The sun was rapidly reaching its peak up high in the azure sky. Southern France was greeting us with an unusually pleasant summer day—the calm before the tempest. Henriques was just a hamlet. It consisted mainly of a large mansion, a rural estate which hosted the two blood families of our priestly friend. This vale gave the semblance of an oasis in the midst of the sparse Languedoc vegetation burnt by the summer heat and the eastern wind. Birds of all colors and sounds were chirping leisurely from the shaded branches of the twisted European oaks. The elongated house was welcoming us, encamped before a generously green landscape dotted with huge dark cedar trees which offered a perfect contrast with the dwellings.
But Father had already spotted our presence and welcomed us with his big smile and handshake before we could get off our touring van. His face was beaming with great joy, knowing that he would celebrate his anniversary in the presence of his friends from his overseas mission work. If we were exhausted by a 3,000-mile pilgrimage to various French shrines, at least someone had profited from a restful home vacation.
Time was running short. Hardly had we greeted our hosts and their numerous progeny when we were conducted to a stone shed beautifully transformed into a summer chapel, to be used by a beloved priest brother and uncle while paying them a visit. The purpose of our visit was indeed to celebrate, however simply, Father’s priestly anniversary. Since he had already had a formal family reunion earlier on, today was going to be a simpler ceremony. But today was his true anniversary day, and we together with his immediate family were going to share in it. We American pilgrims represented a large portion of Father’s long apostolate, his labor in the U.S. field.
“Introibo ad altare Dei…” Father began his Mass devoutly, yet naturally—mirroring this soul I had long known—breathing forth the simplicity of the dove, yet the grandeur of the priest.
“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.” Thirty years of daily contact with the eternally young God, with the fountain of youth, can only rejuvenate His chosen ones. Veterans though we be in body, weighed down by heat of day and sweat of our brows; yet, in soul, we stand in childlike wonder before an ever magical landscape, filled with the fervor of one who would commit himself forever to this vision perceived in his teen years. And, so, to the formidable question: “Do you wish to offer your whole soul, your whole mind, your whole heart as a laborer in my vineyard for my glory and for souls?” we had replied with a prompt and generous “Amen, Adsum!”
My thoughts turned the wheel of time back thirty-five years. It was 1976, the ‘hot summer.’ We had just stepped into Ecône, which epitomized the last bastion of the faith, the liturgy, the riches of all the things which the Church had upheld till now. And although the circumstances of our coming were loaded with sounds of war and turmoil, within the fortress, our hearts dilated, our spiritual lungs breathed deeply the fresh air of the Swiss Alps giving us oxygen, and our souls were given wings to reach the peaks of holiness. We indulged in the riches of the Catholic doctrine and piety generously laid before us in these short years of preparation with the avidity of the bee foraging about the rich lavender fields of Languedoc.
In those seminary days, Father’s tall stature contrasted with the average Mediterranean Frenchman. He stood out also by his noble character, his goodness, and his natural ingenuity, which gained for him the honorable duty of host to the endless procession of guests visiting worldwide famous Ecône. When one talked with him, he seemed totally absorbed in his subject. Nothing petty or of dubious taste entered his conversation. Everything in him, his demeanor, his conversation, all his faculties, exuded this unity of purpose, so absorbed was he with the lofty ideal of following Christ.
“Confiteor Deo Omnipotenti.” I awoke from my mental flashback. I had been entrusted with the cantoring of the common parts of the Mass and it was time to intone the Kyrie. To sing the Kyrie simultaneously with Father beating his “Mea culpa” could only associate the devout assistants with the priest immersed in the thoughts of his frailty and nothingness before the awesome God. If even the just sin seven times a day; if even among angels, God can discern faults, then what of us, His priests all too human? Sacred ministers of the Great God we are, yet the treasures of holiness are carried in vessels of clay. None is perfect before God, and the Lord alone knows how often, how long, and how much we had thwarted His designs and run after illusory goods and false gods.
“Miseratur nostri Omnipotens et Misericors Dominus.” Yet, by and large, besides sporadic dark spots, we have quickly amended and made our peace again with the merciful God, the same God of love who had gladly received the first fruits of our generous heart. Whatever our fragility, it is a cherished grace to be in the front lines, and to be still found faithful and standing after so many years of steady service in God’s vineyard. Yes, this soldier of Christ has well deserved of the Church and of the faithful entrusted to him. No doubt God, Who is never outdone in generosity, will whisper in his ear some day: “Now, my turn to repay and reward!”
