Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 27, 2004
Seeds of wind bred whirlwinds
Priest speaks out against alcoholic abuse and reserve death stats tumble
A Missionary's Musings
By FR. JACQUES JOHNSON
Many people choose to attend church services on the occasion of weddings and funerals. Rarely will they attend Mass at other times, save perhaps at Christmas and possibly also at Easter.
In the process, they see the priest celebrating, preaching, blessing. They might consider him as a specialist of weddings and funerals and not much more. In reality the priest is a man of hope and a witness to the resurrection. He is essentially prophet, a bearer of good news. His calling is to be light of the world, oftentimes to a world mired in all shades of darkness.
In many ways he's a contradiction in terms. His chastity, obedience (and poverty for the religious) might be interpreted as a sort of ongoing death experience and in a sense it is.
Inherently lonelyBut it is more than that. It is a prophetic statement. He's a celibate, but also a prophet of the family. He often lives alone yet he promotes unity and he's the main builder of the Christian community. In a real sense, he's the life of the party, yet he's oftentimes inherently lonely.
When people feasted with the bread Jesus had multiplied for them in the desert, they realized after a while that Jesus was no longer with them. He had disappeared, going by himself to some lonely place.
The priest is essentially a leader, a promoter of life and of family spirit in groups of people who are basically strangers to each other. That is why people automatically address him as "Father." Being Church implies being family and the priest's main responsibility is to be the leader, the life giver, the inspiration and, yes, the father.
Our world is oftentimes caught in turmoil and confusion, mired in suspicion and negativity, stressed out with violence, experiencing tragedies and death, cynicism and betrayal of relationships. This oftentimes is part of the priest's daily bread as well.
The priest works in the midst of much turmoil and struggles, betrayals, the politicking: all of that is also his daily bread. And oftentimes he gets caught in the vicious circles and he might not be entirely immune to the games being played around him.
When I was pastor for a few isolated communities in northern Alberta one week stands out in that eight-year period when I presided at the funerals of five people. There was an elderly couple who had been sickly and had died within a day of each other. It was sad but they had lived long and very good lives so we celebrated their coming home as we buried them in a common grave.
More tragically that same week we celebrated three more funerals of three young men, age 16 to 23. One had died in a car crash with alcohol being the prime culprit. The other two died in separate stabbing incidents.
The community was reeling with the shock of it all. People dropped by to visit. Coffee at the rectory was on for all callers. It was good as people needed to talk it out. I also needed to get the feeling of the community as I prepared the homilies. The message I received from all was that I had "to speak out!" The community needed a wake up call I was told.
Time to speak outAnd so, at the first funeral, that of the youngest of the three, I spoke out in the strongest terms I could muster. I quoted the Scriptures: "You have been seeding the wind and now you are reaping the whirlwind." I told them about the excess in drinking so common in the community, the all-night parties in homes where the young people never dared to come in as they feared being molested by the drunks in the house or worst.
I gave then all I had and blasted them hard. That evening, as is customary, I went to visit the family and brought along the elderly Métis Grey Nun who was helping in the parish. The reception was especially cool. People turned their backs to us. Only a drunken uncle who knew no better addressed us in a friendly way. Our visit was rather short and we went home.
Understandably the family suffered perhaps as much at the time from my sermon as they did by their loss. I felt bad and regretted the choice that I had made in addressing the community so forcefully. The next two funerals were sad but gentle affairs.
A few years later, I left my parish having been called by my order to serve in Edmonton. Before I left I got the visit of Suzie, the sister of the first young man I buried that week. She courageously confronted me about the sermon I had served at her brother's funeral, stating emphatically that she would never forgive me for that sermon.
As a response I pulled out the funeral records and showed her that for each of the previous 10 years leading up to the time of her brother's funeral an average of four or more young people died violent deaths in the community. I then showed her the record of the five funerals including her own brother's. I asked her to count the number of young people we buried since that fatal week four years before.
She turned the pages over and totally surprised she gasped: "Not a single one!" Yes, I assured her, since that very sad funeral when I spoke out most strongly, not a single young person had died in the community.
And indeed it's now been over 20 years and in that time only one young man died tragically, when an average of four young persons died yearly before. She hurried home and told all about this. Her final comment: "If only you had spoken out before, my brother would still be with us." And the truth is that she's probably right.
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