The invitation arrived in early 2018, and I could not have been more grateful.
Father James Lloyd, the world’s oldest living Paulist priest, was writing to announce a special event, to be held “in the magnificent Church of St. Paul the Apostle” where he was ordained.
“Though I can hardly believe it,” he wrote, “I shall be 97 years old in a few days. But even more unbelievable I shall be a priest seventy years on May the First, the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.”
He then joked: “With unapologetic and understandable narcissism, I want to celebrate this milestone before I take off for the Celestial Flight home.”
When I called Father to thank him for the invitation—and express how eager I was to see him celebrate Mass and preach—he promised to deliver a “barn-burner of a sermon.” He did not disappoint.
Arriving at Father Lloyd’s “Mass of Thanksgiving,” it was even grander than I imagined. St. Paul the Apostle Church—the Motherhouse Church of the Paulist Order in New York—resides on Columbus Avenue, between West 59th and 60th Streets, in Upper West Side Manhattan. It is one of the city’s most beautiful churches. It was constructed in the late nineteenth century, under the inspired vision of Paulist Founder, Father Isaac Hecker, “who dreamed of building a basilica that would combine the artistic ideals of the past, with the American genius of his day,” to quote the Church’s website. Hecker succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Enlisting a host of talented architects and artists, they created a majestic church, now famous for its spacious dimensions, stained glass windows, murals, sculptures and mosaic floors.
Arriving early, I sat in one of the church’s well-crafted pews, waiting for the Mass to begin. The opening procession was accompanied by the fulsome strains of “We Sing the Glorious Conquest”—a classic Christian hymn, which some modern churchgoers find too triumphalistic, but I thought perfect for the occasion.
Down the church’s central aisle came several dozen priests—all good friends of Father Lloyd, from various orders—in their flowing white vestments, followed, at last, by Lloyd himself, in his own striking black Paulist habit. To keep pace, he needed some help from his walker, but looked remarkably agile for someone approaching 100.
Father Eric Andrews, President of the Paulist Fathers, welcomed and blessed the congregation, and introduced a surprise guest: Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. The Cardinal brought his well-known warmth and levity to the occasion, but there was an extra dose of emotion in his voice when he turned to Lloyd and said:
Father, I speak for my brother priests, here in such great numbers, two of my brother bishops, and so many people here this evening, in letting you know from the Catholic family from the Archdiocese of New York, how much we love you, how grateful we are to you, congratulations—Hallelujah–and please invite us to your 100th birthday!
The Cardinal then quipped, “I hate to bring this up, but my parents weren’t even dating when you were ordained,” adding, “The rumor is that you knew Father Hecker.”
After recounting many highlights of Father Lloyd’s ministry—including his missionary work in South Africa; his teaching career, as a seminary instructor and Professor of Psychology; and as host of Inquiry, a religious affairs program which ran on NBC for fifteen years—the Cardinal made it a point to praise Father Lloyd’s pastoral achievements. Father offers free counseling to any priest in the Archdiocese who requests it, Cardinal Dolan noted, and is a loyal chaplain for “the magnificent Courage Apostolate,” which ministers to those with same-sex desires, helping them lead chaste and rewarding lives.
If anyone in the audience didn’t understand why Father Lloyd is so widely loved, they did after Cardinal Dolan spoke.
After that moving tribute, the service moved to Lloyd’s much-anticipated homily. Although Father would have loved to stand for his entire sermon, it was going to be a long one, so he had two younger Paulists help him take a seat, with his walker nearby.
When Father Lloyd finally spoke, silence fell over St. Paul’s.
His homily began by recalling that life-changing day, in 1948, when he and four fellow Paulist deacons—”young, idealistic and innocent”—were ordained priests of God and “swore that we would be true to Christ until we died.”
Soon after, one of the older Paulists, Father Ed Nugent, told Lloyd privately, “Now you will spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what just happened to you.”
The new priest didn’t quite understand Nugent’s remark, until people started calling him “Father” Lloyd and treating him “like a piece of expensive china.”
For a self-described “roughneck from 61st street,” this was a revelation for James Lloyd. But he soon came to appreciate the special charism priests carry, “which emanates from their very presence, and even many non-Catholics feel and appreciate.”
The priesthood remains as much a wonder to Lloyd today as when he entered it.
Before his ordination, he explained, he had been afflicted with anomie—a clinical term for “unrest” or lack of purpose. Although he had excelled in school, and had opportunities to enter medicine, engineering, the military and even the theatre (which his parents thrived in), he couldn’t decide what to do. Frustrated, he wandered aimlessly about, until God finally spoke to him in a momentous way.
