How Pope John Paul II once saved a fallen priest from despair, homelessness and alcoholism

Our Lady of Clergy 01I have come to dread interviews with Popes.  I have from the beginning of the interviews decades ago.  I generally read them anyway because, well, I have to, don’t I.

The recent book interview / conversation with Dominique Wolton released in French, however, has a tidbit that I find moving and precious.  My friend Sam Gregg of Acton Institute tweeted it out (HERE).  The tweet includes an image of text of an anecdote about how Pope St. John Paul II reclaimed and saved a fallen priest from despair, homelessness and alcoholism.

Here is my translation of what Pope Francis said:

On the Piazza Risorgimento [a square bordering the walls of Vatican City], there was a homeless Polish homeless man, often drunk.  In his drunkenness he told the story that he had been a fellow seminarian and in the priesthood with John Paul II, and that afterwards he had left the priesthood. No one believed him. Someone reported this to John Paul II. And he said, “So ask him what his name is.” And it was true!  “Get him to come.” [The man] was given a shower and was presented to the Pope. The Pope received him: “So how are you?!”, and he embraced him. He had, in short, abandoned the priesthood and had left with a woman. “But how are you?”  And then, at a certain moment, John Paul II regarded at him. “My confessor was supposed to come today, but he did not come. Hear my confession.” “But how can I do that?” [the man responded].  “Yes, yes, I’m giving you the faculty.”  And he got down on his knees and and made his confession.  And later [the priest] ended up as chaplain of a hospital, doing good for the sick.  An act of proximity and humility.

This is a powerful story.

It occurs to me that this story might in itself be a signal of grace for some priest who may be struggling right now.  The arrival of this story in front your eyes could be a game changer.

I believe that Mary, Queen of the Clergy and Mother of Priests, truly watches over her sons.  She provides for them even in the extreme moments.

Once upon a time, when I was heading into Rome on the train at zero-dark-hundred accompanied by a friend – in fact The Great Roman™ of legend and fame – who was going to serve my daily Mass in San Pietro, there was a commotion at the station platform after we pulled in.  A man had thrown himself in front of the train.  It was pretty awful.  I crawled down off the platform and gave him, still twitching, extreme unction (I always carry an oil stock) and the Apostolic Benediction.  (There were two other priests of the diocese who just stood there, so I went into action.)

The next day the bishop called me in and asked me to tell him what I had done.  When I had finished, he told me that the man on the track was a fallen away priest, a Salesian, who finally succumbed to despair.

Mary provided a priest and the sacrament for him in his last moment.  She cares.

Fathers, you never know who or what might come your way.  Be ready.  There are times when you have to take initiative.  That moment – staring you in the face – might be pivotal, in a dramatic way.

And so I post this anecdote and end…

Mary, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us.  Pray for our priests and religious.  Obtain for us many more.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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17 Responses to How Pope John Paul II once saved a fallen priest from despair, homelessness and alcoholism

  1. Nan says:

    I remember reading that story about John Paul.

    Thank you for sharing the story of giving last sacraments to the priest. What a beautiful save.

    I’ve been thinking of and praying gor our local unassigned priests, those who have been accused and those who have taken a break. [PLEASE DO!]

    Thank you for bringing to my attention the fallen away, that I may add them to my prayers.

  2. Monica says:

    I too remember reading the priest’s own account of what JPII did for him.
    Father Z, I haven’t commented here in a long time but what you yourself did deserves comment, I think. I do pray daily for priests, my “favorites” (especially the incredible confessors) by name. But this is a a needed reminder. There is self-interest there, no doubt: to have a non-squeamish priest at my side, offering the Apostolic blessing…
    May that poor but amazingly blessed Salesian intercede for YOU always, for your perseverance and salvation.

  3. jfk03 says:

    The grace and mercy of God are unfathomable. I will pray this week for fallen away priests, and also, fallen away family members.

  4. lmgilbert says:

    “Fathers, you never know who or what might come your way.” Reminds me of a story my son told me that occurred during the construction of Murray Hill, the Opus Dei Center in NYC. A priest friend of his was riding the elevator down, when a construction worker got on, saw the priest and immediately said, “Bless me, Father for I have sinned . . .” made his confession, received absolution and got off at his floor. So Father was ready for him, since he was dressed as a priest.

