The Capuchin friar, a short, gregarious man with unruly strands of thinning white hair and a reddish complexion, was watching the 14 delinquents at Camp Fred Miller walk single-file towards the aging gym. Leading the makeshift procession was an adolescent, maybe 14, with the face of an altar boy in Bing Crosby’s “Going My Way.” He was holding up a wooden cross almost as tall as he was.

Watching them on this Saturday morning in May, the 69-year-old priest, wearing snow-white vestments, sensed something special. It felt like grace — yes, that’s what it was. A sense of grace for the moment.

Father Peter Mary Banks, no stranger to the Los Angeles County probation camp in the sandy brown Malibu mountains, welcomed each boy as he entered the old gymnasium. The mostly Latino teens made their way to the circle of metal folding chairs set out at mid-court, where a stubby white candle was burning.

The boys were asked to focus on the candle as well as the most important people in their lives. During the silence, many closed their eyes and seemed to drift beyond the high fence topped with coils of razor-sharp Concertina wire around the out-of-the-way camp, until Father Peter declared, “Amen!”

After first-name introductions, the priest passed out bookmarks with a painting of Jesus cradling a lamb in his arms. “Look at that face, the affection he has,” he said, with a brogue that hadn’t changed much since he left Ireland 42 years ago. “Now look at that bright eye of the lamp. I want you to really see the caring look of Our Lord. Jesus loves all of us. He loves all colors. And no matter what you do, he will never reject you. Like the lamb, he is going to look for you.”

From Mass guide sheets, the priest, juveniles and five volunteers, headed by Tom Bleich from the Office of Restorative Justice, loudly read the Confiteor: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do. …”

After, Father Peter felt the need to say something more personal. So he recalled coming to Southern California and St. Lawrence of Brindisi Parish in Watts back in 1973, when he was 27. “I didn’t know anything about being a priest. But I changed and matured, just like you can,” he said, before asking, “Why do we love Jesus?”

A tall boy echoed shyly, “Because he loves us, and never stops loving us.”

“Never!” shot back Father Peter. “Jesus never, never rejects you.” And he pointed out how Pope Francis was saying the same thing when he famously quipped, “Who am I to judge?”

Jesus at Camp Miller

Then members of the circle prayed for their own intentions. Another boy simply said, “For when I get out.”

Looking at him, the priest observed, “That’s a lovely prayer.” Then he stood up and walked behind the small altar, set up just outside the circle, to finish the Mass. Later, when he asked, “Why do I wash my hands?” a boy with curly dark hair answered, “To wash away your sins.”

“Do I sin?” When no one spoke up, Father Peter answered his own query: “Yes.”

He couldn’t help noticing two teenagers, only a few chairs away, making gang signs to each other. But he continued without comment, noting, “So Jesus is here at Camp Miller.”

Later, he got the boys chanting “My Lord and my God” with him. And he joined the group again to say the “Our Father” and shake hands during the sign of peace. Only a couple of young inmates didn’t receive Communion. After, during a long silence, they all held their heads down — eyes on the cracked gray floor — even the two who had been “throwing” gang signs.

The priest thought of how much he still loved celebrating Mass. That’s what it was, thank God. A celebration.

An aunt once told him how it was a privilege. After that he never thought of it as work, no matter if he celebrated five on a Sunday. He would do that, in fact, tomorrow at St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church while the pastor was away. He’d been pastor there twice himself and currently serves as associate pastor. It was now his other assignment, along with being vocation director of the Capuchins in the western United States and Mexico, living and working mostly out of Old Mission Santa Inés in Solvang.

No, he never lost the awesome feeling he had saying that very first Mass. The day he was ordained back in Ireland, he’d asked his mother, “Are you happy?” And the woman, who led her children every evening in praying the rosary for vocations, replied, “Oh, Peter, I’m very happy.” Again he asked, “Why are you happy?” “Because,” she said, “you’ll celebrate the Mass for my funeral.”

