A Priest to Remember
For the past few years I have been hearing about “John Paul II” priests. This appellation, sometimes self-applied and other times applied to others, refers to a loosely defined group of priests ordained during the long years of JP II’s pontificate. They are usually defined in opposition to the priest ordained in the years just after Vatican II. They are variously described as: more doctrinally orthodox, less pastoral, more wedded to a hierarchical vision of the Church, true to the real teaching of Vatican II, etc. (As you can see, the descriptions tend to polarize along the great split in the Church today.) Not every priest ordained during this period falls into this group. I have met a few who do, and have found them to be both a bit rigid and somewhat condescending to the laity. I have also blogged about one group and the havoc they have wreaked on a parish in Wisconsin.
Recently, Sandro Magister, the Vaticanista at Il Espresso in Italy, reprinted a profile of a recently ordained priest in France from the newspaper Avvenire, published by the Italian bishops’ conference. Fr. Michel-Marie is pastor in a poor neighborhood in Marseilles. He became a priest late, having worked for many years as a nightclub singer in Paris. He is a fascinating and awe inspiring figure, and I find him doubly interesting for the ways in which he is similar to and different from the John Paul II priests in the United States. Here are some snippets from the profile.
On wearing a cassock and daily walking the streets of his neighborhood:
Why the cassock? “For me” – he smiles – “It is a work uniform. It is intended to be a sign for those who meet me, and above all for those who do not believe. In this way I am recognizable as a priest, always. In this way on the streets I take advantage of every opportunity to make friends. Father, someone asks me, where is the post office? Come on, I’ll go with you, I reply, and meanwhile we talk, and I discover that the children of that man are not baptized. Bring them to me, I say in the end; and I often baptize them later. I seek in every way to show with my face a good humanity. Just the other day” – he laughs – “in a cafe an old man asked me which horses he should bet on. I gave him the horses. I asked the Blessed Mother for forgiveness: but you know, I said to her, it is to befriend this man. As a priest who was one of my teachers used to tell those who asked him how to convert the Marxists: ‘One has to become their friend,’ he would reply.”
On the confessional and being available to the people of his parish:
Fr. Michel-Marie goes to the confessional every evening, with absolute punctuality, at five o’clock, without fail. (The people, he says, must know that the priest is there, in any case). Then he remains in the sacristy until eleven o’clock, for anyone who might want to go to him: “I want to give the sign of an unlimited availability.” Judging by the constant pilgrimage of the faithful, in the evening, one would say that it works….”Those who seek me out,” he continues, “are asking first of all for human assistance, and I try to give all the help possible. Not forgetting that the beggar needs to eat, but also has a soul. To the offended woman I say: send me your husband, I will talk to him. But then, how many come to say that they are sad, that their lives are no good . . . Then I ask them: how long has it been since you went to confession? Because I know that sin is a burden, and the sadness of sin is a torment. I am convinced that what makes many people suffer is the lack of the sacraments….”
On welcoming sinners:
In church, he welcomes everyone with joy: “Even the prostitutes. I give them communion. What should I say? Become honest, before you enter here? Christ came for sinners, and I have the anxiety, in withholding a sacrament, that he could bring me to account for it one day. But do we still know the power of the sacraments? I have the misgiving that we have excessively bureaucratized the admission to baptism. I think of the baptism of my Jewish mother, which in terms of the request of my grandfather was merely a formal act: and yet, even from this baptism there came a priest.”