Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza

Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island, and chaplain at Newman House at Kingston, Ont.’s Queen’s University.

There was a time when I hated the wedding feast at Cana. Couldn’t stand to read it; couldn’t stand to hear it. But it was only a year or two, and it passed. One doesn’t remain in the seminary forever.

During my theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, I took the usual list of introductory biblical courses: Pentateuch, prophets, synoptic gospels, Pauline letters and, of course, the corpus of St. John. The whole lot of them were mostly useless in understanding the Scriptures as the word of God revealed to His people and received in the life of the Church.

The Johannine course was worse than useless; it actively damaged my faith. Not because it was heterodox or stupid, but because by subjecting John 2 — the wedding at Cana — to an excruciating examination according to textual criticism, the depth and breadth of John’s Gospel lost its power, suffocated by a welter of secondary and obscure historical and literary analysis. We would have not known from the course that, for example, St. Augustine had written volumes on John’s Gospel. It was deadly. The only saving grace was that time limited us to only one chapter, leaving the rest of the Gospel uncontaminated for spiritual nourishment.

All of which was brought to mind by the gracious comments offered by my friend Fr. Thomas Rosica upon the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

“Cardinal Martini was for me a mentor, teacher, model Scripture scholar and friend,” wrote Fr. Rosica. “He has influenced my life, teaching, pastoral ministry in a very significant way over the past 30 years. When many colleagues, students and friends have asked me these past years how I maintained my faith and hope in the world of Scripture scholarship and teaching, I often told them: ‘I had three Martinis a day.’ ”

Why would people ask Fr. Rosica how he maintained his faith and hope in the world of Scripture scholarship? Wouldn’t the normal expectation be that studying the Scriptures would deepen one’s faith? The question is counter-intuitive only to those unfamiliar with the world of Scripture scholarship. The entire field is often deadening to faith, as the Scriptures get picked apart, reduced to entrails of a lost civilization, rather than the lifeblood of the living body of the Church.
Fr. Rosica praised Cardinal Martini because he was an exception to this norm. He could take the Scriptures apart like a scholar and put them back together again as a Christian disciple and pastor. Cardinal Martini put his biblical scholarship to pastoral use with his famous lectio divina sessions in Milan’s cathedral, where the cardinal and youth would read the Bible together, both literally and spiritually in the heart of the local Church.

Martini’s influence touches Canada and not only in the work of Fr. Rosica. Cardinal Thomas Collins, both in Edmonton and now in Toronto, regularly leads lectio divina in his cathedral on the Martini model. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa is well known to Catholic Register readers for his weekly scriptural commentaries, now published in book form. Collins and Prendergast are both Scripture scholars called to be bishops.

And of course, the one greater than even Cardinal Martini, Joseph Ratzinger, has demonstrated how the highest levels of biblical scholarship can be combined with the life of faith in his multi-volume Jesus of Nazareth.

Despite the example of these pastors, the study of Scripture in the theological faculties has largely remained unchanged. Fortunately, Catholics today can more easily free themselves from the deadening effects of such scholarship, and reclaim the life-giving fruit of biblical study for themselves. 

To begin with, there are the works of Pope Benedict, Collins and Prendergast. One thinks also of the vast publishing of Scott Hahn, who writes books for both beginners and scholars. One of his books that helped me most recover from my biblical courses was A Father Who Keeps His Promises. I used it earlier this year with my students as part of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There are also the works of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household for more than 30 years. His preaching, translated into English and widely available in print and online (www.cantalamessa.org), is fresh and contemporary. I remember one Good Friday sermon, preached in the presence of the Holy Father in St. Peter’s, in which he dismantled John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I recommend to seminarians and lay people that they find a great biblical preacher that resonates with them, and discover the Scriptures through that preacher’s eyes. The Fathers of the Church are the deepest source, of course, but closer to our own time and in English, I always profit from Blessed John Henry Newman, Msgr. Ronald Knox and the Venerable Fulton Sheen.

Cardinal Martini chose a verse from the psalms for his tombstone: Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to guide my path. Due to scholars who are also disciples, that word is shining a little brighter today.

New York City

More weight and less hair, for the most part. Priestly ordination changes the soul, after all. It does not preserve the body. So when I gathered with my ordination classmates for a 10th anniversary reunion last week, the march of time was evident. What remained unchanged was the joy granted us by the fraternity of the priesthood.

