The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Friday, January 26, 2007

Padre Ramón Sarmiento (et al.)

Tu es Sacerdos in Aeternum.....

My relationship with the clergy in the Catholic Church has not always been very good. In spite of the fact that I had youthful ambitions of being ordained a priest myself, many times it has been the priests themselves who discouraged me in my journey of Faith, either directly or indirectly. In spite of all of the changes that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council, the clerical culture of distance and coldness toward the laity still predominates in many places. It is almost a necessity of celibacy, and as one who had to live under these vows for some years, it can often make you bitter and fearful of the "other" who is not like you.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions throughout my life to this rather elitist clerical neglect. When I was young, all of the priests of my liberal parish thought that I was weird and that I prayed too much. Many times, I felt that the priests groaned when they saw me coming, and I quickly learned not to bother them. One time, however, an old retired priest named Fr. Joseph Sullivan actually came up to me when I was praying in back of the church and began to talk. He praised the fact that I wanted to be a priest, and even suggested that I go to a minor seminary. This was never followed-up, of course, since he just said Mass in that church once in a while. But I remember how he was the only one who ever took me seriously, and I remember his old devotional reeking of tobacco smoke and a tone of voice that made me feel that I wasn't crazy after all. It kept the flame alive in me.

Another priest who made a great impression on me was the founder of the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara, Msgr. John Sweeney. He would occasionally say the indult Mass my family would go to when I was a teenager. I remember when Msgr. Sweeney would go to the pulpit to give the homily his face would light up with sincerity that only real Faith could give. An old Irish priest in a Roman chausable: there was something in that sight that I had not seen before. It was one of the shafts of light of the ancient Faith in the very secularized experience I had growing up in the Catholic Church.

Not until I got involved in the traditionalist movement in my early twenties, however, did I realize that an even more heroic priest existed than the two I have mentioned. It is the class of priests who never changed when the Church did. These priests refused to go along with the destruction of the Mass they were ordained to say. Many were kicked out of their parishes, treated like pariahs or madmen, and many nearly went crazy because of it. So many more, however, kept the Faith, kept a steady course, and went about the business of the Church even if most of the Church was no longer concerned with the proven ways of centuries of tradition.

I did not know Fr. Ramón Sarmiento well, nor do I think that he knew me at all from the other seminarians that came and went. I knew that he was a Claretian who was thrown out of his order since he refused to say the New Mass. I knew that he had been a minor seminarian in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, and the only reason that he escaped martyrdom along with the rest of his class was that he was Argentine by nationality. I also knew that he was a superb Latinist who could recite entire passages of Virgil from memory.

The Society of St. Pius X in Argentina decided to care for Fr. Sarmiento in his old age, as he had devoted the twilight of his priesthood to the traditionalist cause. This was often a comedic task, since he was quite old and often unaware of his surroundings. He would get up in the middle of the night in the religious houses and shuffle around and speak loudly as if it were broad daylight. When he stayed at the seminary, he would set off the burglar alarms since he decided to take a stroll at three in the morning, waking up the whole seminary and sending us into a panic. Being a first-class Latinist, he refused to pronounce the Latin in the ecclesiastical manner, but rather used the classical pronunciation, to the delight of those who had to serve his Mass:

"Pater noster, qui es in KAI-lis, santifiKetur nomen tuum, ad-W-eniat regnum tuum..."

In spite of his eccentricities, he still received the respect and deference he deserved. All of the seminarians would come up to kiss his hand when he visited, and during priest retreats in the seminary, a kneeler was brought to his room since all of the younger priests came to him for confession. When he was living in an SSPX religious house, a young priest came to back to the living quarters one Sunday with an exhausted look on his face.

"What's wrong?" Fr. Sarmiento asked.

"Oh, Father," the young priest replied, "I just got done saying two Masses, hearing twenty confessions, and doing three baptisms...."

Fr. Sarmiento laughed.

"Oh, when I was your age," the old priest replied, "every Sunday I said three Masses, heard one hundred confessions, did twenty baptisms..."

He wasn't exaggerating either.

He lived the last years of his life in the seminary at La Reja. I remember one scene vividly. I was going to put away the vestments one morning after serving Mass on one of the side altars when, in the cloister, I saw Father staring at the sky, fresh after having just said his private Mass. From the glow on his face, you could see the intimacy he had developed having been so close to God for so many years. He was standing in the cloister looking up at the fresh spring sky, and He was happy with his God in his heart. "Dominus pars haereditatis meae et calicis mei..."

He finally passed to his reward last year in October. May he and all other loyal servants in God's vineyard through His infinite mercy rest in peace. Amen.