In an age where words circle the globe at the speed of light, Redemptorist Father Allan Weinert understands more than most the awesome power of a single keystroke, for good or for ill.
For 14 years, which he counts as the richest and most fulfilling of his priesthood, Father Weinert was editor of Liguorian magazine, the Redemptorists’ national Catholic publication that highlights the worldwide impact of religious men and women ministering in the crucible of the Gospel.
It was in that laboratory of people working out their salvation with fear and trembling that Father Weinert, month after month, taught the Good News through his stories and those of his contributing staff.
“Parables are the language of the Scriptures,” Father Weinert said. “People remember the stories. You know, the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well – these are archetypal stories. They endure forever because they reflect the human heart.”
During his tenure as Liguorian editor from 1989 to 2003, Father Weinert had the privilege of traveling the world to encounter people and write new parables.
To get to the small Christian population facing extinction during the Sudanese civil war, he flew barely above the treetops with a bush pilot (“literally, under the radar”) to avoid detection by a military fighter and landed on an airstrip of hardpan dirt mixed with gravel.
In central Kenya, he removed the veil from the centuries-old, tribal custom of female circumcision by explaining how the Diocese of Meru was moving aggressively to protect young girls, 9 to 11 years old, by convincing their “aunties” to use the one-month time of “seclusion” to teach the girls about having sacred respect for their bodies and about their right to refuse an early marriage.
Father Weinert always loved to write, and even today, at his desk in the rectory at St. Alphonsus Parish, where he has served as parochial vicar for the last year, he keeps a small, spiral-bound notebook to jot down a random thought – “a golden nugget” – that he might develop someday into another story.
“It’s a little low-tech,” he said, but it works.
He was born in Kewaskum, Wisconsin – an Indian word that means “where the river bends” – and attended St. Joseph’s College Prep, a Redemptorist preparatory seminary where he was introduced to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and to the joy of reading by Father Martin Stillmach, his English teacher.
“He was tall and stooped over the lectern and he said, ‘“Call me Ishmael” is the greatest opening line of all literature!’” Father Weinert said. “I was captivated. The seminary was very structured. You would know six months in advance what the day was going to be like. But we had an option to stay up an extra half hour, and I would read Hemingway and Steinbeck.”
After he was ordained in 1972, Father Weinert returned to St. Joseph’s Prep to teach English, and in 1980, he began preaching missions throughout the U.S. He took pains to make his storytelling exactly right.
“Writing was emphasized,” Father Weinert said. “I remember Mark Twain saying, ‘Use the right word, don’t use its second cousin.’ Tight writing in journalism is to say a lot in an economy of words. Someone said, ‘Writing is like looking at a blank page until drops of sweat begin to form on your forehead.’ It’s hard work.”
When the Redemptorists asked him to take over editorship of Liguorian, Father Weinert said he was naïve and thought he would have to write every article. But his mission talks – usually 45 minutes long – had taught him his job was to grab and maintain people’s attention.
“If they’re going to come back the next night, you’ve really got to do something that might encourage them to come back,” he said.
One of his three favorite stories was a profile of Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, whom he met at Hope House in New Orleans while negotiations were underway to transform “Dead Man Walking” into a screenplay.
Father Weinert said he had not thought deeply about the death penalty until he spent the day with Sister Helen, who explained that she had never expected to hear back from Angola death row inmate Patrick Sonnier after she had written him a letter.
“She retold the entire story,” Father Weinert said. “Sometimes you meet people who redefine everything you thought or believed about something, and that was true for me. I had thought that since the death penalty was the highest, most severe penalty, it was a deterrent to crime. Sister Helen said she asked (Sonnier), ‘Did you think you might be sentenced to death for that?’ He said, ‘I didn’t even think I would get caught.’”
He also obtained a rare interview with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who developed the theory about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Kübler-Ross was one of the first persons to enter the death camps in Germany after WWII and care for the emaciated prisoners. She was so emotionally impacted that when she was a professor at a teaching hospital on the south side of Chicago in the 1950s, she required her medical students to make rounds in the hospital’s back ward – where the dying were kept out of sight.
“She said, ‘Talk to them. They have a lot to teach you,’” Father Weinert said. “That started the understanding of the process of death and dying, and it took a lot of fear and anxiety out of it. What a great service to the human family, especially when that last breath leaves our body.”
Kübler-Ross was making her own journey toward death when Father Weinert visited her at her home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Her body was so racked with arthritis that Kübler-Ross had to sleep in a recliner. She was notorious for keeping CNN on all the time, but for Father Weinert’s visit, she turned off the TV. Still, she would answer his questions only with one- or two-word responses.
Blank page. Beads of sweat.
Finally, Father Weinert summoned the courage to ask: “Doctor, you’re willing to die. You’re ready. Why are you still here?’
Kübler-Ross replied: “Well, there’s something I haven’t learned.”
Father Weinert wrote about the mother in Hawaii who called him one day saying she was trying to save her child’s financially troubled Catholic school, Our Mother of Perpetual Help, from closing.
“The principal told her, ‘Don’t try to save it. We’ve run all the bakes sales we can. We just don’t have any energy left,’” Father Weinert said.
The mother got the idea of giving students disposable, cardboard cameras and asking them to “go out and photograph God.”
“Children are natural theologians,” Father Weinert said.
The mother lined up buses and chaperones for the kids to search far and wide for God. One student took a picture of his grandfather “with two days of stubble and calm eyes.” Others photographed wildlife and scenes of Hawaii’s natural wonders. The mother asked students to write what they saw of God in each photo.
The students’ photos and reflections became a bestselling book: “God’s Photo Album: How We Looked For God and Saved Our School.”
Our Mother of Perpetual Help, hasten to help us.
At a Mexican mountaintop village of indigenous people, Father Weinert met a group of Christian Brothers who taught in a school. He climbed the mountain in a monsoon, got caked with mud, and then, finally, reached the village, where a family invited him in for dinner.
“There were probably eight or nine children in the family,” he said. “We all sat around this table. There was creosote from the cooking oven on the wall, and we ate rice and beans. I think the chicken escaped the dinner. You know, I’ve eaten meals in very nice restaurants, and I don’t
remember them. I remember that night.”
Kübler-Ross might ask, is there something he hasn’t learned?
“What this all teaches me is to live simply – not to use something that would deprive someone else of something they need,” Father Weinert said. “That’s a hard one to live by, but you know what, I try to do that. It’s a great freedom, living simply.”
His worry, just as it remains his hope, is the power of the written word. In a world of crawling TV news feeds and multiple squares with talking heads screaming over each other, what are we to do in the Catholic press?
“CNN used to be one screen, and now it’s four screens,” he said. “We are bombarded with it. Culturally, it’s where we are. If you look at what’s in the secular media, it’s all corruption, it’s violence, it’s political infighting.”
Which is why the Catholic press has to work even harder to offer a worthy alternative.
“The Catholic press tells the Good News, and it’s a little harder to get at people’s hearts and minds because what’s attractive is what’s negative,” Father Weinert said. “But you can’t live outside the moral containers of life for long, and live very well. If you find yourself there, it’s restless, and you start to look for something that’s going to guide you and give you peace and assurance.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.