Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 17, 2003
Tough love allowed John's friendship
Every father expects his son to grow
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
My present ministry is parish mission work. I like being involved in the new evangelization the popes have called for these last few decades. It is most important and also very gratifying.
But some of the most rewarding pastoral experiences I've had were when I served as pastor for eight years in three small First Nations communities in the Grouard area in northern Alberta.
After surviving well my first night in my new home, the rectory, I experienced a variety of feelings when I got into my car the next morning only to realize the gas tank I had filled up the day before showed empty.
Someone had siphoned the fuel during the night.
I felt violated.
But it was also a wake-up call. I had to go see what was out there. I had to get to know my flock. So I went to the first house and introduced myself as the new parish priest.
The elderly couple welcomed me warmly and offered me a cup of coffee immediately. That was nice. I had a good visit with these old timers who willingly shared much of the history of the community.
Before I left, we prayed together and I blessed their home. They were happy and so was I.
Then I went to the next house and did much the same. For the next weeks, my afternoons and evenings were pretty well filled with home visits and house blessings.
Everywhere I went I was well received. People offered me coffee or tea all the time. In the evening after I was finished visiting and the next morning as well, I would go over the names and the faces of the people and try to memorize the names of all, even the little children.
My first Sunday, about 10 people out of a population of 400 Catholics showed up in Church.
Instead of being disappointed, I felt a strange sense of relief: "I can't fail here. Things can hardly get worse; they can only get better."
Soon I made friends, but I also made a couple of enemies. One was John, about 45 years of age, who happened to be both the local drunk and a devout Catholic.
He was pretty well homeless, so he often slept in the choir loft as the church was never locked.
John and I had a stormy beginning. When I arrived to take over from my predecessor, John was passed out on the living room couch.
The departing missionary woke him up and offered him a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee to help sober him up.
After John was a bit more focused, Father informed him that he was leaving Grouard. At the news, John started to cry: "My father, my father," he repeated through his sobs.
A bit later, the wheels in John's head got into motion and John asked father who was to replace him.
When John found out I was the new pastor, he suddenly noticed me and he turned on the charm.
"Father Campagna was a real father to me," he said. "He gave me a place to sleep and fed me often. I hope you're as good a priest as father."
My response took him by surprise: "John, I'm glad to meet you. However, since you're a mature man and not a child, you don't need the local priest to look after you. You're 45, you're strong; Get a job and get a life."
And I gave him the sleeping bag he had been using.
That was not exactly what John wanted to hear. He stormed out of the house and slammed the door hard.
Relationships between people have the strangest ways of evolving. John could not entirely stay away.
Once he rang the doorbell to let me know he was organizing a petition in the parish to have me removed. My response was to tell him that I'd be honoured to be the first to sign it.
Things got worse with John as people that I started visiting advised me that John and another drunk in the community had taken over the liturgy department: they rang the bell, served Mass, did the readings, passed the collection plate around and led the singing.
People indicated they quit going to Church because of it. So I informed John and his friend that they would be welcome to minister in the Church only after they had proven capable of ministering by their good Christian living.
Things did improve. On Sundays I would recognize people I had visited during the week.
Some would return the visit as it were and would not be seen until I visited them again. But the numbers grew - to 25, then 40 and, after a year or two, we had as many as 80 people in Church on Sundays.
One day, John rang the doorbell at the rectory so I invited him to come in for coffee.
"I'll never come into this house again nor will I ever have coffee with you," he answered.
So I told John: "This morning I saw you working at building a fence for the neighbours. You were on the job all morning and all afternoon and into the evening, and I thought to myself, 'This John is one heck of a good worker.'"
After a moment's hesitation, John looked at me and said, "Let's go in and have the cup of coffee."
And from that moment onward, John and I became the best of friends. His battle to overcome alcohol was just beginning. But that's a story for another day.
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