Fr Weinandy Sets a Fleece
Have you ever heard the expression “setting a fleece”? It comes from Chapter 6 of the Old Testament Book of Judges, where an obscure individual named Gideon has a vision telling him to lead the Israelites against their oppressors, the Midianites. He’s not sure if the vision is real or not, so he prays to God for a sign that it was genuine. He takes the fleece of a sheep, puts it on the ground, and leaves it overnight. If the fleece is wet with dew the next morning, leaving the ground dry, he will take it that the vision was real. Next morning the fleece is soaking wet, and the ground dry, but he’s still not quite convinced, so he prays for a further sign the next night. This time, he wants the ground to be all wet, and the fleece bone dry, and that’s just what happens.
When I was involved in charismatic renewal (yes I was, for quite a few years) a very gifted teacher, Margaret, used to give us the benefit of her deep knowledge of Scripture. When she got to the story of Gideon, the question arose whether it was permissible for people in our own times to “lay a fleece”—metaphorically speaking—by asking God for a specific sign that a particular course of action one had in mind was in accordance with His will. From what I recall, Margaret said that while one shouldn’t make a habit of it, setting a fleece could be permissible in some cases where one was genuinely perplexed and an important issue was involved.
I had never heard anyone setting a fleece in an official Catholic context until very recently. That’s what Capuchin father Thomas Weinandy did, although that’s not what he called it. You will recall that Fr Weinandy wrote a severe letter to Pope Francis, chiding him for causing much of the present chaos in the Church. For his pains, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops forced Fr Weinandy to resign from his position as their consultant. That’s ironic, because in his letter to the Pope, Fr Weinandy said: “Many fear that if they speak their mind, they will be marginalised or worse.”
Anyway, here is Fr Weinandy’s account of how he came to write the letter:
At the end of this past May I was in Rome to attend a meeting of the International Theological Commission, of which I am a member. I stayed at Domus Sanctae Marthae. Since I arrived early, I spent most of the Sunday afternoon prior to the meeting on Monday in Saint Peter’s praying in the Eucharistic Chapel. I was praying about the present state of the Church and the anxieties I had about the present Pontificate. I was beseeching Jesus and Mary, St. Peter and all of the saintly popes who are buried there to do something to rectify the confusion and turmoil within the Church today, a chaos and an uncertainty that I felt Pope Francis had himself caused. I was also pondering whether or not I should write and publish something expressing my concerns and anxiety. On the following Wednesday afternoon, at the conclusion of my meeting, I went again to St. Peter’s and prayed in the same manner. That night I could not get to sleep, which is very unusual for me. It was due to all that was on my mind pertaining to the Church and Pope Francis. At 1:15 AM I got up and went outside for short time. When I went back to my room, I said to the Lord: “If you want me to write something, you have to give me a clear sign. This is what the sign must be. Tomorrow morning I am going to Saint Mary Major’s to pray and then I am going to Saint John Lateran. After that I am coming back to Saint Peter’s to have lunch with a seminary friend of mine. During that interval, I must meet someone that I know but have not seen in a very long time and would never expect to see in Rome at this time. That person cannot be from the United States, Canada or Great Britain. Moreover, that person has to say to me in the course of our conversation, ‘Keep up the good writing’.”
The next morning I did all of the above and by the time I met my seminarian friend for lunch what I had asked the Lord the following night was no longer in the forefront of my mind. However, towards the end of the meal an archbishop appeared between two parked cars right in front of our table (we were sitting outside). I had not seen him for over twenty years, long before he became an archbishop. We recognized one another immediately. What made his appearance even more unusual was that because of his recent personal circumstances I would never have expected to see him in Rome or anywhere else, other than in his own archdiocese. (He was from none of the above mentioned countries.) We spoke about his coming to Rome and caught up on what we were doing. I then introduced him to my seminarian friend. He said to my friend that we had met a long time ago and that he had, at that time, just finished reading my book on the immutability of God and the Incarnation. He told my friend that it was an excellent book, that it helped him sort out the issue, and that my friend should read the book. Then he turned to me and said: “Keep up the good writing.”
In the light of Jesus fulfilling my demanding “sign,” I want to make two comments. First, I decided to write Pope Francis a letter, which I intended then to publish unless he adequately addressed the issues I raised. Almost two months after having received my letter, I did receive an acknowledgement from Vatican Secretariat of State informing me that the letter had been received. This was simply an acknowledgement and not a response to my concerns. Second, I find it significant that not only did the Lord fulfill my demand for a sign, but also did so in, what I believe, a very significant manner. He accomplished it through an archbishop. By utilizing an archbishop, I believe, that Jesus’ fulfillment of my request took on an apostolic mandate.