The Church exists for the glorification of God and the sanctification of God’s children, and so it’s unsurprising that in the Church we will encounter those who by the radiant light of good works give glory to the Father in Heaven (Mt 5:16).
On occasion we’re given the rare grace of meeting and knowing those whose holiness will eventually be recognized by the Church for Christians of all generations to acknowledge and imitate.
For the most part, we meet these holy ones in ordinary life, in the modern saints Simeon and Anna who reach the sunset of earthly life dedicating their entire lives to worshipping God and praying for others; in those whose life has been transformed into charity through serving the poor in groups like the St. Vincent de Paul; in salt of the earth men and women who do not compromise their faith, virtue and integrity even under enormous duress, even willing to die rather than betray the One Who died first for them; in spouses and parents whose lives are a commentary on the characteristics of true love St. Paul lists in his famous canticle (1 Cor 13:4-8); in catechists who infectiously ooze the joy of the Gospel; and in children whose innocent, wholehearted love for God or whose capacity for uniting themselves serenely to Him in suffering manifests the full beauty of the Divine indwelling begun in Baptism.
Whether the saints we meet remain humbly hidden or conspicuously canonizable, knowing them is one of the greatest gifts in human life, because they are the ones who show us how to live and die so as to be able to live forever.
On January 9, we marked the 20th anniversary of the transitus into eternity of someone whose life had this type of impact on me and on so many others in Massachusetts and beyond, whose death was an exclamation point on a life fully given to God and others.
Father Sal Ferigle died, I like to say, as a martyr of the Sacrament of Confession. On Christmas night 1996, at Opus Dei’s Elmbrook University Center near Harvard, he was approached by Father John Agnew to hear his Confession. Although he looked a little pale, he generously consented. After hearing the Confession, giving advice, praying the prayer of absolution, and concluding the Sacrament, he said to Father John, “You know, I really don’t feel well.” It turns out that during the Confession he was having a severe heart attack that he kept concealed until the Sacrament was complete. He died as a result two weeks later.
Father Sal was born in 1923 in Valencia, Spain. On his way to graduating from the University of Valencia with degrees in chemistry and physics, he met St. Josémaria Escriva and discerned a vocation to Opus Dei and to living and proclaiming the universal call to holiness in the midst of ordinary life. At 25, with Servant of God Father Joseph Muzquiz, he was sent by St. Josémaria to bring Opus Dei to the United States, beginning in Chicago, where he began to spread a zeal for holiness while getting his doctorate in physics. He then journeyed to Rome to obtain a doctorate in theology and was ordained a priest.
Father Sal was a great evangelizer. He helped launch and build Opus Dei in Japan, the Philippines and Australia, in Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, St. Louis and Boston. Arriving in Cambridge in 1971, with entrepreneurial ingenuity, he began an apostolate among Spanish-speaking immigrants. When I lived for a semester at Elmbrook, he regularly pulled me aside and would tell me, with a heart on fire, of a conversation he had had that day with someone he hoped might enter the faith.
He was likewise a tremendous catechist, whose courses and notes on the faith were legendary among university students, lay people, seminarians and clergy. For many years, he served as volunteer director of Religious Education and RCIA director at St. Aidan’s Church in Brookline. Within a couple of weeks of the publication of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” in 1992, he was already passing on its fruits.
He was a great lover of priests and the priesthood, serving as Spiritual director to scores of priests and bishops. During an age in which seminary formation was unmoored and even counterproductive, he launched an annual Seminar for Seminarians in Pembroke, bringing together seminarians from across the country to hear bishops and great theologians provide what the seminarians would need to serve God’s people faithfully. He promoted my own priestly vocation, serving as my Spiritual director, and — I found out only after his death — intervening on my behalf with then-Bishop Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., to accept me as a seminarian for the Diocese of Fall River.
He was a modern St. Valentine, introducing many young men and women to each other and guiding them to the Sacrament of Matrimony. He never kept track of how many couples whose Marriages he helped catalyze, but others number it easily in the hundreds. So many families owe their existence to his love for them and for the Sacrament of Matrimony.
He was a much sought-after confessor and Spiritual director, particularly to the young, serving as chaplain for young men at Elmbrook in Cambridge and at Bayridge University Center near Boston University for young women. At St. Aidan’s, he would hear Confessions for hours on Saturdays and was known among the clergy as the priest to whom to send the “difficult cases.” I learned so much about the art of hearing Confessions by going to him myself in college.
Finally, he was a tremendous lover of Our Lady. He used to finish every homily and preached meditation by invoking her with tenderness. Various times when I knocked on his door, I caught him with Rosary beads in his hand. And he had great confidence in her maternal intercession in his life. During a meditation once on the last things, he confessed why he was not afraid of death. After all of the Hail Mary’s he had praised since a boy in his daily Rosary, Angelus and prayers before bed, he said — calculating aloud with his mathematical mind — that when his time would come to meet Christ face-to-face, he would turn to Our Lady standing at her Son’s right and say with filial trust, “Blessed Mother, if I’ve asked you once, I have asked you more than 1.5 million times, ‘Pray for me at the hour of my death!’”
I have every confidence that Mary was praying for him not only 20 years ago January 9, but throughout his life, helping him to imitate her fiat to God’s work within him, her Visitation in bringing Christ to so many others, and her Magnificat, in never ceasing to thank God for all that the Almighty had done for him.
He lived with a holiness that those of us who were blessed to know him will never forget.
Anchor columnist Father Landry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.