The painful truth is that I never knew my grandfather, at least in any way that a grandchild should. My grandfather went overseas to fight in the first world war, full of pride. But he returned, like so many other young men, broken in spirit. In the years after his marriage to my grandmother, life afforded him little opportunity beyond labour as a brick layer. He tried to be a man of faith, but with every bottle he drank, his sense of worth diminished. When his body finally became too tired to work, his waning years disappeared before the television screen, his mind consumed by his addiction. Whatever mercy he asked for in his final days, there is no doubt he carried tremendous pain to the grave.
How many of us carry the memories of those whose stories leave us with no tale of redemption, no dramatic moment of grace to close the curtain of life, no bright ray of hope shining on their horizon. We are left sorting through the broken dreams and fractured relationships to find a goodness we can hold up, something to tell us this life meant something.
During the month of November, the Church encourages the faithful to spend 30 days praying for the dead. Pope Francis has said: “Church tradition has always urged prayer for the dead, in particular by offering the celebration of the Eucharist for them: It is the best spiritual help that we can give to their souls, particularly to the most abandoned ones.”
It is in the words of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, where I find great hope in the gift of purgatory, the time when God purifies those souls who long to know the peace of His eternal presence, but still carry the scars and sin of this life on earth. Benedict XVI offers these words for us:
Purgatory basically means that God can put the pieces back together again. That he can cleanse us in such a way that we are able to be with him and can stand there in the fullness of life. Purgatory strips off from one person what is unbearable and from another the inability to bear certain things, so that in each of them a pure heart is revealed, and we can see that we all belong together in one enormous symphony of being.”
My grandfather lost a part of his soul on the battlefields. In this month to come, I will be praying that God, even now, is putting the pieces back together again, through His holy fire cleansing and making my grandfather whole in spirit, so he can at last rest eternally at peace in the presence of our Holy God. And for my own penance, for the times I have walked by the broken and depressed, and have not thought to share the hope found in Christ’s redemption,
I will give alms this month in support of veterans who are still living through the trauma of war for the sake of my freedom. Have mercy on us all, O Lord, and lead us safely Home.
Written by Lance Dixon, Director of Campus Ministry at St. Mary's University
For the August edition of Faithfully, we asked sacred artist Maria Muszynski, founding member of Sacred Guild of Alberta, a Lay Association in the Diocese of Calgary, to share about her journey in the sacred arts.
Why becoming a sacred artist?
I was born an artist. But why the sacred arts? I have been journeying towards this path my whole life. A journey shaped by childhood experiences, unexpected circumstances, and twists of fate.
My father was a Polish soldier who fought with the Allied army and my mother was a refugee in a displaced persons camp. After the war, by chance, they both decided to settle in Calgary. My mother converted to Catholic Christianity when she agreed to marry my father. Mother’s side of the family were Russian Orthodox and we celebrated Christmas and Easter (twice!) with the extended family. On occasion I attended the All Saints Russian Orthodox Church and feasted my eyes on the iconostasis which separated the sanctuary from the nave. From the cadence and the passion of the choral voices singing the liturgy in the loft, to the intense images that were illuminated by hundreds of candles lit by the faithful – all of these elements left an indelible impression that shaped my sensibilities and my soul.
In comparison, the Queen of Peace Polish Catholic Church - which was the church we attended - was innovative on the outside (built in 1968 and shaped like a gleaming white teepee) but bereft of warmth inside because of its plain concrete walls and lack of imagery (minimalism and constructivism was “in”). Only a framed copy of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, resided above the altar. Over the years, as the population of Polish immigrants increased, many contributed their talents to the beautification of the church. Today the stained-glass windows, once plain, resonate with stories while the walls are warmed with carved traditional architectural features and religious imagery. It is a testament to the transformational power of art and faith.
I began my personal journey into the sacred arts when St. Mary’s University offered a Sacred Arts certificate program. The first course I took was Painting in the Western Renaissance Tradition. Other courses followed – traditional iconography, calligraphy and illumination, and even stained glass. A trip to Italy to see the glories of Rome, Florence and Ravenna was a special highlight. In 2014, I was one of 5 students to complete the requirements for the certificate in the Foundations of Sacred Art. The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA) was conceived by a handful of like-minded souls who wished to delve even deeper. SAGA brings in local and international specialists in illumination, iconography, calligraphy, sculpture - and in the near future Byzantine mosaic - to nourish the skills and spirits of our guild membership leading to a wonderful resurgence in the creation of sacred arts here in Alberta.
Share about other artists who inspired you
My journey has taken me through many mentors most notably iconographer Peter Murphy, David Clayton (The Way of Beauty) and the brilliant illuminator Jeb Gibbons. I am also inspired by the traditional work of Aidan Hart, and the contemporary style of Philip Davydov, among others. I am drawn both to the classical Greek/Byzantine and Romanesque style of icons, and to Marian images in particular because of my Polish heritage. Like Saint John Paul, faith in Mary kept me strong through many trials and tribulations including surviving cancer.
Sacred art is not ‘art’, it is theology, it is a way of praying and connecting with God and all His wonderful creation. I am humbled that people have expressed their admiration of what I do, but I thank the spirit of God who moves through me when I sit and begin the first line. Every stroke is meditative and reflective and prayerful. It is an act of salvation, my connection to the divine. Peter Murphy and Aidan Hart believe that a fragment of heavenly reality is revealed within the sacred image, as it is revealed in the holy Scriptures and through the blessed sacrament. It is ‘extraordinary’ in every sense of the word.
Any advice for novices in sacred art?
The best advice for beginning sacred artists is to be mindful while you are working – hold the focus and pray. Breathe. Practice your drawing skills which is key. Find a good teacher or mentor who inspires you. Learn from everyone you can and practice. The typical stereotype of the hermit monk writing icons alone in his hovel does not fit today, so find and join a community of similar-minded artists. And practice more. Do not worry about the medium you use because it is the message of the image and the intent of the artist that are more important.
Writing an icon is like praying twice. “Lord Jesus Christ, God of all, enlighten us, imbue the soul, the heart, the intellect of Your servant.” So begins the iconographer’s prayer. And is it still relevant today? In the age of Covid-19 and all its’ uncertainties and anxieties - more than ever.
I remember going past the dorm buildings, down the hill, through the cafeteria, and out into the coulees in the Oldman River. It was dark out — the University of Lethbridge hadn’t installed the floodlights yet — and so the only light I could see by was the moon reflecting off of the clouds, sailing eastward on a full chinook wind. I came to the crest of the coulees and just stood there, unsure of exactly what was going on or what exactly I was hoping to accomplish by getting fresh air.
And that’s when He came to me.
