The Captivating Sanctity of Fr. Sal

The Church exists for the glorification of God and the sanctification of God's children, and so it's unsurprising that in the Church we will encounter those who by the radiant light of good works give glory to the Father in heaven (Mt 5:16).

On occasion we're given the rare grace of meeting and knowing those whose holiness will eventually be recognized by the Church for Christians of all generations to acknowledge and imitate.

For the most part, we meet these holy ones in ordinary life, in the modern saints Simeon and Anna who reach the sunset of earthly life dedicating their entire lives to worshipping God and praying for others; in those whose life has been transformed into charity through serving the poor in groups like the Saint Vincent de Paul; in salt of the earth, hard working men and women who do not compromise their faith, virtue and integrity even under enormous duress, willing to die rather than betray the one who died first for them; in spouses and parents whose lives are a commentary on the characteristics of true love St. Paul lists in his famous Canticle (1 Cor 13:4-8); in catechists who infectiously ooze the joy of the Gospel; and in children whose innocent, wholehearted love for God or whose capacity for uniting themselves serenely to him in suffering manifests the full beauty of the divine indwelling begun in baptism.

Whether the saints we meet remain humbly hidden or conspicuously canonizable, knowing them is one of the greatest gifts in human life, because they are the ones who show us how to live and die so as to be able to live forever. Just being in their presence is like an existential reset button, helping us to recalibrate toward what really matters, renewing us and drawing from us our best desires and actions.

On January 9, we marked the twentieth anniversary of the transitus into eternity of someone whose life had this type of impact on me and on so many others in Massachusetts and beyond, whose death was an exclamation point on a life fully given to God and others.

Father Sal Ferigle died, I like to say, as a martyr of the Sacrament of Confession. On Christmas night 1996, at Opus Dei's Elmbrook University Center near Harvard, he was approached by Father John Agnew to hear his Confession. Although he looked a little pale, he generously consented. After hearing the confession, giving advice, praying the prayer of absolution, and concluding the Sacrament, he said to Fr. John, "You know, I really don't feel well." It turns out that during the Confession he was having a severe heart attack that he kept concealed until the Sacrament was complete.

Though he would never recover, he lasted long enough to encourage people -- hundreds of lay men and women, priests, bishops and even a Cardinal -- from his hospital bed at Mount Auburn Hospital to recognize, as he repeatedly said, "omnia in bonum," that "everything works for the good for those who love God" (Rom 8:28).

I was a seminarian in Rome at the time. The day before he died, I sent an email to a mutual friend who would be visiting him in which I thanked Fr. Sal for his influence in my life and finished candidly saying that he was the "holiest person I've ever met," something that got him, my friend emailed me after reading it to him, to roll his eyes in embarrassed self-deprecation. He would have a second heart attack and die awaiting bypass surgery the next morning.

Father Sal was born in 1923 in Valencia, Spain. On his way to graduating from the University of Valencia with degrees in chemistry and physics, he met St. Josemaria Escriva and discerned a vocation to Opus Dei and to living and proclaiming the universal call to holiness in the midst of ordinary life. At 25, with Servant of God Fr. Joseph Muzquiz, he was sent by St. Josemaria to bring Opus Dei to the United States, beginning in Chicago, where persevering through evangelical poverty and the vicissitudes that often accompany and purify God's new foundations, he began to spread a zeal for holiness while getting his doctorate in Physics. After teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology for two years, he went to Rome to obtain a doctorate in theology and was ordained a priest. As a priest he would touch so many.

Fr. Sal was a great evangelizer. He recapitulated many of the experiences of the apostles in spreading God's call to holiness not only in Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, St. Louis and Boston, but also in Japan, the Philippines and Australia. When he arrived in Cambridge in 1971 and saw the need for an apostolate among Spanish-speaking immigrants, with entrepreneurial ingenuity and indefatigability, he immediately got something off the ground. When I lived for a semester at Elmbrook, he would regularly pull me aside and tell me, with a heart on fire, of a conversation he had had that day with someone he thought might enter the faith.

He was likewise a tremendous catechist, whose courses and notes on the faith were legendary among university students, lay people, seminarians and clergy. For many years, he served as volunteer Director of Religious Education and RCIA director at St. Aidan's Church in Brookline. I was with him when the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in French in 1992 and within a couple of weeks he was already zealously passing on the fruits of the Church's contemplation.

He was a great lover of priests and the priesthood, serving as spiritual director to scores of priests and bishops. During an age in which seminary formation was unmoored and even sometimes counterproductive, he launched an annual Seminar for Seminarians in Pembroke, bringing together seminarians from across the country to hear bishops and great theologians provide what the seminarians would need to serve God's people faithfully. He promoted my own priestly vocation, serving as my spiritual director, and -- I found out only after his death -- intervening on my behalf with then Bishop O'Malley to accept me as a seminarian for the Diocese of Fall River.

He was a modern St. Valentine, introducing many young men and women to each other and guiding them to the altar. He never kept track of how many couples whose marriages he helped catalyze, but others number it easily in the hundreds. So many families owe their existence to his love for them and for the Sacrament of Matrimony. When I meet young Catholic singles praying to find their future spouse, I encourage them to pray through Fr. Sal's intercession and he seems to be as active in this ministry now as ever. The year after he died, I encouraged a 35-year-old woman in Rome to pray to him to find her future husband. Seven months later, she was engaged, and the proposal happened, to her amazement, on January 9, the second anniversary of Fr. Sal's death.

He was a much sought-after confessor and spiritual director, particularly to the young, serving as chaplain for young men at Elmbrook in Cambridge and at Bayridge University Center near Boston University for young women. At St. Aidan's, he would hear confessions for hours on Saturdays and was known among the clergy as the priest to whom to send the "difficult cases." I learned so much about the art of hearing confessions by going to him myself in college.

Finally, he was a tremendous lover of our Lady. He used to finish every homily and preached meditation by tenderly invoking her. Various times when I knocked on his door to ask him something, I caught him with Rosary beads in his hand. And he had great confidence in her maternal intercession in his life. During a meditation once on the last things, he confessed why he was not afraid of death. With his quantitative mind, he said that since he was three, he had praying the Rosary, saying at least 53 Hail Mary's a day. When he got older, he learned to pray the Angelus, adding three more Hail Mary's. When he joined Opus Dei, he began the practice of praying three Angelic Salutations before bed. And so doing the math in front of us, he said that when he would come to meet Christ face-to-face in judgment, he would turn to our Lady standing at her Son's right and say with filial trust, "Blessed Mother, if I've asked you once, I have asked you more than 1.5 million times: 'Pray for me at the hour of my death!'"

I have every confidence that Mary was praying for him not only on January 9, 1997, but throughout his life, helping him to imitate her fiat to God's work within him and accompanying him in living out the mystery of the Visitation, as he brought the blessed Fruit of her womb to so many others through his preaching, his celebration of the Sacraments and his care for those for whom Christ died, and as he intoned his own beautiful Magnificat for all that the Almighty had done for him with a melody of life that those of us who were blessed to know him will never be able to forget.

- Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.