New Priest, Ancient Message

Eleanor Deckert

“Are you enjoying the new priest?” my friend asked while I was in Clearwater.

“I didn't know we had a new priest!” I answered, revealing that my attendance at Mass has been somewhat irregular lately.

“He's from Africa,” she explained. “I'm not used to the accent,” she confided.

Eagerly, I drove to Blue River the very next Sunday. A new priest! This is very good news. After Father Sasges passed away in the summer of 2014, Valemount, Blue River and Clearwater have had Father Paul Sims for one year, then visiting priests in rotation. Appreciating the difficulty of travel over such distances, especially in the wintertime, parishioners have been grateful, yet, missing the continuity of a resident priest.

It was Easter Sunday, and hearing the familiar text and songs, gathering with the people, and enjoying the Easter lily made my heart sing.

When I asked for his counsel, Father Boniface suggested I pray for “grace, courage and discipline.” I found his guidance especially helpful through the following week.

I spent a little time after Mass in conversation with Father Boniface. I know what it feels like to be new in town.

He told me that he has been in Canada for four years, serving parishes in Kamloops, William's Lake and Merritt.

“I have been home three times!” he smiled. Home is in Nigeria, in the city of Orlu, Imo State - South Eastern Nigeria. “I have been assigned to Valemount and Blue River until July,” he explained.

Pledging to attend as often as possible, I drove back to Avola, wondering what it is like to be so far from home and in such a different climate, culture, foods, and customs. If it is hard for us to understand an African accent, it must be equally difficult for him to decipher ours!

What is constant is the Church. Even halfway around the globe, we have so much in common.

The following Sunday, Father's meaningful message came through the Scripture readings and homily. It was the story of 'Doubting Thomas' (John 20: 19-31). Thomas had not been present on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. His famous words: “Unless I see the holes that the nails made and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.” One week later, Jesus came and stood among them. When Thomas did indeed see, touch, hear and comprehend, he declared, “My Lord and my God!”

I have heard this story and the preacher's comments many times in my life. How the disciples were afraid. How Jesus showed himself. How Thomas doubted. How the Lord appeared again. Mostly, it is just a retelling of the events and emphasizing the wonder of it all. Thomas saw what we all want to see.

But, this time I heard a more universal message.

Father Boniface pointed out that previously, the first time he came, Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” showed the disciples his hands and side, breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

Thomas wasn't there. He was absent from his community. He had missed this important sequence of events. He did not see, hear, feel, understand or receive the blessings Jesus bestowed on the others. He did not feel united with his brethren.

I have been absent a lot lately. I know there is nourishment at church. Music, readings, thoughts to contemplate, encouragement, prayers uplifted, voices in unison, creed renewed, the Holy Supper to share, clarity, focus. But, I have not participated. Too far. Too snowy. Too inconvenient. Too much time.

“I believe in God, I don't need church,” is a very popular sentiment for our times.

Father Boniface pointed out how much Thomas missed by being away from his community that day. My heart ached for the Sundays I have missed. I can't go into a storage shed and find precious experiences I didn't save up! I can't re-visit bright goodness I did not collect. I can't gain nourishment from meaningful moments I never heard.

As I left the church, my friend, Fran Wolf, stopped me with a smile that lit her face. “It means so much to see you again!” How can I ignore the warmth that pours from this sweet heart? How can I disregard the effort a priest is making who came here all the way from Africa to serve my spiritual wellbeing? How can I neglect my own spiritual nourishment, or overlook the opportunity to gather in my community and draw strength for the days ahead simply by sharing this experience with my neighbours and friends?

I'm so glad I came. I'm so glad I heard the teaching of Father Boniface. I'm so glad the Lord welcomes me back. I'm so glad that, like Thomas, I can declare from the depths of my heart, “My Lord and my God!”