The fresh-faced American priest stood there like Ichabod Crane: startled and fence-post skinny inside a wind-whipped cassock, his sharp, dominant nose seemingly pointing out to the ruination before him. Squatters with blank stares picked through hills of garbage, beggars huddled in cardboard boxes, and lunatics muttered into the long-traveling winds coming from the plains of Manchuria in northern China.
It was December 8, 1957, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But truly, it was Father’s Day—the first day of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz’ missionary priesthood in post-war South Korea. Putrefied sewage, decaying animals, and human waste scorched his nostrils, the incense of his new home. America wasn’t his any longer. He had given everything in his life to the Virgin of the Poor, and she in turn gave him her poor.
An exhausted-looking boy, unnoticed by Seoul’s morning passersby, zombied up a frozen path with a small girl, about three years old, tied to his back. She resembled a clump of unwashed clothes. Her hair was matted and had fallen out in patches. She was sick. The boy’s thin, cotton clothing looked to have just sopped up mud. Father Al’s heart was wrung.
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The boy and girl collapsed onto the ground. The sunken-eyed boy watched the soles of shoes, few of whose wearers stopped to notice, parade past in a whir. The pair lay on the path like leftover war landmines; it seemed to be a good place to die. Father Al had just encountered the first of countless thousands of paper-fleshed orphans he would raise up.
Shortly, he would reach down to lift up a child, then another. And within a few years, he would begin to change the course of Korean history. Many people on the Korean peninsula began to see him as Atlas. Others just called him the Father of Orphans.
Father Al, a native Washingtonian raised in the teeth of the Great Depression, is now on the path to sainthood in the Church. The reason you don’t know about him is that he didn’t want you to know. He prayed not to be known.
In 1992, before Father Al’s body faded away in the grip of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he had become a true father to tens of thousands of orphans and the humiliated and abandoned throughout the world. Perhaps no priest in the history of the world did as much as he did for the orphaned and tormented child.
“People say that St. Vincent de Paul was the great apostle of charity and that Fr. Al Schwartz based his entire missionary life on his,” said Msgr. James Golasinski, who worked alongside Fr. Al for 10 years in the Far East. “But I’ve told people that Msgr. Aloysius Schwartz accomplished more than St. Vincent de Paul. What Fr. Al managed to do is beyond the pale. I was there and I saw what happened…He was the boldest man I ever knew. He feared nothing.”
In the midst of 2020’s charmless days, as I wrote Priest and Beggar: The Heroic Life of Venerable Aloysius Schwartz (Ignatius Press), it was the aforementioned line from Msgr. Golasinski that kept rearing in my head—“He was the boldest man I ever knew. He feared nothing.”
At the time I began to research the startling life of the American missionary, Catholic churches were shuttered throughout the world, inner-city violence had poured out onto America’s streets, and although bishops had warned clergy against celebrating the Mass during the pandemic, a handful of hierarchy did encourage priests to march, some of whom held placards reading “Black Lives Matter.” An individual took a hacksaw to the head of the Queen of Peace in the starlit valley of the Appalachian Mountains, not far from sleepy Chickamauga Lake in Chattanooga, on the very day I began to write. Mary’s beheading came a day or so after the likeness of her face was set on fire in Boston.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined effeminacy as the unwillingness of man to put aside pleasure in order to pursue what is difficult. It is a state where man doesn’t take a thing on. A priest I know, who sleeps on the floor each night, said of Aquinas’s definition: “It is when a man softens when he should harden; he steps away from duty when he knows obliging it will bring a cost or a certain form of pain.”
This Father’s Day weekend, as dispensation begins to lift in some dioceses, numberless thousands of Catholic laity have come to grips with a stark reality: they sorely lack spiritual fathers. The enormous crisis of fatherhood in the culture is no secret, but less talked about is the crisis of true fatherhood, or put another way, of true masculinity in the Church. As the lyrical language of monks, saints, mystics, and their priestly forefathers has grown fainter, like the piecemeal extinguishing of racks of votive candles, a modern strain of what rightly might be called priestly effeminacy has swept into parishes. It is an undisguised ascendency of fatherlessness that has taken hold in the Roman Catholic Church.
