Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 6, 2006
Fr. Stefano Penna: A priest learns love's meaning
At 44, he discovers what it means to be called 'father'
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Being a priest is a love story lived out publicly, says Father Stefano Penna.
"As a priest, I have learned about courage and fidelity," said Penna, 44.
Penna came to Edmonton at a point in his life when being called "father" had a new resonance. The moment had arrived when he realized he was not going to have children of his own.
"It's one thing to be swept away at 25 by the eagerness of the ministry. But when I turned 40, I saw the children of my brothers and sister and of my friends, growing up. It was difficult. What I discovered, in a human way, was that the students I am teaching now are of the age that they could be my children."
Now, when he is called "father," it has a deeper meaning. He better understands that his role is to shepherd and model wisdom and a loving faith in Christ amidst a generation that is looking for it.
"I have more confidence in my maturity. I am in middle age - the second journey, some call it. I've begun to love even more and to better taste God's love for me in Jesus."
A diocesan priest from Saskatoon, Penna has been on loan to the Edmonton Archdiocese since 2002 when he became an assistant professor of theology at St. Joseph's College at the U of A.
As an academic, he is following in the footsteps of his father who is a retired philosophy professor from the University of Saskatchewan.
"My parents have incredibly strong faith. The God I met was a God of love. I never was afraid of him. He was passionate for justice in the flesh of my parents."
His parents taught him a "double-dimension of faith." Penna said his father's practical life of community service was just as important as his work as an academic. Penna's parents helped to pioneer the Serena natural family planning movement in Saskatchewan.
"It was interesting in Grade 12 to have my parents come in to do the sex education talk. You can well imagine I was ribbed for quite a long time. But I gave back as good as I got."
Priests were always part of the Penna household. Penna's earliest recollection is that of a desire to become a priest.
"I used to play priest like many young Catholic kids do. When I got to high school it might have been put on the side burner. But when I graduated I was convinced it was what I wanted to do."
'Take a year off'
Penna presented himself to the rector of the seminary in Saskatoon, who told him to take a year off. He was crushed but now says it was the right thing to do. He spent the year at the University of Saskatchewan studying philosophy, where he would earn a bachelor's degree. A "very good spiritual director" tutored Penna. He returned to the seminary as two other young men entered from his neighbourhood. They were all ordained around the same time.
Following his ordination as a priest at 25, Penna was responsible for three parishes. A year later, he went to Rome for two years where he received a degree in dogmatic theology. He later spent six years serving in parishes in and around Saskatoon before heading to Yale University to begin his doctoral studies. During this time Penna began to do work in faith formation of Catholic teachers.
"Prayer is the foundation for the life of ministry. Therefore, prayer is the foundation for life of the ministry for the Catholic teacher, administrator and support staff," he said.
In Edmonton, Penna spends much of his time speaking at events or holding workshops assisting with formation of Catholic educators and administrators.
"Where the Lord has led me is to continue to work with teachers and in Catholic education. That's my primary ministry. At St. Joseph's College, we train our prospective teachers in the faith. This is vital. The ministry of teaching is the primary ministry of evangelization among the young in our Church today. It is a grace of God to have that kind of structure."
Penna rejoices in his role as teacher and evangelizer. He is moved when the Holy Spirit is in the midst of people who awaken, yet he remains humble that the awakening comes not from his own eloquence. He says he is only the messenger.
The Eucharist is the anchor of his life. Penna would like to see the gifts of living a religious life announced more often.
"The cross is part of this journey. The joy comes from the security in the arms of Jesus. Whenever I come to a pivotal moment - and moments of elation - the Lord has been there," he said.
"For most of us, it takes a life of encountering our own sinfulness, God's forgiveness and the presence of the community that brings us to a place where we begin to understand the deep truth of the words that were given to us at a young age."
Penna is completing his doctorate and nearly finished writing an academic book about the Church in the modern world.
"My hope is that I will be able to be a part of this new life in the Church that reminds people of the good gifts of the past and reminds them of the lessons of the past so there is no false nostalgia. My hope is in the Lord, so my hope is sure."