Wednesday, October 24, 2007



Working Wonders Beyond our Fears

The priest as wonder worker is all but lost in our times. The priest, like our drugs, has become generic. For the most part, he is seen, not as a wonder-worker, but as a dispenser, like the ubiquitous water dispenser found in schools, canteens, hospitals, offices, and church meeting halls. He dispenses the sacraments week-in and week-out. He preaches – or so he imagines – while doing nothing more than repeat what the readings have said, first in English, then in Tagalog or Cebuano, or in any of our more than 77 dialects. The priest is so generic that, like the proverbial chameleon, he adopts to the environment. He changes color along with the leaves, the bark of trees, and the contour of the ground. First, golf became the game de rigueur for priests on furlough on a Monday. Then it became karaoke bars, with chaste singing accompanied by a few rounds of drinks, hard or mellow, who cares what? Now it is the burgeoning badminton courts, the tennis grounds, and the country clubs of varying levels of comfort and levels of company from the old rich to the nouveaux riches, truth to say, the power wielders or the power brokers of our times and days.

An important book by Rabbi Sherwin[1] argues that, by the tradition that grew from the OT all through the NT times, the religious leader is one who “works wonders.” He writes that “the authority of the religious leader in communicating a theological and moral message that shapes behavior, ultimately depends upon the belief of his or her constituency that he or she possesses powers not vouchsafed to others. These wonder-working abilities are the ‘medium’ that allows for the ‘message’ to be effectively conveyed. Consequently, for clergy to regain their currently eroded religious and moral authority and social status, they must reclaim their role as wonder workers. Only in that way will they be able to effectively lead their communities and convey the moral and theological message that is their mission to impart. Only in that manner can they effectively influence the moral and religious behavior of their constituencies.”[2]

That says a whole lot about the embarrassing “miracle” (at least to the institutional mainstream Church) that El Shaddai leader, Velarde, is. Let us not mince words about it. He is, to use Byron’s term, no less than a wonder-worker. Whilst this is not the time to psychoanalyze either Velarde or the hordes of largely simple folks who follow his doctrine, all I am saying is that one of the many possible reasons people flock to him, from a pastoral counselor’s viewpoint, is that he is perceived to be a “wonder-worker.” This is the reason why so many flock to the evangelical sects that abound all over the world, particularly in Brazil and many places in South America. The point of commonality in all of their leaders is the fact that they are, rightly or wrongly, perceived to be “wonder workers.”

As part of the crisis of priesthood, brought to the fore by the Long Lent of 2002, as Weigel[3] refers to the onset of the clergy scandal in Boston and elsewhere, the crisis of identity of the priest has been part of the erosion of the perception of the priest in times past as a wonder-worker. One recent author I’ve read reported how, when he was invited to say Mass in a particular parish in the US, the head lay minister told him bluntly as he was giving assignments for the distribution of communion: “You Father, you distribute communion in the choir loft. This is to tell people that you are just like everybody else.” I don’t know what sort of theology was drummed into you while in formation, but I have always been, and still remain, an “ontologist.” No, the priest is not like everybody else. He is equal in dignity with all men and women, that’s for sure, but his ordination has made him different, set apart, by virtue of the power vested on him. Different doesn’t mean superior. Being different doesn’t mean you are “more equal than others,” to use that famous phrase from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” From the ashes of all this talk about equality and equal rights, and a misunderstood “lay centered” Church, we see rising an emasculated image of priest who is expected to preside but not to rock the boat too much, expected to do “wonders” but within strict bounds of democracy and fairness and equal opportunities. No wonder we are left only with so-called “sacramental ministers” who do their duties with dispatch, but not with panache, who preach but only about pious things and good things, politically-correct stuff that do not rock the boat too much. By trying to please everybody you please nobody. And you end up like a glorified altar boy, sashaying round the altar to fulfill a ritual, not a meaningful encounter.

But I am not about to get you off the hook just because you are different and called to do wonders. Now, I go to the most important idea that Sherwin shares with us. In many words, he simply tells us, that as clergymen, as religious leaders, we have to re-appropriate the wonder-working capabilities of the biblical religious leaders. I quote:

“For the religious teachings and the wonders of the religious leader to be considered credible and authentic, he or she must exhibit the sources of his or her authority as a religious leader, as a person of God in his or her daily lifestyle … Put another way, the mission of the religious leader is to convey a message. In order to effectively convey a message, he or she must enjoy a close relationship with the giver of the message, that is, God. He or she must have an intimate knowledge of the content of that message, that is, an in-depth religious learning. He or she must live the message, that is, he or she must live a life that embodies religious faith, spiritual development, personal piety, and moral rectitude.”[4]

This needs no further commentary. But there is more. Sherwin says that “a person with such characteristics can convey the message through the medium of various types of wonder working.” This wonder-working, according to Sherwin, quoting Jack Bloom[5] happens when the clergyperson is a “symbolic exemplar,” that is, when he “transforms a mundane moment into a sacred occasion, a routine place into a holy space.” By the power vested in him, his every word, gesture, blessing, healing, praying over people, preaching, counseling, or simply being with people, becomes his wonder working tools.

