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The story of a grandmother and her love of the priesthood
It would seem that every day there is in the media some new dark revelation about a Church scandal. But many in the media seem unable to appreciate that for every priest who has failed his calling there have been many, many more who have lived up to it.
My grandmother, Francziska, was a Polish woman, born in Ostrow in 1896. Being Polish, she was of course a member of the Latin Church, and a devout member at that. I can recall during the time that she lived with our family, in a 'granny flat', her praying the rosary in bed.
I recall her prayer book, thumb worn and ancient in my eyes, with Gothic images of Christ. I also recall her walking back from the local Catholic parish Church of St Joseph Pignatelli in Attadale (Perth, WA), singing as she came down the hill to our home and her lighting a votive candle before a photograph she had of my long-deceased grandfather, Jan.
My grandmother (known as Babšia) could not speak English and had suffered immensely in the war - but she had faith. Today her name is listed on the Founder's Wall at St Joseph Pignatelli parish.
She had married my grandfather, a man only a few years older than her who was as fiercely Ukrainian as she was Polish. The children of their union, five in all, were either baptised in the Roman Rite or Byzantine Rite, with my father being baptised as his father before him in the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Holy Transfiguration in Jaroslaw.
Out of respect for Babšia we always celebrated both the Julian and Gregorian calendar at Christmas and Easter. She was a strong woman, a resourceful woman, an outstanding cook, a woman who was a well of homespun wisdom and practicality, a woman of Faith, a woman who at the core of her identity as her name gave away, had a devotion to St Francis - indeed she was a Franciscan tertiary.
She loved her Latin Church and she loved her priests. During World War II, Babšia would cook meals for the Franciscan Friars who were struggling to survive. When Babšia passed away in 1977, her funeral, celebrated at St Brigid's in North Perth, was also a celebration of Franciscan spirituality and attended by the entire community of Franciscan Friars in Perth.
Babšia was buried with her rosary threaded through her hands and her Franciscan cord tied around her waist, as she had faithfully kept both throughout the odyssey of World War II to her new home of Australia.
Babšia's death affected me deeply. Even though I was only 10 years old at the time of her death, a true existential crisis shook me to the core. Doubts, fears, meshed into a whirlpool of confusion. Memories of Babšia made me tearful. I wanted her to come back to life, to peel me apples, to hear her voice, singing along with those old 78rpm records that she used to play. I wanted to see her out in the garden whistling to the birds and to pat my head, as she had always done even after she had suffered a stroke.
A little while after her funeral my family were invited to the Polish Franciscan Priory in Maylands. There had been some movement of long-standing priests out, and some new priests had arrived. This occasion was to have a huge impact on me. The Priory was now home to three Friars, in order of age: Boleslaw Smok, Janusz Trawinski and Szymon Bienias.
These were happy times. Such priests gave me joy, comfort and a love of God. The unseen God must be so good, for his seen priests were beautiful men. They were celibate, they were happy, and they would have made St Francis proud. For me they brought memories of my grandmother back to life.
Over the next few decades I would often stop in to speak with Fr Boleslaw on my way back from the Ukrainian Church a few kilometres away. I think of my Babšia to this day and as I write this I thank God she was spared from seeing the scandals of the Church today, for she deserved more than this, as did those three Franciscan priests whom God graced me to meet, and who give and have given their lives for a noble cause and vocation.
We must remember that even though we hear much of scandal within the Church we must similarly never forget those men of the Church, throughout history up to the present day, who have given their lives selflessly and heroically for a God made man who taught them the Way; a numerous, anonymous army of the Church of those who chose suffering and renunciation.
The Ukrainian Metropolitan, Andrii Sheptytsky, when addressing his religious told them of the need to be people of "true piety". To Sheptytsky the truly pious cleric was the one who could be happy and fulfilled serving the Lord in "even the least pleasant of duties" (Krawchuk, 1997, p. 189). Those of "false devotion" to God, according to Sheptytsky, were the religious who neglected "the most important duties and merely [sought] pleasure in religion" (Krawchuk, 1997, p. 189).
Sheptytsky then adds the following insights: "Let them remember that a monk or a nun is not constituted by monastic clothing, nor by the monastery in which they live, nor by the community of brothers and sisters, nor even by the way of life, which has more to do with the external adherence to one or another daily schedule or custom. A person who is living according to the gospel teachings, that is, a monk or a nun, a brother or a sister, is moved by the internal disposition of the soul and by the will to compete in an endless struggle with the passions, in order to become more perfect and more like Christ the Saviour every day" (Krawchuk, 1997, p. 188).
Thus he unequivocally teaches that the essence of the priesthood is to walk in the footsteps of Christ. Clearly this separates within the body of priests, the sheep from the goats, and the wheat from the chaff.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania is Director of Spirituality at Aquinas College, Perth, and also lectures at Oxford University.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 8 (September 2010), p. 13
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