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.”

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  • Melody

    That’s an inspiring story, and a reminder that we need to be careful about pigeon-holing people. A couple of days ago I was reading about a non-traditional aged priest being ordained for the diocese where I grew up (he was nearly 50). He had worked for the state department of game and parks. I think we are going to see more of that; people being called to the priesthood from another walk in life. Rather like the prophet Amos, who said, “I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to a company of prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores.” These men bring a richness and depth of experience to their ministry.

  • Mark Gordon

    Thanks for this, David. Fr. Michel-Marie sounds far more like the young Fr. Karol Wojtyla than many of those who claim to be JPII priests.

  • http://bluelaws.wordpress.com bluelawscribe

    Our parish priest is a dentist, and every time he heads overseas, the staff fears he’ll stay, be the priest in some poor village, the dentist and the carpenter. We need more priests like the one David is writing about.

  • Jordan

    A simply remarkable story. Reminds me of my Latin teacher in high school: a gentle confessor, a priest more interested in saving souls than hurling brimstone.

    Practical question: French priests are now permitted to wear a cassock in public? I thought that doing so is a violation of laïcité. I have seen videos of French prelates wearing business suits when not on church grounds. Perhaps certain municipalities have softened the law which dictates that no religious garb can be worn in public. Marseilles is significantly Muslim. I suspect that the authorities tolerate many forms of hijab. Why not a cassock, then?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I was not able to find anything on cassocks except that seminarians are now forbidden to wear them to public universities under the same law banning hijabs. I get the sense that even if they were banned they were largely ignored until the anti-Islamic laws were passed and the state had to prove the law was being applied equally. Anyone else know anything more specific?

  • Mark VA

    David Cruz-Uribe:

    It is surprising how the view tends to be the same from both sides of “the great split”. The characterization ascribed to some of the John Paul II priests, also fits a few of the priests that are of the Vatican Two vintage.

    A few in this older group can too be a bit rigid, especially with respect to traditional devotions, presence of the tabernacle, and allowing the Traditional Latin Mass in their parishes. Their condescension toward the laity who dare ask for such reactionary things is manifested in directing them to some officially tolerated chapel, in a far corner of the diocese. In other words, don’t let the door hit you on your way out. At least that’s how it used to be, until fairly recently.

    The havoc they wreaked is thankfully coming to a close, in large part due to the influx of the Pope John Paul II priests.

    As far as Father Michel-Marie is concerned, he seems like a cool person who can be embraced by both sides of “the great split”.

    • Agellius


      Good point. Which priests are considered “rigid” often depends on your point of view. I have found many Vatican II priests who were rigidly in favor of post-1970 hymns, rigidly opposed to giving homilies from the pulpit (insisting on milling about in the congregation instead), and rigidly determined to renovate beautiful old churches according to the supposedly rigid “requirements” of Vatican II.

      And of course the rigidity with which the Traditional Latin Mass was suppressed after Vatican II has rarely been surpassed, as also the condescension with which its adherents were looked down upon.

  • Kerberos

    The only thing wrong with that last paragraph is the intro – for we are *all* sinners. The only people who think they are not, are the self-righteous, such as the Pharisees. Calling people sinners, as though the respectable church-going folks are not, is bad theology, plain and simple.

    “I have met a few who do, and have found them to be both a bit rigid and somewhat condescending to the laity.”

    ## This explains a lot – I’ve seen them referred to, and never in complimentary terms. Perhaps those weaknesses will wear off as they gain experience.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “Perhaps those weaknesses will wear off as they gain experience.”

      One problem is that they are not getting experience as assistant pastors before being thrown out and placed in charge as pastors. I read somewhere recently that priests used to spend a decade or more before becoming pastors, and now the time is just a couple years, with some getting the position immediately on ordination. Without a lot of mentoring (in the form of a formal mentoring plan, not just informal check-ins) this is a recipe for lots of problems. I wouldn’t put a new minted PhD into a position of academic responsibility right away and I think it is not good to do it to new priests, either.