    Another story, not so happy. While at DePaul U. I lost the faith and transferred Northwestern in Evanston, supposedly the Harvard of the Middle West. There I continued to lead a bad life. One day, however, I re-visited DePaul and found myself in a priest’s office. How this happened, I cannot imagine or remember. Surely this was due to the prayers of my parents and the grace of God. However, this priest was chaplain to some sort of fraternity and had made a commitment to go to one of their functions, a dinner or somesuch, not a Mass or anything to do with the faith. He had put them off before, more than once, and did not feel he could do so again. He could see that a big fish (meaning great sinner) had swum into his office, and he was obviously conflicted. Being the polite suburban boy that I was, I let him off the hook by lying and saying that I would come back some other time. “Will you? ” he said, clutching at the possibility.. “Yes,” I lied again. On the El on the way back to Northwestern I felt very much like vomitting, as if the demons within me were alarmed at having come so close to losing their dominion. More than a year later I did in fact return to the faith, but only after the roof fell in on me in such a terrible way that no one can bear to hear me out when I try to describe it.

    Of course, I understand his situation, but on reflection it does seem to me that when Divine Providence brings a sinner into the life of a priest for his ministrations, it trumps every other obligation not as eternally serious. Somewhere I read that Thomas More’s throat ran dry with horror when he heard that Luther had married a nun, and I feel very much the same when I see people left in the Confession line when Father shuts off his hearing of Confessions, or when I see the weekly hearing of Confessions reduced to half an hour or so, and-knee slappingly hilarious in hell and music to the ears of demons- “by appointment only.” Sinners, real sinners, want darkness and anonymity, to be able to slip quietly into Church with the assurance of being heard anonymously and then to leave. How difficult so many priests are making it for so many people to escape Hell, people in whom a spirit of compunction and willingness to confess may not last another hour, much less another week.

    I often wonder if such priests will have anyone to hear their confessions when their moment comes.

  5. Mike says:

    These stories are wonderful and show God’s universal and particular providence! Thanks Fr Z; I will pray today for all priests, especially those in dire need.

  6. Frank says:

    I, too, thank you for posting this. As others have reported, I heard this story before, I believe on EWTN, though I forget which program. In that rendition, the fallen priest had been brought to a private lunch with JPII, and when he expressed a sense of despair at his situation John Paul told him he needed someone to handle a ministry to the homeless in Rome, and would the priest please accept that responsibility? The priest again bemoaned his personal state, and the pope reminded him “I’m the bishop of Rome, you know. I can restore your faculties if you return to the faith.” So he heard the priest’s confession and then asked the priest to hear his own confession, and then got him set up to live in community with some other priests in the city so he could take on the homeless ministry.
    Marvelous and inspiring! I pray for a whole list of priests by name (including you, Father Z!) and for the repose of the souls of all clergy who have died. We must support those who bring us Jesus!

  7. WYMiriam says:

    Oh, my. What a powerful goad to make us — me, anyway! — return to praying for priests. Not only that they be “good and holy priests, good and holy men of God” [as a now-disgraced priest I know used to pray], but also that they, themselves, have the grace to be attended by a priest at the moment of *their* death.

  8. youngcatholicgirl says:

    A while ago I started praying “for all holy priests”. I then realized that not all priests are holy, so my intention became, “For all holy priests and that all priests may become holy”. God bless you, Fr. Z!

    [A good prayer intention.]

  9. Alanmac says:

    All great stories of forgiveness and getting one’s life back on track
    And yet
    Father John MacRae is still behind bars

  10. Bthompson says:

    We need more of this within and without the Church. It is all to common, especially in today’s climate, to throw someone who’s made a mistake to the wolves in order to appease public outrage.

    Even the Church does this at times, unfortunately, to her priests. Obviously I undertand being firm on predators and other malicious abusers of clerical status and power, but otherwise, it is scandalous how little mercy the instruments of God’s mercy are sometimes shown.

    I was very heartened at a point in the not too far off past when I heard about a certain bishop not dropping the axe on a priest who made a big and public mistake. His Excellency let civil justice take its course, but then left the door open for the priest to return to ministry (albeit with some reasonable ongoing consequences).

  11. Traductora says:

    I get annoyed thinking about JPII, who could have done a lot to halt or even reverse the VII destruction – but didn’t, whether out of weakness, Eastern European navel-gazing or possibly a sympathy with VII that blinded him to the horrible results – but in any case I think it is undeniable that he was a saintly person and a good priest. This is brought home to me when I read accounts like this.

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  13. Mirari Vos says:

    I was so moved by this story that I had to create an account so that I could express my gratitude to you, Fr. Z., for this loving act toward one of my confreres. Thank you for sharing this. Asking for your prayers as I begin an assignment teaching freshman theology at one of our high schools.

