A priest, in the spirit of John Paul II, brought me out of the wilderness

  • August 29, 2012
More than a decade ago a Catholic friend gave me a copy of the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read it and was impressed by the depth and eloquence of its proclamation of the Catholic faith. This was the faith I affirmed, but which I considered that my own Anglican Church no longer did.    

In 2004, I moved with my wife Norah from London to St. Thomas, Ont. In the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying, I first came to Holy Angels Church to pray for him. He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, and there was an afternoon Mass that day so I came. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing had happened. Only when he came to the prayers of the faithful did he mention the Holy Father had just died, therefore we would skip the usual intercession for the Pope.

Not a word to assuage the shared grief of the congregation. We were dismissed, orphaned and bereaved out into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul ll the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived, and on that day I expected more. “Never again will I enter this church,” I muttered on my way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.

This brings me to November 2005. I had not been attending any church when suddenly the conviction overwhelmed me that I could not celebrate Christmas if I did not worship somewhere during Advent. So, on the first Sunday of Advent, I trudged along to Holy Angels, rather expecting to be disillusioned again, to be perfectly frank.

To my surprise, there was a new priest. He was Polish and it soon became evident that he had been shaped by John Paul the Great. To my even greater surprise, the new priest’s homily was directed straight at me.

Fr. Adam Gabriel’s topic was “Come out of the wilderness.” I recall that he said something like this: “People experience many kinds of wilderness. There may be someone here who is in a church wilderness, someone who cannot find a church to belong to, or perhaps who has found the church but it is the church to which he cannot belong. To that person Jesus says this morning: ‘Come out of the wilderness.’ ”

The next day, without calling in advance and without an appointment, and never having met the priest, I knocked on the rectory door and told Fr. Gabriel that I was that person in the wilderness. He listened to my story and told me about the RCIA program. I told him we had tried the RCIA program in a London parish and it had been a disillusioning experience. He said that he regretted that he could not give private instruction, because Holy Angels is a large and busy parish and he was the only priest and there was simply no time.

Then, noticing I had brought my copy of the catechism, he asked if I had read it. I said that I had. Then he said: “Okay. If you are serious enough to have read the catechism, I’ll make the time to give you instruction.” And so, over the next year, he did. On July 2, 2006, at the altar of Holy Angels, I was received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church. Norah was received at Easter one year later.

I told that story at a recent farewell party not to draw attention to myself, but to illustrate my own immense debt to a priest who later became my friend. For seven years Holy Angels was the recipient of prevenient grace. Fr. Gabriel was our priest, our shepherd, our pastor, our confessor and our friend. He did everything with energy, infectious enthusiasm and dedication.Words do not adequately convey the sense of gratitude, commingled with loss, we felt when he moved to St. Teresa’s in Etobicoke, Ont.

“Not to be served but to serve.” How often we heard him say that. But he didn’t just say it — he lived it!

He brought me out of the wilderness and for that I will be forever grateful.

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