I would like to refer back to my title. Peter was walking on water[6] for a short while, on the strength of the Lord’s command. But he chickened out. He began sinking. He noticed the gales more than the guidance of the Lord. To me, this was a foreshadowing, a clue to the character of Peter, that will climax sadly with his denial of the Lord for three times. This may well be the image of many of us priests who may be losing our resolve to be the martyrs and witnesses we are called to be. I am fully one with Michael Heher[7] who in the last chapter of his outstanding book, refers to the lost art of walking on water, for the simple reason that we have lost the yen for martyrdom, for self-sacrifice, for apostolic generosity. I take this to mean we are no longer working wonders for we have decided to be comfortable. We have decided to follow the mainstream. We have become generic priests with generic jobs, delivering generic homilies, doing generic baptisms, and generic services. The other hurtful word for this is mediocrity. And mediocrity does not do wonders. Mediocrity does not rock the boat. Mediocrity does not save. Heroism does. Martyrdom does. Being up there on the cross with Christ does, or at least being down there with Mary and John, while all the rest have chickened out and went their own frightened ways.

The last time mediocrity struck me as a word was 1984. In the movie “Amadeus,” the character of the envious, scheming, and resentful Leopoldo Salieri struck me immensely. To me he is the perfect example of what not to be if we want to be wonder workers. A copy cat, and a poor one at that, he always defined himself in terms of what the boorish and upstart Mozart could do. He was always comparing himself with him. And every time, he became angrier, while Mozart rose higher in the estimation of the royal court. He was seething with inner rage at that upstart, at that impertinent and boorish young man, whom he was trying with might and main to outdo. He never succeeded, even when he stole the work of Mozart and made off with it like as if it were his own. At the end of his life, the old Salieri was pensive, repentant perhaps, but was clearly insightful when he said: “I am the patron saint of mediocrity.” Mediocrity obviously did not take very far.

I cannot but end this final reflection with a lengthy quote from Heher. I dare not “spoil no whisper, blur no expression” for I believe every word he writes:

To the extent that we are unwilling to join [Peter] there, unwilling to take the attendant risk that we could, like him, end up flailing about, looking silly and nearly drowning, we will look as cowardly and sound as whiny as we are. ‘Please, please, please, come to the seminary,’ we plead. But what do we teach them to do in the seminaries? To be as bright and creative as they can? To take chances? To be ready for a life of sacrifice? Do we train them for resilience and generosity? Do we insist they manifest a capacity to live intimately and maturely upon this planet? And why should we expect if of them if we don’t expect it of ourselves? This is my prediction: until we change our ways, the young will not see the excitement in our way of life. The dreamers, the talented ones, the visionaries and geniuses, the ones God may indeed be calling, they’ll go somewhere else with their enormous energy. Instead we will continue to attract men in early middle age, those, excuse me for saying this, ready to settle down.

‘Please, please, please, get involved in our parishes,’ we implore our parishioners. But what do we ask of them? To give out communion? To donate sacrificially? To attend one of our self-help seminars or Bible studies? To jump through the hoops of our sacramental preparation? Where is the excitement in that? Where is the call to real service, for trusting faith in troubling times? We have come to consider high attendance at anything as a sign of success; we have forgotten that, on Pentecost, the standard was a bit higher; people had to be on fire.[8]

Our normal tendency is to be rather blaming of Peter who didn’t trust the Lord’s hand. But as Heher says, we can also focus on the moments he in fact walked on water. It is possible. It is possible to regain our stature as wonder-workers. Heher asks, “Could it be that turbulent waters are in fact best suited for walking?”

Maybe we need to face our fears, our insecurities, and allow the people who journey with us a glimpse about our real selves, who, like Peter, may be struggling with our faith. Again I quote Heher:

As has often been the case in the history of the Church, the baptized trust more those leaders who let themselves be seen drowning and worse. I think our parishioners want fewer of our bright ideas and more of our empathy and honest response to life. In short, they are attracted to priests who know how to take chances – not just any chance and not simply for the sake of the thrill – but chances they perceive are prompted by the Holy Spirit; from such priests parishioners will find the guts to be courageous and docile disciples themselves.[9]

[1] Byron L. Sherwin. Workers of Wonders: A Model for Effective Religious Leadership from Scripture to Today. (Lanham,MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. c. 2004).

[2] Sherwin, op.cit., p. xiii

[3] George Weigel. The Courage to be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. (New York: Basic Books, c. 2002). He attributes the phrase to Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.

[4] Sherwin, op.cit., 0. 147

[5] Ibid., p. 141

[6] Matthew 14:22-33

[7] Michael Heher, op. cit.

[8] Heher, op.cit., pp. 172-173

[9] Ibid., pp. 174-175