“There Aren’t Enough Priests”


Yesterday, I wrote about the strange case of disappearing devotions in the post-conciliar era. I mentioned that I had put in a call to Church of the Immaculate Conception to see what had happened to the Purgatorian Society that had formerly been based there.

Last night, I got a call back.

The priest I spoke with was a Redemptorist, just like those who ran the Purgatorian Society. He was also the only priest at the parish. He said that when he was a boy, the parish was vibrant. There were ten priests. It was possible for them to say eleven High Masses a day because they all needed to say a private Mass to fulfill their obligation. There was no concelebration in those days.

Around the 1960s, he told me, people started leaving. Pretty soon, they had to tell people they couldn’t take any more enrollments because there weren’t enough priests to say the Masses.

“And of course,” he said. “There’s no High Mass anymore.”

Father told me that he was ordained in 1972, and by then, much had already changed. It was very different when he was a young man. The demographics of the parish changed over time as well. What was once an Irish/German parish was now predominately a Latino and African American parish. In addition, the area of the South Bronx where the parish is located saw an increase in crime. Because of that, some activities had to be curtailed. There was still a 40 hours devotion, he said, but they couldn’t actually be in the parish all night because it wasn’t safe. So it was an abbreviated version. He said that they also no longer offered midnight Masses for the same reason.

The bright side, he said, was that the Hispanic community still held on to parish devotions in a way that others don’t. Just last night, he was on his way to a Triduum service honoring Our Lady of Divine Providence, patroness of Puerto Rico.

“The people are in the church right now, praying the rosary.” He said.

He told me that for Our Lady of Guadalupe, there was a 12-day devotion leading up to the feast day.

Still, we both agreed that it was sad that the old devotions, and the graces that came with them — as well as the impetus to get families into the church outside of their Sunday obligation — were mostly a thing of the past.

All of this has gotten me to thinking about Fr. Michael Rodriguez, the diocesan priest in Shafter, Texas (the Diocese of El Paso) who was just put on sabbatical for no greater crime, it appears, than because he celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass exclusively in his parish. From A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics:

As of  yesterday Monday Nov. 10 2014, Father Michael Rodriguez is no longer in active public ministry.  He is on sabbatical.  Sunday was his last Mass in Shafter.  The several dozen souls in the desolate expanses of far West Texas who had prayed so fervently for so many years that they would finally have a good and holy traditional priest sent to them after many decades of being without one (within hundreds of miles) have been left spiritually fatherless again.  As to how this sabbatical came about, I don’t think this is something Father asked for.  Here is the information I have on the matter (I add some emphasis and comments):

As of yesterday, November 10, 2014, Fr. Michael Rodríguez, is no longer the Administrator of Sacred Heart Mission in Shafter, TX.  He has been given a six-month sabbatical in order to discern God’s Will for the future. Fr. Rodríguez remains a priest in good-standing of the Diocese of El Paso. He will most likely be looking at options for priestly ministry beyond the Diocese of El Paso. Fr. Rodríguez has been offering the Traditional Latin Mass exclusively for the past three years, and this has led to increasing difficulties for him with the local hierarchy. Fr. Rodríguez asks for your prayers, and he especially asks you to pray for the small group of faithful (about 50) of the Presidio-Shafter area who are heartbroken over the loss of the Traditional Latin Mass and parish life based on the Traditional Latin Mass. [Once one becomes accustomed to the great Traditional Latin Mass and the whole traditional practice of the Faith, it is impossible to go back to what is offered in the vast majority of parishes today.  This extends to an entire parish life that existed throughout the world as recently as 50 years ago but is now available only in precious, scattered pockets.  Shafter was one of those. No more.  I do not know how I would react should the TLM suddenly be revoked/removed from Dallas]

Admittedly, Fr. Rodríguez is in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, he intends to do his best to be obedient to his bishop. On the other hand, Fr. Rodríguez is convinced that God is calling him – through the Church – to dedicate his priesthood and all his energy and strength to promote the Church’s greatest treasures: her timeless liturgy and doctrine.

Why are there no High Masses anymore? It appears we have our answer: because the priests who attempt to offer them are sent (or driven) away.

It becomes such a “scandal” when priests come to realize that the older form of the liturgy is, in fact, a greater theological expression of worship, supplication, and sacrifice. When they are able to ascertain that the rubrics and norms for the celebration of the TLM are inherently designed to nourish and inculcate reverence for the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. When they see that devotion and piety and active participation in the life of the parish increases in the lives of the faithful who attend such Masses in ways that is much more difficult to achieve when offering Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI. When they recognize what such an august liturgy does to enrich their own priesthood and their understanding of their role as alter Christus.

Priests who encounter such things often find themselves in the unenviable position of wanting to offer only the vetus ordo, only to preach the older theology, only to focus on the tried and tested devotions that have for so many centuries nourished the life of the faithful.

Often, these priests find themselves in conflict with their bishops. Which, in turn, puts them in conflict with their vocation. A diocesan priest I know who was put in a similar situation — sent on a “discernment sabbatical” because he unequivocally preferred the liturgy celebrated by the vast majority of the saints and wanted to offer only the best to his flock — put it to me this way:

My vocation is Christ’s vocation. My priesthood is Christ’s priesthood. I shouldn’t be put in a situation where in order to be obedient to my bishop I have to be disobedient to Christ.

