Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Father Zuhlsdorf: ad multos annos


(From the Palazzo Sant'Apollinare looking over the Piazza Cinque Lune toward the Italian Senate, Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza, and Sant'Andrea della Valle, with the corner of Fr. Z.'s old residence on the far left.)


I moved to Rome for canon law studies in 2004. 

I learned early on in my time there that living in Rome, and pursing ecclesiastical studies, one should not be surprised if eventually one was “adopted” by Saint Philip Neri, the second Apostle of Rome.  It did not happen to everyone, but there were signs that Saint Philip had taken a person under his wing, as it were.  This was not always to be welcomed, however, as having this particular saint in one’s life often meant the hard (though sometimes funny) way to sanctification:  one could find oneself in many of the strange situations of Philip’s penitents (one of them was ordered to skip all the way home to offset the sin of pride) and followers (a young man who desired martyrdom was required to take care of a cardinal’s non-housebroken Pomeranian for a year).  In my case, I discovered that my university’s library was not in the Palazzo Sant’Apollinare, where our classes were held, but rather at San Girolamo della Carita’, the residence perhaps most associated with Philip in Rome.  Also, the parish that I wound up attending at the end of my time in Rome had Philip’s confessor, Father Persiano Rosa, buried under the sanctuary.  I frequently felt (and still do...) that I was the “victim” of some of Philip’s holy practical jokes.

In Father Zuhlsdorf’s case, he was ordained on May 26th, the feast day of Saint Philip.  And much of his priesthood over the years has borne the mark of Saint Philip Neri.

The university I attended was connected – architecturally though not in other ways – to one of Rome’s residences for clergy.

I had read Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s column in The Wanderer newspaper for years.  During my first year in Rome, several times I saw a priest walk past my school who I thought must be an American, and after a while I wondered if it might be Fr. Z. – he looked vaguely familiar.  It took a couple of times, but I simply assumed it was he.  I was convinced of it when he posted his first image on his blog at the end of 2005 from the window of his room, which was a view of the dome of St. Peter’s that was quite nearly the same view from my school’s roof.  I realized that he lived next door to my school, and on the top floor of the residence for clergy.  I also learned at some point afterwards that he was a priest of the Diocese of Velletri–Segni.

On Sundays and often during the week, I attended the FSSP apostolate in Rome at San Gregorio dei Muratori.  That is the chapel the FSSP had before they were granted the parish of Santissima Trinita’ dei Pellegrini in June of 2008.

I also went now and then to Mass at the handful of other churches around Rome which likewise celebrated the TLM, but Fr. Z. was never in attendance.  Once in a rare while he would step into the back of San Gregorio to take a photo or two, but by the time Mass was over he was gone.  Thus, while getting to know the Catholic traditionalist community in Rome rather well – it was almost entirely Anglophone at that time and perhaps still is to some extent – Fr. Z. did not join in with our socializing, which was usually at a restaurant after Mass, or at my house (a villa at the end of one of the metro lines – I had enough space to accommodate everyone, unlike most of the trads who lived in small apartments or who lived in towns outside of Rome where the rents were cheaper).  I later realized how wise he was to keep a certain distance from them.

Over the next year or so at least twice I happened to be at Fiumicino airport when Fr. Z. was also flying out of Rome.  I greeted him to thank him for his blog, telling him I was a student in the building next to his, and that I had also seen him duck into San Gregorio.  On both occasions he graciously gave me an extra guest pass for the Delta SkyMiles lounge where I would have my connecting flight.

