Two faces of the Catholic imagination


It was a dash across the country from grandeur to simplicity, from the celebrated to the unremarked, from the soaring cathedral of Toronto to the parish church where I grew up.

Archbishop Thomas Collins

Tuesday began with the installation of the new Archbishop of Toronto, Thomas Collins, in the metropolitan cathedral of St. Michael’s. It ended here in Calgary at my home parish of St. Bonaventure where we held the wake for Father John McNamee, 78, our parish priest from 1971-1986. The juxtaposition of the two ceremonies illustrated two aspects of the Catholic imagination.

On the one hand, there are the great occasions for which cathedrals are built and where Catholic ceremony unfolds in its many-coloured splendour. All that and more took place at St. Michael’s — the lay faithful from all the parishes joining crimsoned cardinals, dozens of bishops, hundreds of priests, dignitaries of state and St. Michael’s renowned choir school singing settings both classic and contemporary.

Done well, the liturgy is very good theatre, and Archbishop Collins made the comparison directly in a tour de force homily (audio here, pdf here) that left some senior priests commenting that it had been generations since such preaching was heard at St. Michael’s. Noting that Toronto’s cathedral is near the theatre district, Archbishop Collins said that “the performers and the audience spend a relatively brief time within them, and then at the end of the performance leave the world of illusion and go through the exit doors into the world in which they really live: Toronto. That primary, external world is the governing context for what takes place within the secondary world of the theatre, for the performances on stage are an artificial construct, designed to reflect some aspect of the life which occurs in the real world outside.”

“Eventually, we all exit from this life, as we do from any theatre, and we do so through the doorway marked death,” he continued. “What we find beyond that doorway is the real world which is the essential reference point for our brief life on earth. John Henry Newman expressed this fact through his epitaph: it is at the end of our life that we move from shadows and illusion into the truth.”

The sanctuary is a stage, but with a radically different purpose. The theatre is an illusionary world that tries to make sense of the real world around it; the liturgy is the most real of all worlds, breaking through the illusions of this world as we know it. Catholics believe there is something of the heavenly Jerusalem present at every Holy Mass; it was easy to sense that amid the magnificence of St. Michael’s, but is no less true on any Sunday at St. Bonaventure.

It was there that Father McNamee, an ordinary man of extraordinary goodness, did the routine work of a parish priest. Except the work of a priest — a “steward of the mysteries of God” in St. Paul’s phrase — is never just routine. I was an altar boy when he was there, and he was known for his nervous fluster in the sacristy before Mass. Some of that was his personality to be sure; but some of it too was his understanding that we were about to go up to the altar of God — to that real world where, as Archbishop Collins put it, “with the clarity of faith we can see the divine reality of the governing context of life of earth: the God who is love.”

That’s another aspect of the Catholic imagination — that the extraordinary lies just on the other side of the ordinary, the supernatural of the natural, the divine of the human. It is practical consequence of the incarnation, the God who becomes man in Christ Jesus, and of the sacraments, which are both symbols and certain means of God’s grace. The parish priest, in daily contact with the ordinary, the natural and the human dimensions of his parish — from home visits to furnace repairs — is immersed in this world of shadows and is, at his best, a window for his people through which they can glance the reality of God from this world of shadows and illusions. Father McNamee was a good, sturdy window — the functional kind we have at St. Bonaventure, not the stained glass they have at St. Michael’s.

At St. Michael’s with the new archbishop, our faith was celebrated, as is fitting and right, for we celebrate that which gives us life, and of which we are proud. But it is at places like St. Bonaventure here in Calgary’s southern suburbs, with priests like Father McNamee, that the faith is handed on, one generation to the next.


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Two faces of the Catholic imagination." National Post, (Canada) February 1, 2007.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2007 National Post

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