‘Ab Occultis Meis Munda Me’: An Afternoon with a French Priest

By a prodding of Providence, I walked into an old religious house some days ago in the French village where I live, where, as in the massive, once flourishing house of sisters across the road, the remnants of a formerly vibrant missionary order spend their waning years in retirement. The same saintly founder bequeathed both orders to this tiny French village and to Mother Church, who was reeling then from the shock of revolution, as she is reeling again.

An old priest shuffled slowly down to the door and gave me a warm smile. He was a kind and holy old man whose radiating goodness immediately captured my affection, whose untamed wispy beard and too close brown eyes gave him an irresistible, dispossessing charm. As he led me into an elegant reception room nearby, I was startled to find a veritable natural history museum of curious objects: an armadillo-skin purse, wooden figurines, a swordfish bill, strange guitar-like instruments that once belonged to a heathen bard, and a giant python skin stretched triumphantly over it all. It was a trove of treasures sent back by men whose blood and faith had won those tribes from barbarism and the devil.

We had a genial conversation for about an hour, in the course of which I discovered that he was the superior of the community there and that he had served his whole life in the missions – in the Antilles, Quebec, and Cameroon.

Questioning him about his formation, I learned that at the age of 20, he was studying at the Gregorian, right when the Second Vatican Council opened. There he met de Lubac, Congar, Chenu, and all the great French theologians who visited the French seminary, not to mention daily conferences about the Council with the thirty bishops who lodged there.

He was in every respect one of the better specimens – if I can speak this way in charity – of his generation’s psychology. For example:

1. He claimed that his Scholastic formation had been too intellectual, a mere exercise. His real spiritual work began when he started to work with lay people after the Council. His true joy had been forming these lay catechists. When I ventured a phrase in Latin to remind him of his education (Deus est primum movens), he waved it away impatiently and said, “No, I don’t even want to remember that!”

Contemplating the mixture of chance and bitter sacrifice it has taken for me, and for my generation, to learn what those precious words mean when there was no one to teach us has been a frequent temptation to wrath. This priest’s generation allowed a vast heritage of ecclesial and human culture, a whole way of life, to languish under the silence of interdict for so many decades, and with their death, it will pass away forever. A tremendous loss.

2. He said the Council defined his generation. During the Council, the bishops and their peritistayed at the seminary and every day recounted the day’s events.

It strikes me that this was one chief way that the liberal interpretation of the Council spread: through a sort of indoctrination of the cream of the crop from every country, who were studying at Rome during the Council and who more than anyone would have been caught up in the developing “spirit” of the thing.

3. He had a master’s degree in sociology from Montreal – another sign of a generation that joined the bandwagon of social scientists trying to reconstruct society without the sacramental priesthood, the means established by Christ for the consummation of the world.

4. Most striking was how completely baffled he was when I told him about the popularity of the old Mass in the USA. His eyebrows rose first in disbelief, then in scarcely concealed contempt.

“Of course, our generation considers that tradition entirely dépassée. I don’t even want to think about it.”

“You mean there are places where the people go to Mass…all in Latin?” he asked in a tone of innocent incredulity. “And the priest – he…I mean, he stands away from the people, with his…back to the people? Is that right? And there are priests…priests who can…do that? That is too bad, too bad. In France that is very rare, very rare, indeed.” Not so rare as he thinks.

His reaction was something like the Anglican priest in Benson’s The Dawn of All, as if he had woken up to an inconceivable future in which a rejected past had come inconceivably back to life, and I were giving a silent version of the professor’s lecture, rehearsing all the follies of his generation.

I choked bitterly on images of the book-burnings and defections, iconoclasm and the simple faithful betrayed, and the Carmelite who tore down his certificates of ordination to the minor orders in a fit of rage and despair from which he has never emerged. What is it that blinds them to what they have done? Here his order happily displays the primitive arts of barbaric civilizations. Why did they grind their own glories – our glories – into dust?

5. Within a five-minute span, he mentioned that, unfortunately, there were almost no Frenchmen left in his order, and also how happy he was to have enjoyed the “renewal” of his order that followed after the Council.

To accentuate the tragic irony of this last claim, consider that we were sitting in the middle of a region in which the total number of practicing Catholics who live in all five surrounding villages does not ordinarily fill one of the dozen small churches they all share in a large territorial parish. Perhaps the lay catechists aren’t working hard enough. Or maybe it’s just inevitable social change.

Whatever the case, when the remnants of this priest’s congregation soon go to their rest, and the house is converted into apartments, and the guitar and the python vanish into a museum, and the last of the religious are gone from this town, what will his generation have left us? Whether it is what they all desired or what a few bad men desired, it seems they will vanish into the autonomous lay world they helped construct.

None of this was terribly novel or interesting for anyone used to the opposition of that generation of the clergy. Just rather drab and disappointing. But I suppose that’s why it is remarkable. Here, as everywhere else, the story is exactly the same: the same excuses, the same mantra-like incantation of “conciliar renewal,” as if the mere words could chase away the stark realities of a bark run aground.

I left with the full intention of returning. I will go back to benefit from his gifts of grace, but also to marvel again at the irresolvable contradictions of that most tragic, inscrutable generation.

Lest anyone take away a note of arrogance or self-satisfaction from this anecdote, we should prayerfully take this priest’s life to heart as a warning against the folly that rules the spirit of every age. As Fr. Waldstein observed in a recent post on Sancrucensis with his usual wisdom and charity, to the limpid eyes of orthodoxy, every age is the worst of times, its darkness illuminated only by the light of a few saints who rise above the mediocre majority, the darkness of unbelief in which each one of us plays too great a part:

Man is fallen from Paradise so it is natural to look back to a pre-lapsarian age, but one is inclined not to look back far enough and to project pre-lapsarian perfection on very lapsarian times. …

The opposite error is equally natural: to look forward to a coming generation which will set everything right. This is all very well if one looks forward to the Second Coming, but I’m afraid even Catholics have the tendency not to look forward far enough. How many times have we heard so-called “conservatives” say that soon the present unfortunate generation of “liberals” will die off and their places be taken by the rising generation of “traditionalist” churchmen who will reverse the excesses of the past decades? But every generation of churchmen is full of heresy, pride, cowardice, envy, and folly; all we can hope for is a occasional saint to keep our hopes up till the eschatological solution to all problems.

What generation yet to be born will look into our happy aged faces and wonder at our ignorance, our blindness, our lassitude? And wonder why we could not see the beams in our eyes?

If that is not a serious concern to us, we should know ourselves better.

Si iniquitates observaveris, Domine quis sustinebit? Ab occultis meis munda me, Domine.

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