It was a hot Saturday afternoon, in August of 1940. The then 19- year-old Lloyd had just broken up with his girlfriend—“the best looking girl in the parish!”—and he was feeling sorry for himself, drifting along Manhattan’s busy streets. Passing Saint Paul the Apostle’s Church, which had become a fixture during his youth, he stopped, for no particular reason, and gazed across the avenue to observe a Paulist Father, in full cassock, hanging out a window, taking a break from hearing confessions. Though emerging from what must have been a stifling box, with no air conditioning, he didn’t look vexed, or overburdened; quite the contrary. Leaning over a great grey parapet, the priest watched a passing parade in total serenity.
Lloyd said he couldn’t fully describe what came over him just then, but when it did, it came in a flash: “The priest seemed so peaceful, so content, so sure he had something important to give. He seemed not to have to explain himself to anyone-even to himself. The priesthood! Could that be it? Was that what God was calling me to?”
It didn’t take him long to answer. James Lloyd entered the Paulist novitiate as soon as he could; and immediately came to appreciate what the Paulist Fathers had done for him: “I was baptized here at St. Paul’s by a Paulist priest; St. Paul’s is where I made my first Confession, and received my first Communion. The Paulists sent me to their school for eight years, covering every expense—my parents didn’t have to pay a penny!—and they taught me how to read and write and compute and above all, how to love God… They were my heroes!”
Pointing up to the various balconies which highlight St. Paul’s expansive Church, Lloyd described how his heroes “stood in that pulpit and, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus the Christ—boldly, fearlessly and without compromise.”
They were like spiritual titans, said Father, “thumping their chests in triumph as they proclaimed the ancient faith, with no timidity and no ambivalence.” They were “consummate orators and scholars…dynamic, elegant, and prophetic.”
Explaining how these Paulists left an indelible mark on his soul, Father continued:
They hit us with Revelation 3:15-16: ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.
The message was clear: unless Catholics, both lay and religious, devoted themselves wholly to Jesus Christ and were on fire for the Lord, He would disown them.
Lest some listening to Lloyd’s sermon became rattled by this divine warning—rarely heard in church these days—Father assured everyone that if they or anyone they knew was a weak or fallen-away Catholic, they could immediately turn their lives around by embracing the Cross and becoming a renewed disciple of Christ.
That part of Lloyd’s homily led seamlessly into the next: a stirring defense of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, and his work for the Courage apostolate.
“Everyone, without exception, is bound to chastity,” proclaimed Father Lloyd. For those in a true, loving sacramental marriage, between a man and a woman, that means total fidelity to one’s spouse; and for singles, that means having warm and wonderful friendships, yes—but no sexual relations whatsoever. For the committed Christian, said Lloyd, “there can be no rationalizations to do otherwise.”
Many Catholics today consider these teachings too strict, even impossible to observe, but Father reminded us that God never requires anything beyond our ability (1 Cor 10: 13), and that with prayer, the sacraments and the help of a sound confessor, Catholics can and must live pure and faithful lives.
These Biblical principles, he said, are the same ones followed by Courage, an apostolate founded 40 years ago by the esteemed Father John Harvey, to help men and women with same-sex attractions practice chastity—”in fellowship, truth and love.”
Yet, although Courage has been strongly endorsed by the Holy See and America’s Bishops, its apostolate has also been assailed. The secular media and dissident Catholics, who fear nothing so much as traditional morality, have consistently disparaged Courage. Father Lloyd, who has been a Courage chaplain for over twenty-five years, had a message for its critics that night: “Courage is not going anywhere.”
It is not going to make way for those who reject Catholic teaching on same-sex relations, he said, nor is it going to peter out and disappear, as its detractors predict.
With over 100 chapters in the US alone, active in 15 more countries, and having the seal of approval from the Pope himself—Francis recently honored its director, Father Phillip Bochanski, for his invaluable work—Courage is thriving.
Lloyd explained why:
For forty years, Courage has been helping those with same-sex attraction, and often engaged in same-sex relations, pull themselves out of darkness and sexual addiction and free themselves from the shackles of sin.
Then, pausing a moment, and looking out at the entire congregation, Lloyd said with emotion:
I don’t need the secular media to educate me about same-sex attraction, and especially those living with it who seek spiritual and moral well-being…I have seen and counseled people with this inclination up close, prima facie, and heard their sufferings and struggles, and watched many of them become saints before my eyes, exhibiting true holiness.