The song’s chorus goes:
“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy that we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.”
It sounds cliché, and it probably is, but I can’t deny that I felt the presence of the Holy Ghost there that night, riding in on the wind, wrapping me tightly in His embrace, teaching me that I am beloved regardless of my academic abilities. To accept that God loves me as a cerebral exercise is one matter, but to experience it in the heart is another matter entirely. I think I began to understand this all more clearly that night. I felt peace in the midst of the academic storm, and joy in the midst of personal trial. Most importantly, I knew that I was His own.
I stood on the coulees for quite some time, the wind washing over me and carrying all of my anxieties out to Saskatchewan (or wherever the chinook winds go). When I finally left to return to another few hours of pounding my keyboard, I knew that regardless of how my academic work turned out, of more importance was that I would turn out, because I have a loving God who will light a lamp and sweep the house to find His lost coin.
I would go on walks outside again throughout my degree whenever I was overwhelmed and anxious; even now, it has been a very present help in the midst of the pandemic. And still, every so often, God finds me on these walks and speaks with me in my heart, and we share that joy together that “none other has ever known”.
Written by Solomon Ip, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist, Calgary.
One of Calgary’s newest vegetable gardens is located in the backyard of Elizabeth House (EH), a maternal care home that’s now growing ready-to-eat plants alongside healthy babies. In a world hungry for good news, this project fits the bill, says Michelle Haywood, program manager at Elizabeth House.
Opened by the Catholic Diocese of Calgary more than 20 years ago, Elizabeth House provides supportive housing to at-risk pregnant and parenting women who need a safe place to live. Seeded into two new raised beds, this year’s inaugural garden is busy growing everything from lettuce to tomatoes, carrots and squash. It’s also nurturing at least one young resident’s interest in vegetable production—and it all began with a group of Catholic men who dared ask the folks at EH a simple question: How can we help?
The raised beds, like every other landscape revitalization project undertaken at Elizabeth House since 2017, were built by the St. Peter’s Council of the Knights of Columbus. That’s the year the council’s Grand Knight Peter Dugandzic reached out to Haywood. That conversation laid the foundation of a relationship that’s flourished over four years, thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours.
“What the Knights have done here is amazing, but it’s about more than landscaping,” notes Haywood. “There’s also a sense of being cared for by this group of gentlemen offering their hands and hearts to help us. It’s hard to put that kind of support into words.”
Love in action
By 2018, Dugandzic was leading a group of Knights of Columbus in some serious hands-on work. Together, the men transformed the home’s weed-filled backyard into a summer oasis, complete with new sod and a new patio, outdoor furniture, a barbecue, perimeter shrub beds and an underground sprinkler. That same year, another council based in Airdrie provided the labour to re-side EH’s home and detached garage.
Last year, the Knights tackled the home’s front yard, again adding fresh sod, shrubs and irrigation.
“Everybody was pretty excited when Peter brought the idea to the council,” remembers Lu Scarpino. Sworn in as the Grand Knight at St. Peter’s this July, Scarpino was the council treasurer when the project began. “Elizabeth House is doing great work and it’s nice to be able to support that. I think we’ve built a relationship that will continue for many years,” adds Scarpino.
Fr. Jonathan Gibson agrees. The pastor at St. Peter’s parish, Fr. Gibson says the relationship between the knights and Elizabeth House reinforces the governing principles of the Knights of Columbus. Charity, unity, fraternity and patriotism have all been strengthened by the project, says the priest. He views the relationship between the Knights of Columbus and Elizabeth House as a real-world example of how these knights live the heart of the gospel by doing work that cares for the women and children who live at Elizabeth House.
With the vegetable garden beds built and seeded, Dugandzic and Haywood are now focused on relocating a grotto built on the grounds of the original EH site in the Mission district. The stone work will be done by the same skilled tradesmen who built the grotto and one at the new Our Lady of the Rockies church in Canmore. The statue of Mary is being repainted by Dugandzic’s wife, Dorothy Voytechek. The new grotto will include a glass panel to protect the statue from the elements.
The grotto will be added to the backyard; already a place of refuge for residents, their children and EH staff, says Haywood. Given the complications of COVID-19, she knows the Knights at St. Peter’s didn’t have their usual opportunities to fundraise in 2020. That means some of the costs incurred were covered by individual knights and their families.
Dugandzic, who’s already working with Elizabeth House on projects for 2021, says he launched the EH project as a way to invigorate the Knights he led. Looking back, he admits the project’s success goes way beyond the physical spaces they created. “Elizabeth House is dear to our hearts. We like the work that they do. That house is nearly always full and it feels good to know our knights have helped make it an even more special place.”
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Written by Christina Candra, a parishioner of St. Joseph's Parish in Calgary.
If the last several months have reinforced anything, it is the extraordinary grace of an ordinary moment lived well. Faced with an abrupt “stripping away” of the extras that made life very full, our little family has had to work hard to claim, in simplicity and joy, the identity of domestic church. It has been challenging and edifying to see the ordinary, mundane moments through the lens of faith.
In the slowing down, we are becoming more aware of the opportunity these moments present to us. We have come to understand more deeply the invitation to elevate them and give glory to God through them. We hunger and thirst for Christ in the Eucharist, for the community life of our parish, for song, and the opportunity to embrace our friends. Yet this hunger has also made all the more clear to me that my little family is the microcosm of that greater Church reality! We are the image of Trinitarian love to the world, through our faithful and fruitful love for each other. As St. John Paul the Great reminds us in Familiaris Consortio, “...the family has the mission to guard, reveal and communicate love, and this is a living reflection of and a real sharing in God's love for humanity and the love of Christ the Lord for the Church His bride.” And so we seek ways to tangibly image His love to our children, and through them to those around us. It is incredible how ordinary realities can become imbued with incredible spiritual symbolism. Take, for instance, a picnic!
With four small children there is nothing perfect about the planning, preparing, and living out of a picnic adventure! There is mess, there are spills, there are little hands fumbling at sandwich making and mommy working very hard to keep her patience, while daddy sweats to load enough supplies in the car for what seems like a month’s trip. There is immense effort in the instruction, between the extra time everything takes and the imperfection of the end result. Truly, my humanity rebels a little against the effort when it could be done so quickly and neatly by only me! However, I know that this is a perfect moment of learning in the schools of service and forgiveness. Inevitably I will slip in my patience once or twice as we prepare our food or load it all up. I apologize and ask for forgiveness, and they willingly grant it. I have come to realize that family life is made all the more vibrant by the ready asking for and granting of forgiveness. Certainly, the outcome of our preparations will be rustic. Yet, I am convinced that we have no idea how these moments of family unity, service to each other, and joyful celebration imprint themselves as bookmarks of joy on our children’s little souls.
