The Feast of Stephen the Protomartyr invites us all to give witness to our faith in the newborn king.
For the last years I have been blest to study in Rome, where St. Stephen’s Day stands with Christmas as a second occasion of celebration. If Christmas belongs to more close-knit family gatherings, various more public and religious encounters mark the following feast in the Italian culture. Well-wishers gather with friends and fill the piazzas and streets. Faithful may take the time to visit the nativity scenes in churches along with attending the liturgical celebrations dedicated to the saint.
We read the account of the testimony of St. Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles. The group of twelve called the saint to serve as a deacon with six others while they kept busy proclaiming God’s word. We discover in the narrative that Stephen bestowed great skills as an orator. In a testimony to the high priest, he traces God work through salvation history, revealing how Jesus fulfills God’s plans through the people of Israel. In particular, the text of Acts goes to lengths to point out that the Holy Spirit accompanies him and guides him. Inspired by God’s Spirit, St. Stephen offers his life with words that reflect those of Christ — “receive my spirit” — but now he does so as a prayer in the Saviour’s name — “Lord Jesus” (Acts 7:59).
The testimony of St. Stephen has a particular relevance in the city of Rome. One of its churches, the Basilica of St. Lawrence or San Lorenzo, remains the one of the places in the world where the faithful have traditionally revered his relics. Recently I visited this ancient site, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine and has been rebuilt in the following centuries.
The building now has a medieval feel to it (see below). It has solid brick walls that encompass its wonders of ancient columns and mosaic floors. From the entrance of the basilica, one’s eyes rise to its elevated altar — marked by four columns that support a weighty canopy. The altar sits overtop of a lower space, an inner sanctuary that houses the relics of St. Stephen as well as his fellow deacon martyr, St. Lawrence. They remain together as two deacon martyrs of the early church.
The church of Santo Stefano Rotondo also has a particular attachment to the saint. The building dates to the fifth century and it remains the earliest church in the city built on a circular floor plan. While the church also reveres St. Stephen of Hungary, and has served the Hungarian community in Rome for the last five hundred years, it nonetheless houses a moving mural depiction of the protomartyr Stephen. It presents him serenely looking up to heaven, wearing the dalmatic vestment of the deacon, while his aggressors are weighed down with anger and stones as they try to establish their own form of justice.
For most of us the Feast of Stephen the Protomartyr pales under the piles of boxes and the other colours that mark our Christmas celebrations. Yet the date remains an invitation for us to let the birth of Jesus transform the way we live the rest of the year. St. Ambrose articulates the faith that animated the martyr: “Christ is everything for us. If you are in need of help, he is strength. If you are afraid of death, he is life. If you desire heaven, he is the way. If you want to get away from darkness, he is the light” (On Virginity, 16). Let us take a moment this day to ask for the intercession of St. Stephen. May he help us find in Christ the pattern of love and sacrifice that brings meaning to each moment of every day.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates." (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)
Jewish people pray this prayer daily and maybe we should too!
Throughout the week-long Priests Study Days (Oct. 3-6) in Canmore, we were reminded to listen and remember, and to let our memory inspire our service.
For some of us priests, this was our first visit to the Shrine Church of Our Lady of the Rockies in Canmore. This church has preserved beautifully memories of the past in the beautiful sculptures throughout the building, and yet it is a modern church ready to serve us in the future. A reminder that though our buildings change .. The Lord is One.
We began our week by remembering the years of ministry nine of our priests have offered to the Diocese. Their service embraced parishes and many lay associations, including the CWL and the Knights of Columbus. They came from around the world inspired by their memories of God’s love.
We listened to the the Synod Synthesis to hear the voices of the laity who gathered throughout the Synodal process and to what the Spirit had inspired them to say about our journey together. Some of what the priests heard was probably challenging, but in the end the message was - work with us.. help us to renew the life of the Spirit that we share - for the Lord is One.
Our speaker Fr Michael Simone, a Jesuit from Chicago, helped us to revisit the scriptures during the Study Days. His main theme was Remember and Believe. He helped us to see first how the Psalms came about as pilgrims visited shrines, to either ask forgiveness or to give thanks, and how at the shrine a song was sung in memory of the deeds of the Lord. These songs became our Psalms. He reminded us that Jesus would have prayed these Psalms, and that when we pray them we should ask ourselves .. what did these words inspire in Jesus' heart.. what are they saying to our hearts.
Fr. Simone took us through the Gospels, showing us how they were composed to help early Christian’s ready themselves to meet the Lord. He showed us that Jesus' mission was to help Israel see the true meaning of the the great events in their past. And how Jesus is with us every day, encouraging us to remember what God has done so we can detect the signs if his present activity.