What was so remarkable about these words is not only that Lloyd spoke them, but where he did: from the pulpit at St. Paul the Apostle, which is not the same Church Lloyd grew up in. It is now considered one of the most “gay friendly” parishes in Manhattan—by which is meant, not only a Church which welcomes and respects those with same-sex attraction (as the Catechism commands Catholics do) but one which goes far beyond that—sponsoring groups and events which subtly, if not openly, sanction same-sex relations. Inside St. Paul’s that night, however, there was no sign of any of that. The entire audience sat riveted as they listened to Father’s beautiful, brave, compassionate, and utterly convincing sermon highlighting the virtues and necessity of chastity.
The inspiring example of Courage, Father said, should help all Catholics reform their lives: “If you find error within yourself, correct it. If you find ignorance, enlighten it. If you find cowardly compromise, challenge it. And if you find any bigotry whatsoever, exorcize it!”
Lloyd exhorted his listeners to “be spiritual warriors,” not accommodators and defeatists, and above all, “keep your faith.”
That last point was made with force, because of the anti-Catholicism now increasing everywhere. “If you don’t think our faith is under attack,” he said, sounding like those Paulists of old, “you must be living on the southern tip of the planet Pluto…. Today, a thousand different voices relentlessly assail our faith, and urge us to abandon our Church altogether.”
The message is always the same, he said, like the Biblical serpent: “You don’t have to believe all that Catholic nonsense; you’re too intelligent, too educated for that! Why don’t you finally give up the oppressive and superstitious teachings of your Church and enjoy the pleasures of the world?”
But the reason Catholics mustn’t conform to this world’s standards, Lloyd said, is because the Gospel explicitly warns us not to (Rom 12:2); and because faithful Catholics know that what they believe, from an instinctive and metaphysical standpoint, is true, fulfilling every human need and aspiration. Still, temptations never cease, and the world’s war against eternal life continues, so every Catholic must remain on guard.
Whenever we are approached with the world’s seductive charms, said Lloyd, “we must say to ourselves, ‘I will not give in, I will not concede. I will not surrender. I will not yield….’” We need to dig in our heels, bite the bullet and face our demons, he said, because Christian perseverance is what will deliver us from evil: He who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt 24:13).
Before concluding his stirring remarks, Lloyd thanked everyone for coming and listening to him that night, and then brought everything back to the heart of Christ.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I am here tonight, you are here, not to honor me but to honor Jesus Christ.” For it was Christ who called him to the priesthood; Christ who allowed him to enjoy its priceless benefits; and Christ who still fills him with that same evangelical fervor he experienced on the day he was ordained.
Then, in one last unforgettable gesture, Father Lloyd picked up a large Mission Cross resting on the altar, held it aloft, and loudly hailed “Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the King… All glory and honor and adoration to you, Lord God, Allelujah and Amen!”
As exhilarating as Lloyd’s homily was, it was not the highlight of the evening: that would be reserved for the high point of every Mass: the consecration and celebration of the Holy Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” as Vatican II affirmed.
Watching Father Lloyd concelebrate Mass that night—so beautifully, and as if it was his first time doing so—I understood why he always reminds younger priests “the Mass is everything!”
As his fellow priests departed from the altar, as the service ended, with Lloyd following from behind, a space was created near the front doors of the church, so Father could say goodbye to all who had attended.
As I watched the congregation thank and embrace Father Lloyd, one by one, and enthusiastically congratulated him myself, I don’t think I have ever seen more joy on a priest’s face. Lloyd was radiating his appreciation for being a priest, and in return, the faithful were showering their affection upon him for being one.
Best of all, it wasn’t a “Last Hurrah” for Lloyd. For the very next morning, he went right back to work—counseling, writing, and celebrating Mass, just as he has for decades.
Leaving St. Paul’s that night, I thought: How much this man of God has fortified Catholics during these tumultuous times; how much he has made them love their faith even more; and how much he has inspired them to pray for the priesthood!
On April 3rd, Father Lloyd turned 99, and as he has every week since 1994, continues to lead a Courage meeting at St. Paul’s. Incredibly, except for the rarest of occasions, such as when a date has fallen on Christmas, Father has never missed a meeting. “It’s almost as seamless as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, but not quite,” he jokes. Not even the terrible Coronavirus has upended that. For after Father was instructed by his superiors to practice social distancing, if not isolation (because of his age), he dutifully obeyed—while making sure his Courage meetings continued online, via Zoom, without missing a week. So his amazing run continues, as he confronts the pandemic with typical fortitude, posting spiritual reflections on self-isolation and the things that matter most.
I cannot wait until Father Lloyd turns 100 next year, when his admirers can attend an even more glorious celebration for one of the Church’s living legends—and surely one of its most exceptional priests.
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