Every good picnic begins with the preparation. As we plan what we will bring and how we will prepare it, we look to both simplicity and beauty. We pause to admire the vibrant red of a strawberry, the perfection of the inside of our watermelon, or even the gorgeous seedy crust on a loaf of bread. I say out loud, “thank you Lord for the gift of this beautiful food!”. In that moment our children are formed in the habit of gratefully walking through the day communicating with their Creator. We remind them often that grateful people are joyful people. Is there a more beautiful reflection of God’s love to the world than our joy? Possibly not! Even more profoundly, we can recall that the word Eucharist comes from the greek, eucharisteo, or thanksgiving! In this way our simple, thankful, picnic preparations remind us of the Bread of Life.
The time comes to enjoy the fruit of our labour. With our feet in the earth and our lungs filled with healing air, again we give thanks for beauty so tangible as to point our hearts directly to the Giver of all these good gifts. While we enjoy our simple picnic meal together, my husband and I meet each other’s gaze. We do not need to use words to communicate to each other that we are rejoicing in this sacred moment. Our sweet children, noticing that gaze, feel safe and sound in our family’s love. Their little hearts know, despite the chaos that may be in the world around us, that life is very good and we are held by Love. This is the extraordinary grace of an ordinary moment lived well.
Written by Emily Packard for Faithfully. Emily and her family are parishioners of St. Patrick's Parish in Calgary.
Photos courtesy of Emily Packard
Written by Emily Rochford. The Rochford family are parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish in Strathmore, AB.
It is June and the time of year when our young people complete their studies and gather for the celebration of their graduation. But this year is different. The COVID-19 Coronavirus restrictions have curtailed the in-person gatherings and reshaped them into “virtual graduations.” This is new for all of us but it should not diminish in any way the joy we feel at seeing young people succeed whether it be the milestone of a graduation from kindergarten or the graduation from Grade 8, Grade 12, College or University.
I add my voice to the good wishes and encouragement which our graduates of 2020 are receiving. You are a graduating class with unique stories to tell and we anticipate the wisdom of your insights and leadership in the future. The following are for your reflection as you celebrate the completion of studies and look toward the next steps – be it further studies, a career, a religious vocation or some time to chart your future path in life.
The impact of a Catholic education was recently highlighted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, MD who has had a critical role in the pandemic leadership for the United States. Dr. Fauci graduated from Regis High School and in his own words he stated the “tenets of the Jesuit tradition sustained him throughout his life and career.” The imprint of a Catholic Education shapes the character of a person in striving to live a life of goodness but also in assuming roles of responsibility in promoting the common good in both ordinary and extraordinary forms of service.
As graduates of 2020 it seems to me that you are being offered three important lessons during this pandemic.
In a recent video message to young people commemorating the 100th anniversary of St. John Paul II's birth, Pope Francis spoke about the challenges and obstacles faced by St. John Paul II as a young man and how his deep faith enabled him to overcome them. Pope Francis expressed the hope that the life and faith of St. John Paull II would “inspire within you the desire to walk courageously with Jesus, who is “the Lord of risk, he is the Lord of the eternal ‘more.’" (Pope Francis, May 18, 2020)
Graduates of 2020, persevere in prayer, follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and know that the Lord who calls you to embrace His Love will accomplish good works in and through you. Seek the “eternal more” as you celebrate your graduation in 2020.
I am weak. I can’t do life on my own. I am in need of a Saviour. This is what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me.
My eyes welled up with tears as I knelt to pray after receiving the Eucharistic Jesus for the first time since public celebration of Holy Mass was suspended in the Diocese of Calgary. Staring transfixed at the crucifix, I prayed: Jesus, I need you. I’m helpless without you. I surrender.
This is not how my Covid-19 experience began.
Energy and even some excitement characterized the initial weeks of cancellations. To keep calm, I adopted a laid back attitude, got outside for walks and practised gratitude. My husband Ben and I head up a domestic church with five children ranging from 8 months to nine years old. I loved trading in my hectic chauffeur duties, for a simpler, slower lifestyle at home together. I experienced what it’s like to truly be the primary educator of my children and to boot, there were countless free resources and professionals offering virtual help.
I appreciated the empathy and compassion that society showed with the ‘we will get through this together’ mentality. I actually believed, at least on the surface, that: ‘I’ve got this.’ I experienced a vision for our domestic church that I had never dared to dream before.
But then, panic set in. What is going to happen once things open up again? Will it all seem like a dream? I noticed myself getting agitated, anxious and angry. I started to lose my peace because there were many aspects of this new life I wanted to retain, but I feared it might not be possible.
Being confined to household isolation 24/7 for months felt like a monastic existence. I could not run, nor could I hide from my own weaknesses that were barriers to fully loving my family as myself. I finally had to confront them and it was like a lightning bolt struck my heart waking me from my slumber.
I knew I was made for more. My unease felt so contrary to the holy woman I was striving to become. So I prayed for humility and courage to vulnerably peel off my camouflage. I desired to see myself the way God sees me. And through His grace, I discerned a call to a new radical self-acceptance; to become even more myself because God has even bigger plans for my life!
What I discovered through prayer and conversation is that while I possess many creative talents, I score lower in the practical skills to keep a home running smoothly. I had been holding myself to a very high standard for which I didn’t have the natural skill to peacefully pull off.
Early one morning, I walked to St. Pius X Church in Calgary and knelt outside looking through the window in adoration of Our Lord. I no longer felt trapped in silence and shame over my shortcomings, but rather felt freedom to address my challenges head on with compassion and mercy both for myself and others. Little did I know that only a couple weeks later, I would finally be reunited sacramentally with the healing, life-giving presence of Our Lord.
My greatest desire is to become a saint and for those with eyes of faith, Covid-19 continues to be a holy time where both our challenges and blessings can be used to become like Christ. While we are collectively undergoing this pandemic together, our experience is uniquely ours. Following this article are six reflections from a new university graduate, a mother, a teacher, a single person, a senior and a pastor –– each made in the likeness and image of God, each giving God glory with their lives.
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
My 27 years as an educator and administrator with the Calgary Catholic School District has afforded me a myriad of gifts in the countless number of students and families I have served and the inspiring colleagues I have worked alongside. It has also given me much to reflect on in terms of my vocation. At the center of this calling is my faith. It has become that intrinsic piece of my identity as an educational leader in my school community and in the school district.
I am blessed to work in a rich faith-filled environment at St. Clare elementary school with colleagues that have a similar desire for the intentional permeation of our Catholicity. After arriving at this location five years ago, I launched a weekly staff prayer initiative which faithfully continues years after its beginning.
