The Paulists weren’t afraid to pitch the Church in the messiness of people’s lives. Photo courtesy Toronto’s Paulist Fathers

The Paulists’ ministry of presence will be missed

By  Mary Marrocco, Catholic Register Special
  • June 20, 2015

TORONTO - For several years now, my office at the Paulist Ministry Centre has been flanked on either side by the office of a Paulist Father. I have appreciated the Paulist presence more each day, the priests who’ve occupied those rooms, and the spirit and community present with them. I’ve learned about their community through their actions and words, and through encountering the day-to-day life of the people at St. Peter’s parish and the Ministry Centre.

The day I moved into the office, Fr. Paul came to welcome me. We were inaugurating a program which the Paulists were foundational in setting up with the downtown parishes: a parish-based counselling service that offers professional counselling regardless of ability to pay, without wait lists. Thus began a long, fruitful partnership. The Paulist office space has been an essential part of this service, but much more than an office.  

The Fathers themselves, every one of them who’ve been at the centre during my time there, have energetically welcomed and encouraged this work. Their whole approach says: “This work of healing and wholeness for the people of our parish, the people of our city, is important to us. It’s part of what the Church is about. Thank you for sharing it. We’re glad you are here with us.” Fr. Paul said it in words that first morning (he also donated the comfy chairs and lamp from his own office), and all his confreres have repeated these sentiments in words and attitude ever since.  

Their support, and the constant active presence of their own ministry, provided the fertile earth where our parish counselling service was planted, nourished and thrived. I can’t imagine it happening without them. It fits with their mission to preach the Gospel in new forms, addressing the “deep spiritual longings of the culture.”

They were an unexpected gift waiting for me and my fellow counsellors.

One afternoon several years later, another Paulist dropped into my office. Freshly ordained, newly arrived in Toronto, he was in the flurry of settling in and taking up his new work. Fr. Tom came in from his many duties with warmth and openness, bringing the gifts of time, a hug and, above all, true compassion.

He’d learned that my dear young nephew had recently taken his own life, and though he’d barely had time to meet me, Fr. Tom was not afraid to come into that room and that moment, and share with me whatever pain he might find there. He was “giving the Word a voice,” and a hand and a heart, too.

I felt the “real presence” he offered me, then and since, a rare and shining thing. I’ve felt it through Fr. Steve’s compassionate presence, Fr. Jim’s rock-solid faithfulness, Fr. John’s dedication, Fr. Mike’s sense of humour, Fr. Paul’s vivacious spirit, Fr. Tim’s loving kindness. It fulfills the “real presence” of Christ in the chapel at the Centre, where many people I’ve worked with have found refuge.

A sacred history dwells here, at the ever lively and dynamic corner of Bathurst and Bloor, memories and fruits of many gatherings, liturgies, meetings, ventures, groups. Some days I receive people for counselling in the Fr. Isaac Hecker Room, named for the Paulists’ founder — a man unafraid of change or tensions, daring to take the Gospels to the peripheries and meet people where they are. I’ve witnessed the Paulist Fathers taking time to care for the fragile, wounded person, as the Good Samaritan did for the injured traveller, not dutifully but lovingly. They don’t hesitate to pitch the Church in the messiness of people’s lives.

Supported by the Paulists’ vision and commitment we’ve been able, through this program, to offer help and healing to people struggling with all sorts of life difficulties, from family troubles to relationship difficulties to addictions, mental illnesses, spiritual struggles, job loss. Fittingly, our office looks out on a peaceful green courtyard in the shade of the church next door.

It’s a bittersweet moment, Toronto’s farewell to the Paulists after a century. They faced a difficult decision, but being missionaries recognize the completion of their work, as their president expressed it. It can’t help but leave a hole, can’t help but leave us wondering who will pick up all they’ve carried and supported in the city; the labourers seem few, the need great.

This parish-based counselling service is one of the fruits they leave behind urging us to continue their vision of evangelization, both in the heart of the parish and at its edges, in this time and place where we are called.

(Marrocco is a registered psychotherapist and counsellor with the parish counselling program.)

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