Sixteen years ago this summer, when the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter was just making inroads here in the Archdiocese of Phoenix, the first priest they sent was a newly ordained young man from France named Fr. Stéphane Dupré. My little (at the time) family got to know him quite well during his time here, and he was our first introduction to what the traditional priesthood was like. After all, we had only just begun attending the Traditional Latin Mass a few months before he arrived.
Although he is alive and well (and very recently headed to a new assignment in Montreal) we have fallen out of touch for many years. But I remember him with great fondness. First, because he was a joy to be around. He introduced us to the most amazing Bries (Brillat-Savarin & Délice de Bourgogne, if you’re curious) and some lovely French wines. He also had a habit of always jovially referring to me as “Old Bean” as though he were a character from Wodehouse. We could joke and laugh around the dinner table for hours, but he would just as quickly pull a stole from his pocket and hear your confession in the other room.
And that, most of all, is what impressed me about him: his absolute devotion to being a Catholic priest. “The traditional priest lives out of his car,” he would say, “visiting the families of his parish, hearing confessions, and so on.” He was always on the move, except when he was in the confessional, where he would stay for many hours until every confession had been heard. His Masses were always offered with great devotion, and his homilies were usually a treat, always in some way mentioning St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, to whom he owed a debt regarding the fulfillment of his vocation. He had an antique French chasuble with an embroidered Paschal Lamb that he used once when offering Mass in our home. It was clearly a great treasure, and to this day, it’s probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen:
Once, during a conversation with some seminarians I knew who came to visit, he told them something very profound about the traditional priesthood: “In the traditional liturgy,” he said to them, “I am a slave. The Church tells me where to place my hands, where to stand, when to genuflect, when to kiss the altar. In this way, I am no longer free to do my own will, and Christ’s priesthood is able to act through me.”
Whenever we went somewhere together — the time we took him on first trip to the Grand Canyon comes to mind — he would make me stop the car whenever there was a car accident. It didn’t matter what time of the day, where we were going, how much of a hurry we were in, or whether it was on the other side of the highway. He would ask me to stop, grab his gear, and get out and go to the scene to see if the person needed sacraments. To be honest, I’d never seen anything like it before in my life. It left a deep impression on me.
Very recently, an image went viral on social media of a young priest in his cassock, marching through the pouring rain in the middle of interstate traffic, going to do the very same thing I remembered Abbe Dupré doing all those years ago. If you’ve not seen it yet, this is it:
This morning, a friend of mine texted me with pride to tell me this image was of the new priest at his parish. The link he sent brought me to a post at the National Catholic Register identifying the priest in the photo as Father John Killackey, himself a newly-ordained priest of the Fraternity of St. Peter, who had recently been assigned to Mater Dei Community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (For your further reading, I wrote an article about this excellent parish a couple years back.)
From the Register piece:
A picture of a lone priest walking along Highway 81 piqued the interest of thousands of Catholics this week.
Drenched with so much rain, the image appears as a Norman Rockwell work of art; the black of his cassock, heavy with water, could be streaks of oil paint. The priest, now identified as Father John Killackey, was stuck in a line of cars along the highway after six vehicles were involved in a crash on Interstate 81 South in East Hanover Township in Lebanon, Pennsylvania on July 8, 2020.
Traffic apparently had come to a stop due to heavy rain. One car, not noticing the stand-still traffic, ran into the stream of cars and the driver was seriously injured. Father Killackey went to work, walking between the cars and semi-trucks, offering help to those suffering. Father Killackey was able to administer last rites to one person, just before the driver died.
I find that I’m a bit choked up just writing this. It’s a profoundly powerful, moving image that bespeaks something so much deeper that I fear we’ve forgotten about the priesthood in our time of seemingly overwhelming clerical scandal: our priests are often unsung heroes, literally saving souls from the jaws of death, no matter the circumstances.
My lovely wife came into my office as I was looking at the photo of Fr. Killackey walking through the rain. I asked her if she’d seen it. “Yes,” she said, “and I think of it as a priest just doing his job.”
She wasn’t trying to downplay what he did. Rather, she understands on a fundamental level that this image, as striking as it seems, merely represents what the priesthood truly is: A life placed totally in the hands of God, facing the greatest difficulties and sufferings with the souls in their care, trusting completely that Our Lord is able to use them to console, encourage, and sanctify. Slaves to the liturgy. Vessels of sacramental grace. Consolation to the suffering and the dying. Pouring themselves out in lives of service as Christ poured out His precious blood on Calvary, allowing His one true priesthood to work through them.
And perhaps because of this self-emptying reality of truly living the priestly life, I suspect that both Fr. Dupré and Fr. Killackey would be very uncomfortable with the attention and praise that I am giving them here. They would be disconcerted, I suspect, at being held up as examples, or signs of hope. God’s true servants, after all, are usually all too aware of their own sinfulness and frailty to desire credit for the good deeds they do by His grace.
But despite any discomfort it may cause them, I’m going to be a bit selfish and say that I need to see this, and to say it. I suspect many of you do too. We need to be reminded that the priesthood is a noble, beautiful thing, and not all the awful, scandalous things we hear too much about. We need to be reminded that it is a vocation of selflessness and abasement, of devotion and penance, and of teaching us about God’s love for us and desire for our salvation by means of their own love and solicitousness for souls.
A good priest will hear your desperate confession at any time when you fall into some shameful sin; he will show up at your bedside at 3 in the morning to anoint you and absolve you and see you safely off to face your judgment; he will fly across the country to baptize your child in the old rite when no other priest in your area knows how; he will trudge through the pouring rain in the middle of an interstate to administer last rites just moments before you die of your injuries; he will march straight up to the gates of hell to rescue your soul from the most terrible of eternal fates.
Please say a prayer for priests today. We must remember to thank God for the good ones and ask Him to keep them strong. And we must fervently beg His grace and mercy on those that have tragically gone astray.
O Jesus, Eternal Priest, keep Thy priests within the shelter of Thy Sacred Heart, where none may touch them.
Keep unstained their anointed hands, which daily touch Thy Sacred Body.
Keep unsullied their lips, daily purpled with Thy Precious Blood.
Keep pure and unworldly their hearts, sealed with the sublime mark of the priesthood.
Let Thy Holy Love surround them from the world’s contagion.
Bless their labors with abundant fruit, and may the souls to whom they minister be their joy and consolation here and their everlasting crown hereafter.
Mary, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us: obtain for us numerous and holy priests. Amen.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.