‘WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED IN MY NAME’
By Father Damian MacPherson, S.A.
Few Canadian priests will ever have an opportunity compared to my recent experience.
Early this March, my schedule in the Archdiocesan Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs was interrupted by a call from Bishop Hector Vila, the newly-ordained bishop of the Diocese of Whitehorse in the Yukon.
Bishop Vila, whom I have known for some time, called to ask if I had any local commitments for the celebration of the Easter Triduum. Since at this point I had not been asked to assist in any of the local parishes, he put the question to me: Would you consider coming to the Diocese of Whitehorse to serve some mission stations for Easter?
In saying yes, I had some sense of what was ahead of me because several year previously, the former bishop, Gary Gordon, now in Victoria, British Columbia, made the same request reminding me that if I did not go, the people would have no celebrations.
On Tuesday of Holy Week, I flew five hours from Toronto to Vancouver and then flew another two hours north to the city of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. On Holy Thursday, I drove five hours on the Alaskan Highway to arrive at two mission stations which I was to serve during the Holy Week celebrations.
Cooking for myself, I lived from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday without telephone, radio or television. Late Easter Sunday afternoon, following a return five-hour drive, I arrived back in Whitehorse.
Needless to say, both of these small communities, Watson Lake (St. Anne) and Lower Post (Holy Family), are very small and remote settlements, which ordinarily are serviced by a priest once a month, weather permitting. If the congregation in Lower Post exceeded more than 40 people, it would require standing room only. It is extraordinarily satisfying to find a living, even vibrant practice, of the Catholic faith under such extreme circumstances.
What strikes me most is the demonstration of faith and the degree of appreciation expressed by the people on having the opportunity to celebrate Easter Services. This is not something these parishioners can ever take for granted. Word spread by word of mouth that a priest would be available for Easter services. Their anticipation was real and accompanied by a measure of joy.
One can only be deeply impressed by the utter simplicity of their faith practice.
When they extend their rugged and winkled hands to receive the Eucharist and profess their Amen, one senses a deep and abiding devotional presence because of their awareness of what they are saying and doing and who it is that they are receiving. I made my best effort to make the Easter liturgy all that it could be, including fresh flowers, the lighting of candles, and sprinkling of the Easter Water and the renewal of baptismal vows. In some cases, it will be weeks and weeks before the next opportunity arises for them.
I even brought chocolate bars, coloured pencils and balloons for the children who will not soon forget our time together. All were filled with delight, especially the children.
We could not possibly have succeeded in our efforts without the meticulous care and co-operation offered by of the schoolteacher who was sacristan at St Anne’s Mission. Her faith and dedicated efforts were and continue to be admirable.
Following the Easter celebration at Lower Post, I stood at the door and said goodbye to my congregation of twelve participants.
I do not suppose I will ever forget one elderly couple. He literally shuffled along and arm and arm with his wife.
I watched as they made their way from the church door, down a slippery entrance way, which I earlier shovelled and salted, and across the road only to help one another mount their snow mobile. Off they went into the deep woods nourished by the Easter Eucharist. Spiritually, it was and will remain a nourishing moment for me.
On such a mission, one receives much more than one gives.
Father Damian MacPherson, of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, is director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs in the Archdiocese of Toronto.