Which he did, along with 29 other priests on Dec. 18, 1997.

There were times when he began Mass depressed, but he never ended it feeling that way. It always brought him peace and healing, like here, this very morning at Camp Miller. Where he used to like a large congregation with lots of loud music and singing, he now favored more intimate liturgies. And the Malibu camp was one of his favorites.

After, there was nearly a half-hour of “fellowship” outside, featuring Hawaiian Punch and hot cross buns with vanilla frosting. Three boys asked Father Peter, now wearing his brown habit with a white cord tied around his waist and a farmer’s straw hat, to bless their plastic rosaries. One was wearing the white beads around his neck.

Glancing about, he spotted Robert, the Capuchin candidate who rode up with him, along with this reporter from The Tidings. He looked like he was deep in conversation with one of the juveniles; they were nodding, their heads close to each other.

It made the priest smile. Yes, this young man, who — can you imagine? — studied criminal justice in college, could be a very good priest. He was empathetic. He had a heart. He was relaxed, not ill at ease at all. Just seemed to relate naturally to these young people who happened to be locked up.

It made him imagine the 24-year-old saying Mass one day, either as a Capuchin or some other religious order. Maybe even a diocesan priest. Whatever, he was glad he’d asked Robert, who was from the San Bernardino Diocese, to come along. He had played a part in the young man’s discernment process these last few weeks.

But, then again, the vocation director didn’t want to get his hopes up too high. In the last six months, three solid candidates had bailed out at the last moment. One met a girl, another decided on the Jesuits and the third wanted to enter but his mother persuaded him not to.

Unconditional love

Driving back to LA, Father Peter expressed mixed emotions about leaving Camp Miller.

“I feel a certain sense of satisfaction,” he confided, keeping his eyes on the winding Mullholland Highway. “I feel that I’ve gone out and loved as best I can. That’s my obligation I feel God calls us to. Pope Francis says go to the ‘periphery of society.’ So I feel we went there, we did it out of love, unconditional love. I want them to picture Jesus embracing them. That they actually feel embraced. Not a distant God, but a God who came down for us.

“Because that’s my own journey with Jesus, too,” he noted. “To me as a child, God was somebody to be afraid of. I was afraid of going to hell. It was, you know, the old Irish thing.”

Along with the satisfaction, there is also a sadness.

“Obviously when I talk to the kids, I think of their future,” admitted the priest. “I think, ‘Where is this child going to be in a year, two years, three years?’ And I’m praying for them, that somehow a miracle will work. Something will happen in their lives. Something will tick that will make them go straight. So that child sees, ‘No, this isn’t the end.’”

And a more melancholic look came across his face. “But when I ask them where they live and if they’re returning to that same neighborhood — and they say ‘yes’ — the probability of going back to the same problems is high,” he lamented. “They’re going back to drugs, to gangs. There’s some great success stories, but there’s a lot of recidivism.”

Still, after a moment he added, “Like I love this poem that says, ‘If I can stop one heart from breaking, my life is not in vain.’ And that has helped me. When they said to Mother Teresa, ‘What you’re doing is a drop out of the ocean,’ she said, ‘That’s true. But the ocean is a drop less.’ And that philosophy tells me a lot. I say it’s one soul at a time, and that’s the way I work.”

‘The wild one’

The priest grew up “dirt poor” on a farm in Ireland’s County Sligo, where his father raised cows, pigs and chickens. He had 13 siblings, 10 boys and three sisters, but two had died as babies. He was the fifth child. They walked three miles to school, rain or shine, and during the summer went without shoes.

His mother, Christina, gathered the kids every night to say the rosary and pray for vocations. But because Peter was the “wild one” of the bunch, she never expected he would be a priest.

The unselfish, hard-working woman, however, inspired him with her charity. To hungry travelers, she was quick to give milk, eggs, and flower. She also had a great devotion to St. Martin de Pores, and somehow managed to send money to missionaries in Africa.

