HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. - He may not be able to walk on water, but when the mood strikes, Father Matthew Munoz can ride one gnarly wave all the way into the beach.
So Sunday at dawn, on the white sands of the town where the U.S. Surfing Championships were born nearly a half-century ago, Munoz and some two dozen fellow wave riders paused to thank God for all the joy the oceans have provided them.
Then, after the surfer's ceremonial blowing of a conch shell for good luck, the pastor of Orange County's St. Irenaeus Catholic Church shouted out a hearty, "Let's surf!"
Clutching a board with an image of the Virgin of Guadeloupe inlaid into both sides, he led his flock and others in a race toward the water, diving in and paddling just as hard and as fast as he could toward the break.
The occasion was the Blessing of the Waves, a spiritual — but at the same time decidedly lighthearted — event organized by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.
One of the event's organizers, Father Christian Mondor, helped kick off the proceedings by thanking God (or "The Big Kahuna," as he also addressed him) for righteous waves and a killer ride for all the surfer babes and dudes assembled before him.
"May they hang 10 on thy oceanic bounty and, if it be in accordance with thy gnarly plan, may they not wipe out," he concluded, reading from a tongue-in-cheek poem written by Los Angeles Times reporter Dana Parsons.
Meanwhile, the audience broke out laughing when Munoz began his blessing by announcing: "I'm not Jesus. I need a surfboard to walk on water."
(For the record, with brown hair that cascades well past his shoulders, a flowing beard, a beatific face and his priestly robes, Munoz does bear a striking resemblance to depictions of Jesus.)
But there were also moments of seriousness, as when Mondor, the 83-year-old vicar emeritus of St. Simon and Jude Parish, added his own prayer: "Praise be you, creator God, for the gift of sea and sand and endless surf that brings us joy of body and soul. Help us always care for this great ocean so that we and generations to come may enjoy its beauty and power and majesty."
He timed the amen to that prayer perfectly, allowing rock band The Wedge to segue seamlessly into a power-chord opening of the surf classic "Wipeout."
Then it was off to the water, where the waves, practically heaven-sent, were breaking 4 to 6 feet on a warm, sun-dappled day.
"I got one! A great wave! Rode it all the way to the beach!" 54-year-old surfer Gary Sahagen shouted as he emerged from the ocean dripping wet and looking delighted.
The blessing, Sahagen said, reminded him of the old days around Huntington Beach, when the legendary Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku would kick off the U.S. Surfing Championships with a prayer.
Kahanamoku is almost a saint himself in these parts, credited with bringing surfing in the 1920s to a beachfront town that now calls itself Surf City.
His annual prayers, meanwhile, have come to be carried out informally over the years by riders who hit the waves before heading off to church on Sunday. Mondor said that's what helped inspire Sunday's church-sponsored blessing.
"I've talked to a lot of surfers who have said, 'Yeah, that's my best prayer time,'" the longboard rider said of Sunday morning prayer circles on the beach.
As a result, the church decided to open the blessing up to everybody, and representatives of the Jewish, Islamic and Mormon faiths were also on hand to offer prayers. It is planned to be an annual event.
"The ocean is such an important part of our lives. We're all one planet, one world, we're one people, so I think this is a wonderful idea," said Fawad Yacoob of the Islamic Society of Orange County.
Of the approximately 400 people who witnessed the blessing, only a couple dozen came with boards and wet suits.
But many said they recognized what Munoz, the 43-year-old priest who has been riding the breaks up and down the California coast for more than 20 years, calls "real parallels to spirituality and surfing."
"It's not exactly like church," said Rob Briggs as he stood on the sand with his board.
"But when you get out there past the break," he continued, "it clears your mind of anything troubling you. Worries of everyday life just go away."