By Ramon Gonzalez
Western Catholic Reporter
EDMONTON (CCN) — Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie’s childhood wasn’t a happy one. He had what he needed, except for what he wanted most — the love of his dad. His father was a workaholic farmer who spent his life working the land.
Sylvain, who grew up in a French Canadian farming family of eight in Saskatchewan, spent most of his teen years doing what he could to earn his father’s love — to no avail.
As he grew older, he realized his family lacked the closeness and affection he saw in other families. Uncomfortable feelings of anger and envy emerged within him. Unable to deal with his emotions, he repressed them and buried them as deeply as he could.
Lavoie, archbishop emeritus of Keewatin-Le Pas and an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, is the author of Walk a New Path: Forgiveness, Grieving and the Twelve Steps.
In it, he explains how the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Medicine Wheel guided him into reconciliation with his father.
Lavoie has written two other books, Together We Heal and Drumming from Within, and has given retreats and workshops on addictions awareness and the 12-step program for more than 35 years.
By age 16, Lavoie could no longer repress his feelings and became an angry, self-righteous youth who left home convinced his dad had raised him the wrong way. He was determined to straighten his father out. He started writing angry letters to his dad complaining about how he had failed to raise his children properly.
For the next 15 years, he conducted the battle against his father, writing angry letters to him or avoiding going home. If he visited, he would spend the time arguing with his father.
His 1974 ordination to the Oblate priesthood only increased the tensions. Because he had studied theology, he felt he had even more reason to believe he was right and his father wrong. So resentful was Lavoie he began to wonder if he would be able to attend his father’s funeral when that time came.
Became like Dad
This lack of fatherly love was all-pervasive and had a great impact on Lavoie’s life, including his priesthood and his relationships with his parishioners. Unknowingly, he was becoming like his father.
As he arrived at his first parish assignment as a young priest in Beauval, Sask., Lavoie thought he knew everything.
“In reality I didn’t even know myself,” he admitted in a recent interview. “I didn’t know that I was a workaholic, that I had a messiah complex and that I was Mr. Fix It.”
As soon as he was put in charge of the mission of 500 people, Lavoie got to work. In little time he had started a youth group, ladies’ group, parish council, Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, Christopher Leadership course and many more groups. The parish couldn’t cope with him.
“I was the only young priest in the area, and I had all these new ideas they didn’t know about and so it was fantastic. I loved it.”
“But I worked myself to the bone and after about a year I was not happy. I was frustrated. Things were not going the way I thought they should. I was getting burnt out, I guess.”
Lavoie was ready to quit the priesthood. His former spiritual director at St. Joseph Seminary convinced him to stay.
Through that encounter, Lavoie realized he “didn’t know how to love people. That was my failure,” he said in the interview.
Hesitantly, he joined the parish AA group, where he was required to stand up and share his story in front of everybody. “I was scared. I thought I would be rejected,” he recalled. “I thought they wouldn’t want me as a priest (after they heard my story).”
On the contrary, they welcomed him and made him feel like a part of the group. In no time he became the speaker of choice at workshops throughout the region.
“I started giving workshops here and there on the 12 steps, and I started working the steps for myself. I started working on my own defects of character. One of the first ones was my impatience and then my stubbornness. I was healing. It was helping me to become more human.”
How to forgive?
Still, Lavoie couldn’t forgive his father. “Should I quit the priesthood? How could I preach love and forgiveness if I could not forgive my own father?”
Suddenly, following a weekend retreat, Lavoie was able to make a quantum leap and got inside his father’s emotions. “It dawned on me that if I was acting like my father, perhaps he was feeling like me.”
For the first time in his life, Lavoie knew and understood his father. By then, his father was 78 and, like Lavoie, he was full of bottled-up, painful emotions.
He then followed steps eight and nine of AA: making amends. He drove home after the liturgy that Sunday, sat down at the kitchen table with his father, shared his new understanding with him and asked his father to forgive him.
“I even told him that I loved him — the first and only time in my life I ever did that.”
Lavoie spent two good years with his father and is forever grateful to the 12-step program that guided him into reconciliation with his father. He believes anyone can use this program to experience forgiveness, healing and reconciliation in their lives.
Walk a New Path is published by Novalis and can be purchased through Amazon.ca.