Reader-land, I want you to imagine it’s evening, there is a roaring fire in the hearth, and we are all comfortable. We have our favorite drinks and pipes and snacks, and we are enjoying each other’s company, I am in a leather armchair, and I am about to tell you a tale.
Truth be told I don’t remember exactly when it started, but it was after the diocese took over All Saints from the Stigmatene fathers. We had several priests, including beloved Fr Riley, but there was one priest who stood out.
He was pale, with jet black hair, thick glasses, and a thick Spanish accent. Naturally, he was from Spain. His name was Fr Francis, and he laid the groundwork for who I am today.
Fr Francis was from a Society, not an order, mind you, and one of their charisms was to be holy priests! Imagine that! I got to see the reverence close up, for I was serving mass all the time. Little things you notice, like how after elevating the host at the consecration, he wouldn’t touch anything but the Eucharist with his fingers and thumbs, not even the chalice. He would press the tips of his thumb and index finger together for the rest of mass, until the cleaning of the sacred vessels and he would also purify his fingers. That kind of simple reverence.
He was also big on confession. He would always be available. His society looked to St Jean Vianney as the archetypal parish priest. His feast day they would celebrate with great fanfare. Then he would encourage reverence at mass, even telling me that I shouldn’t wear sweatpants. He’s mortified at what I wear to mass now!
The Society of Jesus Christ the Priest was not Jesuit, thank goodness. I believe the founder, Padre Alfonso, shares a similar look with St Josemaria. They were, as I said, priests first and foremost. In fact when they fully joined the society, on went a wedding ring, their marriage and commitment to the priesthood. Padre Alfonso thinks deeply. He also had his priests have a potential career in studies before the priesthood. There are doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, etc. Padre Alfonso also had a bit of his youth or extreme closeness to the Spanish civil war, and knew first hand or from immediate witnesses the atrocities committed by the communists before and during the war. He has a unique and undervalued view of the world.
He also had a firm belief in the formation of youth. He went out, and rather than let youth be educated by the world then have to reteach them, he went out and evangelized the youth, letting boys understand the importance and beauty of the priesthood.
That’s where I come in. You see, Padre Alfonso believed that America would bring Holy priests. So he petitioned to let his priests come here, and they started Shoreless Lake school in New Jersey, an all-boys school. And they somehow got permission to come to Arlington, so Fr Francis, Fr Juan, and Fr Juan all came down here and went to various parishes. We got Fr Francis, and they started a boys group, for young men interested in learning more about the faith and priesthood.
A side note. None of that crap went on. And when there was scandal elsewhere, Fr Francis brought in Carolyn to chaperone, and she was no-nonsense. So don’t even bring it up.
In the boy’s group, we would meet up twice a week and have mass, confession, spiritual reading, and play. We played a ton, video games, sports, crawdad catching, man it was Fun. But it always cycled back to Jesus. It was almost Salesian, as Mrs. Neighbors pointed out. But it is something that was hard for Americans to grasp. Moms and Dads not wanting to let their children leave and learn independently, probably because in Spain you walked everywhere and in America you have to drive. The fathers would use food as an example of learning and the blinders we had on in America. They were eating jamon and sardines and I had… Peanut butter and jelly.
Fr Francis was able to explain the love of God and the beauty of our faith, using small group methods that Focus uses so well, for we were never more than fifteen at a time. And we kept coming back, grew in friendship with each other and genuinely thought about the priesthood. All with the direction of a simple priest who always had a smile. Some of us were invited to go up to visit the school in New Jersey, and in January 1995, I went up to join the school.
That story is for a different fireside chat, however, because we must continue Fr Francis’ story. One of the things that drew me to them was that they never watered down the truth. It wasn’t Gospel Lite, it was the truth. I once dropped the paten off the top of the chalice while cleaning up after mass. It was a big deal, and without berating me, he showed his displeasure and reverence to the sacred vessels, taking them from me with care. I was subdued for the whole day. They read to us from Ratzinger, and connected Gospel passages with their meaning, and had us think about them. I didn’t realize it at the time, but one of the reasons Fr Francis was strong in his faith was because that was how he was taught too. That and mandatory military service in Spain gave a discipline, strength, and frankness that was different than most of the priests I had ever interacted with. Plenty of boys groups, but never the same confidence of teaching the faith. He didn’t treat us like ignorant boys who needed to be coddled but as growing spiritual warriors. True Church Militants.
Unfortunately, and I am not sure when, Mom will have to share, the bishop disinvited the Society, and Fr Francis and the Fr Juans left. Fr Francis went to Ecuador after that, and he was very loved there, just as he was here. My timeline is off because my story diverged from his, but he got sick and had to return to Spain. I think it was cancer, but I know it was painful. He died peacefully though, and I am sure he’s in clucking his tongue at me for all my whining! Because that was one of the things that he showed, true steel in adversity and joy in community with his brothers and sisters in Christ.
My mother let me borrow a crucifix that Fr Francis had since he was a young boy. I say borrow because I want the Society to have it back, to strengthen them in time of need and trial, and they go through much of them. He was given it in his youth by Padre Alfonso and he kept it, never lost it. Such was his dedication to the faith!
But I can say for a fact that two Americans became priests because of the influence of Fr Francis, one in the Society, and one in our diocese. That alone is a legacy anyone can be proud of. I like to think that keeping my own faith is another legacy of his, because the way things were going, who knows where I would have ended up.
So in this Easter season and octave, remember him in your prayers. And remember that you and your children are ready, and we must not coddle them. They are sons and daughters of God, not babies!
Thanks to Mrs. Neighbors for requesting this post. I ask that you share any stories you have of Fr Francis in the comments so that everyone can see it, because they are important!