From its inception, colleagues would voluntarily sign-up on a morning to sharing a prayer and a short meaningful reflection of their choice. Many also include a song or a video to highlight theme or topic of prayer. Most importantly, intentions are offered for various individuals in need. This initiative has been well-received by staff with several faithfully attending on a regular basis since its beginning a few years ago. With many present, the venue has seen a pilgrimage from the office to the staffroom and now the Learning Commons library. I then make it a priority to share these stories, reflections and prayers out to inspire and inform others on staff who were not able to attend. Also included on this Faith Formation “fan-out” are special friends of St. Clare school in the school district, diocese and local parish community.
I am so grateful that my colleagues have embraced this Faith Formation initiative in the way they do as well as the faith-based measures which allow us to ensure our Catholicism permeates throughout all that we do. Many have commented that gathering as a school “family” in this meaningful manner is a great way to start the day, end of the week and build community with colleagues. Further, we have learned a lot about each other through the disclosing of personal stories which have driven the prayer and reflection shared by staff members. Personally, I always look forward to these moments as times to pause, take a step back, “exhale” as I head into my “inner chapel” to escape the busy-ness of our daily lives – even if it’s for a few minutes. I am truly inspired by my colleagues to continue to share and come together to pray and celebrate our faith.
In closing, as Catholics, our faith is meant to be lived and celebrated. As members of a school community, we are involved in a vocation that is about people and the forging of relationships and bonds. We are all social and relational beings who have an inherent desire for relationships and connections. This wonderful initiative of weekly staff prayer has blended both ideals together as it has built and supported a strong sense of community and as members are afforded opportunities to share their faith, lives and our stories. Most important, it has allowed us to grow spiritually and walk with each other along our respective faith journeys.
Written by: Mark Hickie, Vice Principal of St. Clare School, Calgary
Steeped in the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and confused by contemporary secular culture, the Sacrament of Reconciliation intimidates a lot of people. Fr. John Nemanic gets that. He also understands why so many Catholics regularly participate in this grace-filled ritual—and he’s hopeful more will avail themselves of its sacramental blessings this Lenten season.
“The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the most difficult of the seven sacraments because we have to really look at ourselves honestly,” says Fr. Nemanic, the parish priest at St. Michael Catholic Community in the West Springs community of southwest Calgary.
While it can be difficult to talk about the mistakes you’ve made and the people you’ve hurt, “reconciliation is also a sacrament of growth. It helps us see where we are now—and who we aspire to be,” says Fr. Nemanic.
Biblical roots, contemporary blessings
The sacrament itself is rooted in biblical teachings, adds Fr. Fernando Genogaling of St. Luke’s in northwest Calgary. Instituted by Christ, Reconciliation invites us to seek forgiveness, express sorrow “and to take instruction on what to do in order to avoid making the sin,” explains Fr. Genogaling. “This sacrament is one of the ways we learn and experience the grace of humility. In return for confessing our sins, we receive an assurance of God’s love and grace. That is very powerful.”
“The Lord comforts us with the sacrament,” says Fr. Nemanic. The words, “I absolve you from your sins,’ are almost incomprehensible to penitents who enter the confessional with heavy but contrite hearts, says the priest. “This sacrament is so far-reaching. When people hear those words, they experience the reality that Emmanuel is with us. The closer we are to Him, the more the penitent opens up his or her heart and the more the Lord can come into that space and heal.”
For many penitents, the experience of forgiveness can be transformative. Fr. Nemanic recalls a story shared by renowned Catholic theologian Bishop Fulton Sheen. Bishop Sheen said a psychiatrist friend once told him that he marveled at the impact of Reconciliation. Whereas his clients paid him for counsel, Catholic priests gave counsel and peace—for free.
Parishes in the Diocese of Calgary hold regular confessional hours during the week on a year-round basis. While penitents can trust the confessional as a sacred and confidential space, people who don’t want to confess their sins to a priest they know can go to another parish, or attend a penitential service and talk to a priest they don’t know, says Fr. Genogaling.
He and Fr. Nemanic also recognize that people aren’t necessarily comfortable making a Reconciliation while facing a priest—and that’s okay, too. “I would say that 75 per cent of the people who come to reconciliation at St. Michael’s stay behind the screen even though they could just walk around the partition,” says Fr. Nemanic.
Those tempted to shy away from Reconciliation after a bad experience should consider what’s at stake, notes Fr. Nemanic. As he sees it, most people have also had bad experiences in at least one restaurant, but that doesn’t keep them from ever enjoying another restaurant meal. The same logic should apply to not denying themselves the blessings of Reconciliation.
And what would he say to a Catholic who is worried about not having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a while? “I would say, ‘just come,’” says Fr. Nemanic. Those who go regularly do so because they understand the grace it bestows. “If people would give five minutes a month, their lives would change immeasurably for the better because they’ve made themselves available to encounter the Lord’s mercy.”
Since honesty and contrition are essential to a good confession, Fr. Genogaling encourages people to spend some time examining their conscience before entering the confessional.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
I first experienced Catholicism at a Catholic hospital in South Korea. My mom and I accompanied my younger sister, who had to pay frequent visits to the hospital because of her lung ailments. Our family lived in a poor neighbourhood, where I had two direct-hit car accidents. During all this chaos, the hospital was a sanctuary, and the nuns were the kindest people I’d ever met. I felt such lightness and peace there as if the very air in the hospital garden was purer than the one outside it. The difference was so surreal even to my young mind that I remember it still to this day.
The second brief encounter was the beautiful scene of ladies praying in the church with their veils on. As a little girl, I thought it was the most beautiful happening I’d ever witnessed. Putting aside my initial exposure to Catholicism, our family generally believed in the idea of God but did not belong to any religion. After our family immigrated to Canada I suffered immensely difficult trials and setbacks in my school, health and relationships. So, I sought out God or some benign and powerful being that could rescue me.
My search for God began in high school when I was see-sawing between self-destruction and reading the Gospels for the first time. I prayed so fervently to the point of sweating. I asked God to let me experience Him in any way so that I, a mere human with so many limitations, could come to believe in His existence. One night, after one of my intense prayers, I went to bed. Sometime after falling asleep, I felt that my body lifted to somewhere very high, perhaps not even our planet or universe.
I had the most vivid and unusual dream where I was praying to God with many other people on our knees on top of a great mountain. Although the mountain was very high, the top was a very large flat area filled with green pastures. Sun or light beamed down on this pasture. All of a sudden, the person praying next to me tapped on my shoulder and pointed to a horrendous female spirit figure standing on the edge of this mountain. This figure is a typical Korean spirit that wears a white night gown with long unkempt black hair flying all around her face. She looked blank with no distinguishable features.
