Priests, Wizards and the Technification of Liturgy

Trouble in Utica

In late 2020 Rev. Matthew Hood, a priest working in Utica received the disturbing news that his baptism was not ‘valid’. You can read the story here and here and read the Archdiocese of Detroit’s comments here.

Thirty years later, Father Matthew watched a video of his baptism and realized that the celebrating deacon changed the words of the baptism from “I baptize” to “We baptize.” The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to the incident by saying that no one “even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy of his own authority.”

The result of all this is that Father Matthew had to (re)receive the Sacraments of Christian Initiation: Baptism, Holy Eucharist, and confirmation before then being ordained (again) as a deacon and priest. As one news article states, “Because the sacraments of confirmation and holy orders can only be conferred upon validly baptized Catholics, Father Hood was ‘devastated’ to learn that not only was he not baptized or confirmed, but he also was not a validly ordained priest.” This had a domino effect on the Christians who had received pastoral ministry from Rev. Hood. The Archdiocese of Detroit explained that people whom Rev. Hood had baptized were legitimately baptized, but his confirmations were not legitimate and neither had people received sacramental absolution or Holy Eucharist from him.

It’s important to note that I do appreciate Rev. Matthew’s desire to do the right thing once he had rewatched the video of his Baptism. This must have been a traumatic experience for him and I can understand (because it’s an impulse I share) the desire to be in right relationship with the institutional structures of which you are apart. I also think it is appropriate for the Catholic Church to reiterate that their liturgy may not be casually changed on the whim of a single Priest or Deacon. So it may be that this whole strange event played out the only way that it could.

Having said all that, I think this incident speaks to the way we confuse priests with wizards and it speaks to the danger of the ‘technication’ of our liturgy.

“You’re a Wizard Harry”

In fantasy novels, the wizard’s magic only works if they recite the incantation, with the appropriate hand gestures, correctly. Remember the scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Hermione corrects Ron’s pronunciation of a particular spell: “It’s not wingardium liviosa, it’s wingardium liviosaaaa”. The children are being taught how to do magic and to get the magic to work requires learning skills and techniques. Do it wrong and the magic doesn’t work.

Technology is the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of an objective.

Wizards are, I would like to suggest, the technologists of the fantasy world. They use techniques to get their magic done. There is a particular way that their magic is performed and it requires skill, practice and learning to do it.

Ordinarily when we think of technology we think about specific technologies like digital or bio-tech: we talk about the phone in your pocket as ‘technology’. But technology, defined more broadly, is a methodological approach to the world, a methodology of using techniques, skills and methods towards accomplishing an objective. This is why Bezalel the craftsman who built the temple in Exodus 35:30-33, the bio-chemist using CRISPR as a tool for gene editing and the wizard doing magic are all examples of technology despite their vastly different aims, and the tools at their disposal.

Consider other types of magic in other fantasy worlds that aren’t technological. The Force in the Star Wars films doesn’t require any techniques, just self-belief and discipline. The X-men mutants have, generally speaking, one trick (healing, moving metal, telekinesis) and while some of them have to practice to get good at it for the most part it’s an innate ability that they did not choose or have any influence over.

Compare those examples with the wizard Gandalf, a character in the LotR’s trilogy, who as a result of his great learning and skill is able to cast particular spells, read ancient runes and face off against terrifying demons. He whispers a particular set of phrases correctly and the magic is done. Both Gandalf and the children and Hogwarts represent a particular way of ‘doing’ magic, a technological way.

Priests are not Wizards

All this leads me to this question: Why didn’t the Baptism of Rev. Hood thirty years ago count? How is it that he could spend his entire life living as a Christian, entering into full-time Priestly ministry distributing the Sacraments and hearing the confession of his congregation, only to have all of that called into question by the resurfacing of a grainy VHS tape?

Why didn’t Matthew’s Bishop tell him not to worry because, of course, the sacraments as a means of Grace are efficacious by God’s grace alone who has promised to work through these gifts and who is not limited by the ministers who distribute them?

My concern is that the trouble in Utica last year indicates that we have developed a technological approach to liturgy and effectiveness is dependent on the skills, techniques or correct wording of the ministers. Have we reduced liturgy to a technology of grace and turned priests into wizards who must utter the correct incantation for the magic to work.

I am all for the proper wording of liturgy particularly as lex orandi lex credendi what we pray is what we believe. I’m not advocating for a free-for-all where Priests are free to choose whatever wording they wish. But it is in these edge cases where mistakes are made that our theology reveals itself. Are we forced to say that a priest of thirty years must be re-baptised because it didn’t work the first time? Surely priests are not wizards, we do not possess a magic that only works when particular words are uttered. Perhaps instead we must develop a confidence in God’s gift of grace in-and-through the sacraments, a grace that covers even the delivery of the sacraments themselves.

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