By: Fr. Paul Scalia
A close friend from high school went to Paris during one of our breaks. He came back enthused by what he saw at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Since he was not Catholic he did not understand what he encountered there. But that did not stop him from breathlessly describing everything: the architecture, the images, the candles, the incense (“A boy with a smoke machine!”). What really got my attention was his talk about a piece of bread that had become “some man’s body.” Now, that’s amazing, I thought. He handed me the brochure from the basilica and I read it with great excitement. Then, to my shame, I was disappointed to learn that he was only talking about the Eucharist. Only.
That embarrassing exchange came to mind in light of reactions to the “mystery priest” news item a couple of weeks ago. Now, there were a lot of things to like about this story. First and foremost the survival of Katie Lentz, the young woman trapped in her wrecked car. Her prospects did not look good until the priest came, prayed with her, and reassured her. Then there was the mystery of it all: Who was the priest? Where did he come from? Where did he go? When we encounter mysterious good works, we rightly intuit that God is near. And for us priests there was the simple fact that this was a favorable report. It is nice to get those every now and then.
But now that the priest has come forward and acknowledged his role, we are tempted to disappointment. Oh, we think, just a priest. It was only a priest coming forward to help – praying, consoling, bringing hope, then humbly stepping back. Only. Not so miraculous after all.
We like miracles, but usually for the wrong reason. We chase after them because we think they will be the cure-all for our lack of faith. If I have a constant experience of the miraculous then I will have to believe, right? In effect, we expect miracles to do the believing for us: If God works a miracle in front of me then I will believe. It is, of course, a form of putting God to the test. And the attitude fails to realize that many who saw miracles still did not believe. Every morning for forty years the Israelites woke up to the miraculous gift of the manna. But that miracle did not force faith on them. In fact, they grew tired of it. They failed to believe.
When God works miracles (and, yes, He still does), it is to help our faith – but not by doing the heavy lifting for us. Such extraordinary occurrences are intended to awaken our faith to the ordinary working of His grace. Our faith grows more when we believe the unseen than when we are forced to acknowledge the miraculous. Jesus brought health to the sick and sight to the blind – and people still did not believe in Him. He made the deaf hear and the mute speak – not so that we would expect that as a common occurrence but so that we would expect His grace to heal us spiritually.
We are like Naaman the Syrian. He wanted to be healed of his leprosy by a dramatic display of God’s power. But his faith grew only when he set aside his desire for the dramatic and took a simple bathe in the humble Jordan. And he was healed. Only when we trust in the ordinary and undramatic (water, oil, bread and wine, words spoken through a screen) will we grow in faith – and find healing.
So if the story of a supposedly mysterious priest grabs our attention, perhaps it is so that we can appreciate the greater mystery of the priesthood. That a man should come and go unnoticed might be remarkable. That a man possesses the sacred power to confect the Eucharist and absolve sins is truly extraordinary. God’s glory is not found in a mysterious appearance and disappearance of a priest. It is found in the fact that He humbles Himself to use simple (and at times clumsy) men as His instruments of grace.