Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
October 22, 2001
Newman College's new president
Christophe Potworowski says his vocation is to be a lay theologian
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — The new president of Newman Theological College says he not only has a job, but also a vocation.
"I never felt the call to ordained ministry," Christophe Potworowski said in an interview. "Being a theologian was, for me, a vocation."
The 48-year-old husband and father of one daughter said others did not always understand that vocation - some thought only a priest could be a theologian when he decided to study theology in the 1970s.
But it's a call he remains convinced is real as he becomes the second lay person to be president of Western Canada's largest Catholic theology school.
Christophe Potworowski was born in France and came to Montreal as a baby, the youngest of the three children of Francis and Christine Potworowski. His mother's uncle was Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, long-time head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
But his parents came from Poland, where they had lost everything during the Second World War. "Although I was a post-war child, I experienced the war very closely through my parents."
Whenever they had pie or cake, his father would only take half a piece. "We laughed because he would always take the second half later," he recalled.
"The reason he did that was because of his experience in a POW camp when he was hungry."
His father stressed that his children should become financially self-sufficient and Potworowski left high school determined to pursue a university degree in commerce. But three experiences led his life in a different direction.
The first was a week-long retreat with l'Arche founder Jean Vanier. That led him to become involved in the Faith and Light movement through which people with developmental disabilities, their parents and friends meet regularly to form a prayerful community.
Through Faith and Light, Potworowski became aware of certain aspects of the Church as very alive.
The second experience was working summers as a cargo handler in Frobisher Bay (Iqaluit). There he became sensitive both to the suffering of white people who came North because they couldn't cope with life in the South and that of native people whose culture was being destroyed.
The third came through several visits to Poland where he stayed with his uncle who was a Dominican priest. Living in a religious house where the intellectual life was highly valued, he said he fell in love with the idea of combining that intellectual life with the faith. It was there he decided to become a theologian.
Today, Potworowski sees a profound relationship between faith and reason. He said Pope John Paul's decision to declare St. Th‚rŠse of Lisieux a doctor of the Church - in the same class of theologian as St. Thomas Aquinas - and to say that her writing is a reference point for theologians shows that reason is linked closely to mystery.
"This is not the current paradigm of theology in North America," where academic freedom is valued more highly than our ultimate dependence on God, he said.
Potworowski felt this acutely at Concordia University in Montreal, the secular university where he has taught the past 13 years.
There, he had great freedom, he said. "But there are other experiences of education where you can help to form a person in their faith and use reason in the context of a faith engagement."
He told of teaching courses in France to people who had returned from doing volunteer work with children in the Third World and who had become interested in entering religious life.
He wanted to integrate such teaching experiences into his regular teaching but didn't see how that could happen. In hindsight, he said, he now realizes he was being prepared for his new mission at Newman College.
Even so, with the terrorist attacks on the United States last month and the consequent military response of Western nations, theology can seem disconnected from reality.
"In moments like these, the most important thing is to remember who we are. We are a Christian community who believe that we are created by God and dependent on God and who believe that Christ is the substance and the meaning of all reality.
"In moments like this we have to beg for this presence to be more manifest."
Potworowski said institutions like Newman College are committed to "the long path" rather than providing a short-term remedy for such catastrophe. "That is a long path because you don't immediately see the results (of what we do).
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