Spiritual writer and Catholic Register columnist Fr. Ron Rolheiser has a greater appreciation for life since a bout with cancer. Living cancer-free now, Rolheiser said he has “never appreciated life more.” Photo by Michael Swan

Hard knocks give Rolheiser appreciation of life

  • June 18, 2016

TORONTO – Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s next book will be about death. 

Five years ago the popular newspaper columnist, book author, theologian and university administrator was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was caught early. A six-month round of chemotherapy seemed to knock it out. But two years ago it came back. Now there are chemo pills every day and check-ups every six months.

“Right now I’m clean,” said Rolheiser on a visit to Toronto in early June.

At 68 he remembers taking his health for granted through his younger years. Now he goes to the doctor twice each year and he appreciates what cancer is teaching him — how life is precious and worthy of his gratitude.

“It’s not bad to have your life dealt out in six-month segments,” he said. “I’ve never appreciated life more. I’ve never worked harder. I’ve never enjoyed life more.”

But Rolheiser didn’t decide to write about death while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. He’s not writing about his personal experience.That’s not his style.

He wants to complete work he started with 1998’s The Holy Longing and continued with 2014’s The Sacred Fire. Rolheiser describes the first book as a guide to “how to get your life together.” The Sacred Fire is another guide. This time, “how to give your life away.”

His next book will complete the trilogy, teaching readers “how to give your death away.” 

As a prairie boy called to serve in a missionary order, Rolheiser has never been one to parade his personal experience or his private self. Through the 34 years of his “In Exile” column carried in 80-plus Catholic newspapers (including The Catholic Register since 1993) and 13 books on spirituality there’s not enough information about Ron Rolheiser for more than a bare sketch of the man himself.

Rolheiser grew up one of 16 children on a farm near the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. His parents came to Canada in a wave of German immigration from western Russia between the 1905 famine and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. There wasn’t much more than the farm, the school and St. Donatus parish in Cactus Lake, Sask.

In his earliest memories the Rolheiser farm didn’t have electricity. He was a young teen in Grade 8 when the family got its first television.

“West-central Saskatchewan isn’t the centre of the planet, though it’s a good place to grow up,” said Rolheiser, in Toronto to address a conference organized by the Henri Nouwen Society.

He was 17 when he entered the Oblate novitiate. He talks about how first his upbringing and then his seven years of Oblate formation kept him cocooned and protected.

“Until I was about 23 or 24 years old, I was really in a greenhouse. Greenhouses protect young seedlings,” he said. “I look at it as a great gift. It frees you up… As a religious, as a priest, as a minister I’m really deeply grateful for those roots. It gives an anchor. There’s a powerful freedom to it.”

Humility is built into his humble origins. As a writer, Rolheiser fears how relying on personal anecdote and memory can descend into triviality.

“My day at the zoo. Who cares?” is his first caution against any temptation to recycle his life in his writing. “The other is that it’s too exhibitionistic — more information than we need. We don’t always have to see reality through your prism.”

Rolheiser concedes there are writers who can build insight from their personal experience. He admires Fr. Henri Nouwen’s ability to do just that. When Nouwen was alive, Rolheiser consulted the veteran of spiritual literature as one writer to another. But he senses he’s a different sort of writer than his fellow graduate of the University of Louvain.

“It’s a talent. It’s a different kind of talent,” Rolheiser said.

Publishers aren’t demanding Rolheiser turn himself into a confessional writer. They’re quite happy with his ability to turn theological and psychological insight from his academic training into kitchen-table conversation about meaning in the lives of ordinary people. It’s a formula that sells, big time. The Holy Longing has been through 15 editions and has sold more than 250,000 copies in hardback alone.

“I can honestly say his books are always awaited with anticipation by his legions of fans,” said Novalis publishing director Joe Sinasac.

Even the smallest collection of Rolheiser talks and essays bound into a book is a sure-fire bestseller for the Canadian Catholic publisher. Sinasac rates Rolheiser one of the top five best-selling Catholic writers in the English-speaking world. The audience for Rolheiser’s books come to him for something they don’t find anywhere else.

“Most of these (readers) are long-time Catholics who care deeply about their faith, but struggle occasionally remaining in the Church at a time when virtually the entire culture fights against the religious impulse,” Sinasac told The Catholic Register. “To them, he is a balm for the soul.”

Rolheiser only now finds himself comfortable in the role of an elder. Until cancer came along, he never thought of himself that way. He was an October baby who was always the youngest in his class growing up. He was in the seminary at 17, when many others were still in high school.

“All of a sudden you’re 68. You’re not young at all,” he said. “So it’s an adjustment. But I’m working on it. I’m no longer a promising young man.”

He also knows his readers aren’t young. While he wishes he could connect with a younger audience (“I’m not happy that my readers are all old”) he also knows his senior audience deserves to be treated with serious and sometimes challenging writing about the life of the spirit.

“Now I want to write a book about how you give your death away. Obviously, that’s not going to interest anybody under 60, but it’s important spirituality. It needs to be done. Sooner or later everybody is going to be over 50 or over 60,” he said.

Over the years Rolheiser has patiently answered one question about his column over and over: “Why does Fr. Rolheiser say he’s ‘In Exile?’ ” He’s ready whenever someone asks about the column he started writing when he was in graduate school in Belgium.

The idea of exile is a “central part of everything” in Christian thought, he said.

“We’re lonely until we rest in God. We’re not home yet. Here we have no lasting city. We wait for a city that’s to come,” said Rolheiser. “Let’s hope this is not as good as it gets.”

As a priest and a contributing member of the Oblate order, Rolheiser has never been a full-time writer. Today he’s the president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. In the past he has taught theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton and served as provincial superior for the Oblates in Western Canada.

He likes working. He’s had sabbaticals, which have helped him produce two of his weightier books. But he’s always ready to get back to work.

In Texas since 2005, Rolheiser has found himself on the edges of America’s brutal culture wars, trying to embed a capacity for calm and moderation, even an instinct for wisdom, in seminarians and theology students.

“I’m distressed about the polarization in our culture,” he said. “It’s not nearly as bad in Canada as in the United States, where it’s vicious. Since the Civil War it’s never been this bad. People can’t talk to each other.”

The tragedy is that Catholics have imported the bruising rhetoric of contemporary political debate into the Church, he said.

“We’re supposed to be healers. We’re supposed to be deflating this rhetoric,” he said. “The liberal-conservative divide and viciousness and demonization in society has spilled over perfectly into the Church.”

From the point of view of an elder, Rolheiser hopes people can remember their opinions are subordinate to big and eternal questions about the value of truth, the hope we find in meaning and reasons we have for Eucharist — that is, thanksgiving.

“I don’t know how many years I’ve got left, but I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I want to make it to 70, because they say 70 is the sum of a man’s years. Even if it comes back now, I still have enough cruise control to make it to 70. I have no regrets. I’ve had a very, very charmed life… I’ve had 44 years of ministry already. The world owes me nothing.”

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