Not a Pope, not a Bishop, not, even a Monsignor, he is, a humble priest. The most humble of priests who asks to be described as being "Nothing really, totally unimportant except as a servant of God"
He was given the accolade in the headline when attending a wedding at the London Oratory some two years ago. After the Nuptial Mass this priest stood quietly to one side as the guests spilled out and photographs were duly taken, when an Oratory Father approached him and said:
"Father I just want to thank you for the wonderful work you have done over the years in keeping the Mass alive in this country. You have done more than anyone and we all owe you an enormous debt of gratitude".
The man he was addressing was none other than Father Peter Lessiter, once of Southwark Diocese and well known to many hundreds, if not thousands of Catholics around England and Wales.
|God's humble servant- Father Peter Lessiter|
In many respects, Father Lessiter is another St Jean Vianney - he mirrors this French patron of priests so very closely. He works among those most in need of the Latin Mass, he catechises the young, teaches the potential convert, baptises the infants, offers the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony to couples and yes, finally celebrates a Requiem Mass for them when they die.
And, like, the Cure of Ars, he takes the Sacrament of Penance to the needy and, at times, the Sacrament of Extreme Unction; travelling many hundreds of miles, often late at night in the process.
He is especially in demand from priests who are nearing death and who, in extremis, desire the traditional last rites despite having apparently accepted all the changes of modernism in the church during their priesthood.
How did this priest come to serve the Lord in such a manner?
We must go back to those confused and ugly days following the interventions of the 'periti' after Vatican II.
Fr Lessiter was a young priest, fresh from the seminary and going about his duties as a curate (we had them in those days) with vigour and integrity.
I remember those times and, in fact, was even a willing particpant in some of those changes, many were duped and fell under the spell of obedience to the Bishop at any cost.
But Fr Lessiter had made his vows to Almighty God, not to a Bishop and after eight years of attempting to reconcile his inherent belief in the teachings of Holy Mother Church he made the momentous decision to 'go it alone'.
There was never any element of wishing to abandon his vocation; Fr L is a man made of sterner stuff.
He resolved to place his trust in God and His Divine Son and to continue his mission in life, that of saving souls - surely the ambition of every priest.
He had spent eight years as curate at St Osmund's, Barnes and when he left in 1973 it must have been like stepping off a cliff. He launched himself out into a void and he knew not what would become of him. Whether he would starve or whether he would be abandoned by those who had professed support for him.
Those early years could not have been easy and Father chortles today when he recounts how so many people reviled him back then but are now saying to him: "Father, you were right after all"
He commenced his mission by travelling the country, taking the "outlawed" Latin Mass to the few faithful remaining. He travelled a circuit that would have exhausted many a lesser man. from London to Leicester, to Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, Somerset, South Wales and beyond and then, the next week the same circuit again.
|The 'Recusant' priest, celebrating the EF Mass|
in homes, church halls, and makeshift chapels
"We must pray for the priests and their Bishop's" he would say. "They are the innocent ones in need of our prayers".
And when things got rough as they so often did and his parishioners became bitter and twisted over the actions of a Bishop or priest he would tell them:
"Don't get involved in the politics of the changes; go to Mass, receive Holy Communion and do your best to bring your children up in the Faith. That is all you can do as a good Catholic in these times. It will only drag you down if you become embroiled in the controversy".
He was called upon, on several occasions, to present himself before a Bishop and to give an account of his activities. Invariably, he would face not only the Bishop but a couple of his Monsignors also and then the interview would turn into an inquisition.
But Father L always remained cool and calm and answered all calumnies against him equably.
For a brief period he worked with the Society of St Pius X but soon withdrew because they had no concept of pastoral care; their priests would celebrate Mass and then take off for the next venue (they still tend to do this today). There is merit in this approach but they left a great many people cold behind them, 'no time for Confession, must dash!'
For the past ten years or so, Father Lessiter has lived in Axminster, one of the first bases for the Latin Mass post Vatican 2.
There he has built up an embryo order and a small community around him, two nuns, a sizeable congregation and many lay workers scattered around England. The constitution for the order is a work in progress and, one day will be presented to the Bishop of Plymouth but, until then, he still tours the country albeit on a reduced circuit.
He is a little infirm these days but his spirit is still strong.
After a series of strokes, two years ago, he was found lying semi conscious, having collapsed in his cottage one evening and lying for 12 hours overnight with one side of his body against a blisteringly hot radiator.
Lying in hospital, semi delirious, he insisted, when visited by the two sisters, on saying Mass, albeit a 'dry' Mass.
He lay on his bed, eyes closed and word for word, went through the Latin of the Holy Mass and, at the Hanc igitur he brusquely told the sisters to "Kneel down the King of Kings is coming!".
Even unconscious, he knew his duty in life - to say the Mass and to lead his flock.
Over the years, he has taken great joy in counselling seminarians especially and many of the clergy still seek his good counsel today, including one or two of the hierarchy.
He has been chaplain to my family ever since we 'jumped off the cliff' and became followers of the 'Mass of all Time'.
In 1989 he paid us an initial visit in remote West Wales and he kept on coming as our children grew in the faith.
Every month or so, the house would be readied for Father's visit and, in time we converted a room in our old schoolhouse to become a dedicated chapel. It was the least we could do for the sake of Our Lord and His good servant Father Peter Lessiter.
In 2012 Fr Lessiter will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.
Fr Lessiter and his community live totally on the charity of those whom he has loved and served over the years. He has not asked me to make this appeal but, if anyone would like to contribute to his good works please send a cheque payable to Father Peter Lessiter.
The Community of Our Lady of Victories,
Axminster, EX13 5RT