What may perhaps be surprising to those reading about Fr. Rodriguez is that he didn’t seek out the TLM on his own. It was only a reluctant response to a request from the faithful:

Father talks about the influence of learning the Extraordinary Form on his priesthood, the crisis in the priesthood, vocations, etc.

It is interesting that lay people brought the idea of the older form of Mass to Fr. Rodriguez, who at first was not too excited about the idea because of too much work.  He eventually started to teach himself the EF.  He started to see a connection between problems in the priesthood today and having abandoned the older form of Mass.

What is not surprising is that this isn’t the first time Fr. Rodriguez got in trouble with his superiors for being too orthodox. In 2011, the Diocese of El Paso hung him out to dry when he took an active role in the “gay marriage” debate:

A recent series of advertisements attacking gay lifestyle has dragged the Catholic Diocese of El Paso into a citywide political recall debate.

The advertisements, titled “The truth about homosexuality,” were written by the Rev. Michael Rodriguez of San Juan Bautista Catholic Church and published in four parts in four consecutive editions of the El Paso Times. The ads started running on Saturday and ended Tuesday. The advertisements were also on elpasotimes.com.

While Rodriguez maintains the ads represent the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, officials of the Diocese of El Paso said they do not.

“These paid advertisements are the personal views and opinions of Father Michael Rodriguez,” said the Rev. Anthony C. Celino, the vicar general and moderator of the curia for the diocese.

Celino said the Catholic Church is not taking and cannot take a side in the recall effort.

The advertisements quote several Bible passages and denounce gay lifestyle and any encouragement of it. It also alluded to Mayor John Cook and city Reps. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega, who are currently the target of a recall petition, organized by Word of Life Church Pastor Tom Brown.

“All Catholics have a moral obligation before God to oppose any government attempt to legalize same-sex unions,” Rodriguez wrote in part two of the series. “Here in El Paso, certain City Council members have remained obstinate in promoting public recognition and legitimization of homosexual unions.

Whether they realize it or not, their actions are objectively immoral and gravely harmful to marriage and the family. It should be obvious to all Catholics what our duty is with respect to these members of City Council.”

Rodriguez said he wrote the pieces but did not pay for the advertisements or submit the writings to the Times.

A couple from Plano, Texas, paid for the advertisements.

“I decided to write these articles primarily because it’s my duty as a Catholic priest to teach the truth when it comes to faith and morals,” Rodriguez said in a written statement to the Times. “My mission is to labor for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. That’s why I wrote the articles. The government has no right to undermine or redefine the institution of marriage. This is beyond the scope of their competence.”

Why is it that priests who live their priesthood, defend the truths of the Church, and focus first and foremost on feeding Christ’s sheep are either disciplined or left to fend for themselves?

An older pastor from my childhood parish who introduced a little bit of Latin in the liturgy and asked people to genuflect before receiving communion was practically run out of town on a rail. A dynamic young priest I knew — who restored his parish to actually look like a Catholic church, preached orthodox sermons, got young men interested in serving at the altar and in the priesthood, and started a beautiful choir — was falsely accused of sexual impropriety by the child of a family who didn’t like all the changes. Despite being cleared of wrongdoing, he was virtually stripped of his priesthood in a “treatment center” and, to my knowledge, was never given a parish again. Another young priest of my acquaintance caused a furor when he simply changed the altar wine so as to constitute valid matter for the sacrament (the previous pastor had used a wine with additives, which is forbidden). Upon doing so, he was faced with the angry protests of the parishioners, and his chancery refused to support his actions.

There are so many stories of priests being discouraged, thwarted, or sent away. Too many. And except in matters of criminal abuse, these stories pertain almost exclusively to priests who are simply trying to do the job Our Lord has called them to do. Priests who give of themselves tirelessly, generously, and without reserve, but wish only to give the faithful the best they have to offer – which includes doctrinal orthodoxy, liturgical and sacramental orthopraxis, and the sort of tough love that calls people to conversion, and to sanctity.

But a priest who preaches heresy from the pulpit, or tells penitents that their sin is no sin, or abuses Our Lord through irreverent liturgy, or distorts or ignores the Church’s teachings on sexual morality? They are left to do their work.

We need good priests. We need good liturgy. We need good devotions. I wish our bishops would understand that the parishes might not be so empty these days — and the collection baskets with them — if they were offering substance, not silliness. If a priest wants to say only the TLM, why not let him? Who is he hurting? As Pope Benedict XVI instructed us, “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.”

It made me sad to talk to that priest from the Bronx, who remembered the good old days when the parish was overflowing with priests and with the manifest signs of the life of Faith. These days, it’s a struggle for him to manage everything by himself. Still, he toils in the vineyard, looking for signs of hope.

All of us who desperately seek the return of a strong and vibrant Catholicism are in the same boat. We find ourselves, too, toiling away, looking for signs of a “New Springtime” that seems always held at bay by the interminable winter of heterodoxy. We can only pray, and fast, and do penance, and hope. We have heard that it will come soon, soon.

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