To Fr. Raby, the person is important

By  Fr. Raymond J. De Souza, Catholic Register Special
  • November 27, 2009
{mosimage}The Little World of Fr. Raby, 1980-2007 by Msgr. Tom Raby (Catholic Register Books, 190 pages, $14.99.)

On the matter of Msgr. Thomas J. Raby, I cannot be impartial. At the age of 91, and 64 years ordained, he is the proudest boast of the Kingston presbyterate — the faithful priest who even now, in his infirmity, lives his priesthood as best he can.

For several years I used to proudly introduce myself as the “other priest from Kingston with a newspaper column” in deference to Msgr. Raby’s longstanding presence in these pages. Sadly, after his retirement in 2007, I can no longer say that in honour of the dean of priest-columnists in Canada.

So even if The Little World of Fr. Raby 1980-2007, recently published by The Catholic Register, were a complete waste of time, I would not tell you. Happily for me and the eighth commandment, this latest collection of Msgr. Raby’s columns is quite the contrary — a delight and a treasure. Indeed, the book is best read when you have some time at hand, as a typical Raby column is a story well told by a master storyteller. The reader feels he ought to be sitting by the fire, cup of hot chocolate in hand.

In the news business, there is nothing older than yesterday’s news. So collections of newspaper columns, written with an eye to timely events, are a challenging editorial venture. In the case of The Little World, editor Mickey Conlon had three things working in his favour.

First, he had more than 25 years worth of columns from which to select, meaning he only had to find a few gems per year. And Msgr. Raby produced gems far more often than that. To be sure, not all the columns dealt with newsworthy events, such as making omelettes out of frozen eggs or dealing with the creative mendicants who appeared at the rectory door.

Second, in his tales about life with his friends, Bishop Bob Clune and Fr. Norb Gignac, his faithful housekeeper Carmel, his parishioners and fellow priests, Msgr. Raby was never concerned with what was happening as much as who was doing it. The Little World column was filled with colourful characters, illustrating a practical application of the Christian principle that people are more important than things and being is more important than doing. The Little World evokes a time when there was more time for people, for dropping in on neighbours and taking a walk to visit the sick.

Indeed, many young priests today would hardly recognize the priestly world sketched by Msgr. Raby, full of weekly get-togethers, common meals, golf outings, annual holidays and summer at the cottage with his fellow priests. Upon my own ordination, Msgr. Raby wrote me a simple card: “Welcome to the greatest fraternity in the world!”

It used to be that way. In today’s frazzled and frenetic priesthood, some of Msgr. Raby’s wisdom about the priestly life is welcome. My first pastor, himself ordained in the 1950s, used to wistfully remark, “The priesthood used to be fun.” The Little World explains why that was the case.

Third, Msgr. Raby’s columns hold up because they are animated by a deeply Catholic outlook. With a real sacramental intuition about the ordinary things of daily life, Msgr. Raby was always able to see Providence at work. The life of virtue, the spirit of sacrifice, the possibility of conversion, the nobility of suffering, the hidden traces of grace — all this animated The Little World, which is why it was never cramped in there, but spacious enough for all of God’s wonders. The real protagonist of The Little World was the one who chose to be born in the little town — not Gananoque, Msgr. Raby’s home, but Bethlehem.

It would be a mistake, though, to think of Msgr. Raby’s writings as only the musings of a kindly grandfather, an old man with a big smile and no teeth. This collection also includes Msgr. Raby in battle dress, denouncing Jean Chretien for arrogance in regard to his attacks on Catholic education and many others for their hostility to life, innocent and precious, in the womb.

Most readers will have a favourite column. Mine is the one about the Leung family at Good Thief parish in Kingston. The parents, Hok-Lin and Laura, had their four boys at Mass every Sunday, and when sports conflicted, the coaches were told that Mass came first. The son featured in the column, Fok-Shuen, grew up into fine young Catholic man, gifted in both academics and music. Music he composed was sung at my ordination Mass and at my first Mass. Together with Msgr. Raby, I was at his wedding a few years ago. It is, truly, a little world.

(De Souza, a priest of the Kingston archdiocese, writes a column for the National Post.)

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