The Power and Glory of the Priesthood

A dedicated and much loved Catholic priest, who has been ordained just over a decade dies at the age of forty-nine. It seems like a tragedy, especially since many were dependent on him for the traditional liturgical life that he, with a small handful of others, were spreading themselves thin to provide for a scattered flock in southern Louisiana. But our purpose in life is to give glory to God by living lives of piety and thus to work out our salvation. If this cleric fulfilled this purpose, then there is really no tragedy, is there?

Still, those who loved him are left sorrowful, and hope to receive the comfort promised in the third beatitude to them that mourn.

The recent death of a dear priest friend, Father Wilfredo Comellas, has occasioned my being more personal here than I normally am. I hope that the reader will pardon me this.

It is no secret that in the decades after Vatican II, seminary life, like the priesthood itself, has been in a terrible crisis. Kenneth C. Jones has documented this, along with much else, in his book, Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church since Vatican II. Michael Voris, too, has compiled staggering amounts of research along these lines. But compilations of statistics, helpful as they might be, do not tell personal stories, and many of these I know, having personally known so many of the statistics myself.

In the early 1990s, I was a seminarian who was part of a group of very traditional-minded young men pursuing Holy Orders in a small religious congregation known as the Pallottines. Thanks to this, I cultivated a devotion to the Founder, Saint Vincent Pallotti, and got to live for a time at the miraculous shrine of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Harlem, N.Y. We did not belong to either of the two American Provinces of the Congregation; we belonged to the American delegature of the Roman Province. Our superiors were all Italians, either from the Old Country or first generation immigrants.

One of my confreres there was Wilfredo Comellas, a Cuban who came to this country at the age of seven, his father having been a political prisoner of Fidel Castro. Wilfredo was a magnetic personality. He was charming, had a winning smile, and a ready laugh. Though educated, he also had some comical “Spanglish” malapropisms that never completely worked themselves out of his vocabulary. He was good humored about these when his pedantic friend (yours truly) pointed them out. More important than these endearing qualities, Wilfredo had a sharp native intelligence, including a real gift for history, the study of which he never quit. Most importantly, he had a love for the God and God’s Church, along with all that pertains to Her, especially Her liturgy. It is he to whom I owe the earliest formation of my convictions in liturgical matters.

The night before Father’s funeral, several of his friends got together in the rectory of the parish church right down the road from the Dominican Nuns’ monastery he served. (He lived in a trailer next to the convent.) Hosted by the pastor, our group was almost all priests, with myself and a layman who had once been in the seminary with Father Comellas. The ten of us were able to patch together the various episodes of our fallen comrade’s life from the time he went to college. On his journey to the altar, he had been in so many places (totaling at least seven), beginning with a major American archdiocese, several religious congregations, and ending up in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where a sympathetic Bishop Timlin finally ordained him. He alternately left places, owing to their liberalism, was kicked out, owing to his traditionalism, or, in one case, fell victim to the canonical suppression of the oratory he had joined. The bane of liberal seminary professors, he once received a scathing review from the “formation director” of a particularly dysfunctional seminary — a feminist religious sister of the type that like to ride buses.

If Father Comellas had ever written an autobiography, much of it would have read like Michael S. Rose’s Goodbye, Good Men, which documented the nonsense that had occurred in one of the seminaries Father Comellas attended. (He caught the ire of the administration for circulating that book among the seminarians!)

After serving a handful of parishes in his diocese, he quickly became persona non grata when Bishop Timlin was no longer in office. At that time, entire houses of religious dedicated to the traditional Mass were suppressed or kicked out of Scranton. When a priest friend from the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux was sent to Iraq as a military chaplain, Father Comellas was permitted to fill in for him. There, he served both a Latin-Mass community at the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Gibson, Louisiana (about which see this video), and his precious cloistered Dominican Nuns at the Monastery of the Heart of Jesus in Lockport. (Father Comellas was a Dominican Tertiary, and was buried in the white habit of a Dominican Friar, impeccably crafted by the good nuns.) These apostolates are both in Cajun country. He also offered Mass occasionally in Mandeville, Louisiana, at the Mysterium Fidei Latin Mass Society, which hosted the traditional Latin Mass at a parish church. Occasionally, too, he offered the traditional Mass at Saint Patrick’s in New Orleans, a beautiful old parish in the Crescent City’s central business district.

The afternoon before the funeral, Father Comellas’ body was laid out in Dominican habit and fully vested for Mass (violet vestments) in the nun’s chapel. They kept an all-night vigil, chanting the office of the dead. The next day, the procession started down the road, with clergy, religious, and faithful chanting psalmody on the way to the parish church, where a Solemn-High Requiem was offered. Besides the celebrant and sacred ministers of the Mass, there were more than twenty priests in choir, one deacon, and one lay brother, your humble servant. In less than four years serving in Bayou Country, Father Wilfredo packed more than just the sanctuary though; about 400 of the faithful crowded into Lockport’s beautiful Holy Savior Church — and that, on a weekday! All was beautiful, including the exquisite sacred music, sung by a family of trained church musicians, who were personal friends of the deceased.

After the Mass, the procession made its way to the cemetery, where my old friend was placed into the tomb of the priests, right next to the Dominican Nuns’ previous chaplain (poetically named Father Alfredo). Each priest in attendance blessed the casket with holy water, and the nuns, their veils drawn down over their faces the way cloistered nuns used to do, each deposited a white rose in the tomb before it was sealed. That is when the people began to weep.

A very kind Cajun lady that I met at the funeral, Missy Alleman, has written a lovely tribute to Father Wilfredo. (Missy’s husband, Raylan Alleman, is the gentleman in the video I linked to above; they, with some others, have an apostolate called Fix the Family that does some much-needed work.) In her tribute, Mrs. Alleman highlights his zeal for the traditional Latin Mass, his generosity (he once gave her a relic of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos), and his devotion to Saint Philomena, whom he credited with his ordination. She also jokes about the way he pronounced the word “sausage.” The New Yorker and his Cajun flock amused each other with their respectively funny accents.

The day before I saw my priest friend buried, I finished reading Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, which another priest recommended to me years ago. The novel is about a Mexican priest who has fallen from grace, but still ministers to the faithful during the terrible persecution of the Church in Mexico under Calles. The unnamed “whiskey priest” of the novel is painfully aware of his sins, but still has supernatural faith in his own priesthood. In the end, we see God’s Providence in allowing this self-described “bad priest” to plant the seeds of conversion.

As I finished the book — standing, by the way, in the very cemetery where Father Comellas is now buried — I was left in a numb, pensive state. I contrasted Greene’s “whiskey priest” with him I was then mourning, and thanked God for this man whom I loved so much, who had planted the seeds of many vocations, and who always encouraged me in mine. In spite of the ecclesial disarray in which we find ourselves, and in spite of the many assaults on Catholic faith, morals, liturgy, and priesthood both extra and intra muros, Father Wilfredo labored for a decade in God’s vineyard, bearing in himself the power and the glory of Christ’s priesthood.

The last time we spoke on the telephone, about a month before his death, he informed me that he was no longer able to offer Mass, which deprivation was painful for him. He assured me he would not waste his suffering, and would offer them up for his loved ones, including me. “The only sacrifice I have to offer now is my pain,” he said. It was the most edifying conversation I ever had with him.

Please pray for my good priest friend. As Father Van Constant reminded the faithful at the funeral, we must not presume he is in Heaven, and must, in charity, pray for him — and so it is with all our faithful departed.