A friend of this blog sent me the link to a story last week that I had totally missed, seeking my opinion of the way that Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein described a particular form of prayer linked to Roman Catholic piety and the Eucharist. But to set up the reference, you need to know the context.
The headline could not capture the drama of this particular story: “‘Wells Guys’ Take Their Vows as New Priests: Men Recall Monsignor Who Inspired Them.” The monsignor in question was the late Father Thomas Wells. Here is the opening of the story:
To the seminarians he inspired over the years, Monsignor Thomas Wells exuded joy in everything he did: celebrating Mass, orchestrating large ski and golf outings, simply gabbing on the phone for a few minutes with people he loved.
And those he befriended know he would have found joy in seeing four Maryland men who worked with him be ordained … for the Archdiocese of Washington. The four, with another ordained last week for an Illinois diocese, are nicknamed “the Wells guys” because they were inspired by the beloved priest, who was killed by a homeless man in the rectory of his Germantown church in 2000.
There are several reasons that this event was newsworthy. First of all, the murder itself was both stunning and highly mysterious and drew major media attention in the greater Washington, D.C., area.
But there is a second news hook here. American Catholics are living in an era in which ordination services are almost newsworthy in and of themselves. Everyone knows that the number of priests has declined sharply, while the number of Catholics in America continues to rise. The word crisis is frequently used and this trend is, literally, reshaping parish life from coast to coast.
What does this have to do with Wells? To be blunt, this ordination service was a big one.
Theirs is the second-largest group of new priests in the nation, and the largest class in the Washington Archdiocese since 1973. Nationwide, the number of new priests is declining. Final figures are not available, but initial reports suggest that 359 men will be ordained this year in the United States. That is a decrease from 438 last year and 454 in 2004. The Arlington diocese is ordaining seven, its largest class since 1999.
Even more remarkable is that so many priests in the Washington Archdiocese were nourished in their faith by one man.
So the question this story needs to answer is this: What was it about Wells that other men found unusual and so inspiring? Was it just his laugh and his love of fun outings with his people? Was it just his gregarious nature? Did he merely have a winsome way with a sermon? Or, perhaps, was there some faith or even doctrinal element to his ministry that was unique? What kind of a Catholic was he, in this age of rapid change and clashing schools of theology and liturgy?
The bottom line: This story doesn’t tell us much about that. But the graduate student who sent me this link was intrigued by this vague reference near the end. He understood the reference. Traditional Catholics will understand the reference. But did the reporter understand the form of piety she was trying to describe? Did the copy desk at the Post realize that, for many modern Catholics, it is considered out-of-date and even a bit, as I have heard it described, radical or even “fundamentalist”?
Many at Our Lady of Lourdes also credit the ordinations to their method of prayer. Unlike most churches, the parish takes the wafer consecrated at each morning’s Mass — which Catholics believe is the body of Christ — and puts it on display all day, every day, in a side chapel.
It was Wells’s handling of the Eucharist — the wafer and wine used in Communion — that parishioners and the new priests say so vividly represented his faith.
This reference to Eucharistic Adoration slips in near the end of the piece. Perhaps there was more to Monsignor Wells than a nice laugh and some skill on the golf course.