Msgr. Thomas Raby, RIP

By 
  • September 12, 2013

Thomas Joseph Raby — T.J. to his closest friends, always Mgsr. Raby to me — died a few weeks shy of his 95th birthday. Msgr. Raby was born on Oct. 1, and it pleased him that his birthday was the feast of the Little Flower. It is a measure of the length of his years that when Msgr. Raby was born in 1918, St. Therese did not yet have a feast day. She was not beatified until 1923, nor canonized until 1925. Indeed, Msgr. Raby was born during the First World War.

At this death, he had completed 68 years of priestly service, the last several ones in increasing frailty and forgetfulness. When the archbishop of Kingston sent word to all his priests that Msgr. Raby was in his final hours, I asked my students not to pray for his recovery but that he would speedily arrive at the place he long desired to be, with Jesus in heaven, enjoying the company of the Blessed Mother — to whom he was so devoted — and all the saints. This week of September is a special Marian week — the feasts of the nativity of Mary, the name of Mary and Our Lady of Sorrows. To bury Msgr. Raby this week is fitting, for he turned to Mary in all things. The Blessed Mother awaits him now.

I wrote some years ago that Msgr. Raby was the proudest boast of the Kingston presbyterate. Felled by a stroke more than five years ago, he progressively lost his capacities, and I have no doubt that the sufferings of the recent years purified whatever remained in need of purification in a great priestly life. The Church has the competence to declare saints, but the fraternity of priestly columnists maintains the right to express an opinion. I trust that in losing a brother priest in Kingston I have gained an intercessor in heaven.

Msgr. Raby was a kindly older brother — or perhaps better to say, kindly spiritual grandfather — to me. My actual grandfathers died long before my parents even married, so it was something new for me to have an elderly man take an interest in me. He encouraged me in my writing, offered me occasional advice about the priesthood, and even served as my confessor for a period of time. Most of all, he was a great example of a happy priest who was happy doing priestly work — offering the Holy Mass, administering the sacraments, visiting the schoolchildren, preparing homilies, typing up the parish bulletin — and who had a broad enough vision to know that priestly work could include many other media for preaching the Gospel, including newspaper columns.

Msgr. Raby’s example was important to me in two ways. First, his example taught me that the animating spirit of a priestly column had to be the sacramental imagination of the Church — that the extraordinary lies just on the other side of the ordinary, that the natural conveys the supernatural, that grace is alive and at work in the world around us — including the Little World of Father Raby. The Catholic Register ran his column for almost 50 years, an astonishing achievement at any time, but all the more remarkable for its endurance at a time when so much in the Church was unstable, even chaotic.

Mention should be made of another Register priest columnist — Fr. Jonathan Robinson of the Toronto Oratory, who wrote in early 1980s, and was my seminary rector in the 1990s — whose columns I still read today as theological gems. I would recommend to any priest the collected columns of Msgr. Raby and Fr. Robinson, both published by The Register. They will make him a more patient priest, a better biblical preacher, a more culturally attuned commentator, and most important, happier about his work. To follow both of them in the pages of The Register I count as a high honour.

When I first started writing, I would proudly introduce myself as the “other priest from Kingston with a newspaper column” in deference to Msgr. Raby. It was his longstanding example that helped me in a second way. The very fact that Msgr. Raby had written for so long, and strengthened the faith of so many, made it easier for a young priest to take up writing. It is always more risky to do something than to do nothing, and there are risks in having priests appear regularly in the press. Archbishop Francis Spence was by nature a cautious man, but he permitted my writing as a seminarian, followed it closely, and offered words of encouragement. His comfort was in large part due to the good experience and example of his longtime friend, Msgr. Raby.

My writing did not bring comfort to the late Archbishop Anthony Meagher, Spence’s successor, and my first bishop after ordination. Or at least, he never spoke of it to me except when he was discomfited by something I had written. On occasion he intimated that he would be altogether happier if I stopped, but that the other priests in Kingston seemed quite pleased with my work. No doubt first among them was Msgr. Raby, who lent his venerable credibility to a young priest just starting out. It was an act of fatherly and fraternal kindness.

Upon my ordination, Msgr. Raby wrote me a simple card: “Welcome to the greatest fraternity in the world!” There is another fraternity, greater still, not of this world. I pray that one day, God willing, Msgr. Raby may welcome me there too.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

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