By Barnabas Ramon Fortune
The priest was getting a bit queer. Frequently he would stop during the celebration of the Mass seeming to be carried away by distractions. People said that soon he would be removed and sent back to his home country, back to the Motherhouse. Complaints had already been made to the Archbishop. The kinder ones said the weather in the tropics had addled his brain.
When you met him, he had that large-eyed look of lost wonder in his eyes, and he seemed completely oblivious to the rents in his cassock. He was tall and his prominent cheekbones in a long, oval face, and a high, bony nose, gave an impression of classic beauty. He was mostly bald but his hair, what he had of it, sleek and black, grew long behind his head.
I knew him well, Father Ignatius. He liked my family because I had a lot of children. I have eight of them. I believed he liked me, too. I considered it an honour.
One Saturday afternoon he met me in the churchyard during confessions. It was a slow afternoon—no special feast on the following Sunday, no First Sunday, nothing.
“Barney,” he said, “have you ever walked upon water?”
“You mean, Father,” I hesitated, “like St Peter on the water?”
He was staring at me, and I was confused, so that I could not look at him in the eye without betraying that I had begun to believe what was said by the rest of the people—that he was mad.
“Yes.” He said, almost shouting at me. His voice was urgent. “…like St Peter walking on the water.”
“Er….no, Father,” I said. The fire went out of his eyes and the urgency out of his voice. He became a little sad as if I had disappointed him. “Surely,” he seemed to say, “you…you should understand.”
“Yes, Barney,” he said, “you do something comparable to walking on water every time you make an act of faith.”
I stood back in the warm, sunny afternoon, uncomprehending. He pressed me further, gently. He seemed to want someone who would understand, even with the smallest glimmering of the mind, what he himself saw so clearly.
He wanted to give something away. And he thought I was the one who would understand—who would take what he offered.
But I shook my head.
He blinked three times, indecisively, as if wondering whether I was worthy of the gift.
“Barney, look,” he said, gripping me by the shoulders, “re-create….I mean, bring the scene back to your imagination…….It is night……The apostles are rowing in the midst of the immensity of darkness that surrounds them….The winds are contrary…..They are surrounded by the impenetrable mystery of night and the winds that howl around them and the turmoil of the sea reflects the turmoil of their own thoughts. They think of the feeding of the five thousand the evening before and are confused because they understood not concerning the loaves, for their hearts were blinded.
“Then, suddenly, out of the darkness something appears upon the water. Is it a haze? A figure? It is white and featureless and luminousness hovers about it. It moves silently towards them through the darkness.
Someone, probably Judas, shouts: ‘It is a ghost!’. Fear grips their hearts. A figure, white and featureless, surrounded by a luminous haze……Does it not remind you of the Host in the monstrance? Especially when five thousand were fed in the miracle of bread the day before? Does it not remind you of Benediction after Mass?
And immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying ‘Be of good heart; it is I……fear not.’ Out of the rocking boat Peter then shouts over the turbulent water: ‘If it be Thou, bid me come to Thee upon the water.’ And Jesus answers ….His voice comes through the gushing teeth of the wind and over the thunderous waters as a whisper, as it comes, too, over the turbulent waters of our fears: ‘Come.’ And Peter steps out of the boat and walks upon the water.
He does a supernatural thing….He makes an act of faith. His garments whipping about him, he walks through the churning waters to his Host, his Master, not recognising the beloved well-known face but only following the familiar voice which said: ‘It is I.’
Then, suddenly, he takes stock of himself. He takes his eyes, for an instant, from the indistinct figure, encircled by luminousness, shrouded in the dark mantle of the night. Perhaps he felt he was walking on the water by his own power and glorying in his abilities. Most likely, he doubted that it was at all possible….Straightaway he sank beneath waves and the salt sea-spray, now becoming venomous, stung his eyes and he said: ‘Lord! Save me or I perish’.”
Fire burned in Fr Ignatius’ eyes.
“Oh, that cry! Barney, that cry! It is the salvation of us, sinful men! It is the salvation of this materialistic world! O Lord, increase my faith….I believe, O Lord, help Thou my unbelief! Our Lord turned sorrowful eyes upon His poor, so human disciple who took so long to learn the things that were to be entrusted to Him above all the others, and said reproachfully, ‘O thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?’.”
Fr Ignatius’ hands had long ago dropped from my shoulders. His body looked as limp as his scapula flapping in the wind, and tears were streaming down his face.
“You see,” he stammered, “you see why I asked you if you ever walked upon water?……. Every day when I adore the consecrated Host in my hands, I walk upon the waters…Every day every Catholic who really believes in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist does a more stupendous thing than walking upon the waters.”
After he left me and went back into the church to hear confessions I returned to the church, knelt before the tabernacle and made an act of faith.
And I know with a calm but vivid reality, that I was doing something more stupendous than walking upon the waters.
Barnabas Ramon Fortune wrote the piece in 1954. A prolific writer, he was known for his weekly Catholic News column ‘Little Essays by a Dad’ in the 1990s. He died in 2003. The Hummingbird medal Gold for Literature was posthumously awarded in 2004.