The Power of the Written Word
Adapted from Peter Finney Jr.’s, “Former Liguorian editor: Written Word Has Power” in the Clarion Herald
In an age where words circle the globe at the speed of light, Redemptorist Fr. 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 – Fr. Allan 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 month after month, he taught the Good News through his stories and those of his contributing staff.
“Parables are the language of the Scriptures,” he said. “People remember the stories. The Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well – these are archetypal stories. They endure forever because they reflect the human heart.”
Fr. Allan always loved to write, and even today at his desk in the rectory at St. Alphonsus Parish in New Orleans, 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 someday develop into another story. “It’s a little low-tech,” he said, “but it works.”
Born in Kewaskum, Wisconsin, Fr. Allan attended St. Joseph’s Preparatory College, where he was introduced to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and to the joy of reading by Fr. Martin Stillmock, his English teacher.
“He was tall and stooped over the lectern. He said, ‘Call me Ishmael is the greatest opening line of all literature!’” Fr. Allan remembered. “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 to the priesthood in 1972, Fr. Allan returned to St. Joseph’s to teach English. In 1980, he began preaching missions throughout the U.S. He took pains to make his storytelling exactly right. “Writing was emphasized. I remember Mark Twain saying, ‘Use the right word, don’t use its second cousin.’ Someone else 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 the Liguorian, Fr. Allan 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. “You have to do something that might encourage them to come back,” he explained.
One of his three favorite stories was a profile of the 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. Fr. Allan said he had not thought deeply about the death penalty until he spent the day with Sr. 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.
“Sometimes you meet people who redefine everything you thought or believed about something, and that was true for me,” Fr. Allan said. “I had thought that since the death penalty was the highest, most severe penalty, it was a deterrent to crime. Sr. Helen said she asked Sonnier if he thought he might be sentenced to death, and he replied, ‘I didn’t even think I would get caught.’”
Fr. Allan also obtained a rare interview with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who developed a theory about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She 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,’” Fr. Allan 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.”
She was making her own journey toward death when Fr. Allan visited her in Scottsdale, AZ. Her body was so racked with arthritis that she had to sleep in a recliner, and she was notorious for having constant CNN coverage for company. She turned off the television, but answered his questions only with one- or two-word responses. Blank page. Beads of sweat. Finally, Fr. Allan summoned the courage to ask: “Doctor, you’re willing to die. You’re ready. Why are you still here?” She replied: “Well, there’s something I haven’t learned.”
Fr. Allan wrote about the mother in Hawaii who called him because 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,’” Fr. Allan said. But she got the idea of giving students disposable, cardboard cameras and asking them to photograph God.
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. She asked the students to write about what they saw of God in each photo. Those photos and reflections became a best-selling book God’s Photo Album: How We Looked For God and Saved Our School.
Fr. Allan’s worry, just as it remains his hope, is in 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 is the Catholic press to do? “We are bombarded with it. Culturally, it’s where we are. Secular media coverage is all corruption, violence and political infighting,” he said. “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. 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.”