    -Br. B., Salesian of Don Bosco

  14. stephen c says:

    This was a wonderful post in so many ways. God loves us all. In 1986 I was in intensive care after a very brutal automobile accident and I still remember with deep gratitude the priest who was on duty in the hospital that night ( I told him no last rites, please, just prayers, because I knew I was not going to die, no matter what the doctors might have thought…). A third of a century later I completely remember his kindness. Back to Italy — it is nice to think of Saint Francis de Sales, standing unseen, in that train station ( I like to think that is the sort of things saints do) – perhaps choosing which of the three priests to inspire at that moment…. I will try to make the following anecdote, which others have told better than me, short. One of the most touching stories I have ever read about priests taking care of other priests was something I read when Bill Buckley was alive and writing (I think I read Bill Buckley’s version first). Apparently a couple of young friends in a small Spanish town, long ago, both grew up to be priests, and went to seminary together but eventually went their separate ways, as priests have to do, because they are needed everywhere. One of the priests, ten or twenty years after ordination, had his first vacation in years, and went to one of the local larger cities, where a friend brought him to a tavern. Well, at that tavern, there was a table with a dozen or so people, all mesmerized by one fascinating person who appeared to be the most interesting person in the world, that night, in that tavern . The priest on vacation saw that person, and realized it was his friend, from his home town, and who had also become a priest, and with whom he had not spoken in years. But the priest’s friend pretended to no longer be a priest – as one could see from the beautiful women at the table looking at him with adoring eyes, and his pleasure in that – and he was drunk. Very drunk, perhaps. The waiter brought another bottle of wine – one of those large bottles with names like Jeroboam or extra magnum – but, on the first taste, it seemed to be a little too vinegarish or fermented, and tasted badly. The priest – well, the person who said he used to be a priest – at the head of the table laughed and said – no problem, I will make this wine holy wine, and it will taste unbelievably good – and recited, for a long time, in a foreign language (Latin, of course), words that made the bad-tasting wine the blood of Christ. One or two people left the table, terrified at the blasphemy. Others remained, eager to taste the wine. You can see how that could happen. The priest on vacation, broken-heartedly watching all this, approached the table and asked that he, as a fellow priest, could drink first from the bottle. There was a general assention to this, and he was given the bottle. The vacationing priest, saying a prayer that he would not die from alcohol poisoning, drank the whole very large bottle, making sure that he did not leave a single drop of the infinitely precious liquid. The end of the story, I don’t remember. In one version, one of the priests died from alcohol poisoning and the other became a good priest again.

  15. Sandy says:

    Such beautiful stories that remind us of the importance of the priests in our lives. I often pray for the intercession of the priests I have known who have left this life. Brother B, your request touches my heart and I ask that Mother Mary’s mantle cover you (and all her priest sons), and that the Holy Spirit will make you a powerful voice to these young people. May they never forget the truths you will teach them.

    One of my daily prayers is for St. Joseph to be with all my family members at the hour of death, to bring us a priest for absolution and the apostolic pardon. I know he will not abandon those who call on him.

  16. Legisperitus says:

    That latter story brought tears to my eyes. Praying for priests now.

  17. iprimap says:

    “How Pope John Paul II once saved a fallen priest from despair, homelessness and alcoholism.”

    If anyone is struggling with alcohol or drugs, then I highly recommend Alcoholics Anonymous (www.aa.org) and Narcotics Anonymous (www.na.org). That’s where I got sober some 30+ years ago in 1986. Fortunately by God’s grace I got an AA sponsor who was Catholic and his sponsor was a Franciscan priest who became my priest confessor. It was through the influence of AA meetings at the Graymoor Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in downstate NY that I eventually went through RCIA and became Catholic. I can only say that the 12 steps of AA (or NA – the steps really are the same) work if you work them, and they are entirely Biblical since Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith designed the AA program after the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5, St. Paul’s love chapter in 1st Corinthians 13 and St. James’ faith without works is dead epistle. And besides, when I did my 5th step moral inventory admission with my AA sponsor, he had me read it to his sponsor (my priest confessor) and my psychotherapist before burning it. I got away with nothing.

    I still go through massive bouts of depression and anxiety even after 30 years. There is no cure for alcoholism, only a daily reprieve as Bill W. says in the Big Book. Our sobriety is contingent on our spiritual condition. And the problem is the ISM – I, Self and Me – in alcoholism: self will run riot. In fact, during the 1st five years of sobriety I attended an AA meeting every night, and I saw a psychotherapist once a week, and I had a session with Father Jack once a week. It was AA, therapy and the Church which helped me to recover. It wasn’t just one thing. My sponsor said that I had a range of choices of where to be in early sobriety: (a) an AA or NA meeting, (b) Therapy, (c) Mass or Confession or Adoration, (d) Work, or (e) Asleep at home. That might sound harsh, but that’s what worked for the first 5 years.

    But you have to want to recover. You have to want the pain to stop. And you have to be willing to do anything the Program tells you to do. Google the 12 Steps.

    So if you have an alcohol or drug problem, then yes, go to Confession and avail yourself of the Sacraments – but don’t drink, go to Meetings, get a group and get a sponsor. Just do it. Thanks.

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