Catholic faith on display, 24/7

Adoration Chapel2A 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.

You think?

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Maureen

    Um… I always thought Perpetual Adoration was perfectly normal and bipartisan. You find it in at least as many liberal as conservative churches. (Well, at least churches that are liberal for where I live.) Other than the security problems, I can’t see who’d be against it. (Unless you didn’t believe in the Real Presence, maybe.)

    Benediction, that’s old school… ’cause you have to wear a cope and have a monstrance. But I know some pretty liberal churches that have that, too.
    Corpus Christi processions, now, or the Infant of Prague… those are the old-fashioned stuff.

  • rightwingprof

    What they’re not telling you is how many clergy they’re losing. Four men were ordained this year in this diocese; seventeen are retiring.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I presume the real draw of the priest to these future priests was his deep Faith. This is the only thing that will pull the Catholic Church out of the doldrums and scandals–We who are ordained or consecrated religious must do everything possible to deepen our faith to the point where people can see in us that Jesus IS the Way, the Truth, and the Life and that the Catholic Church of today is the True extension in time and place of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which can be traced straight back to Jesus, Peter the Rock, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in wind and fire on the first Christian Pentecost.
    In short, unless we are willing to embrace the sacrifices and crucifixion our Master endured, then the Church is in trouble. However, if most of us do fail, Christ has promised the Gates of Hell will not prevail so we will be replaced by Catholic men and women who WILL carry on the work of the Saints in the Church.

  • JaneD

    This is very interesting especially being right next to the article on the feminization of the church. I suspect Fr. Wells showed men and boys how they could be real men and be a priest. A masculine role model.

  • Amy S

    I agree that it was the importance that Monsignor Wells placed on the Eucharist and Eucharisitc Adoration that influenced these men to become priests. But it was not only his example; it sounds like he made the Eucharist a central point for his parish, so that they, too, recognized its importance and participated in the devotion. Any parish that has the Eucharist and devotion at its center is going to create an atmosphere in which the young people are more involved with their faith and more open and supported by others to the vocational call.

  • paula gavin

    Eucharistic adoration is alive and well in the Catholic church,2006. It may have gone “out of style” after the misleadig interpretations of Vat.II, but it is a strong and vital part of Catholic piety today. You see, the Real Presence always has been and always will be. The sheer beauty of this gift of Christ to His Church is awesome. This Sunday is the feast of Corpus Christi- the Catholic community of Danbury, CT will process through the streets as witnesses of His presence in the Eucharist. The reform of the Reform has begun.