'The holiest priest I ever knew'

St. Lawrence was martyred by being roasted on a gridiron over an open flame. "This side is well done," he joked, "You may turn me over now."

But perhaps we forget why he was martyred so gruesomely. A Roman prefect had demanded that Lawrence turn over the wealth of the Church in Rome. Lawrence promised to show him secret riches of surpassing splendor, not generally known to the public. But the prefect had to meet him at a certain church at a certain time. Meanwhile, Lawrence went through the city, gathering up the poor. He placed them in rows--the lame, the blind, orphans, the sickly, the abandoned, forsaken, and excluded. "Here are the treasures of the Church. And I will add some pearls and precious stones -- widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church's crown." The prefect who was lusting after gold in his rage put Lawrence to a painful death.

Is there a story more relevant for our day? Is there any account from the history of the Church which reveals so accurately the outlook of the Holy Father? Taking the name of Francis, embracing the sick and the poor, choosing a life of great simplicity, and teaching about stewardship and the dangers of comfort in wealth, he has wanted us to keep more constantly in mind the true riches of Christians.

But I was thinking of this story this last week in connection with Boston, in particular, and a priest I knew there, Father Sal Ferigle, who passed away 20 years ago on Jan. 9. Who was Father Sal? A priest of Opus Dei originally from Spain. A close personal associate of the founder of that Prelature, St. Josemaria Escriva. A tireless apostle who taught the faith to hundreds at the Elmbrook Center in Cambridge and St. Aidan's in Brookline. A dedicated and trusted confessor to hundreds more. A friend of marriage famous for his matchmaking. "The holiest priest I ever knew" -- as many who knew him still say. Or, as a modern St. Lawrence might tell us, someone to be counted among the true riches of the Church in Boston.

Father Sal reminded me of that St. Lawrence story in another way. I went to his funeral Mass at St. Aidan's with a friend. My friend, who had just been making the acquaintance of Father Sal, and who probably came along mainly to comfort me, expected the Mass to be a small and intimate thing -- perhaps a handful of devoted followers of this obscure priest. But St. Aidan's, a large church, was filled to overflowing. One could hardly get in the door. We watched as people filed by the coffin for what seemed like an hour to pay their last respects. Yes, we could recognize doctors, lawyers, politicians. There were many priests and bishops. But my friend and I marveled that many, too, seemed to be poor, immigrants, men and women of simple means who evidently earned a living by the work of their hands. This last week I thought back on that packed Church and thought: yes, the riches that St. Lawrence taught us about.

I would love to see Father Sal raised to the altar someday. But it does not matter. Sanctity matters rather than sainthood, and love of those we apprise saints, in our own lives, as much as love which the Church standardizes ("canonizes") for the community of the Church as a whole. "As for the holy ones who are in the land, they are noble, in whom is all my delight" (Ps. 16:3).

That is why someone needs to collect in a book the sayings of Father Sal and stories about him. Here's one to start. He was teaching a course on the Ten Commandments, and, in connection with the Second Commandment, he was stressing that there is an important distinction between taking the name of the Lord in vain, which is absolutely forbidden, and coarse speech, which is merely vulgar. To illustrate the point he told a story. "A woman once broke off an engagement with her boyfriend saying that she could no longer stand him because he was so vulgar," Father Sal said, "to which the man replied, 'What is all this sh** about me being vulgar?'" I think I blushed in my astonishment, but I never forgot the point. And I may just have used a coarse word since then to make an effect.

Perhaps the most famous Father Sal story shows how he combined love of Mary, with a practical sense, and homespun logic. Father Roger Landry tells it well: "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 been 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!'"

- Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.