  • Pinky

    I respect that this was intended to be a complimentary piece, but the nastiness in it was palpable.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

        She is suggesting that you are making an invidious comparison. However, what she, you and most of your commentariat are ignoring is that the rigidly clerical system of the Latin rite, with its “papal monarchy” of an ecclesiastical system, has NEVER tolerated eclecticism in devotional practice or in culturally-specific interpretations of Sacred Scriptures. It’s ALWAYS been the “Romanistas'” way, or the highway. Once the “Vatican II” priests were threatening to tear down beautiful old altar rails and “drag them behind their pick-up trucks” to make firewood out of them. (As a philandering young “liberal” monsignor once threatened to do, in a Southern parish I was a member of; however, now, to promote his ecclesiastical “career,” he’s supposedly become as ferocious a banner of “altar-girls” as he used to be an opponent of Latin. The truth is that John Paul II was a DICTATOR, who merely asked for conformism of his appointees–not brains. And this soon-to-be bishop of an American diocese caught on quickly.)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I think you are really overstating the degree of enforced liturgical conformity in the Western Church, particularly in the long period prior to Trent. Post-Trent, faced with the rise of Protestantism, there was a push to a great deal more uniformity, but I suspect that a great deal of variation existed under the radar even before Vatican II. I will defer to a historian of liturgy on this, but that is my sense.

  • Thales

    A “JPII priest” is defined as a priest who was ordained during JPII’s pontificate? And these priests are usually found to be less pastoral?

    [shrug] I dunno. It’s not the definition of “JPII priest” that I normally use. I think it’s a little too broad to define a “JPII priest” to be any priest ordained during JPII’s pontificate. I define “JPII priest” to be those priests who grew up during JPII’s pontificate and were inspired by JPII’s example to become priests. These are priests from the “JPII generation” of Catholics, who were inspired to live the Catholic faith by JPII’s new and unique appreciation for and engagement of all youth, by his revolutionary globetrotting and his attempts to personally encounter as many people as is physically possible whether they be believers or non-believers, by his million-plus-in-attendance World Youth Days, by his message of a new springtime and the New Evangelization —- in short, by JPII’s unprecendented pastoral spirit and activity that was directed to the whole world. In my experience, those men who were inspired to be priests by those aspects of JPII tend to be more pastoral than not.

    • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

      Then why is the aftermath of John Paul II Wojtylwa’s papacy proving to be a period of the dissolution of Roman Catholicism in Western Europe and in North America? Why was the end result of that supposely glorious era of “pastoralism,” a period of shocking priestly-pedophile scandals in which the John Paul II episcopate, in North America, in Ireland and in Britain, proved to be cowardly abettors of cover-ups?

      • Agellius

        Maybe for the reason commonly given for why Obama’s presidency has been so bad economically: Because of his predecessor! : )

        • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

          Ah, then, I can see, by your remarks, that you are an approver of a papacy far more authoritarian than Paul VI Montini’s. Perhaps, then, you may be interested to know what John Henry Newman and one of his most devoted disciples, Baron von Hugel, thought of such a papacy as, by implication, Pope Wojtylwa’s was:

          … Certainly, if I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts, (which indeed does not seem quite the thing) I shall drink—to the Pope, if you please,—still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.

          —From John Henry Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk

          It is, perhaps, true, as the lay Catholic theologian Friedrich Von Hugel states below, that Newman may occasionally have been too reticent to speak against certain of the abuses of ecclesiastical authority of his own time, thereby encouraging their proliferation:

          Baron Friedrich von Hugel in a letter to Newman’s biographer Wilfrid Ward: “I cannot but feel, more strongly than formerly and doubtless quite finally, one, to my mind quite grave, peculiarity and defect of the cardinal’s temper of mind and position. His, apparently absolute, determination never to allow–at least to allow others–any public protestation, any act or declaration contrary to current central Roman policy, cannot, simply, be pressed, or imposed as normative upon us all. For, taken thus, it would stamp Our Lord himself, as a deplorable rebel; it would condemn Saint Paul at Antioch as intolerable; and censure many a great saint of God since then. And certainly this way of taking things can hardly be said to have done much good or to have averted much harm.”

          What Von Hugel is referring to, clearly, are Newman’s reservations regarding the formula used by the First Vatican Council to define papal infallibility. Those reservations are clear in statements like this:

          “We have a right to judge of what is likely or not by our political experience, and to say that such a union of legislative and executive powers in one person is not [fitting], as being, as human politics teach us, too great for one man to sustain, and a temptation to abuse.”