I knew that she was waiting for me to be alone. I also knew that I had to fight her, even to the death if such was to be my fate. I walked toward the figure and the battle began. I was defending myself with a small cross necklace that came into my possession not too long before my search for God began. As one might expect, defending oneself with a small necklace around one’s neck against a demonic spirit was next to hopelessness. Soon I began to tire and feel so afraid for my life. Then I remembered Christ’s holy sacrifice for all humans and how He let himself be tortured because He firmly believed in God the Father’s love and mercy.
That’s when I, in the midst of this fight, put both of my arms up and put my legs together in the same way our Jesus died on His Cross. All of a sudden, the images of His pierced hands and feet flashed before my eyes as if they were powerful blows of light and also as if my own hands and feet were being pierced too. I thought that I was going to die, but everything became white. The spirit existed no more. I was in this whiteness for a brief moment. I felt so strong and happy in this whiteness like I had never experienced in my entire life. Perhaps that’s how we feel in Heaven.
This dream experience was the exact point of conversion of heart for me. If believing can be compared to gardening, this was the seed in the soil. The actual process of this seed sprouting to a baby plant took much longer and many more sinful and painful acts of evil resistance. This sprouting phase took about a decade. Even though I rebelled, broke promises and couldn’t feel any goodness, God never abandoned me. All this while, God watered my mustard seed even though nothing surfaced. I was discouraged for a long time. But when the time arrived, the amazing baby plant sprouted out of the earth and I became a full-fledged Catholic. Going to RCIA was the only thing I could do for those two years due to a health condition. My RCIA sponsor named Cathy was very helpful and gave me the perfect card. When the baby plant came out was when I could finally consciously follow God and proudly present myself as such to others.
Written by Mina from St. Patrick's Parish in Calgary.
My journey to Catholicism formally began in the fall of 2002 when I entered into the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and culminated with my baptism and confirmation at the 2004 Easter Vigil, Saturday evening, April 10.
Practically speaking, though, my journey started many years earlier when I married my wife, Dina – an Italian ‘Cradle-Catholic’ at St. James Catholic Church, here in Calgary in 1991.
Taking our Marriage Preparation classes was really the beginning of a long period of enlightenment, where I began to experience and see more clearly what the spiritual aspects of the joining of our souls would really mean.
We both promised in our wedding vows to raise our kids in the Church, too, and so we regularly attended Mass and the Holy Days of Obligation. It was through this exposure I – then unwittingly – continued my Faith Journey.
When our family was young, we attended St. James and St. Michael’s in Calgary, and Sts. Simon & Jude Catholic Church in The Woodlands, TX. In December 1994 we purchased our first home in Somerset and began attending St. Patrick’s Parish and this became our home church.
As I progressed on my journey I started to be overcome with a desire — a strong, spiritual need — to go to Confession and receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I went to see “Merv” at St. Michael’s (I believe he was a Deacon there at the time) and inquired about receiving the sacrament. He explained to me I would need to become Catholic first before I could receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Several years went by and then a close family friend asked Dina if she would sponsor her in her journey through RCIA to become Catholic. I took this as a strong sign to stop procrastinating and I made my own appointment with Sister Pauline at the church to begin my journey to Catholicism and becoming Catholic.
Meeting with Sister Pauline, I shared with her the impetus for wanting to become Catholic and explained that I came from a family who didn’t really practice — or have — a sense of faith. My now-late father was raised Catholic in Holland and we would say grace before meals when we visited with my grandparents on my mother’s side in BC, but we really didn’t have any other faith upbringing — other than the ‘Golden Rule’.
Sister Pauline accepted me into the 2002 fall intake of St. Patrick’s RCIA and you could say the rest is history — but it isn’t! The journey NEVER ends; we’re always expanding our understanding and our relationship with God.
My time in RCIA was so very special! Those I travelled with on the journey and all those who invested their time in — and shared their faith with us — took us all to previously unfathomable levels of faith and spirituality. We shared, we laughed, we cried, we broke open the Word, we prayed! It was an education and a coming alive all at the same time. It was a beautiful experience!
Written by Peter Poos from St. Patrick's Church, Calgary
While I have spent most of my teaching career in Catholic Education systems in Saskatchewan and Alberta, I did not grow up attending Catholic schools. I was one of those people who didn’t discover that sense of “it just feels different” in a Catholic school until I began my teaching career at Father Gorman School in Lloydminster. Now don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful upbringing in rural Saskatchewan. My little school was not a Catholic school but I loved it with all my heart. And the truth is, I always felt I was “very Catholic” based on my connection with our little church, St. Mary’s. Many of my memories of growing up are tied to that church. We attended Sunday Mass and gathered for fall suppers, wedding receptions, and potlucks after the celebration of First Communion and Confirmation. While I always proudly identified myself as a Catholic, I can see now that I basically grew up as a “Sunday Catholic.” Going to Mass was non-negotiable and my mom and dad saw to it that all of my siblings and I received all of our Sacraments. I said my nighttime prayers and we had books about Jesus in our home, along with a crucifix and religious statues. Beyond that though, I don’t remember thinking a lot about my faith on a daily basis.
My first taste of Catholic Education came in 1986 when I started my teaching career and I quickly “got it.” For children who are blessed to go to Catholic schools, they are immersed in their faith every day. I learned how blessed my students were to be able to pray together every day. They got to know God more deeply because we could read the Word of God together. My students learned to serve their brothers and sisters through acts of social service and social justice. Perhaps most importantly, they had the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist at our school Masses. These experiences, and so many more, happen in every Catholic school in Alberta.
In our Catholic schools today, our students are not living a “Sunday Catholic” kind of life. They are learning to know our faith deeply and they live their faith every single day. I can think of no better description of what is happening in our Catholic schools than with the words from the Gospel of Matthew. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Our students are the light – they are shining brightly every day, not just on Sundays, because of the good and holy work that is happening in our Catholic schools. I am proud to be part of the story.
Written by Joann Bartley, Director of Religious Education
Holy Spirit Catholic School Division
At only 37, John Chick has accomplished tremendous achievements. He played professional football for 12 years in the CFL and NFL, winning two Grey Cups and being named the League's Most Outstanding Defensive Player before retiring in 2018. He and his wife Catherine have nine children, and more souls in heaven due to miscarriage.
He gives thanks to God for the gift of his body, mind and soul, which have allowed him to strive for excellence. Chick believes the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and the pathway to glorify God.
“I see the physical world as God created it – all good and meant to point us back to Him. We were all created in His image and likeness,” said the former Saskatchewan Roughriders, Hamilton Tiger Cats and Edmonton Eskimos player.