I was aware that in addition to his column in The Wanderer, “What Does The Prayer Really Say?”, he had worked for the Ecclesia Dei commission in the past.  Such work in or for the Roman Curia usually is by set terms.  Sometimes the term is extended and sometimes it is not.  It is quite random, and seldom of reflection of a person’s work or other merits.  It is simply how the Roman Curia works (or doesn’t – calling to mind JPII’s response to someone who asked him how many people work at the Vatican:  “About half…”).  I was also aware that like some people who stay on in Rome, perhaps in particular those who complete the pontifical licentiate degree, he was working toward a doctorate, in his case at the Augustinianum.  A doctoral dissertation often is slow work, done in fits and starts, with long dry stretches, and the outcome is never guaranteed.  I met a number of priests who had had some kind of position in Rome – teaching, or in an office of the Curia, or some affiliated entity, or a chaplaincy of one kind or another – and a few of them just stayed on after their job ended or after their studies concluded, as independent scholars.  Some were not needed back in their home diocese or religious community.  Some were not wanted back in their home diocese or community.  I happen to know another priest of the Diocese of Velletri–Segni.  He is not from Velletri but was ordained there, and has for about two decades lived outside of his diocese, in a collegio (residence for clergy or seminarians) in Rome which belongs to one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and is assigned as a hospital chaplain to a group of hospitals in Rome (believe me, if you are in a Roman hospital, you will never be so happy to see a Catholic priest, no matter who it might be).  This priest is like a lost character from I Promessi Sposi.  I am quite sure his bishop is not anxious to have him back.

The Diocese of Velletri–Segni is one of the venerable suburbicarian dioceses which has both a small number of faithful – only a fraction of whom practice – and at the same time if not an abundance then at least an adequate number of priests.  The town of Velletri has about 50,000 residents; Segni about 10,000.   Another 60,000 people are scattered in the smaller towns and villages of the diocese.  So, approximately 120,000 people.  The majority of the population is nominally Catholic, but well under a quarter of them are practicing (some statistics indicate that actual practice is in the single digits).

The Diocese of Rome itself has numerous priests (though few priestly vocations), mostly because of the priests who spend time there for studies or who are sent to serve in one of the many Church-related entities in the city.  Rome is surrounded by seven dioceses (historically there were six until Ostia was split off), and they too have significant numbers of priests. 

While still a seminarian, in 1989, the year after Ecclesia Dei was established, Fr. Z. went to work for the commission, and stayed on till 1997.  Fr. Z., after his ordination in 1991, also served in Velletri as the rector of one of their historic churches.  When that ended, he continued his studies at the Augustinianum, along with writing for The Wanderer his famous column, “What Does the Prayer Really Say?”, and for other publications.

Although he was an early adopter of the internet for Catholic topics and discussions (the old forums on CompuServe in the 1990s), for the last fifteen years he has pioneered internet ministry, posting on the blog that has done more to bring people to the Faith than all of his critics combined ever have.

The first two years of the blog were written while living in Rome, and the last 13 years living in the United States.  I helped organize a “blognic” in Rome in early 2008.  Little did anyone realize that that would be Fr. Z.’s farewell to living in Rome.  With his bishop’s permission, Fr. Z. was moving back to the US, in part due to the high Euro and weak dollar, which made living in the Eurozone a difficulty in those years.  The bishop of Velletri–Segni did not have any immediate need of an American priest in his diocese, and understood that Fr. Z. would not mind being back in his own country.

For some time he had spent summers at a cottage in rural Wisconsin which was put at his disposal by a devout Catholic businessman.  Any sensible person who can leaves Rome in the summer.  Father took up year-round residence at the cottage from 2008 onward.  However, after a few years, that property was sold, and thus Fr. Z. moved to the clergy residence in Madison.  He routinely helped out at parishes around the diocese, particularly at Saint Mary's in Pine Bluff. 

I graduated with a canon law degree in 2009 and moved back to the US.  Fr. Z. and I stayed in touch over the next few years, and when I moved to New York in 2012, it was nice to see Father whenever he came to New York City for a visit, to accompany him on his jaunts to the museums, or to hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants.  These were typically group outings, and usually some of Fr. Z.’s friends in New York or local clergy were with us.  Father most often would stay at a rectory in Manhattan, in very simple and slightly cramped quarters, but a good place from which to get about the city.

An older Catholic couple who are in the Knights of Malta and who sometimes travel for business or go on pilgrimage like to have Fr. Z. go with them when he can as their chaplain and tour guide.  They have a lot of extra frequent-flyer miles, and Fr. Z. is, as most of his readers know, immensely knowledgeable about the history, art, and architecture of many countries in the world.  On several occasions, I myself asked him to go to a conference I was attending, and was happy to cover the cost of his registration and other expenses (at that time I traveled more, and so I also had some extra miles to chip in).  I was glad I did, as the traditional Mass was not generally available at the conferences.  We all sometimes joked about how Father could buy a hot dog from the stand in front of the Metropolitan Museum and photograph it in a way that made it look like it was from the cover of a gourmet magazine.  But his travels and other excursions were mostly on a shoe-string – engaging, interesting, but hardly luxurious.

