Perhaps fifteen years ago, realizing that I was going to fall asleep before finishing my rosary, I placed my half-prayed beads directly on to the nightstand, instead of in their plastic holder, and drifted off to slumber.
Upon awakening next morning I saw that the beads, though themselves dry, were sitting in a pool of dense, almost waxy-feeling oil.
The rosary had been an impulse-buy. It was hewn of rose-scented wooden beads and came in a case decorated with a kitschy illustration of St.Thérèse of Lisieux. Normally I’d have taken a pass on such a purchase, but I’m a sucker for a rosy smell, and my late, lamented Catholic book seller had cunningly stacked them near the register, where people could linger and inhale and finally slip a scented rosary into their pile for just a few dollars more.
I give you these details only to emphasize how ordinary and un-special were both the rosary and my acquisition of it, and because later on the scent will become important to the story.
Pondering the odd puddle, I touched the oil and rubbed it between my fingers, expecting to smell roses. Instead I smelled Church—the frankincense-heavy notes that wafted through my own parish each Monday at Adoration, and during funerals and at high masses.
It was weird, but apparently not weird enough to impress me. I wiped the stuff away, placed the beads back on the wood and thought no more of it.
The next morning the rosary was again sitting dry amid a larger puddle of the same substance. This time I collected it in a small glass container. Strangely enough, once I had collected the oil, the beads exuded no more. I kept what I had collected, with no sense of why I might need it.
Not long afterwards, a twelve-year-old friend of our son’s suffered a stroke while playing sports. Days later he was still in a coma, and local parents were taking turns visiting his hospital room to pray with the parents and talk to the boy in hopes of rousing him. There was never a response.
When it was our turn to visit, I felt nudged, somehow, into bringing the oil and also the rosary itself, in its case. With his parent’s permission, I used the oil to mark the boy’s forehead, hands, and feet with the sign of the cross. I explained to him what I was doing, and related the story of how the oil had come about. No response.
Then, I opened the rosary container and lifted it to his nose.
His eyes shot open. All of us gasped. “Do that again,” his mother said.
I raised the rose-scented beads to his nose again and once more he opened his eyes. “This is the first time he’s done that,” his mother wept.
His eyes remained open. I raised the beads once more and this time—as he stared straight ahead—the boy snatched the case from my hands and held them near his nose. I gave him the lid and within minutes he was opening, sniffing, and closing the container—wordlessly opening, sniffing, and closing.
We didn’t stay long after that, but while we were there our patient continued to open the rosary case, smell the beads, and close it. “You can keep the rosary,” I told the still-staring boy as we said goodbye. There was no way I was taking them from his hands.
Not very long after that he was released from the hospital. He has since graduated from a prestigious university and is doing well.
So, was the oil miraculous? His parents thought so. I’m more inclined to think that the powerful scent of roses stimulated his olfactory senses and helped rouse him. But perhaps it was a necessary application of both.
I don’t question it. God can do anything and—as Scripture and the saints prove—he will often use the most unexceptional tools and people to work his will upon the world, even a dullard who finds chrism-scented oil beneath rose-scented wooden beads and is too stupid to collect it.
Though I do think God probably had a design in all of that, I needn’t believe it if I don’t wish to. Personal revelations are not part of the deposit of faith, after all—Catholics may believe in both these small “miracles” and the well-investigated spiritual phenomena that beget so many pilgrimages to Lourdes or Fatima, or they may ignore them entirely.
It’s a credit to the Church that we have a deep and thorough process of authenticating spiritual phenomena before proclaiming it “worthy of belief” or “unworthy.” So exacting is it that after 150 years of continuous pilgrimages (and countless healings of both a physical and spiritual nature), the Church only “officially” recognizes seventy physical healings from the spring waters at Massabielle. It is the insistence on investigation that gives these happenings credibility and protects the reputation of the Church.
I’m relating all of this for the sake of two Catholic stories currently garnering headlines, one about a bronze statue of the Virgin Mary that seems to be weeping “church-scented” olive oil tears, and the other about a powerful American Cardinal who is credibly accused of sexually abusing seminarians and minors with seeming impunity during his long and influential career in the Church.
The weeping Madonna is currently being investigated. So far, the source of the oil and the nature of its scent are yet to be discovered.
If the phenomena continues unexplained, we must ask: What does it mean when a statue of the Virgin seems to be weeping a chrism oil—oil that is consecrated every Holy Thursday by the hands of bishops and cardinal archbishops in every diocese?
No one can know, but I have a few ideas, not least that if Our Lady is weeping an oil so powerfully associated with the priesthood and the sacraments, it touches on the whole ecclesiology of the Church. Thus, it should be considered in light of the beyond-troubling headlines concerning powerful “princes” of the Church”—the men who use that oil, in persona Christi, to claim us for Christ, and seal us in faith, to heal our broken bodies and our frightened, sorrowful souls, and to ordain others into the priesthood which facilitates our Eucharistic Church.
If the tears of chrism remain a mystery, perhaps we may take it as a sign from the Mother of the Church that the Men of the Chrism need, yes, our prayers, but also something more: our help and our vigilance in facing a very difficult time of examination and needful, very likely painful correction.
What shall we do with that sign? Well, for one thing, we must be willing to investigate the long pattern of abuse, influence, and cover-up that involves Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick (and his enablers) as carefully and thoroughly as we investigate miracles at Lourdes and tears of the Madonna. We must be as unrelenting in discovering proofs, seeking evidences, and distrusting “easy” answers about the men who run the Church as we are over each miraculous claim we study.
We must do this for the very same reason we are so careful about our miracles: for the credibility and protection of the Church itself, and in service to Christ, who is Truth.
There must be a thorough investigation and it must be overseen by ordinary parish priests, deacons, religious, and members of the laity—we who have a part in the priesthood (and thus a responsibility for and to the Church) by virtue of our baptisms.
Let us understand the moment, then, and together call for accountability: a public investigation of those who ignored accusations against McCarrick or others, no matter where it leads. The whole story—however much it will discomfit and hurt us—needs to be revealed.
Even without the Virgin’s tears, it is time to acknowledge, as Church, that a mighty housekeeping is in order, for the sake of millions of souls and the very future of faith itself. Housekeeping is a humble but necessary business. As priests and laity, let us get to it.