“I’ve always loved the physical world,” said Chick. “I’ve always loved the pursuit of: how can I get this better. Every offseason for 12 years, I would not rest on how good the last season was, but how I can do better at what I wasn’t doing well.”
Chick has counted setbacks as blessings in his life, which have further motivated him and reminded him that where he is weak, God is strong.
“How many look at the glass half empty and woe is me. Regardless of what we have been ‘blessed’ with, we are all called to glorify God with our bodies,” he said.
“For me, you don’t have to look too far to see a lot of us are victims of something broken. In us or around us and we are victims of maybe our vices.”
Chick’s body has experienced several setbacks in his pursuit of his dreams. At 14, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. At the time, this news devastated his family. In college he experienced Bells Palsy and later in his professional career he had the onset of alopecia, a hair loss condition, and vitiligo, a skin discoloration condition, not to mention countless sports injuries throughout his life.
“Miscarriages, moves, trades, cuts, injuries, God always found a way (into my life). I attribute it to my family and experiences of the Holy Spirit,” said Chick.
Growing up in Wyoming as the eldest of three, faith was central in Chick’s life. His father modelled a devout faith life working as a Catholic youth minister.
So when a healing priest came to town after Chick’s diabetes diagnosis the family went to see him, and everyone had a powerful conversion experience through prayer to the Holy Spirit.
“It doesn’t mean we lived a perfect faith life, but we were always dependent on the sacraments,” said Chick.
Today, he lives in Florida where he is devoted to raising his own family in the Catholic faith. He incorporates faith and fitness into the running of his own life-coaching business called Ironwill Fitness.
Self-care has been central to his success, and he is trying to share his wisdom with his clients.
“We are supposed to love our neighbour as ourselves. But how can I love my neighbour if I’m not loving myself?” said Chick.
“How can I improve my capacity to be that servant leader? It’s taking care of myself first.”
God Squad Conference recordings, including the session with guest speaker John Chick, are now available online: https://godsquad.ca/2020-conference-recordings
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
Photos courtesy of John Chick
God is always waiting for our conversion to his mercy and love. For a large portion of my life I was haunted with the darkness of childhood abuse. This is my journey into God’s call and falling into His overflowing grace. As a five-year-old child I was playing in our local playground with children from the local church. When they left, I went home and asked my mother if I could go to church. My mother said I could go with the neighbours, but I wasn’t brave enough to go.
Later, I attended a Catholic high school because my mother believed in academics. In Grade 12, I completed a water pollution project for a Religion class and received a mark of 98%. From that moment, I believed that my vocation would be in the Sciences. That same year (1972), at the age of 17, I became pregnant and consented to an abortion supported by both sets of parents (Catholic and non-Catholic). The day I had the abortion I shut the door on God! I believed I was not worthy of His love; I had killed my own child. By this time, the darkness of my childhood abuse and the weight of an abortion had left my soul in complete darkness. The mask I continued to wear could not hide the pain, and I struggled. I knew one day that the darkness would envelope me and I would end my life: the pain of my soul too unbearable.
With a husband and my daughter my world was unravelling; filled with anger, guilt and darkness. I was asked to become a Catholic so my daughter could continue to attend a Catholic school. To me, it was nothing more than a course, I was never going to be a Catholic. But God had other plans. What I could not or would not do for myself, I would do for my daughter. It was the 3rd scrutiny during the Purification and Enlightenment process that things began to change. Prior to this Scrutiny, I had gone to Reconciliation and confessed my sins. God has an eraser of grace; He forgave me; the door of grace flooded opened. During the 3rd Scrutiny, in his fatherly love, the late Fr. Keith Sorge let me touch his vestments and I fell into the wellspring of God’s love. The search out of the darkness of my soul began, but it was only after a severe leg injury (run over by an ATV) that I could face the overwhelming pain and terror of childhood sexual abuse. The cry of the poor—that is what God hears in our prayers.
In gratitude for God’s grace, I became involved with the RCIA, Project Rachel, CWL, Hike for Life, Eucharistic Ministries and Lector ministries. I obtained a Master’s from Newman Theological College (Edmonton) focusing on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Today, I am currently raising the awareness of Care for Our Common Home and Food Loss and Waste (FLW) through a CWL resolution and presentation to politicians and Catholic organizations. God had never left my side nor stopped calling me into His grace as I am a testimony to His love.
Written by Jeannette Nixon, St. Patrick’s Parish Calgary.
Bishop William McGrattan sums up his first decade as bishop in two words: very busy.
“One could describe it as being very busy and demanding, some would say tiring, but when I look back there has been a great gift of growing in wisdom,” said Bishop McGrattan.
Since his episcopal appointment 10 years ago this past January, Bishop McGrattan has made dozens of pastoral visits to parishes within each diocese that he has served – Toronto, Peterborough and Calgary – to see what’s taking place at the ground-level. He’s visited 23 parishes since his installment as Bishop of the Diocese of Calgary three years ago this February.
“I’m constantly trying to listen,” said Bishop McGrattan. “I think when you listen you can often discern and make some good decisions that can be far-reaching, have sustainability and make a greater impact.”
Some highlights from his first three years in Calgary include:
“I believe these initiatives can strengthen the diocese in forming missionary disciples,” said Bishop McGrattan.
One challenge has been managing the limited financial resources of the diocese in a strained economy. In good economic times, the population has grown and the diocese has responded by renovating or building new churches. But in a sluggish economy, the financial resources of the diocese have also weakened.
“We have sufficient but we don’t have enough to be building the churches that are required to accommodate new neighbourhoods,” said Bishop McGrattan.
He wants to set a pastoral plan for the Diocese in another three years from now.
“I thought I was going to do a pastoral plan in the first three years, but I think there is a wisdom in not forcing this type of initiative on the Diocese,” he said.
“I want to have three years to work up to a spiritual and pastoral revitalization. We need to till the ground before we enter into a process of formalizing the pastoral direction and means.”
In the meantime, Bishop McGrattan is using the information from the consultations with clergy in his first six months here to understand the challenges and priorities of the Diocese.
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
High on a hill overlooking fields of barley, wheat, hay and grazing cattle sits the little country church. It can be seen from miles around if you know where to look, and as you drive closer to look upon its tall steeple and red roof you might feel as if you’d stepped back in time.
St. Henry’s, founded by Fr. Albert Lacombe and area families in 1907, received a new coat of paint and a little more life on the fourth weekend of August when men from the Diocese of Calgary volunteered for the job.
“I knew it needed to be painted,” said Fr. Myles Gaffney, parish priest of St. Michael’s Parish in nearby Pincher Creek, “so I approached the Bishop who said ‘lets nudge the men’s ministries to see if they can get volunteers.’”
