Fr. Raphael Ma celebrates his first Mass at St. Patrick’s Parish in Markham, Ont., on June 16. Photo by Paul Ma

The long and winding road to priesthood

  • June 21, 2019

It wasn’t an easy path to the priesthood for newly ordained Resurrectionist Fr. Raphael Ma.

From switching paths part way through the process — he began the journey looking to be a diocesan priest in Hamilton, Ont., before making his way to the Resurrectionists — to overcoming some family opposition, it’s been an interesting nine-year run to taking his final vows.

Those vows were taken June 15 at St. Mary’s Parish in Kitchener, Ont., when Ma was ordained on the eve of Father’s Day before his father, family and friends.

“The whole priesthood discernment thing was rocky from the start,” said Ma, who was raised in Markham, Ont., where he attended St. Patrick’s Parish.

Much of that opposition came from his mother, Alice, said Ma. She was dead set against her only child joining the priesthood. It came to the point, he said, that when he went to a Come and See discernment weekend, he believed that if he came out of it knowing the priesthood is what God willed for him, his mother would disown him.

“That’s what our relationship was like,” said Ma.

But God works in mysterious ways, and it was right around the time of the Come and See weekend that his mother had a change of heart.

“It was around that same time that my mom, I would describe as miraculously changed her mind,” said Ma. “We had a phone conversation one day, it was her birthday, and she just said to me, ‘I’ve been thinking about it. If this is what God wants you to do I’ll be happy for you and I will support you.’ ”

There was also the midstream change of heart, where he wasn’t certain the diocesan route was the one he wanted to take. It led to some guilt pangs, as he didn’t want the Catholics of Hamilton to be on the hook in paying for his spiritual formation if he wasn’t going to repay them by becoming a diocesan priest. 

He said he was lucky to have an understanding bishop in Bishop Douglas Crosby, who encouraged Ma to do another semester in seminary to work out his issues. If he felt he was not ready to commit to the diocese, then Ma would be free to pursue another direction. So after three years, he changed direction and joined the Resurrectionists in 2013.

The difficulties and challenges were not coming to an end, however. As he was entering the novitiate, when he was to go away for a year, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. So on top of being away from family for an extended period, he also wouldn’t be able to help in her care. 

“Her great fear was she’d die without my being there,” he said.

It was a tough period for Ma — his mother had accepted his calling, yet the chances were high that she wouldn’t survive her bout with cancer to see it through, though she was there for his first vows. Chemotherapy wasn’t working, and he wasn’t there to help out. The Resurrectionists, like Crosby before them, were very understanding though, and when it appeared Ma’s mother was reaching the end they sent him home to be with her. He shared her final three weeks, bringing her communion each day, before she passed away in 2018.

“It was a very beautiful time actually,” said Ma. “It’s hard to describe. It’s a horrendous time but I didn’t feel at all that God was absent.”

Though his mother was not at his ordination, her parents and younger sister, as well as his father Paul, were among his family in the crowd when he was ordained. Two busloads of St. Patrick’s parishioners also made the trip down the 401 to help celebrate, and he shared his call at the parish the next day when he returned to St. Patrick’s to celebrate his first Mass.

Leading up to his ordination, Ma said he had a calm feel about him. He was excited about entering the priesthood, but not nervous. That nervousness was saved for his first slate of duties the weekend of June 23 at Kitchener’s St. Francis of Assisi Parish, where Ma has been assigned. 

Three Masses are on his slate, some baptisms and first communions, and will wrap up Sunday evening with a brainstorming session as he has been tasked with starting up a youth ministry at the parish.

“I’m young, let me at ’em,” he said with a laugh.

Though he sometimes worries about what he is about to get into — “On the one hand I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing,” he laughs — he’s excited about what is to come.

“I guess the way I describe it is even if I don’t know what I’m doing, ordination is a gift and God has given me this gift to give to others. I just have to be generous with it.”

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