Earlier this summer I wrote about my 10th anniversary of priestly ordination, but the class reunion was this month in New York City. When we were seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, Msgr. Timothy Dolan was the rector. At our fifth year reunion in 2007, he was archbishop of Milwaukee, and invited us to join him there, which we did. Five years later, now cardinal archbishop of New York, he was kind enough to invite us again.

There was mutual admiration, mutual affirmation and mutual encouragement. The cardinal was generous in saying how much consolation it gave him to travel far and wide and see all that his former students are doing to preach the Gospel. The leader of our class reunion, Fr. James Shea, already the president of the Catholic university, spoke in turn of how we learned to be brothers at the North American College in large part because Timothy Dolan was the father.

We learned many things from our father in the priesthood, but perhaps most important is his distinctive combination of unabashed piety and intense jocularity. So he preached to us about how the enduring question for the faithful priest is simply, “Who has dominion over my life? Is Jesus my king? Is Mary my queen?” Then after dinner he led us all to the Lady Chapel of the cathedral to visit the Blessed Sacrament and sing the Salve Regina. In between there were enough backslapping jokes to dislocate a shoulder.

Years ago an old priest told me that no one has more fun than priests when they get together. It’s true, and I have been blessed enough to enjoy that since my days in the seminary. So it was good to be together with the brethren again. 

Being a young priest — especially at a time when young priests are rather more scarce than they should be — is a blessed experience, as the Catholic faithful are just delighted to have us around. If we serve them well it is an added bonus.

After 10 years we are no longer new priests and it is stretch to say that we are still young. But, as we were reminded by one of our former teachers who joined us from Brooklyn, the priestly heart is always young, for it looks not to the past, but delights in what the Lord is always doing now. Responsibilities grow with the years, and the excitement and novelty of the early years has passed. Thanks be to God though, our band of brothers is still happy.

We are a happy few, and fewer than we used to be. Two have died. Others have left the priesthood which, for those who remain, constitutes both an enormous sadness and an inescapable sense of both bewilderment and betrayal. The priesthood remains mysterious and we see that both in the men who are called to it and in the men who abandon it.

In our class it was the youngest priest who died first. The one I tried to imitate in the seminary was the first one to leave. It was not what we expected.

Many things were unexpected. Before my parishioners began confiding in me I had no idea how much suffering there was in family life, especially grown children who are the principal source of suffering for their parents. I did not expect to encounter so many who are so distant from the Gospel that they cannot express even the simplest truths about Jesus Christ. I did not expect to encounter so many so unfamiliar with Christian culture that even the historic rituals of the faith no longer have any hold on them.

Unexpected too have been the graces. St. Paul assures us that they abound even more abundantly than sin abounds. Working on campus and in the media, where the default positions are usually secular, sometimes radically and exclusively so, I have seen how grace unexpectedly is at work. The Gospel has not lost its power. And for those of us charged with preaching that Gospel and being instruments of that power, we still marvel that such a wonderful life has been granted us, to do that work which is the most important and to have more fun doing it than we deserve!
The Pussy Riot trial was the second most important story regarding the Russian Orthodox Church last week. Understandably, it got top billing. A punk band invoked the Mother of God in Moscow’s cathedral to protect Russia from its new czar, Vladimir Putin, and to inveigh against the support given to the regime by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. Politics, protest, church, state, freedom and censorship — it had it all, and so dominated the global news.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — Kirill — was likely happy to be away from Moscow for the sentencing of the protesters for “hooliganism.” He was in Poland for a historic meeting, one that might hold great promise for the future of 21st-century Christian unity. That was the most important story last week.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is the single most important figure for Christian unity. The Roman Catholic Church has been ready for closer, even full, unity with the Orthodox Church for more than a generation. And that is the only prospect for Christian unity. Unity with the Anglican Communion is no longer an option; the next archbishop of Canterbury’s principal task will be to preside over the peaceful dissolution of that Christian communion, not to deepen stronger ties with Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

Kirill is not the head of Orthodoxy. That office belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul), but he has been reduced to a largely ceremonial role. His flock is only a few thousand souls, and the Turkish government has so strangled his religious liberty that he can barely function as bishop of his own city, let alone the global head of Orthodoxy.

That leaves the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia as the leader of the majority of Orthodox Christians in the world.