          —John Page, ed. What Will Doctor Newman Do? (Liturgical Press, 1995, being John Henry Newman’s complete correspondence on papal infallibility), p. 30.

          And, for private consumption, Newman could be even blunter:

          “We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live twenty years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts and does cruel things without knowing it.”
          –Page, op.cit., p. 163.

      • Thales

        You’ve got your timing all wrong. The bishops and priests involved in the scandal weren’t inspired by JPII’s pastoral spirit — they were bishops and priests and seminarians before JPII became pope. And the people who were young people during the JPII papacy and were who inspired by JPII’s pastoral spirit to become seminarians obviously weren’t the culprits in the scandal/

        • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

          You are speaking of the actual pedophiles. THEIR behaviour does not interest me, because I don’t think it necessarily signifies institutional dysfunction (so, obviously, as you can probably discern, I don’t think clerical celibacy is the problem, though the disempowerment of women in the Church may be part of it). However, what DOES concern me greatly is the behaviour of the hierarchs once the information started leaking, and Wojtylwa and Ratzinger (as Cardinal-Archbishop in Munich) were, indeed, at the heart of the cover-up. (Why do you suppose Law was immediately offered sanctuary as a Roman cardinal-deacon, rather than allowed to be prosecuted in Boston? The State Department of the United States should have demanded his extradition from the Vatican!)

        • Thales

          You can be concerned about JPII’s behavior when the leaks happened. You can think that JPII was gravely wrong/acted improperly. You can think that JPII was unpastoral in this aspect. To a certain extent, I agree with you. But that is all irrelevant to my original point: that in a different aspect (namely his unprecedented outreach to youth, his globetrotting, his World Youth Days, his focus on evangelization to all), JPII inspired members of the generation that grew up during his papacy.

  • cris

    Jordan, French priests was always allowed to wear cassock in pubblic.

  • Commoner

    It has been my own personal experience (and I can only speak to my own experience) that priests or seminarians who calls themselves a “JPII Priest” or “JP II Seminarian” are generally those around whom I watch my children very, very closely. I’ve just seen too many of them using those terms to garner the admiration of the “orthodox” and the old ladies of the parish while covering for the fact they are sexually immature, and perhaps even downright perverted and weird.

    To me, it’s a massive red flag and becoming more so as time passes. I say this as a mother who considered actually calling the bishop on our recent oh-so-holy “JPII” seminarian, who has all the signs of being a future problem and possibly even a predatorily perverted priest, but what hierarch is going to listen to a mother who with a sixth sense for these things? So insteaad I warned all my friends in Church to keep their children far, far away from any seminarian who loves to preach about pornography and the glory story of his so-called conversion while wearing the very laciest of seminarian garb and behaving like a dictator with the altar servers.

    Word to the wise: “JPII”, at least when used by a priest or seminarian to describe himself, should be a red flag. It’s just too easy for predators and perverts to hide behind such titles.

    I often marvel at just how exploited the blessed JPII actually is.

    • Jordan

      Commoner [January 3, 2013 7:12 pm]: So insteaad I warned all my friends in Church to keep their children far, far away from any seminarian who loves to preach about pornography and the glory story of his so-called conversion while wearing the very laciest of seminarian garb and behaving like a dictator with the altar servers.

      Counseling for sexual issues and other emotional/psychological/spiritual crises belong to the confessional or spiritual direction, not the pulpit. The situation you describe only reinforces my view (which has been pioneered by Marjorie Campbell) that the Church should consider general absolution for minors and a limitation of private confession to adults only.

      The purpose of the homily is to elucidate the readings for the day and not to travel off on moral editorials. If your bishop is dragging his feet on finding treatment for this priest or seminarian, then perhaps it’s time for the people of the parish to mention to the bishop in writing that the cleric or student is not fulfilling his liturgical duties and abusing his pastoral duties.

      I know from personal experience that confronting unstable priests leads to further psychological destabilization of the priest. This is why it’s often very unwise for laypeople to confront unstable clergy or students — no one knows if the man will decompensate through abusive or violent actions.

    • Agellius

      “I’ve just seen too many of them using those terms to garner the admiration of the “orthodox” and the old ladies of the parish while covering for the fact they are sexually immature, and perhaps even downright perverted and weird.”

      Just curious: How did you come to find out that they were “sexually immature, and perhaps even downright perverted and weird”? And how many are we talking about?