Church needs to show its caring side

  • January 5, 2007
Fr. DrouinOTTAWA - Fr. André Drouin rushes from his Ottawa office and returns with a woven white and black rug. He holds up a side where black dominates the weave; when he turns it over, white dominates. He explains that just like the rug, the church is one, but it has two different faces: a celebratory face reflecting the love towards God, and a face of service to others, reflecting love of our neighbours.

"We have been showing to people too often one face, the celebratory church," Drouin said. "We have to show a little bit more the other face.

"Some of the ceremonies for a new generation, it says absolutely nothing to them. But to be really involved we must make sure we keep contact with the Lord," he said. "We cannot separate the celebrating church and the church that is involved."

In his 49 years as a priest, Drouin has practised what he preaches. For 23 years he has been ministering to people with HIV/AIDS in the Ottawa archdiocese, where he was born and raised. With the advance of life-prolonging drugs, there are fewer people he needs to see, but when he first started an HIV/AIDs diagnosis was "a death sentence," leading to a burial within two years.

In recent years, his workload has lessened, though there is one person he has been seeing for 13 years now. He is also seeing a couple with two children.

"It is not as demanding as it was, the need is not as strong," he said. "They are facing death but not in a short term."

More recently, Drouin has turned his attention to the plight of prostitutes, especially after he noticed some girls he had prepared for First Holy Communion out on the streets. That made him realize "the job is not finished."

He spearheaded efforts that have led to the creation of the Sophie Centre, a service operating out of a house in the inner city that offers courses in computing, cooking, sewing and other skills for prostitutes who want to get off the streets. Through the centre, the young women can receive counselling. The centre gets hundreds of visits a month, and is now getting too small, he said.

Drouin wrote a book about his experiences meeting with people dying of AIDS called It All Begins with Tenderness. It's a devotional that Jean Vanier endorsed. Vanier, founder of the L'Arche movement, wrote that the book touched him deeply, describing it as "a little treasure of God's love — a little treasure for the church, for priests and for men and women stricken by this disease."

Drouin used the story of the Prodigal Son as a theme running through his accounts of stories that he changed slightly to respect confidentiality. Simple and heartbreakingly beautiful, they describe encounters that are fraught with holiness and mystery.

"This is an area that brought me so much," he said. "I've been given much more than what I gave."

In the book's introduction he tells the story of seven-year-old Etienne, who kept asking questions like "Why can my friends go out and play in the snow while I have to stay in bed?"

"One day when I was with Etienne I risked establishing a point of support," Drouin wrote.

"If you like, we could tell Jesus what you just told me," he said to the boy.

"Hand in hand, eyes closed the better to concentrate, we spoke to Jesus: 'I have many questions to ask you today, Lord, Why . . .?' "

Drouin wrote that Etienne took delight in this kind of prayer, and even asked for it one time when the priest was getting ready to leave.

"Uncovering the points of support of a spiritual life is a way of personalizing a sometimes difficult journey," he wrote. "It is a way of acknowledging the presence of God in our lives. It is a return to those moments when God revealed Himself in our lives and warmed our hearts."

He writes about ministering to two gay men, a couple, who died within six months of each other. When the first man became ill, another priest had ordered his partner out of the room. The first time Drouin visited, he asked the well partner to help prepare his sick friend for his meeting with God. That meeting led to a moment of deep spiritual communion among the three of them in that hospital room, a moment of grace that helped prepare the partner for his own death not long after. The sick partner told the priest how deeply moved he was when Drouin shook his hand on Holy Saturday for the first time. In those days most people were reluctant to have contact with people who were infected.

The last time Drouin saw him, the man was on his death bed and unable to speak, but communicated by pressing Drouin's hand three times to let him know he wanted the prayers for the dying.

Another story concerns a man who was abandoned by his large Quebec family because of his gay lifestyle. Even the man's mother would not visit. The man asked Drouin if he could call him "Pops." Drouin was thrilled, and meditated in the story about how God the Father is a "Pops" who wants to bless His children. When no one showed up for the man's funeral, Drouin had the man's cremated remains buried in his own personal plot.

Not all his efforts met with such welcome. Some people resisted any attempt at ministry.  Some chose to die alone. In those lives, Drouin wrote he was confronted with mystery.

For the past 25 years, Drouin has served as a parish priest at the French-speaking parish of St. Anne, not far from the cathedral where he was baptized and received his First Holy Communion. Prior to becoming a parish priest he taught school in the archdiocese. He said his mother's kiss led to his desire to become ordained.

He recalls that his mother was pregnant at the time he was preparing for First Holy Communion. In those days women did not go out when they were pregnant, so she was unable to attend. His father accompanied him, and when he returned home, that's when his mother kissed him in a way that changed his life.

"I don't remember being kissed like that," he said. It was so warm, he realized "something very great has happened."

He couldn't wait until next Sunday to receive again, so he went to Mass the very next day. He started attending every day while still in primary school.

Before entering the priesthood, Drouin served in the Canadian armed forces. He's grateful for that time because it gave him a different perspective on life. A tall man with a military bearing, Drouin has served as chaplain to the Hull regiment of the Royal Canadian Army Reserve Force for 42 years.

Drouin loves the Pope's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, God is Love, because it captures so well the two faces of the church that does not ignore the love of God and the love of neighbour. Like the Pope, Drouin sees them as intricately entwined. And as much as he has devoted his life to serving others, he has remained faithful to worshipping God. He points out how Pope Benedict says charity that is separated from the love of Christ becomes mere social work.

In fact, he sees worship as necessary for avoiding burnout. He celebrates Mass every morning at 8 a.m., but spends a good hour in prayer beforehand.

"Without this time in prayer, we don't have the swing," he said

At the end of the interview, with a twinkle his eyes, Drouin said he tells his parishioners: "Be good. Be very good. Be so good that when you get in front of the Lord and He accuses you of being too good, you can say, 'And what about you?' "

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