The Pussy Riot story was about how Kirill is managing the patriarchate’s relationship with the Kremlin. His explicit support of Putin makes many wary, worried that Kirill intends to make the Orthodox Church the long arm of the Kremlin in exchange for privileges from the state. Relations between the Orthodox Church and the czar, then with the communist state, have a long and tortured history. The question facing Kirill is whether the Orthodox Church will defend liberty, including religious liberty, or prefer to reconstruct an altar-and-throne arrangement with Putin as Russia’s de facto king.

The visit to Poland was about how Kirill will position the Orthodox in relation to the Catholic world, and whether he will resist or support Putin’s attempts to recreate the old Soviet empire by establishing a Russian sphere of influence that will include Ukraine certainly, and perhaps aspires to move westward toward Poland.

The signs from this visit were promising. It was the first visit of the patriarch of Moscow to Poland, which alone made it an historic moment. He came at the invitation of the local Orthodox Church in Warsaw, but in visiting the largest Slavic Catholic nation, the critical meetings were with the leadership of the Catholic Church.

The highlight of the visit was the joint signing of an appeal for reconciliation between Russians and Poles, who throughout history have had hostile relations. Russia’s role in the dismemberment of Poland in 1795, and again in 1939 in complicity with the Nazis, is not forgotten by Poles, the majority of whom regard Russians with suspicion. “We appeal to our followers and ask them to pray in order to be forgiven for their wrongdoings, injustice and all the ill deeds they inflicted upon one another over the centuries,” states the joint appeal, entrusting to the Mother of God this work of mercy. Kirill and the head of the Polish bishops’ conference exchanged icons of the Blessed Mother as a sign of Christian charity and common Slavic spirituality.

The meeting of fellow Slavic Christians ought not to be so unusual, but it is. The hope is that Kirill’s visit to the Catholics of Poland signals a willingness for a more fraternal relationship with Catholics, both in Russia and abroad. Blessed John Paul II repeatedly desired to meet the patriarch and to visit Russia, but Kirill’s predecessors refused permission. A meeting of the Pope and Patriarch remains unlikely today, but might be arranged before long.

The Polish visit may bear other fruit. The centuries-long model in Russia has been for the Church to seek amenable arrangements with the state. The Polish Church learned, under more than 150 years of brutal foreign occupation and persecution, to align itself not with the state, but with the historic liberties of the people. Those who desire a more humane and free Russia, religious or not, hope that Kirill’s visit to Poland might prompt the Orthodox in Russia to move in that direction too.

Summertime and we head out on the waters. We have tamed them, made them safe for splashing, floating, swimming, boating. The beach and the lake beckon us away from the city. The waters promise refreshment and relaxation and recreation.

They were not created so. They were not made tame and tranquil. The Spirit hovered about the waters in the beginning, and there was chaos and darkness and the void. The biblical waters speak of the depths, down into which one descends, away from light and life. Our technologically advanced life is rather distant from the biblical world now, and the waters no longer conjure fear. We have tamed the waters, flattened out the depths. Yet the depths and the darkness cannot be altogether banished, for life in this world has not the power to tame death.

Kenton Van Pelt, 15, died in the waters at his family cottage on July 28. His parents, Michael and Deani, are friends of mine. We have worked together, as Michael is president of Cardus, the think tank that publishes our new magazine, Convivium. Michael and Deani and I have been on pilgrimage together in the Holy Land. We have laughed together and prayed together. They are an exemplary Christian couple. Now their world has been overwhelmed by the destructive power of the waters, the darkness and chaos crashing down upon them and their son. Summertime has come, and the wreckage of the waters with it.

The Christian is inclined toward those biblical passages that speak of the refreshing, restful waters of Psalm 23 beside which the Lord leads us. We are shaped by the vision of Ezekiel, where the waters from the temple flow out into the Judean wilderness, bringing forth life in abundance from the arid desert.

Yet we forget that in the ancient world the waters were occasions of danger. The fear of the apostles amidst the storms on the Sea of Galilee was real enough. It is not Psalm 23, but Psalm 69 that speaks more truly about the biblical sense of the waters: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”

The biblical waters are the realm of death. They have not been tamed. This is the meaning of our baptism. The water of baptism has different meanings, and today we tend to think more of the symbol of washing. The waters poured gently over the head of a baby wash away the stain of original sin. Or we might think about the waters providing refreshment and nourishment as an apt symbol of grace being poured into the soul.

We neglect the waters as a symbol of death. Perhaps if immersion baptisms were more common we would see that more clearly, for to be immersed too long means death not life. The children of Israel, marching through the Red Sea, knew that they were passing through death, towering upon either side of them, as the Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers would soon discover.

