Years ago as a newly ordained priest I suffered my first pastoral disappointment. A relatively young man was dying and the doctors were behind the curve in pain control. He was in torment. His loving wife called for a priest in hopes of his reconciliation with the Church. He reluctantly allowed my entry into his hospital room and I hastened to begin the prayers. He stopped me abruptly – he had enough of my newly ordained veneer of piety, or so it seemed to me — and ordered me to leave. When I departed I had a disturbing sense. I felt like a witch doctor, mumbling a multiplication of prayers to no avail, and then struggling to avoid judgments belonging to God alone. Greatly disturbed, in prayer I commended the man to God’s mercy and tried to forget about it forever.
Over twenty years had passed when the memory was resurrected courtesy of reading the Catholic writer, Evelyn Waugh.
In Waugh’s classic novel “Brideshead Revisited” the patriarch of a Catholic family leaves his wife and family to live in adultery. As an old man, accompanied by his mistress, he returns to his family estate in England to die. His practicing Catholic son arranges for the parish priest to pay a visit. To my eye the priest suffers the same kind of rebuke I had experienced so many years ago (and in variations since). The unrepentant sinner dismisses him with ignominy. The lapsed Catholic holds on to life with almost a superhuman strength. But his doctor wonders if his patient is really holding on in great fear: fear of death and fear of God’s judgment.
In a poignant deathbed scene the priest is once again allowed into the patriarch’s quarters. Like a witch doctor (at least to my eye), the priest dutifully mumbles his prayers, not knowing how God would receive them on behalf of the unconscious soul. To the amazement of the family, as the priest concludes his prayers, the old man, with heroic effort, at last makes the Sign of the Cross, definitively revealing that the prayers of the priest were not recited in vain.
In truth I know very little about witch doctors and their presumed magical practices. But I figure if their magic was for real there would be a lot of very wealthy shaman sorcerers living about. So I remain skeptical. But the ways of witch doctors do not correspond to the Church’s view of ritual and sacrament. The sacraments, as theologians tell us, “effect what they signify” and the effects of grace are received only by open hearts. Christ knocks and we open the door. Those receiving the absolution of the Church in the Sacrament of Penance (or Anointing of the Sick) receive forgiveness only if there is a desire – expressed or unconscious– for the reception of the sacraments. (This is why it is a holy exercise to make frequent resolutions in prayer to place no obstacle to these sacraments should we someday receive them when unconscious.)
The Lord Himself is not a witch doctor despite the unholy expectations of the Pharisees (and, let’s be honest, many of us today) who would have Him dance to our tune. He desires our faith in Him and in His loving providence and our response in freedom. The Gospel tells us that He came to His hometown and “…He began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” They were way too familiar with their homegrown friend and relative. But Jesus said to them, “’A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.’ And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (Mt 13:53-58). Christ will not be put to the test by our demand for signs. He grants us His signs in response to faith.
This brings us to the greatest and most pervasive of all signs, the Sign of the Cross. The Sign of the Cross begins every prayer. A Cross is displayed in every church. Filled with mystery there is nothing “magical” about the Cross. The Cross is not the stuff of witch doctors, but rather the sign of supreme sacrifice for man’s salvation. Furthermore the Cross is profoundly realistic, not only revealing the horror of sin and the price Christ paid for us, but also reminding us of our own destiny, or more precisely, the narrow gate to our eternal existence. We will die. But how will we die?
Within a few weeks of my first bitter disappointment as a priest, I found myself once again visiting the sick in the hospital. This time an octogenarian beckoned me into his room exclaiming, “Am I glad to see you!” The old man was seriously ill but in surprising good spirits after seeing a young man in a Roman collar making the hospital rounds. He hadn’t been to the sacraments for a very long time. So, with a growing familiarity with the usual priestly routine, I heard his Confession, anointed him and delivered Holy Communion. After our prayer he expressed the gratitude of an excited little kid opening presents on Christmas Day. As I departed I promised to bring him Communion during the time of his recovery. The next day I came knocking. The bed was empty. Overnight the man passed through the narrow gate of death. I felt no sorrow; quite the contrary. “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
With the help of this anonymous elderly Catholic man, the gnawing and unreasonable temptation of feeling like a witch doctor had passed. I regained my composure as a priest of Jesus Christ. With renewed confidence in my priestly ministry, I felt assured he navigated the narrow gate with God’s grace, and in good humor. In prayer we exchanged winks.