At ninety-five, Fr. James Lloyd is the oldest living Paulist priest. But you’d never know that from following his busy schedule. Each day, at his quarters in Manhattan, he recites his morning prayers, celebrates or concelebrates Mass, hears confessions, and practices the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As evening approaches, he has dinner with friends, recites the rosary, then retires to bed, eager to begin a new cycle the next day.
To say that Fr. Lloyd has lived a fulfilling life would be an understatement. The joy and gratitude he feels for being a Catholic priest is the first thing he likes to talk about, and he never tires of recounting how the Lord called him to the priesthood, almost seventy years ago, when he was growing up in New York.
He was born in the poorest parish on the West Side of Manhattan, where life was often difficult, but he was raised, with his sister, by two supportive and uniquely talented parents. His father was Jewish, his mother Irish, and both were accomplished entertainers on the Vaudeville circuit—a dancer and singer, respectively. They fell in love, married, and raised their children to have a strong foundation in God.
Lloyd was brought up in a Paulist parish, and attended the Paulist school system, where he first started thinking about a vocation. “I thought I wanted to be a doctor,” he recalls now, “and then I entered ROTC, ready to spend my life in the military.”
But when he was twenty-one, Lloyd started contemplating a religious life, especially within the familiar Paulist Order, and so read the works of its founder, Isaac Hecker, whose vision of a dynamic and expanding American Church impressed him. “I took a chance and entered the Order, and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.”
Lloyd entered the Paulists in 1942, as a novice, and was ordained on May 1, 1948. He was subsequently sent to South Africa, as a missionary, where he spent seven challenging years, resisting the “evil and iniquitous system of apartheid,” many years before its eventual fall.
Upon his return to the United States, his opportunities increased, as he earned a Ph.D. in psychology from New York University—a degree he believes enhanced his ministry as a priest. A philosopher by training, Fr. Lloyd had been instructing people in the faith with a classic theological approach. But while this logical process was effective in many cases, it ran into trouble with people who responded, “I can’t believe what the Church teaches.” Fr. Lloyd discovered that the reason these people couldn’t accept Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, was due not to intellectual factors, but to emotional ones. Deep resentments and unconscious biases had built up over many years, making them unable to see what Fr. Lloyd was teaching. He had to approach people differently, exploring their emotional worlds. That’s where his psychology degree paid off.
By combining sound psychology with traditional Catholic spirituality, Fr. Lloyd was able to remove the brambles in these people’s lives, which were blocking their path toward truth. Once those obstacles were removed, the logic of the faith became clearer, and reluctant souls under his care began flowing back into the Church once again.
With his ministry gathering attention, Fr. Lloyd was invited to become a professor, and then a director of Iona College’s graduate division of pastoral counseling. As demanding and time-consuming as that was, his superiors, recognizing Fr. Lloyd’s gifts, also asked him to host a Sunday morning talk program, “Inquiry,” which ran on NBC for fifteen years, from 1958 to 1973. “I had no experience in television whatsoever,” he says now, still surprised by the request, “but by God’s grace, it worked out extraordinarily well.” On “Inquiry,” Fr. Lloyd got to interview such luminaries as Mother Teresa, William F. Buckley Jr., Malcolm Muggeridge, and Jackie Gleason. Their lively discussions can still be seen on YouTube.
As this was taking place, Fr. Lloyd became the rector of a seminary, during Vatican II—a Council he believes has been misunderstood and misapplied. With St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he holds that Vatican II was meant to reform and purify the Church, and bring the Gospel to the contemporary world—without bending or compromising Catholic teaching. “But it was distorted into some kind of charter for innovation and experimentation.” As proof, Fr. Lloyd cites what “half his seminarians” told him at the time: “The big message for them was that the Council would encourage them to get married, and I said to them, ‘Where did you get that idea?’”
Obviously, not from the Council’s official teachings, which exhort priests to “magnanimously and wholeheartedly adhere” to celibacy, and describes celibacy as “an outstanding gift of the Father, which is so praised and extolled by the Lord.”
An eloquent defender of the celibate priesthood, Fr. Lloyd explains: “Unless a man understands the meaning of love, he doesn’t understand celibacy. Some people look upon it as just an onerous necessity … but I don’t see it that way. I see it as the fact that I love Jesus Christ enormously, and whatever he wants of me, I will do. And so I believe that when he called me to follow him, he said, ‘James, I want you to be like me, unmarried, and I will ask you to do this for love of me.’ This is why I do it.”
If there is a crisis in the priesthood, says Fr. Lloyd, it is because too many priests conflate social work with their religious calling: “We are not social workers, but, first and foremost, vessels of Almighty God, and so must strive to keep the spiritual above the temporal—and keep our focus on Jesus Christ, the Mass, and the sacraments. Then our good works on earth will follow.”
Fr. Lloyd isn’t shy about celebrating his Catholic faith, and has written an endearing memoir, Reflections of a Dinosaur Priest. He also maintains a blog, Catholicism, Scholarship and Fun, which covers a range of modern-day controversies, always charitably and always in harmony with Catholic teaching. And inspired by Pope Francis, Fr. Lloyd writes frequently about Christian love and families. He is deeply devoted to the apostles and saints—especially Teresa of Lisieux, Francis of Assisi, and St. Frances de Sales—as they’ve taught him to say, often, “I have the faith of a child. I trust my Lord with my life.”
Asked what he would say to a young man today, who might be considering the priesthood, Fr. Lloyd answered: “I would tell them that the priesthood is a great gift from God, is loaded with joy, and that the opportunities for doing great things for God—and enjoying doing them at the same time—are enormous.”
Speaking as a priest who has lived almost a century, he concludes, “I’m surprised the seminaries aren’t bulging with young men who want to have a wonderful and enriching life.” Fr. Lloyd feels blessed to have lived one.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.