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A saint from Richmond?

On All Souls’ Day last year, I accompanied several priests and students of Rome’s  Pontifical North American College to a Mass being offered at the college mausoleum in Rome’s great cemetery, Campo Verano for a memorial Mass. Exploring the memorial inscriptions after Mass, I came upon the name “Franciscus Parater.” A student asked whether I had read “Frank Parater’s Prayer” in the college Manual of Prayers. I had to confess that I hadn’t. “Don’t miss it,” my young friend said.

The “prayer” is in fact a last will and testament, written shortly before the twenty-two year old seminarian fell ill during his first year of studies in Rome.  In it, Frank Parater offered his life to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the conversion of Virginia:

“I have nothing to leave or give but my life and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills. I have offered my all for the conversion of non-Catholics in Virginia. This is what I live for and in case of death what I die for…Since my childhood, I have wanted to die for God and my neighbor. Shall I have this grace? I do not know, but if I go on living, I live for this same purpose; every action of my life here is offered to God for the spread and success of the Catholic Church in Virginia…I shall be of more service to my diocese in Heaven than I can ever be on earth.”

That was written on December 5, 1919, and sealed in an envelope to be opened in case of Frank’s unexpected death. Frank Parater died of rheumatic fever on February 7, 1920. Some time later, a fellow-seminarian discovered the letter while sorting through Parater’s effects. Pope Benedict XV asked for a copy of Frank Parater’s testament, as did Pope Pius XI. Then the Church and the world seemed to move on, while Frank Parater worked for the Diocese of Richmond from a distance, so to speak.

It took another young Richmond native, J. Scott Duarte, to bring the story of Frank Parater back to life. Discovering this remarkable tale during his own student days in Rome, Father Duarte kept Frank Parater in mind after his ordination and during his graduate studies in canon law. Years of research and prayer were rewarded this past January, when Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond established a diocesan tribunal, under Father Duarte’s leadership, to “examine the reputation for sanctity and heroic virtues of [the] Servant of God Frank Parater, Seminarian.” After the local investigation is completed, the cause will be sent to Rome.

Amidst the current turmoil in the Catholic Church in the United States, some might wonder about the utility, even propriety, of such causes. Isn’t it more important to reform priestly formation today than to expend time, energy, and resources digging into the life of a seminarian dead for over three-quarters of a century? But perhaps the two go together.

The reform of seminary formation for the twenty-first century should have one overriding goal: to insure that American seminaries graduate men of holiness, integrity, and zeal. By every written account from the time of his death, Frank Parater was a model of holiness, integrity, and zeal. Is it too much to imagine that his intercession will be a crucial factor in the ongoing reform of priestly formation in the United States? Only if you don’t believe in the communion of saints.

More dioceses should be doing what Richmond is doing: seeking exemplars of sanctity from every way of life and lifting them up as models for Catholics today. The last time I checked, the Archdiocese of Cracow had some fifty beatification causes under investigation. Some were due to the special circumstances of World War II and the Nazi Occupation, but many others were less dramatic: a woman who organized nursing care for the indigent elderly; an auxiliary bishop who had been an effective university chaplain; an engineer who was a model husband, father, sportsman, and friend. Is any American diocese so actively lifting up local examples of sanctity?

Reform requires saints. The introduction of Frank Parater’s cause couldn’t have come at a better time.

George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.
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