Father Claude Paradis of Montreal distributes Communion during an outdoor Christmas Eve Mass for the homeless people in downtown Montreal. CNS photo/Yves Casgrain, Presence

Canadian heritage can be found on our streets, too

By 
  • July 29, 2017

In the wake of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, I have been reflecting on how the Canadian Catholic Church is perceived on the streets.

This came into sharp focus in early July and, like the two-edged sword of the Letter to the Hebrews, it cuts deep to expose both the wheat and the chaff of the human spirit.

For several years, I have joined a crowd that gathers annually to commemorate the many deaths resulting from AIDS/HIV. Since my time on the street frequently brings me into contact with such people, many are known to me. This year I accompanied a friend taking part in the stage presentation so that I could support her emotionally.

I dressed, as I always do on the street, in my clerical shirt and collar. Despite the torrential rain which made it difficult to see, I was conspicuously the only cleric in the crowd. The major theme was Aboriginal peoples and, as the event continued and the abuses of residential schools and colonialism were prominent, I felt the weight of our history on my shoulders.

As we filtered out after the event, I was stopped by a couple of men who asked, “What church do you represent?”

“I am a Catholic deacon,” I responded.

“Thank you for coming and being with us this evening, it means a lot to us.”

Suddenly, the weight lifted from my shoulders and, perhaps, a little moment of truth and reconciliation had become manifest.

Two nights later I was on the street walking along a particularly dark area of the city — dark in demeanour and dark in gloom. I was stopped by a man who clearly had been drinking. He apologized for his condition, but explained that although he has been sober for years, he has just found his girlfriend had been unfaithful to him.

Soon his conversation turned to those who have helped him throughout the years when he was on the street, and he talked of the times he had volunteered at Good Shepherd Ministries.

“That Fr. Ed Keays down there is a saint. He is an amazing man. He is so gentle with everyone, and I have never seen him get angry in all the time I was there. What a man!”

I prayed with him, and off he went into the gloom of the evening, a living testimony to a priest who for years has been the face of the Catholic Church to thousands of people on the street.

Moments later, I heard a familiar voice call out, “Robert.” I peered into the gloom and I picked out a hand waving from across the road. “Jamaica M,” I shouted as I crossed to meet her.

I first met her 10 years ago when she came to the spiritual group I supported in a women’s shelter. She was astonishing in that she knew more Scripture verses than I ever will.

However, she could never quite get them in context or in sequence. She would ramble on and when she lost focus, she would throw in several hallelujahs until she could recall an unrelated Bible verse. This would continue unabated until I would say, “thank you, ‘M’, let’s hear what someone else has to share now.”

“M” had a particular priest that was important to her.

“Fr. Noel Whelan was so good to me,” she often told me. “I used to see him when I went to St. Stephen’s chapel. I loved him. I wish I could meet him again. He’s a good man.”

Once again, a quiet priest who has never known the influence he has had on a women who wanders the streets carrying with her a shopping bag of newspapers, mental challenges and physical abuse.

These are just three stories of how the Catholic Church is perceived, but it serves to remind us that in all corners of the country there are quiet, unassuming women and men who have heard the call to walk with the poor.

This too is part of our Canadian heritage which we celebrate.

(Kinghorn is a deacon of the Archdiocese of Toronto: robert.hinghorn@ekinghorn.com)

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