Peter went to Catholic school, an uncle paying his tuition. Another uncle was a priest, an aunt a nun. He read about Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town in America and St. Damien, the leper priest in Hawaii.

As a student friar, he dreamed of serving in Zambia or somewhere else in Africa. But the Capuchins had other plans. After being ordained at the age of 27, he was missioned to St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church in Watts.

The neophyte cleric asked himself, “‘What am I doing here? I’ve a strange accent. I didn’t even know I was going to be here.’ And after Mass, a little girl said to me, ‘Father Peter, you talk real funny.’ And I felt like saying, ‘You talk real funny yourself.’ I was terribly lonely.”

As a white man, he felt isolated as a minority within the parish.

“And I remember somebody saying, ‘You don’t have to be black. You don’t even have to be American. All you have to do is love these people.’ And I did and found peace.”

The impoverished community changed from predominantly black to include a larger Latino population. He learned Spanish and also grew to love these mostly immigrant, working class and poor parishioners. Their steadfast emotional devotion, especially to Our Lady of Guadalupe, was truly something to behold.

After nine years he reluctantly left Watts to become novice master and then vocation director. He was elected provincial in 1991, serving six years in Northern California. Then he happily returned to St. Lawrence as pastor. But in 2009, he left the urban parish once again to take on the role of vocation director for a second time.

The priest, however, kept coming back to Watts on weekends to celebrate Mass. It was where he got his energy.

The struggling parishioners lived from day to day. They would come up to him desperate, asking him to hear their confession or do something to help their children have a better life. Their spontaneity kept him alert, in the moment.

And then there was the parish school. Over the years, he had helped dozens of kids go on to Catholic high schools and even to college — including prestigious Ivy League institutions like Brown University. Five students from St. Lawrence have graduated from Brown. How many inner-city parochial schools can say that?

Yes, just like when he was pastor, getting kids educated was still his “big thing” at St. Lawrence. Raising money for a student’s higher education was when he felt most like St. Francis, who, of course, prided himself on being a beggar.

Maturing through suffering

“I think being vocation director has maybe taught me things,” Father Peter pointed out, nearing Los Angeles now, starting to run into traffic. “You learn to live alone, and I live a lot alone. You know, I travel a lot. I’m alone in the car. But it has deepened my own spirituality, I think. I meditate. I have a more intimate relationship with Jesus.”

But the transition from being a popular pastor to an on-the-road seeker of vocations has also weighed heavily on the Capuchin friar. In the winter of 2011, he spent three months at a Minnesota treatment facility dealing with drinking and depression. Loneliness simply overwhelmed him.

“I actually had a miracle back there,” he said, raising his voice. “I prayed to God that he would lift this addiction from me. And he did. I do not long to drink like I had before. I would drink in the morning. It was almost a craving. And I lost that.

“But it was a big conversion point in my life. That’s when I again went through a horrible lonely period in my life. A horrible feeling of isolation. A feeling of nothingness. I’d gone from being seemingly successful in the eyes of the world — getting all these city and county awards, even being on the front page of the Los Angeles Times — to walking in the snow, freezing back in the Midwest.

“I mean, I had nothing,” he said.

Suffering matured Father Peter, made him acknowledge personal failures. But it also, like St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul, deepened his relationship with his God.

“When I was younger as a priest, I was fearful,” he recalled. “‘Will I leave? Fall in love with somebody?’ And when you see young priests leaving, you say, ‘That could be me.’ So you worry. The thing I feared most was my love for the priesthood dying before I actually died. Because I’ve seen that happen.

“Now I’m almost 70 and still excited about being a priest, to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, do baptisms and funerals,” he said with resolve. “I’m not leaving the priesthood. I’m going to die as a Capuchin priest. I’m going to die the way I lived. And that’s a great feeling.”