Continued from March 14
For those of you who read my last column about the eight-year-old Mennonite village kid terrified at the sight of an Irish Catholic man dancing a jig, I ask you now to take a long leap — about a quarter of a century — to that same boy grown into a middle-aged man, hired to work as a counsellor for St. Paul’s Roman Catholic School Division in Saskatoon.
I had left a Mennonite pastorate in a town near Winnipeg to complete graduate studies in educational psychology at the University of Saskatchewan. Shortly afterward, I was granted an interview with Saskatoon Catholic Schools, and though I didn’t think I had done very well, suddenly — against all the odds — I found myself in the hospitality of administrators, teachers, students, priests and religious alike, not merely as a token non-Catholic, but apparently a genuine part of the community.
I fell in love immediately with my new role and these new friends, and for the next 15 years — with one brief interruption — I worked for the Catholic school division. Administrators eased my load in working with troubled students, many teachers became not just colleagues, but gifts in my evolving personal and professional life. Often people asked how a former Mennonite minister got to be a counsellor in a Catholic school system, and I replied that I didn’t know, but I certainly had been given an unsparing welcome. Amid the emotional storms in which I tried to come to terms with my own heritage, and along rocky paths where I stumbled through failures, including a divorce, I took great solace in Catholicism’s generosity toward me, even if it seemed that some of my colleagues were chafing under its imperiousnesss toward them.
I can’t begin to name all my benefactors for fear of leaving many out, but here are a few examples. One chaplain who’d been a sister and a mother superior deemed me to be “more Catholic than most Catholics.” One priest became a confessor to me in the most profound, sacramental way I can imagine; another invited me to give a guest homily in his parish during a Christian Unity Week service. Many of my longtime friends who are also Catholic became a wider and more protective religious umbrella to me than I had ever known before.
During the early days of this new chapter in my life I began reading Catholic authors, some of whom remain touchstones to this day: J. P. de Caussade, Henri Nouwen, William Johnston, Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross; and although he considered himself an ex-Catholic, the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell as well.
And during one of my itinerant years with the school division, I had the great good fortune of meeting a teacher named Larraine who, despite my fears and vacillations, agreed to become my partner. She has been the greatest of the many gifts I’ve received from Catholicism, and she and I have been together for the past 30 years.
I ponder Ferdinand Magellan’s comment: “The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church.” Or Benjamin Franklin’s equally cynical remark: “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.” So, Gregory of Nazianzen cautions, “Not to everyone does it belong to philosophize about God; not to everyone — the subject is not so cheap and low — and, I will add, not before every audience, not at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions and before certain persons and within certain limits.”
In late 1999, when the Y2K fever was gripping the world and I had just embarked on a writing life, from out of the blue came a phone call inviting me to write a column about my “faith journey” for the Prairie Messenger. The tone would be informal, I was told, like conversations that might occur around a kitchen table. It’s been another of my great fortunes to have been re-invited to the table for the past 18 years, and these table-talks have spawned three books and many individual articles. I’m grateful beyond measure to the editors: the late Father Andrew Britz, Abbot Peter Novecosky, Donald Ward, and especially Maureen Weber, who made the original phone call and with whom I’ve worked most closely, who I feel privileged to call a friend. And I’m grateful to all the readers who have joined the discussions.
In my dictionary, the word catholic means “comprehensive, universal, broad in sympathies, tastes, or interests.” If — as I hope — I’ve become a bit more catholic, it’s due to those who have been catholic toward me. They were not “catha-holics,” as one friend characterizes her former “faith,” and they didn’t merely belong to “the religion with the green roof,” as one high school student dubbed his creed, referring to the colour of Bishop James Mahoney High School. I seem by now to have resolved theological conundrums to my own satisfaction, though I would not wish my way on anyone else; for impeccable as my theories may be, alas, their practice remains all too “peccable,” and I stand as always in need of every grace the round world can convey.
So here’s an aging Mennonite at the table again, confessing that it remains as hard as ever to dance with any comfort, let alone abandon. I won’t do an Irish jig like Old Joe Tobin did in the Laird Hotel in 1955, when my eight-year-old self fled from the sight in terror — though God knows that in the dancing sense, I wish I were more truly catholic too.
For my spiritual mentors, inspirations, and down-to-earth catholic friends, you have been a godsend. May blessings return to crown your heads in the full measures you’ve given to me.
Ratzlaff is a former minister, counsellor, and university lecturer. He has authored three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press, and edited an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. He has been short-listed for three Saskatchewan Books Awards, won two Saskatchewan Writers Guild literary non-fiction awards, and served on local, provincial, and national writing organization boards.