The Good Priests I Grew Up With
While the media focuses obsessively on priests who have fallen into scandal, it is worth reminding ourselves of the goodness of the majority.
I was a lousy student. My handwriting looked like that of a terrified rat. I would often indulge in a sneaky smoke in the toilets, I hated maths and only ever got decent grades in philosophy. In the end, I just wanted to become a soccer player for Real Madrid (I would have made it, if it weren’t for my excess weight and a fondness for whiskey). But in spite of everything, school ended up teaching me the most important lesson. At school I learned that God is happy, and that He wants us to be free and good—in that order.
I guess that set the foundations for my life as a disciple of G. K. Chesterton. Now I am one of those Christians who enjoy a good drink, food, and festivities. I am the sort of Christian who thanks God every time a beautiful girl passes me by in the street, the sort who sins a thousand times and then confesses a thousand more, and I whine. I am, in other words, a scoundrel who would try to charm the good God, who one day saw fit to open my eyes to his unforgettable beauty. And I have always had priests close by.
I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the priests who got this poor sinner back on the right path. More often than not, the press parades the Church’s dirt and not one line they write is dedicated to the majority of those holy men who spend their lives helping others. “As time passes,” Nicolas Gómez Dávila writes, “we hear only the voices of those who speak without shouting.” And that’s their voice. The voice of my good priests.
Fr. Manuel was already old when I was a child. He is much younger now. After seeing him recently I find it amazing how poorly I have aged. He sang during the prayers at school and taught us to ask the Virgin for everything. He showed us, with saintly patience, to pray like children, with the innocence we should have never lost. It was wisdom and sobriety. Serenity.
At my school, everyone wanted to talk to Fr. Antonio because he seemed to care as much about our sins as God does. Not the vengeful God, but the Father who smiles to himself as he watches his child stumbling around. I never imagined him with a painful, weary or tired expression. He had an eternal smile.
Fr. José was different. Those were years of learning mathematics, and therefore of penance. It was impossible to get through without spiritual guidance. He was a great conversationalist, his topics ranging from encyclicals to the most ingenious dirty jokes. Fr. José, when outside the chapel, was an ordinary guy and we all cried when he left for another school. The ones who cried the most, of course, were the most anticlerical.
We received Fr. Pablo at school with a certain amount of contempt because we missed Fr. José, whose agreeable demeanor had been replaced by this hard Aragonese character, with a strange fondness for bad jokes. A lesson learned: never judge a book by its cover. He instilled in me a love of philosophy. He taught me to think for myself. Years have passed, and a fair number of priests, and I have still not found anyone capable of matching his teachings. If only there were more priests with his brilliance and refined oration, churches would be fuller than they are now.
Fr. Pablo was my friend before he was my priest. When I ran into him fifteen years later at Santiago’s cathedral, there was no spiritual vibe, only an immense yearning to give him a hug. You could debate doctrine with him for hours but it was useless: he always won. However, revenge was served on the soccer field, where without his vestment he was a hardened defender. I was a skillful striker, a natural-born goal scorer, an ace. Spitefully, he nicknamed me “toquecitos” (dribbler), because of my innate ability to infiltrate the area, dribbling my way around a tight knit defense. His participation in school matches was much to blame for my goal-scoring dry spell. In that sense I was grateful when he left. In all other aspects, I was not.
It was with reluctance that Fr. Carlos landed in my native Galicia and teaching. In Galicia it rains a lot, and the people are northern, pessimistic and a bit colorless. Being in love with Rome, the Mediterranean, and the sun, the wilted climate was a great test of faith and obedience for him. His other test was to endure my teen years. I learned from him that priests were human beings. Until then, they seemed to me to be a mixture of holiness, generosity, and unattainable dedication. And in Fr. Carlos there was all of this, however his struggles were clear for all to see. Fr. Carlos would show himself angry—especially in soccer, clearly influenced by the Italians—sad after weeks of rain, or desperate from the rudeness of his parishioners. But the next day he was up again at five o’clock, smiling, and trying to get his flock back on track. A true apostle of the Gospel. Not elitist. A hardened fighter. Passionate. A sinner. A confessor. A friend.
I often debated with him as a teenager, showing an unmistakable sign of misplaced confidence. One of our arguments even ended with objects being hurled at each other’s heads. I was a hair’s breadth from excommunication. And then we would give each other a hug. After, he rolled one of his cigarettes to seal the peace, and when he lit up the wind blew and sparks flew, and little holes burned into his cassock as usual. You could have heard his cussing all the way over in the Vatican. I have never known a clumsier priest. And I have never been taught a better lesson in spirituality than to see him joyfully fight against the same things that seemed unbeatable to me.
Outside of school I made friends with Fr. Ignacio. Without my knowing it, he kept me in his daily prayers. I lost track of him for years and he suddenly reappeared when my life was at its darkest, when many other Catholics had given up on me, and when I needed not the fingers of the Inquisition poking at me, but the mercy of a kind heart. He gave me comfort and joy. He went to Mexico and today he works with the lowliest of families. I was saddened by my friend’s departure. But I no longer miss him, because I know he is still here somehow every day. In these times of pandemic, this new trend of Mass on Facebook has given me the chance to hear his voice and wise advice again.
Fr. José Luis ministered to prisoners, Fr. Jesús spent hours listening to old ladies crying in the confessional, Fr. José Juan was ordained at 40, and with Fr. Pablo we went to a residence run by nuns to feed the terminally ill. There, priests and nuns cleaned vomit and diapers, and kissed those who were terminally ill with very serious contagious diseases. Privileges of the Church.
All these priests rose before dawn, they gave encouragement to hundreds of people, attended their parishes, shed any earthly ambitions, loved the enemies of the Church, prayed non-stop, and gave peace. From these people I learned the most important lessons. There are fifty of them, or a thousand—I don’t know. But they are my good priests. Look for them kneeling in darkness before Jesus at the first pew in a closed church. They will be praying for you and your loved ones. Waiting for you as they have always waited for me.
Itxu Díaz is a Spanish journalist, political satirist and author. He is a contributor to The Daily Beast, The Daily Caller, National Review, The American Conservative, The American Spectator and Diario Las Américas in the United States, and a columnist for several Spanish magazines and newspapers. He was also an advisor to the Ministry for Education, Culture and Sports in Spain. Follow him on Twitter at @itxudiaz or visit his website www.itxudiaz.com.