We are baptized into Christ Jesus, and into His death. St. Paul writes to the Romans that “we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with Him. Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over Him.”

The answer to the waters of death is the waters of baptism. The answer to the mystery of death is the death on the cross. We are baptized into Christ crucified so that He might draw us through the waters to His resurrection. The Christian is not asked to pretend that the waters cannot bring death; to the contrary the disciple knows better than others that the waters of this vale of tears cannot be definitively tamed. Yet the waters of baptism give him confidence that life, not death, has the final word. Even in the face of the death of a young man, the Christian hears the Lord Jesus, who walks across the waters to say to His apostles, “Be not afraid.”

There are few sufferings more intense than the agony of parents who must bury their own child. Suffering is proportional to love. And it is the love — of parents for their son, of God for the world, of the Lord Jesus for those baptized into His body — that remains to give life, and life eternal.

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7).

The following is adapted from a homily preached by Fr. de Souza at a Mass for the 10th anniversary of his ordination, on July 20, 2012.

KRAKOW, POLAND - In this historic chapel of the residence of the archbishops of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz has now fashioned a fitting shrine to its most famous resident, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

The new reredos imaginatively includes the churches linked to the life of Blessed John Paul II — his baptismal church in Wadowice; the sanctuary of the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa; the Mariacki church of Krakow’s heart; Our Lady of Fatima, the protectress of the pope’s life; the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the destination of his epic Jubilee pilgrimage; Wawel, his seat as successor of St. Stanislaus; the Vatican basilica, his Roman home as the successor of St. Peter; and the shrine of Divine Mercy, the mystery of which, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in his funeral homily, was the key to John Paul’s entire teaching, and the shrine of which the late pope consecrated on his farewell visit to this, his beloved Krakow, in 2002.

That was 10 years ago next month. A few weeks before he returned to Krakow to consecrate the shrine of Divine Mercy, Blessed John Paul II was in Canada for Toronto’s World Youth Day. As part of those events, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ in Kingston, 10 years ago today. And a few weeks before that I came to Krakow to rejoin for a few days the seminar which first brought me to this city in 1994. During those days I came to pray in this chapel, the very chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day 1946.

I prayed then for the gift of the priesthood that awaited me; I return today to give thanks to the mercy of God for 10 years of priestly life. I return with my own parents, who made of our home a domestic church where the One greater than the temple found a place to dwell. After God Himself, to them belongs the gratitude of the Church for my priestly vocation and whatever fruit there has been from these 10 years of work in the Lord’s vineyard.

I come today also with George Weigel, and in him is represented the Krakow seminar that was for me a decisive step on the path to the priesthood. To him God gave the great mission of explaining to the world who John Paul II is, and George knew that this extraordinary Christian disciple had to be explained “from the inside” not from the “outside.” In this chapel one now sees, behind the altar, the churches of Karol Wojtyla’s life, but in the tabernacle one beholds the mystery that is the window to understanding him from the inside.

It was in this house that the young Karol Wojtyla would come to know Adam Sapieha, the prince archbishop, who, George Weigel tells us in Witness to Hope, “would be his model of Church leadership for more than half a century.” Archbishop Sapieha, made a cardinal after the war, was the great defender of the Church and the people during the long night of the occupation. He courageously opened a clandestine seminary in this residence, and the young men would often come to serve the archbishop’s Mass here.

Karol Wojtyla came, as did another young man, Jerzy Zachuta. In April 1944, Jerzy was killed by the Gestapo. Later that year, Wojtyla and the others would move into this house, it being too dangerous to live outside in their own city. For Jerzy Zachuta his vocation finished almost as soon as it started. The Lord had a different plan for Karol Wojtyla.

“For some time I thought about the possibility of becoming a Carmelite,” John Paul would write in 1996. “My uncertainties were resolved by Archbishop Cardinal Sapieha, who — in his usual manner — said briefly: ‘You should first of all finish what you started.’ And that is what I did.”

It was an unusual answer, because finishing what he started meant, among other things, not becoming a Carmelite. Yet the unbroken prince archbishop spoke more providently than he knew; Karol Wojtyla would not finish what he started until he had done what the other great Polish cardinal of the 20th century, Stefan Wyszynski, prophesied, namely to lead the Church across the threshold of hope into the third Christian millennium.