In stepped Sean Lynn of the God Squad men’s ministry. He contacted professional painter Dan Lebsack, and off to the hamlet of Twin Butte they went to evaluate the work ahead.
When a weekend was chosen, the two made known that volunteers were needed, and a few responses rolled in. Armed with a paint sprayer, scissor lift donated by a nearby Hutterite colony, telehandler donated by a Calgary carpenter, scrapers and brushes, and the God Squad barbecue and food for Lynn to expertly prepare, the team set to work.
Bishop McGrattan arrived on the scene on Saturday to see everyone hard at work, “I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the entire initiative. “The men are inspired to work together.”
Bishop McGrattan was welcomed by the volunteers and members of the Historical Society of St. Henry’s who have assumed the role of caretakers of the church and cemetery since the parish closed in 2001. The Historical Society is made up of former parishioners, people whose family are buried in the cemetery and those interested in preserving the site, according to the society secretary and treasurer Lois Johnston.
The group, who’ve been hard at work to keep St. Henry’s in good repair with much of their own time and resources – with the help of visitor’s donations – were happy to accept the help that came at the diocesan request.
A few hundred dollars is donated annually by visitors to the site, many who come just to see the classic country church and surrounding views, and many to visit the cemetery and to pray and enjoy the grotto and Stations of the Cross built by Bob and Nonee Bonertz, just one of the families who’ve lived there for over one hundred years.
Ken Wittkopf, whose wife Louise (nee Bonertz) grew up as a parishioner said, “We’ve talked about it for a few years, and we’re glad it’s happening because we don’t want to lose it.”
The value of this church to its parishioners was evident, as several who were not part of the painting crew stopped to see how it was coming along. As the painting went on, memories and stories were shared.
“I was baptized here, had my first communion and confirmation here,” said Louise Wittkopf.
Noreen Fischbuch told stories of having lived right beside St. Henry’s in the rectory, which was unused by the clergy at the time.
“I had eight children in that house,” she said referring to the house mere meters from the back of the church, “and one day, we were actually a little late for church, and Fr. Kramer looked up as we came in and tapped his watch.”
Lois Johnston, whose grandfather Fred Klunker was one of the carpenters who built St. Henry’s emphasised the value of the church to the community of families who descended from those who built the church. Quite a few of them still farm the surrounding land.
“My parents were married in this church, my family attended this church and my Mom was the organ player for years,” she said, adding that she grew up on the farm beneath the hill on which St. Henry’s stands.
The general feeling from the society and volunteers was one of hope for the legacy and the future of St. Henry’s.
“The big churches came from these little churches,” said Historical Society chairman Ron Schmidt, aptly speaking of the history of Catholicism in our country – it began with missionaries and settlers, from people building small country churches whose descendants fill the much-larger churches we see today.
Upstairs in the choir loft, children were encouraged to ring the bell during the Bishop’s visit, and the sound was enjoyed by everyone below. Each person savouring their memories and nostalgia for the living and loving that went on at St. Henry’s for over a hundred years.
Written by Jessica Cyr for Faithfully
“Pilgrimage, Sanctuary and Peace in the Parks”: A research snapshot and public talk on parks and nature at the end of life.
We all feel it – whether looking outside, in a field, at a beach, or on a mountain – nature gives us perspective about life and death. There is growing evidence of how natural environments impact our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Little is known, however, about the place of parks and nature at the end of life, or the impact of parks and nature on quality of life during palliative care or in grief and loss…until now!
A recent 2018 study discovered that experiencing “Peace in the Parks” was an opportunity for: Personal Exploration, Social Discovery and Institutional Transformation. Despite the challenges to get to parks and natural places, it was always “worth it.” Even brief opportunities were an opportunity to “park palliative care”, and to have sanctuary from the stream of appointments and persistent identity as a “dying patient” or “caregiver.”
Research participants shared, “here [in the park] we can just be ourselves”. The experiences were both calming and energizing – providing patients and family members a sense of their strength and the courage to take other journeys they had been previously cautious about undertaking. Everyone can make the connection with nature. Ultimately there is value in even parking or sitting in areas with views of nature or short walks or strolls with a stretcher or adaptive equipment.
Access does take planning, information and communication, and the research team discovered that supporting access to parks and nature for those in palliative care and caregivers is not a call for a new program per se, but rather an invitation, and a mindset that can be influenced by training, information and coordination of services. Further program and study is underway now to extend and expand the discoveries made – the pilgrimage and the pursuit of sanctuary continues.
By Dr. Sonya Jakubec
To learn more about Parks & Nature at the End of Life, to hear the stories and to be inspired by the pilgrimage of palliative patients and caregivers to Alberta Parks, join Dr. Sonya Jakubec (MRU) and co-researcher Jennell Rempel (Alberta Parks) for a free public talk and short documentary film screening with the Calgary Public Library on Thursday Jan 23, 2020 from noon to 1:30 pm at the Central Library’s Patricia A. Whelan Performance Hall.
Many Calgary Catholics are pushing through the coldest week of the new year by holding onto fond memories of the Christmas past. Others in the city’s East Asian communities keep themselves warm by anticipating the opportunity to celebrate the Lunar New Year on Saturday, Jan. 25. Ditto for parishioners at other ethnic parishes in the Diocese, where being Catholic and Canadian means you can commemorate important secular events with festivities that include prayerful appreciation of the cultural traditions that moved to Canada with their families.
Calgary’s Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese communities celebrate the Lunar New Year on the second new moon after the winter solstice. At St. Anne’s Korean Catholic Church in the community of Ramsay, parishioners will welcome the Lunar New Year with special prayers at the 11 a.m. mass on Sunday, Jan. 26, says parishioner and parish spokesman Nes (Luke) Noh. That service will be followed by a traditional New Year’s Day meal of rice cakes and soup in the parish hall. The rice cakes will come from a Korean market, the soup from parishioners. “We expect about 300 people,” says Noh. “No matter what the weather, people like to get together to celebrate. It’s tradition.”
Culturally, the Lunar New Year is also a good time to honour the memory of ancestors, so Korean Catholics will also offer prayers for their deceased family members, says Noh.
Week of Prayer about a shared faith
This year’s Lunar New Year falls at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, says Theodoric Nowak, Director of Social Justice and Outreach Ministries with the Calgary Catholic Diocese. This year’s Week of Prayer, set for Jan. 18 to 25, calls for Christians to move from shared prayer to shared action. The theme also challenges Christians to show greater generosity to people in need. “In a Diocese as diverse as Calgary’s, it’s always important to remember the different backgrounds which people come from and the traditions they hold,” says Nowak. “The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity reminds us that despite the differences which exist between cultures and denominations, we find unity in our love of Christ and commitment to achieving the common good.” In addition to prayers for the faithful being offered for Christian Unity, the FCJ Centre and Ascension Parish will each host prayer events, adds Nowak.
Cultural and spiritual traditions
New Year celebrations at St. Stephen Protomartyr Church also reflect cultural and spiritual traditions, says Fr. Gregory Faryna. The Jan. 1 liturgy at this Ukrainian Catholic church in Glamorgan, celebrated the naming of Jesus and the feast of St. Basil the Great. An early Church father who defended the orthodox faith, St. Basil the Great is especially important to Albertans of Ukrainian heritage. At Fr. Albert Lacombe’s request, St. Basil sent Basilian priests to the Edmonton area to serve European Catholics who came from the Byzantine tradition, explains Fr. Faryna.
As the Ukrainian people historically followed the Julian calendar, Fr. Faryna’s parish also marked the Ukrainian New Year. While the actual date was Jan. 13, St. Stephen held a Ukrainian New Year banquet and dance on Friday, Jan. 8. About 200 people filled the parish hall for the event, which included a performance by a local Ukrainian dance group. Since many parish families are compromised of Ukrainians who married outside that ethnic group, events like these are an important way of sharing cultural traditions, says Fr. Faryna.
The Ukrainian New Year was also part of the Sunday liturgy on Jan. 12. There, the community offered special prayers for world peace and prayers for lives lost in the Ukrainian airliner shot down in Iran earlier this month.
Ukrainian Catholics approach each new year with prayers that honour the past year and help people prepare for the year to come, adds Fr. Faryna. Some families also commemorate the new year by performing or attending a traditional Malanka (which means new year) play. The play reminds people living through the long nights of winter that spring is on its way. “It’s that anticipation of new life that’s coming around the corner,” says Fr. Faryna.
Over at Ste.-Famille Church just south of the downtown core, Msgr. Noel Farman says the arrival of 2020 got him thinking about how important his parish is to the local francophone community. Ste.-Famille is the only French-language parish in Calgary. Many of the children Msgr. Farman met when he arrived at Ste.-Famille 11 years ago are now adult parishioners attending post-secondary schools or working. “This Christmas I told them, ‘I consider myself as your grandfather.’”
As with Korean-speaking parishioners at St. Anne’s parish, Msgr. Farman knows many of his parishioners make a special effort to attend a French-language mass for special events, including Christmas and New Year’s. At this year’s Christmas Eve mass, children gathered around the priest’s chair and treated mass attendees to a special performance. “It was like a dialogue between three candles representing faith, hope and love,” says the priest. The recitation ended with the candles representing faith and love declaring that hope brought them together to help each other.
This Christmas season, Ste.-Famille weathered the deaths of four people with close ties to the parish. Msgr. Farman says he was touched by how so many of his parishioners travelled to funerals in Edmonton and Claresholm to show their solidarity to each other and to their faith. “I was thinking, this is how we show our belief in eternity, we pray for those who have passed.”
For more information on this 2020 Week of Prayer for Christian unity, please download this poster.
By: Joy Gregory
“Hey! Excuse me, but… I’m new to Lethbridge. Is this the way to St. Martha’s Church?”
It was Sunday, September 7, 2014 — my first Sunday in a new city, in my first week of university, my first time to Sunday Mass without my family — and I was in a bit of a panic. My first week of university had already been a washout — I’d already managed to double-book my classes, look like an over-enthusiastic know-it-all (the lesson was on the parts of the Mass — child’s play!), get completely overwhelmed in wind orchestra rehearsal, and terrify my new roommates with my rice cooker.
Google Maps told me it was a 22-minute walk to St. Martha’s Parish from my residence building, but I was 20 minutes into my journey with no church in sight. I was not about to have getting lost on my way to my first Mass in Lethbridge, crown off my week of failures, so mustering a bit of the remaining confidence I had, I ran ahead to a group of three young women who were also walking down Columbia Boulevard and asked for directions.
“We don’t know. We’re new here too. If you’re headed there too, we must be going the right way.” What a relief! We walked the last block there together.
Mass ended. It was so unlike anything I had known growing up in the Anglican Use liturgy at St. John the Evangelist in Calgary, and I was homesick for my parish community. We walked back to the university together and then parted ways. It would have been wise to get contact information, but in that first week of university, one meets so many new people only to never see them again… Another failure.
Monday afternoon. I sat eagerly in Music and did my best to put the last week behind me. Suddenly, I hear someone ask, “hey, do you mind if I sit here?” It was one of the women I had walked to Mass with on Sunday! “Of course you can!” Another relief.
Later, I would learn that she had seen me answer way too many questions in that class in the first week and decided that we should be friends. (Thanks be to God for extroverts.) We sat together through all of our first year Music History classes, sharing lunch in the cafeteria before each class. We endured some of our first university experiences together — we stayed up until 4 a.m. writing our first papers, and we were the last two to finish our final exam. She and her roommate (another one of the trio I had walked to Mass with) became close friends with a high school friend and me, and there are many fond memories of sharing meals, playing board games and going on late-night drives through Lethbridge together. In many ways, this friendship became the rock on which I leaned on during this difficult first university year.
She also challenged my faith to become more vibrant. Entering university, I had a very dry, legalistic understanding of Catholicism, which she pushed back against gently, teaching me to temper my scrupulosity and legalism with gentleness and charity. I learned from her how to lean on God’s grace when confronted with new stressors and challenges. We went to our first young adult events together in Lethbridge, without which I would have never become so deeply involved in that ministry. We also travelled to World Youth Day in Kraków together, where I learned to grow deeper in God’s ardent, merciful love, and to follow this love to the ends of the earth.
The Lord has everything within the palm of His almighty hand — He knew I needed a friend in that difficult time, and the friend he sent me changed my life for the best. If I had not met Natalie on the road to St. Martha’s, how else might my life have looked? Would I have been pushed to love my God and my neighbour more deeply? Would young adult ministry have become such a huge part of my life? Would I even have graduated from university? There is no such thing as an accidental encounter — God introduced me to Natalie as part of His plan for my life, and I hope that our friendship has been of value for Natalie as well (even though I’m still very much the junior partner in this friendship!). God places friends within our lives intentionally — to challenge, encourage and push us to grow to love and adore Him more.
I had been reflecting upon this idea with Natalie near the end of our first year of university together. Her response was perfect, “Christians are like grapes. We grow best in bunches.” May God give us this grace so to grow as clusters of friends together, fed by the one true Vine.
By: Solomon Ip
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers