A middle-aged man strode down the center aisle of the church minutes before Mass was to begin. He was wearing dark blue jeans, a collared shirt, and a sweater tossed over his shoulders and the arms, in a loose knot, lay on his chest. I was a bit surprised when a few minutes later the same man emerged from the sacristy dressed in priestly vestments.
For several days on the Camino we encountered priests who didn’t wear clerics. Inside the church they were in vestments, but right after Mass they were indistinguishable from other men of the town. Some looked like businessmen with black dress pants and collared shirts. Others looked more like they were out for a holiday themselves.
Perhaps I am simply blessed to live in the diocese that I do where many of the priests are found wearing their clerics. It was the ninth day of walking before I encountered a priest wearing his clerics. And this priest renewed in me the hope that Spain wasn’t a lost cause.
We were in Santo Domingo de la Calzada. The larger church was open for paid tours (because of its great beauty) but Mass was held in a small chapel nearby. Arriving at the chapel, we found the priest sitting in the confessional at the back of the church. This was another first on the Camino–a priest hearing confessions. We were filled with great joy, however, simply when we prayed Mass with this priest. I don’t understand much Spanish, but the very way that he pronounced the words of consecration called all of us to become holy. He elevated the host and the chalice and each time, the chapel was suspended in a rich silence. The kind of silence that makes your heart ache and fills you to the brim with irrepressible joy. Although I didn’t understand all of the homily, I understood that he was reminding the people to practice silence in their lives. He encouraged them to pray after Mass or to leave the church so as to allow others the chance to pray. He brought this peace to all of the faithful gathered there. He was showing his flock the pathway to holiness by following it himself.
After Mass the church was not immediately closed, as had been the case in nearly every other town. Instead, the priest himself came out and prayed for a while. So much of me wanted to stay in this town for a longer period of time just out of the hope that this priest knew English and we could speak to him. I just wanted to be near him. The other priests that we encountered weren’t necessarily bad priests. But this was the first priest who inspired me. He was young and deeply in love with the Lord. It was ridiculously attractive.
I don’t know much about the life of St. Josemaria Escriva. All I know is that he wrote books that can comfort yet also be a spiritual slap in the face. This priest reminded me of what St. Josemaria Escriva may have been like. He was traditional, used Latin, prayed the Mass with great fervor, spoke homilies to encourage and challenge his people, provided opportunities for the sacraments, and allowed the church to be open for prayer. This priest, simply by following the Lord, filled us all with a great joy. Much of that evening and into the next day we gushed about him. How he had given us the pilgrim blessing during Mass without making all of the pilgrims come to the front of the church. We spoke of how he wore his clerics. We recalled how he seemed to inspire holiness in his people.
This priest did nothing intentionally to inspire us. He simply followed the Lord’s will for his life and that caused peace and joy to emanate from him. The question all of this brought to the forefront of my mind was, “What does it mean to follow the Lord?” I want those inspirational qualities that my beloved priest from Santo Domingo de la Calzada has and I want to follow the Lord as fully as he does.