Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
November 16, 2009
Teaching proved to be a joyous path
Determined to be a parish priest, Fr. Frank Patsula discovered God had quite different plans for him
RAMON GONZALEZEDMONTON - Serving as an altar boy, Frank Patsula would dream of the day he would become a parish pastor. He admired the priests he worked with and wanted to be like them.
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
So the lad went straight into the seminary after high school and to his joy he was ordained in 1955.
But fate played its hand and in 54 years of priesthood, Patsula, now 78, never was the pastor of a parish. He served as assistant here and there for brief periods. Once he was appointed a pastor but never got to the parish.
Nevertheless, Patsula is happy with how things turned out. He served as canon law professor at St. Joseph Seminary and Newman Theological College for 43 years and as judicial vicar of the Alberta Marriage Tribunal for more than 20 years. And on weekends he always did parish ministry.
"Being in the tribunal and being at the seminary was not my choice. But I think it proved to be the best for me, given my personality and character," Patsula said in a recent interview at his suite in Villa Vianney.
A GOOD FIT
"When I look back, I am very pleased with those ministries and the Sunday help (in parishes). The lifestyle of the seminary and the tribunal seemed to fit me perfectly. Preaching was never my strongest point."
The Canadian Canon Law Society has taken notice of Patsula's exceptional contribution to the service of canon law and recently bestowed its highest honour on him - the Jean Thorn Award of Merit.
The award was presented to Patsula at the society's 44th annual convention in Edmonton in October.
Delia Waldock, director of canonical services for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said Patsula's contributions to canon law have had far-reaching effects on the life of the Church.
"He was never sent to study beyond his licentiate degree, he did not train other canonists, nor did he publish scholarly legal journals," Waldock told convention delegates. "His students, however, went on to fill leadership roles in parishes and other venues for ministry where the law comes face to face each day with the lives and concerns of the faithful."
Patsula said he was happy and humbled by winning the award. "I was shocked when I heard that I was going to get the award. I never expected it. It's a great honour to have been given that."
Patsula was born into a family of 10 children in 1931 in Regina, where he attended school up to Grade 3. The Patsulas moved to Moose Jaw, where Frank completed Grade 7. In 1944 the family came to Edmonton after the Redemptorist Fathers convinced the Patsulas, they had no future in Moose Jaw, which at the time didn't even have a high school. The Redemptorists even found a job for Patsula's dad, a master tinsman.
So they moved into Sacred Heart Parish, just across the street from the church. "I was an altar boy at Sacred Heart and I was very impressed with the priests that were there and in charge."
He did Grades 8 and 9 at Sacred Heart School and then he went to St. Joseph's High. St. Joe's principal, a priest known as Father MacDonald, saw something in Patsula and encouraged him to look at the priesthood.
"I must have said something; I must have said that I was interested in the priesthood because he certainly encouraged me along that line."
Patsula entered the seminary right after high school. "I don't think there is anything spectacular about it," he said of his priesthood. "I just simply kind of moved into the priesthood because I had thought about it and I was encouraged to try it and I did. That was it. I just simply was impressed with the priests (I had met)."
A COMPANIONABLE GROUP
Patsula enjoyed his seminary years. "We had a tremendous class," he recalled, naming Fathers John Hesse and Duncan McDonnell among his seminary classmates. "We were all very close as a class and kept contact throughout our priesthood, you know."
Patsula and some of those classmates now live together at Villa Vianney, a retirement home on the grounds of the Catholic Pastoral Centre.
His first appointment was assistant pastor at Trochu, where he served for three months followed by two years at St. Joseph's Basilica. He then went to assist at St. Patrick's Parish, where he stayed another two years.
He was happy when Archbishop Anthony Jordan appointed him pastor of Evansburg. But it wasn't meant to be.
"They were going to build a church (in Evansburg) at that time but then I never got there because the archbishop said that before I went to Evansburg I would have to fill in for a few places that were looking for holiday (replacements)."
So Patsula went to Vermilion for three months, to Red Deer for about four months and to Camrose for another three months.
"By that time the archbishop changed his mind and said I should teach canon law at the seminary."
He was not prepared for that. "I said to Archbishop Jordan, 'How can I teach canon law (without any training)?'" Jordan didn't yield and told Patsula he would send him to Mission City, where a priest who taught canon law would tutor him for three months.
He returned from Mission City in time to start teaching at St. Joseph Seminary in September 1960. "It was quite a task, you know."
Canon law, the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the Western world, is the internal legal system of the Catholic Church.
"I never thought I would teach canon law but when I got into it I was really happy with that," Patsula says. "The first day was terrible. I was teaching three courses all at once and all the preparation I had was three months of tutoring. So I'm not sure what the students got out of that."
After two years Patsula was sent to further his studies in Ottawa, where he earned his licentiate. "That was a big help. After I got my degree, I became more and more comfortable."
SPIRIT OF THE LAW
In teaching canon law, Patsula says he always tried to impress on his students the importance of the spirit of the law.
"The law is not an end in itself; it's a means to an end," he stressed. "And the supreme law of the Church is the salvation of souls so you don't want to become a legalist. I would say, 'You really want to become like the Good Shepherd.'
"That's the idea, one of compassion and understanding in your ministry, especially where the law is concerned. Don't let it become an end in itself where you dominate and control the lay people. That's not the idea."
In 1965 the archbishop delegated more responsibilities to Patsula, appointing him judicial vicar of the Marriage Tribunal, the Church body that deals with marriage annulments. He worked in the tribunal off and on for at least 22 years. He is still connected with the tribunal, helping it in judging.
"In hindsight I see that the teaching of canon law was really a lifesaver for me," Patsula says. "I never thought I was qualified for that kind of work. But then I think I may not have been made to be a pastor. I don't know. I never did get that position."
But Patsula is quick to point out that he has done weekend parish ministry. "Starting in 1965 I helped out in Sherwood Park for 23 years. Then I left Sherwood Park and I started to help in Good Shepherd and now it's 21 years."
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.