Finish what you have started. The Christian life might be summed up as just that — finish well what God has begun in you at baptism. It can summarize the great Christian pilgrimage through history. What my parents have done, what I and my brother and sisters must do, is to continue what has been lived by so many generations of faithful Catholics in our family. I carry in my heart today in particular the witness of my late grandmothers; I offered my first Mass for them 10 years ago, and I offer this Mass for them today.

We do not know the finish. We walk by faith and trust in God. Yet I do know this, that the past 10 years have been a blessing beyond measure, that I cannot imagine another life that would have brought me more joy — or allowed me to have more fun! — than the great adventure of being a Catholic priest in the third millennium.

I am a Catholic priest. That declaration is a sombre one to make in Krakow, as the image of St. Maximilian Kolbe in the church across the street reminds us. The Lord has not asked of me hardship, or even difficulty. He has granted me instead a full measure, pressed down and overflowing, the hundredfold return, and as yet without persecutions. Perhaps they will come; perhaps they will not. We do not know how we will finish.

On July 20, 2002, the Most Reverend Francis John Spence, archbishop of Kingston, took my hands in his and said to me: “May God who has begun this good work in you now bring it to fulfilment.”

We might translate that into the history of this chapel: You must finish what you have started. Amen.

On the Fourth of July, the Catholic Church in the United States turned toward Washington, not for the fireworks, nor for a windy speech from the president, but for the conclusion of what the American bishops declared to be a Fortnight for Freedom.

I followed it rather more closely than most, since I was appointed last year a consultant to the American bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Alarmed at encroachments on religious liberty at home, and escalating violence against Christians abroad, the ad hoc committee of senior bishops proposed a special fortnight of prayer, fasting, catechesis and public action in defense of religious liberty. Summoning forth “all the energies the Catholic community can muster,” the fortnight was a dramatic appeal to Americans — both Catholic and otherwise — to realize that their “first, most cherished liberty” is under sustained and serious attack.

CALGARY - Four new priests were ordained here on the Feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, a most grace-filled day for the diocese of Calgary in its centenary year. It was a blessing for me to be on hand to witness some family friends ordained, and then later to join in the joy of a First Mass at my home parish of St. Bonaventure.

Priestly ordinations are rather fewer than we need these days, so to have four young men is remarkable, all the more so as they all came from local parishes. Their vocation stories are a combination of old patterns and new ones. Two went almost straight from high school, the others after some time working. Their vocations were nourished in Catholic families and inspired by good priests. As is common today, World Youth Day had a significant impact too.

I was a little embarrassed watching the coverage of the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in Dublin. Not because of anything that went on in Ireland, but rather because of my original attitude toward the congress being held there at all. Yet watching the pilgrims from around the world gathering in Dublin, I saw that their gestures of sympathy and solidarity were better than an attitude of ostracism and punishment.

When it was announced in 2008 at Quebec City that the 2012 IEC would be in Dublin, I was rather dismayed. I understood that sometimes a local Church in distress can be buoyed by such an international event — after all, that was the logic of having the IEC in Quebec City to begin with, to administer an emergency transfusion to the anemic local Church. Yet Dublin struck me as a step too far. After all, it would be hard to find any place where spectacular incompetence had brought the Church into greater crisis than in Ireland. And Irish society as a whole, led by its government, was hardly better.

WHITEHORSE, YT - Last week I wrote about my impressions of the Yukon on my first trip to Canada’s north. In many ways it is altogether different from anything I have previously encountered in Canada’s cities, or even in my parish on Wolfe Island. At the same time the Yukon raises questions that the Church in all of Canada must face.

It is frankly astonishing that anyone lives in some of these remote communities, where a summer visitor is impressed by the natural beauty but year-round residents have to cope with isolation and lack of services, to say nothing of the severe cold and oppressive darkness of the punishing winter. To imagine living up here in the early 20th century, before roads and four-wheel drive trucks and propane gas heating and food preservatives is mindboggling, especially given that an overland trek of several weeks would deliver one into the Okanagan, one of the loveliest climates anywhere in the world.

WHITEHORSE, YUKON - On my first visit to Canada’s territories, and the farthest north I have ever travelled on the globe, I was even more curious than I usually am, and asked a lot of questions of those who were kind enough to meet me. One word kept being repeated in almost every answer: “capacity.” The bishop of Whitehorse explained the importance of it, the premier of the Yukon emphasized it, a young couple raised it in relation to housing, an aboriginal shop-owner mentioned it in terms of suppliers — even the receptionist at the local newspaper spoke of it in terms of the newsroom.