It is a time, by Aquinas’s definition, that untold numbers of clergy choose to live effeminately in chanceries and rectories, unwilling to put aside comfort to pursue what is difficult: saving their spiritual children’s souls. They do not take on the “Pride month” that is bombarding the American landscape. Few fight for proper reception of the Eucharist. The Heresy of Modernism rampages, but clergy seem to seldomly square their shoulders to confront it.
As the summer months unfolded last year, and the sacraments continued to be denied to dumbfounded Catholic laity, I pondered what the thoughts of Father Al might be were he still alive in 2020. He would have been 90. He was a priest who took his fatherhood seriously, and by turns, he was hunted by Korean bishops, a murderous kingpin, a gang of lepers, and his own seminary rector. And each time, he passed right through their midst. When some American bishops convinced Pope Paul VI to halt Father Al’s requests for American donations for Korea’s poor, he hopped a plane for Rome. And he won that fight, too. “I think he was not even afraid of God,” Filipino Bishop Socrates Villegas said of Schwartz.
Courageous men fight. They step into things for their children. Father Al would have fought bishops last year; he would have fought like the boy-warrior David, oblivious and uncaring to who stood before him because he saw God’s omnipotent presence within him. He knew without the Eucharist and the sacraments Satan would have worked riotously to fill the void in the souls of children. Without the Mass, Catholic laity would be orphaned—and saving orphans was what Mary had poured into his heart.
It is, of course, impossible to crawl into the thoughts of one who has died. But because Father Al had profound supernatural faith, was intensely devoted to prayer, and was frequently seen in a trance-like state before the Blessed Sacrament, it can be assumed he would have been scandalized by the bishops’ decision to close churches to prevent bodily harm. He would have easily known that a generation of Catholic teenagers and college-aged kids wouldn’t return to the sacraments after the pandemic lessened and the long closures of churches and dispensation began to lift.
Father Al would have fought, as a father must, for his kids—and begged for bishops to find creative ways to keep church doors open for the sacraments, the food for their souls. And if he had found himself being ignored, things would have gotten messy.
A week before being ordained in Washington, D.C., in June 1957, Father Al had given his life to Mary at her apparition site in Banneux, Belgium. He vowed to the “Virgin of the Poor” that everything he did in the days that followed he would do as her servant. He never again took a day off from his priesthood. Mary had asked him to be father to thousands of brokenhearted children throughout the world. Today, there are twenty thousand children safely residing in authentically Catholic Boystowns and Girlstowns throughout the world because of Father Al and the Sisters of Mary religious community he founded.
Hearteningly, there are still spiritual fathers like Father Al. Last year, Fr. John Hollowell offered his three brain surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation for those sexually abused by clergy. He had collected hundreds of names of the suicidal, alcoholics, and those who had left the Faith because of the clergy abuse—and when his head pain became withering, Fr. Hollowell set their names free, like puffs of incense to God, who he knew would heal them in ways he couldn’t.
Laity starves for more heroic fathers like Fr. Jonathan Meyer. When alerted by his Indiana bishop that anarchists were going about destroying statues at local Catholic churches, he broke out his large nativity set and displayed it in the front of his rectory. It was July. It was during the pandemic that Fr. Meyer’s All Saint’s YouTube page swelled to thirty thousand subscribers. As the voice of the Church blinked off, thousands from around the world discovered his priestly example, and as a sunflower bends toward the sun’s rays, they stretched to Fr. Meyer. Laity found his recorded Holy Hours, radiant joy, and prophetic voice a balm to their lonely souls.
Laity needs fatherly heroes like a priest-friend of mine who pastors a country parish where a big Sunday Mass might draw 100 souls. When his bishop shut everything down last year, he swung his doors open. He offered adoration of the Blessed Sacrament each day of the week, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.—the math for which doesn’t work in a parish of a hundred or so families. A single question comes to mind: where are the guardians going to come from? Well, for starters, when he couldn’t find one, he adored the Eucharistic face of Jesus—and prayed for others to come. And people came. In and out they came all day long, even to this very day.
Laity today starve for heroes in the Church. On Father’s Day weekend, the spiritually orphaned yearn for priests like Father Al, who crucified his priesthood to the narrow path and went on to save generations of bodies and souls.
All that will work now are heroes; those who know the burden of their identity. They are the slaughtered lamb willing to die to help save their flock and lead them to heaven.