sisters of Mary: “Mary realizes [the crucifix] is the heart and center of the Christian mystery, the heart and center of holiness—this crucifix— Christ nailed to the cross, and we, nailed to the cross with Christ…. Jesus again and again repeats this mystery on every page of the Gospel. ‘Unless you renounce all that you possess—your health, your reputation, your material possessions, your pleasure, all your goods— you cannot be my disciple.” A spiritual father gives up everything for the sake of the Kingdom and the salvation of souls.
We know this to be true because of the tremendous, awe-inspiring fruits of Fr. Al’s priesthood. Like so many priest-saints—Fr. Al’s cause for canonization is currently open—it was through his dying-to-self that Christ was able to save countless souls through his sacrifices. His first assignment in Korea in 1957 led him to start Korean Relief, which helped found schools, orphanages, tuberculosis sanatoriums, hospitals, and homes for the homeless, elderly, handicapped, and unwed mothers. He started Boystowns and Girlstowns with his newly established religious order the Sisters of Mary, which has now spread to seven countries and serves over 20,000 children per year through the tireless dedication of 380 sisters.
The issue for many spiritual fathers today is not that they don’t work hard. Our priests work very hard, but as a priest friend recently said to me: ‘Too many of my brother priests are on the wrong cross. They are seeking crucifixion on the cross of administrative tasks, not prayer, Adoration, the Sacraments, ministry, and the authentic love of a spiritual father who is laying down his life as a Good Shepherd. That’s why they are burned out and overwhelmed. They aren’t praying enough. The Blessed Sacrament isn’t central.’ To be crucified on the wrong cross makes it impossible to produce life-giving fruits and the salvation of souls. Parishes led by priests on the wrong cross will remain mediocre at best and spiritually oppressed at worst.
Fr. Al’s priesthood was grounded in a deep prayer life. He worked very long hours, but he never sacrificed his prayer time nor cut corners in his celebration of the Mass and the Sacraments. He was available in the confessional for long hours raising souls dead in sin to new life. He was a spiritual father in the image of his Crucified Savior, which means he didn’t seek comfort, ease, and the adulation of others. His brother priests and others often mocked him for his mortifications, sacrifices, and poverty, but nobody could deny the remarkable fruits of his labors and prayer. He had unlocked the deep truth of the spiritual life: The more we die-to-self the more Christ will do through us.
The desire for honor and praise can be the spiritual death of a priest since it leads him to seek the acceptance of others over and above Christ and His will. A spiritual father loves with the heart of the Father, which means saying and doing hard things in order to protect souls. Fr. Al was willing to take the necessary heat to spiritually and materially protect and defend his spiritual sons and daughters, even to the point of death threats and taking on a dangerous gang in Korea. This type of sacrificial love awakens souls to the truth of the Gospel. It is this form of love that the West is in desperate need of today. Not worldliness and capitulation, but the courageous, life-giving love of the priest-saints.
It has been a very difficult year for priests, bishops, seminarians, and the Church as a whole. The release of Wells’ book on Fr. Al Schwartz is providential. Now is the time for heroic spiritual fathers to rise up and lead God’s people in these dark days. Priests who are dead to the world and completely alive in Christ. Those who are willing to suffer, sacrifice, mortify, fight spiritual battles, and be crucified on the right cross. We need spiritual fathers.
Fr. Al died on March 12, 1992 of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). He wanted to enter into the Passion of Christ. As his body slowly gave way to the disease and he could no longer function outside of a wheelchair, he founded Boystown and Girlstown Mexico, which led his religious order to a new continent. Even his illness could not stop him from being a loving spiritual father who offered everything to His Beloved Virgin of the Poor. Priest and Beggar is a book that should be given to every parish and missionary priest. May Venerable Aloysius Schwartz intercede for our priests, the poor, and the Church.
Editor’s note: We recommend Mr. Wells’s previous article “Ven. Al Schwartz: A Happy Roar for the Dead Man.”