At this point, Father is turning to the little congregation and addresses a few words of welcome to the U.S. delegation. It reminds me of the great communion of the saints, far-flung in body, but so close in spirit. We represent so many of those faithful who have passed through the expert hands of this priest to be cleansed, pruned, fashioned and reshaped so as to espouse finally the features of the saving Christ. I recall his words of compassion, relief, encouragement, devoid of anything natural or human, filled with the tender devotion to his star, that divine ideal which had illumined him all along. Thus was he able to guide many a strayed sheep back to the fold. I, for one, know of no complaint of the treatment received under the deft hand of this spiritual surgeon and doctor of souls.
Father’s words are in perfect harmony with the whole setting of this anniversary, rustic and modest, but coming straight from the heart. Now they really hit home. They seem to be addressed to me personally: “Do you not remember, dear Father and friend, who also shared three decades of priestly life? Do you not remember that, thirty-five years ago, we were rubbing elbows as we entered the divine militia.” Speaking before his military siblings, he could not refrain from showing the similarity between the priestly life and that of the soldier. He mentioned the struggle, the boot camp, the fight against the enemy. We had just visited the fortified town of Carcassonne nearby, our imaginations were now running wild with sounds of shouts and swords in the rugged paved streets of the old city. Father spoke of long years of service for God and for souls, of its joys and woes, of victories but also of defeats. We knew when we entered God’s militia, we would not have it our way all the time.
“Crucifixus etiam pro nobis…passus sub Pontio Pilato…” There came to mind rapidly the moments of struggle we had experience, shoulder to shoulder out in the field of spiritual wars. Trials, mortifications of all sorts, not unlike what St. Paul could describe in his public epistles, are the lot of the priest worthy of his name, because he had dared say: “Da mihi animas, caetera tolle!—Give me souls, take away anything else!” The memory of these past trials in which brothers had borne one another’s burden, evoked so simply in the plain sermon, could not but resonate deeply. We were now silently uttering the Gethsemani prayer: “Thank you, O Lord, for your frightful trials, for testing the string to the breaking point, for proving to us that we still are alive and standing and still love you in the hour of utter darkness.” This prayer was tailor-made for the lonely stretches of desolation which the Lord in His mercy often imparts to His chosen ministers. There is nothing like dryness and abandonment to test the sturdiest plants.
“Suscipe Sancte Pater…” Mass was following its perennial course. It was now the Offertory. It was as if Father were flashing back to his first Mass, anticipating the future years of service: “At your orders, my General! Not my will, but Thine, whatever the cost.” This was his ‘standing’ offering, whereby he wished to give his soul, his failing strength, his love and all his heart to Our Lord, to be transfigured and converted into his Divinity and soul.
“Suscipe Sancta Trinitas…” Might it not seem redundant to make a second offering to conclude the Offertory prayers? No! God’s wisdom has always a reason in these repetitive acts. The second “suscipe” represents the length of days and years spent in God’s service and the long-suffering which it entails. Within myself, I could not refrain from thinking that, whatever its negative points, old age has its bonuses, as old virtues being deeply rooted, the devil has less leave from God to test us. There is a certain peace and quiet about our veteran age. The footing is more assured. By now, most tempests have been crossed, and we are forewarned for the future trials. This veteran’s age makes us envious of the zest and fervor of young novices. Does this make our offering less valuable to Our Lord, to Whom we gave an undivided heart from youth? Besides, it is now only a matter of a few short years before our good Jesus rewards us.
“Pridie quam pateretur…” Father’s heart was jubilant and his face radiant as it gazed lovingly at the host raised up high above his large elbows which served as a temporary monstrance. Christ is now on His throne to bless and guide us. There follows the Communion given to the devout Christians united with the Lord of Hope, Risen from the dead never to die again.
“Magnificat anima mea Dominum…” By specific request from the celebrant, Mary’s thanksgiving aptly closed this hour of paradise. Despite our faults, we have much to be grateful for. Thirty-five years in God’s service, together celebrating the One who had captured our hearts earlier in life, and Who now joined us once again around the rustic altar, offering ourselves together to do what all generations of priests before us have always done: to bless, to guide and pray ceaselessly. This was not unlike St. Dominic and his monks who crisscrossed these lands of Languedoc to evangelize heretics. Are we not likewise bringing God to a humanity forgetful of the way back to God? We too are offering the rosary as the rope of salvation from the slippery road to the abyss. God too is sending us again to work at the reconquest of an apostate humanity which has vomited its Christ and His Church.
“Ite Missa est…” The hour of contemplation spent around God’s altar was over. By now the east wind was gathering strength and winding its way into our little hermitage. It was the maddening wind which turns heads and minds all over. But we felt we were secure with our present fortresses spread out throughout inhospitable lands. Our bastions were our priories and schools; our mission was the world; our strength, our faith and fraternal love which, earlier on, had vowed to conquer the most impregnable peaks.