Like me, Fr. Z. completed a pontifical licentiate, though in theology, not canon law.  And like me, found that once one moves away from one’s graduate school, finishing a doctorate can be quite difficult.  One can remain enrolled for years and the cost is minimal at the Roman pontifical schools.  I do not know if he will ever complete his doctorate.  In the academic world, it is usually one of the worst things anyone can do to ask, “how’s your doctorate coming along?” – so I don’t.

When not helping out on weekends at local parishes, Fr. Z. found himself over the years becoming one of the best-known of Catholic priests, particularly in traditional circles.  He often served as the priest of last resort for the discouraged if not outright desperate faithful.  Many people have written to him and still write to him about their situations.  He is a shepherd to many souls.  And in addition to his online ministry, to a certain extent we can even credit to him the improved translations of the Mass texts in English (starting in the 1990s his Wanderer column patiently and expertly pointed out the failures, gaffes, and suspiciously watered-down “dynamic equivalence” butcherings translations of the ancient Latin prayers of the Mass).  

He is blunt, and can give as good as he gets with people who try to sideline him.  But he has lived his priesthood well.  I say this as someone who has seen priests live their priesthood in many different ways, from the few who have lived it in heroic sacrifice, to those engaged in criminal activity (the latter also mercifully few), to everything in between.  Thanks be to God for those who simply day in and day out offer Mass and pray the Office and try to be of help to people as best they can.

And as for the cura animarum, while he might not have an official care-of-souls assignment, he genuinely cares about souls.  He also has a life – it’s not all just church.  He likes astronomy and music and movies and art and space exploration and birds and ham radio and sports and different cuisines.  He is a good cook, having trained as a chef in his twenties.  He is also that rarest of things, particularly rare among clergy:  a Christian gentleman.

Fr. Z. is also genuinely fun to spend time with.  Smart, perceptive, a good listener, with a great sense of humor and wide interests, he is excellent company.  He is normal as well – also somewhat rare among clergy – psychologically balanced and emotionally healthy.  What you see on the blog is pretty much what you get in person:  someone who has nothing to hide, and yet is a fairly private person.  And this is a good thing.  Like most priests, he has had his share of suffering in his ministry.  It is not easy to serve the Catholic Church.  I used to be shocked when a priest would leave the priesthood.  But not any longer, after having worked in the Catholic Church myself.  I’m grateful for the ones who have stayed, but do not blame the ones who bailed out.

Priests in parishes are supported by the contributions of the faithful.  It is where their salary comes from.  The money doesn’t materialize from other sources:  it comes from the parishioners, from us.  In Fr. Z.’s case, there are many devoted Catholics who have read his blog for information about the faith, for edification and enlightenment, for consolation or catechesis, and who offer what they can.  It’s not all that different.

He had permission for the exorcisms last fall, and for two months after the election added prayers that the process would be freed of any evil influences.  For those reading this who think that such things are not real, I feel sorry for you.

It was only when a person with no particular link to the Diocese of Madison (or anything else in the Church) contacted the bishop – after having for years engaged in the stalking and doxxing of Fr. Z. – and leveraged a most inauspicious moment in our nation’s recent history, that the bishop took what I cannot help but see as unwarranted and excessive action against an innocent priest.

All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord, knowing that the Lord scourges every son he accepts.  And Saint Philip Neri has surely been at Father Zuhlsdorf's side all along, as he now marks 30 years in the Lord’s service as a presbyter with a truly unique ministry.  A new chapter opens up before him, and I eagerly await his future adventures in travels, kitchen wizardry, pilgrimages, museums, and hot dogs.

Ad multos annos.



(A young admirer of Fr. Z.'s tries to replicate the 'gourmet' hot dog photo in front of the Metropolitan Museum.)

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