Anyone who has had to wrestle with grave questions on morality, theology, or vocation knows how stressful it can be. The regular ways of Providence, which permit that we undergo mental and emotional agony in order to arrive at a satisfactory possession of virtue or knowledge, can be rough. Wrestling with Providence feels like being on the edge of mental and emotional dissolution; it raises questions of actions that must be followed that will knowingly cause interpersonal alienation. It is combat with an angel.
This is why the little story of Fr. Thomas Weinandy’s proposal to God, and the exact unfolding of his request, is so extraordinary.
Not that there aren’t dozens like it in its material detail. Oftentimes faithful Catholics seek a definitive answer to a perplexing problem through some providential gift, as the parade of “voices” and reasoning’s filter through the conscience on primal questions. But what is so extraordinary is the fairly nondescript and unknown character of Fr. Weinandy as a professional theologian being thrust out into one of the strangest situations in ecclesial history: the advent of Pope Francis.
I have known professional theologians, and they aren’t always the most charismatic bunch. One finds them reserved, slow to act, meditative, and often safe in their proposals and conclusions. So a professional theologian like Fr. Weinandy seeking a sign at 1:00 A.M. in Rome must mean something serious.
It makes sense. He was considering writing about the pontiff in a public way, and not to profess satisfaction.
It is hard enough to write publicly about more daring theological topics simply because public declarations can lead one into a maelstrom – not to mention the fact that many of these questions last more than a lifetime, so no one wants to get caught being precipitous. Yet here he is, it’s 1:00 in the morning, and the simple theologian is in the seat of Christendom, laying down some detailed requests.
At 1:15 AM I got up and went outside for short time. When I went back to my room, I said to the Lord: “If you want me to write something, you have to give me a clear sign. This is what the sign must be. Tomorrow morning I am going to Saint Mary Major’s to pray and then I am going to Saint John Lateran. After that I am coming back to Saint Peter’s to have lunch with a seminary friend of mine. During that interval, I must meet someone that I know but have not seen in a very long time and would never expect to see in Rome at this time. That person cannot be from the United States, Canada or Great Britain. Moreover, that person has to say to me in the course of our conversation, ‘Keep up the good writing’.”
Normally, such requests would be bordering on tempting God and, in my experience, doomed to going unanswered. Our good God tends to insist on using reason and the normal channels of communication to follow His will. Yet Fr. Weinandy laid out an impossible scenario: meeting someone outside the typical countries of origin and common relation, who can’t have been seen in a long time, on a specific day, on a specific trajectory of movement, who must repeat a phrase named by the good priest himself!
If any of these conditions were not met, Fr. Weinandy would return to his position in U.S. Conference of Bishops as a competent, if relatively unknown, theologian watching over doctrine. If not, he would return among his confreres at table, say his Mass, read his books, and go about his business.
Well, look now, folks: here comes the good padre on his basilica tour, forgetful of his request (probably because it was so detailed and well nigh impossible), and, like the scales falling from Saul’s eyes, his prayer becomes flesh-and-blood reality. “An archbishop appears between two parked cars.”
I had not seen him for over twenty years, long before he became an archbishop. We recognized one another immediately. What made his appearance even more unusual was that, because of his recent personal circumstances, I would never have expected to see him in Rome or anywhere else, other than in his own archdiocese. (He was from none of the above mentioned countries.) We spoke about his coming to Rome and caught up on what we were doing. I then introduced him to my seminarian friend. He said to my friend that we had met a long time ago and that he had, at that time, just finished reading my book on the immutability of God and the Incarnation. He told my friend that it was an excellent book, that it helped him sort out the issue, and that my friend should read the book. Then he turned to me and said: “Keep up the good writing.”
Keep up the good writing!
There it is. A supernatural organizing of events for a bewildered middle-aged Franciscan, who will be known for a long time after he has gone to meet his King and his Queen and his seraphic Founder.
What I really want to underscore here is that this little story, combined with a powerful public letter to the successor of St. Peter, is really an important gift to all who struggle with the unknowing and the inability to act in the current crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. Here is, yes, a theologian, but not a radical one. Father Weinandy isn’t on message boards, nor does he write articles for more traditional sites. His role with the Conference of Bishops demanded a more or less middle-of-the-road guy – not one who would cement and seal opposition to a pope! Yet it is precisely because of who he is, where he was, what he was asking, why he was asking it, and how that this average Franciscan confirmed many of his brethren in the Faith. It was as if the charism of St. Peter touched down on him for a moment.
Personally, I don’t think enough attention has been given this Little Flower of Fr. Weinandy. Sure, Michael Sean Winters was apoplectic in his response to Fr. Weinandy’s letter, and some other priest, who was in his position in the USCCB before him and whose name I forget, wrote a point-by-point rebuttal, but they seemed ineffectual and powerless before Fr. Weinandy’s story and logic. That is because their position lacked that element of beauty and love that Divine Providence wafted our way when the bishop said, “Keep up the good writing.” The aforementioned writers lack the unction that only God can give. For me, it is as if St. John Capistrano came back and grabbed the flag and started charging.
There you have it: God speaking to, first, the good padre and then to the beleaguered and vilified minority of Catholics who question the current pope’s ways and means.
Not that reason and the facts weren’t there before for all the good people who are fighting it, but what a golden little gift the good Fr. Weinandy has given us in his preface to his open letter. And what a letter it is.