Today was the 30th anniversary for my parish priest at Immaculate Conception here in Jacksonville. He has been a priest for over 47 years and has spend a considerable amount of that time in this one church. This was the parish where I was received into the Church. The Church is close to a hundred years old and replaced a building that was the first Catholic Church in Jacksonville. The original church was ransacked and burned down during the Civil War by the North. I have read stories of troops carrying pieces of the pipes from its organ around town. It is quite a beautiful church with a high altar, communion rail, and stained glass windows all around it. They had recently completed a renovation before Easter and they enhanced an already beautiful church. I was quite surprised by the improvement since I already loved the look of the interior.
When my family first moved here, I was lost downtown one day and trying to find my way around I saw exactly what I had been looking for. A sign that said “Catholic Book Store.” We had just moved from Norfolk, Va and I had never run across a specifically Catholic book store, but I had to confine myself to trying to find Catholic books in a Christian book store. I went on a book binge in this store and it is where I bought my first Catechism. Afterward we walked up into the church and I was awed by the beauty within. I was still not ready to enter the Catholic Church but this church and the people within it helped me on my way.
The first Mass I ever attended on purpose was there and it was a Latin Mass. Not only do they have the Latin Indult Mass on Sundays but on the first Sunday of each month they also have a Latin/English Mass as they do on EWTN. In addition on Sundays they have two vernacular Masses and a Spanish Mass. During the week they have two daily Masses and before every Mass confession is held. I slowly got to know the Pastor of this Church Father Leon from afar as I listened to his homilies and watched his reverence in the Mass. The first time I met him was when I was attending a Discalced Carmelite meeting. I was still going through RCIA, though intellectually I had already accepted the Catholic Church as true. The head or our Carmelite chapter introduced me and explained that I was still waiting to officially enter the Church. He told me he had noticed me at daily Mass and had wondered why I never went up to Communion. I had already been greatly drawn to Carmelite spirituality because of the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. I had wondered where I might be able to find a secular Carmelite group in my area. It turned out that in my RCIA group two of the instructors had started the Discalced Carmelite group there some years past. Quite convenient for me. Currently the main public library is being built only one block from this Church. Now if only I could build a house in between these two building I would be set for life.
Fr. Leon would give talks at each of these Carmelite meetings and from those talks I learned more about him. He had entered the seminary in Spain when he was 13 years old. It was a Jesuit seminary in the best sense of what the Jesuits use to be. While there he was already interested in the Carmelites and it is no surprise that he was attracted to those two great Spanish Carmelites St. John and St. Teresa. It must be wonderful to read them in their native tongue. He also developed a deep devotion to St. Terese. When he became a priest he volunteered to come to the Unites States and ended up in the Diocese of St. Augustine. He took courses in English and spent a period of time teaching and then becoming a principal of a Catholic school. He later became a parish priest in various churches until coming to Immaculate Conception. I can’t express how much love and respect I have for this man. Listening to him explain the deepest parts of the spiritual life is amazing. It is obvious that his talks are not based on an intellectual outsider to the theory of prayer but instead the deepest love and the intimate pursuit of holiness. Two years back he was in a serious car accident where he was banged up a little. He explained to our group that he would use this pain to help mitigate the penance in the confession he hears. This was not said with a hint of pride but with a thankfulness to God that some small suffering of his could lead to the salvation of others. He was especially concerned about the teenagers that were in the car that hit him.
Whenever I go to Mass there I throw all my liturgical worries behind me. I only wish that I could go there everyday. The Masses are always conducted with reverence and there are absolutely zero liturgical deviations. Fr. Leon’s guiding hand is everywhere in this Church. The choir there has been steadily improving and while there is not yet any Gregorian Chant the hymns are truly from the treasury of the Church with no OCP/GIA nonsense. The people Fr. Leon has selected to be around him reflect his faithfulness to the Church. The Director of Religious Education is an ex-Methodist minister and also a wonderful and humble man. He ran the RCIA class that I attended and him and all the instructors knew their faith well and taught the truths of the faith. This is a downtown Church and as you can imagine as the years passed there are less and less families in the vicinity. Yet this Church is filled with young families and their children. There are many homeschooling families who go out of there way to bring there children there. Since Fr. Leon has been there he has added a soup kitchen that feed hundreds of people on the weekends. The profits from the bookstore he added go entirely to help the poor.
Many times after I Mass when my wife and I are praying before the Blessed Sacrament I have seen him praying the Divine Office in the sanctuary. There is something about seeing this faithful priest that brings tears to my eyes and to thank God for working in this man. Besides leading the Carmelites he also works with the Franciscan and Cursillo.
So I just wanted to say something about this priest. Daily we hear disheartening stories about the activities of some in the Church. Yet all around us there are thousands of silent prayerful and holy priests even in the midst of scandals.