Bishop McGrattan led us in the Eucharist each day. He spoke to us about the importance of our unity as a witness to our people that we believe in one Lord.. and in the Eucharist we heard Jesus own command, "Do this in memory of me."
Fr. Michael pointed out to us that Jesus saw himself as a Jew.. he lived his earthly life as a Jew. Every day he would pray the Shema, "Listen Israel .. the Lord is our God. The Lord is one."
We should learn the Shema and add it to our daily prayer!
Interview conducted by Solomon Ip for Faithfully
Interview conducted by Solomon Ip for Faithfully
Custodians of Beauty
"Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.” says Pope Benedict XVI is his address to Artists.
The Sacred Arts Guild of Alberta (SAGA) is a community of artists and associates who are interested in the study, preservation, and renewal of traditional methods for creating liturgical and sacred art in the Christian tradition. SAGA presented their inaugural Legacy Project in November 2021 featuring a short film on Sacred Artist Fr. Gilles LeBlanc, retired priest in the Diocese of Calgary. They hope the film will encourage you to explore our faith more through the Sacred Arts.
The SAGA Team is proud to have partnered with Annie Chirka, videographer and editor, with the intention of celebrating those members of our community who are faithful “Custodians of Beauty”.
Please visit our website to learn more about how you can be part of this Sacred Arts initiatives: SacredArtsGuildofAlberta.com
In memoriam: Fr. John Petravicius
Mr. Santiago Torres will be ordained to the Transitional Diaconate by Bishop McGrattan on Saturday, May 21 at 11 am at All Saints Parish in Lethbridge. Earlier this month, Chris Moraes, the President of the Serra Club of Calgary sat down with Santiago at his home parish of St. Bonaventure to ask him about his vocations journey and his upcoming ordination.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
“I am currently 33 years old. I was born in Colombia and moved to Canada when I was 16 years old with my mother, step-father and my younger twin sisters. My parents separated in my youth and moving to Canada was a challenge. At that time I was not practising my faith. I enjoy making visits to my native Colombia and visiting my father when I am there.”
Who is your favourite Saint?
My grandparents have always been very influential on me and my faith. When I was young they gave me a book about St. Dominic Savio. At his first holy communion St. Dominic said to God that he never wanted to sin again which was a very inspiring message for me. I took him as my confirmation saint and his story has inspired me to always trust in the Lord and has given me strength many times throughout my life.
When did you first become aware of your call? Who was instrumental in encouraging you to explore it?
At the age of 16 I met a girl at my school who was also from Colombia. We grew close and eventually began dating. She was very strong in her faith and brought me to Mass and encouraged my prayer life. Eventually we ended our relationship but my faith remained because of her. On one occasion I heard about a CCO Mission at my parish. My first deep conversion took place when I attended an evening of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I was invited to take part in a Faith Study and that was when I really started to connect all of the aspects of my faith and especially came to discover a real relationship with our Lord Jesus. After that I started to get involved with CCO and I joined the executive of the campus ministry group at the UofC. This allowed me to share with others the encounter that I had personally experienced with Christ.
How has the Diocese of Calgary been instrumental in the discernment of your own vocation?
The Blessed Sacrament chapel at St. Bonaventure is where I really began to hear the Lord calling me to his service. It was also the witness of several priests that allowed me to be open to this call. Around the time of my conversion, Father Cristino was on his pastoral internship at St. Bonaventure and he likes to recall the story that he began praying for my vocation way back then. The spiritual direction from Fr. Wilbert Chin Jon was instrumental in navigating fears, doubts and feelings of unworthiness for such an important calling. The friendship of Fr. Troy Nguyen in the early days of discernment also helped to ease some anxieties about going to spend the first few years at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon to begin my priestly studies. \
What has been the greatest challenge that you have gone through as in your Seminary formation?
The seminary is a place that really helps you to get to know yourself. It is an interesting balance of guidance, formation, and evaluation. At times it can magnify your shortcomings, and there are times when you find yourself comparing yourself to the other gifted and faith filled young men. It does, however, also help to discover the great gift of the priesthood and to accept that despite feelings of unworthiness, that God can indeed call you to serve him in this vocation.
What has been your greatest joy or consolation in this journey?
The abiding understanding that God always responds to openness with faithfulness and that he wants to fulfil you with happiness. The relationships that are forged with your brother seminarians allow you to wrestle with the doubts. It is a true brotherhood and gives you strength for the journey of discernment.
In the few months that it has been established in our Diocese, have you been aware of the Serra Club and its activities?
Yes, absolutely. Sometimes the seminary can become a bit of a bubble and you just keep your head down and keep working towards the goal. It is a wonderful realisation that you are not alone on your journey and that there are many dedicated people out there praying with and for you. The letters of encouragement from students and lay people have been a great blessing to me and I am grateful for the presence of the Serra Club and the work that its growing membership is doing to promote and support vocations in our Diocese.
