Father looked well. His skin had color even though he’d been dead three days. He looked like he was sleeping but he also looked – gone.
He lay in an open white coffin in front of the altar at St. Augustine’s, the parish church Father Z pastored for decades. Father worked like a horse until he couldn’t stop having heart attacks. Then his bishop sent him to Little Sisters of the Poor, the retirement home for old priests with medical problems. Father Z still made the trip back to St. Augustine’s every Sunday to say the Tridentine Mass for a small, cranky traditional Catholic community.
Father was asked once which he preferred, the traditional Mass or the Novus Ordo. Didn’t make any difference, he said, and he seemed to mean it. Yet he came back every Sunday to say the Mass of the Ages until he started having trouble doing this too. Father got forgetful: once he forgot the consecration until a layman ventured up to the altar to whisper the omission in his ear.
Not that anyone complained – at least not too loudly. We were stuck with Father Z and he was stuck with us. We had no other option if we desired “Tridentine worship.” Whatever Father‘s lapses in the last year of his life, he was the only game in town for us malcontent traditionalists. The diocesan bishop would have lost no sleep if we had all died off with Father Z. When Father had his last heart attack a neighboring Novus Ordo priest came to say the “old Mass” for us, and did a tolerable job. It was something of a relief that Father Z wasn’t saying Mass. He had trouble kneeling, needed to be assisted up, and needed an arm to take the three steps up to the altar. I found myself praying Father Z would stay on his feet. He got slower and slower and his masses got longer and longer.
Father Z would have kept coming to St. Augustine’s every Sunday to say the Old Mass, but he never recovered from his last heart attack. He died on Friday, March 22, the birthday of Sister Lucia dos Santos, the only living Fatima visionary (she has since passed on as well). This seemed more than a coincidence, as Father had been the diocesan representative to the World Apostolate of Fatima – the Blue Army – since 1984. He had led many trips to Fatima, and been a stalwart promoter of the Fatima message – at least that part of the message the Vatican tolerated.
Father Z toed the Vatican line on Fatima. He was a staunch defender of His Holiness Pope John Paul II too. I remember more than one fierce defense delivered from Father Z to a surly Indult crowd. I’m afraid there were some in attendance who provoked Father on this topic with some intemperate criticisms of the Holy Father. I had been publicly critical of that pontificate a number of times. Yet Father read my articles and the only comments he made to me were favorable. I suspect Father had his own opinions about the responsibility of the papacy for the present state of the Church, but he never went public with this. His silence arose from loyalty, not cowardice. The Pope was the Pope, and that was that.
Father Z was a classic parish priest. He visited the sick, admonished sinners, administered the sacraments, and comforted the afflicted. He was dependable and predictable. He baptized three of my children, two of them in the old rite of Baptism. He heard my confessions and gave good advice. I never had to worry about him molesting my son.
He counseled me when I fell in love with a woman who was not my wife. I did not violate my wedding vows, but I was in anguish. Father told me firmly: you must flee. Then he told me of a girl he knew, and how when he chose the priesthood over the girl he broke off all contact with the girl, and wouldn’t even answer her letters. So I fled too, even though it only seemed to tear me further in two. But Father was right. He knew what I was going through. He was the only one who ever did.
When I knelt at his open coffin I saw the hands that had blessed me, had blessed and baptized my children, had given us Holy Communion. I kissed his sleeve and touched his hand. His right hand lay over his left. Between the thumb and forefinger was wedged the crucifix of a rosary, the beads trailing down Father’s hand and onto his cream colored vestments, and over the blue woven “M” for Mary.
I remembered a Good Friday a few years ago. I came late, the liturgy was over, and people were leaving. The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a side altar, and I knelt nearby to pray. Father came out and took the ciborium out of the tabernacle in order to reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a private room. He saw me, and for some reason, motioned me to follow him. “You can come in here,” he said, leading me into a small classroom where the ciborium was placed. “Just shut the door when you leave, it will lock by itself,” he said. And he left me alone with the Blessed Sacrament. It felt like I was with Jesus in the tomb, and I prostrated myself and prayed for hours. Something happened there I still haven’t figured out. Eventually I left.
Father was a “by the book” priest, so this was an unusual incident. It never happened again. I never asked Father why he let me stay alone with the Blessed Sacrament, and I never thanked him either. Until now. Thank you Father Zweber. For everything. I have prayed for your soul, please pray for me.
Father Raymond Zweber was a Catholic priest who died ten years ago. This is what I wrote about him on Monday of Holy Week, 2002.