What is the thing you are most anticipating as your ordination to the transitional diaconate it approaches?
The thing I am most excited for is simply just “Living it” and being entirely dedicated to the ministry of the deacon. I am sure it will bring new questions, new challenges, and new learning. The ordination brings both a sense of finality of one process but also a new beginning of a new one in the ordained ministry.
What piece of advice would you give to a young person who feels like they might have a call to a religious vocation?
First of all, talk to someone about it. A spiritual director, vocations director or your parish priest will help encourage, guide, and help you to know that you are not crazy for thinking you might be called to the priesthood. Fr. Wilbert was able to reassure me that despite my insecurities, that God would sustain and inspire me to keep saying “Yes.” Secondly, Give the Lord the chance to show you that He is God and that he knows and loves you and that wants what is absolutely best for you.
Photo credit: Chris Moraes.
A gift to preserve
From the perspective of a priest, I, Fr Troy Nguyen, have seen the gift of Catholic education. Beginning with my time as a Deacon, I was able to visit a Catholic school in NW Calgary once a month and dedicate the whole day to speak to different grades in 30 minute intervals. From sharing the mystery of Advent with the little ones to speaking about the rational basis for our faith to the junior high students, it was a great opportunity to share the Gospel.
One of my favourite things to do is to do question period with any grade but particularly the younger kids. They ask a variety of tough questions: who created God? Does the bible talk about dinosaurs? These and many other questions challenge me to translate complicated philosophical and biblical topics into bite size pieces for an 8 year old! Most importantly, it is time just to be with the students in a very human way just like Jesus did. Whether it’s walking through the halls, going to a high school football game or playing sports with the students, it reveals that faith is not contrary to our everyday life.
I had an opportunity during lunch at an elementary school in Christ the Redeemer (CTR) to walk around and was invited to kick the ball for kickball. So I took up the challenge in my priestly attire and smoked that ball into the end of time! The kids were shocked and elated at the same time that a ‘priest’ could play kickball. At a junior high school in CTR during a girls basketball finals game, I was invited to say the opening prayer for the team and give them a blessing to calm their nerves because they were worried about this particular opponent. When they started playing, the girls from CTR played with great freedom, crushed their opponent and won the championship. They were extremely grateful for the spiritual boost and ‘divine intervention.’ To be able to share in the joys of these students with faith is a great gift.
There are many more instances I could describe where Catholic education creates opportunities to encounter our Lord and the Catholic faith. These opportunities to reach out to students are only available to me because the administration and teachers allow me to come to visit the school. It may be much more difficult if not impossible to enter another school not focused on Catholic education.
So, while there is much to be grateful for, there is much to continue to strive for if we want to maintain Catholic education. We need to pray for our teachers and administration and we need to continue to be intentional in forming their faith so that they can evangelize to our children from an authentic heart. We need to remain firm in our Catholic identity so that we can transmit the Catholic faith in its fullness and this is what differentiates us from public education.
Catholic education is a gift, but gifts need to be protected and preserved. So we give thanks to God for the gift of Catholic education, and we ask him to protect and preserve this gift so that all of our children may continue to have the opportunity to know and to love this amazing God.
Every year the students at Christ the King Academy in Brooks, Alberta sign up for a variety of service projects and good works to help prepare their hearts for Christ’s coming during this Advent season. Usually, the students engage in works such as baking muffins, praying for the living and the dead, or cleaning up around the neighbourhood. This year however, we started what we hope to be a new tradition – writing Christmas Cards to our dear retired priests of the Diocese!
The idea came about during the grade six’s religion class, when learning about the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the life of service a priest undertakes. The students were quick to realize that the vow of celibacy meant that for many priests, we as Catholics are their family members! While priests are serving in their parishes, they are surrounded by the many families who help take care them and thank them for their service… but what happens when a priest retires?
The students were surprised to learn that our retired priests are still helping celebrate Mass and administering Sacraments where they can, despite no longer have a parish family around them. We discussed how we can show our love and thanks to these priests who spent their lives working for us, and the answer seemed clear – we would write them Christmas cards! Each student wrote a card to some of the retired priests in the diocese to let them know we are praying for them by name as a class and we are forever grateful for their years serving us.
Written by Michael Metcalf for Faithfully. Michael is a Grade 6 Teacher in Christ the King Academy, Brooks, AB.
Fr. Stefan Ganowicz: A servant attitude
Written by Deacon Michael Soentgerath for Faithfully, October 2021.
Fr. Marino Infante: In his own words
Fr. Jack Bastigal: A sower went out
Fr. Bill Stephenson: Getting started
Written by Fr. Terry Connolly for Faithfully, October 2021.
Interview and transcription: Solomon Ip.
Photos courtesy of L. O'Hara & Solomon Ip.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers