I will never forget the heavenly joy filled my heart during a Mass at Toronto’s Holy Angels Church. My family had arranged our schedules to be at a special Mass, as Fr. Peter Gioppato, the pastor, celebrated 50 years in religious life.
Fr. Gioppato has many God-given gifts, and he is loved for how he has ministered to our family in more ways than one. You know a priest is a good priest when your teenagers want to go to Mass to hear him preach. His passion, energy, openness and dynamic homilies enliven Holy Angels’ parish. An Oblate, he has spoken at my Dynamic Women of Faith conference several times, and the delegates love him too.
During Mass, I couldn’t help but reflect on the long relationship I’ve had with the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operates Holy Angels parish. The Oblates have been enriching my life since I was a toddler.
I grew up in St. Stanislaus parish near Bathurst and Queen Streets in downtown Toronto. St. Stanislaus Church was purchased from a Presbyterian congregation 100 years ago by beer baron Eugene O’Keefe, who gave the church as a gift to the Polish Catholic community. It later became an Oblate parish and it welcomed our Polish immigrant family when we arrived in Canada in 1962.
Also as a child, I remember being at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Queen of Apostle Renewal Centre, the brainchild of another Oblate, Fr. John Smith. He helped me navigate the boy-girl thing in my teenage years. I have attended many retreats at the renewal centre.
My dad, Joseph Pilarski, was the first organist at St. Maximilian Kolbe Church in Mississauga, another Oblate parish.
Throughout Fr. Gioppato’s jubilee Mass, I was visited by the memory of several Oblate priests. I remembered very vividly the warm pastoral care of Fr. Jan Rozmyslowski before my first holy communion. I was hospitalized and he visited me at Sick Children’s Hospital carrying prayer cards, candies and small gifts to bring relief to my worrying heart.
My mother was often opening our home to priests, sisters and consecrated men and women. She always reminded us of our duty to care for the religious in different ways. It was not unusual to see a priest or nun at family parties. As a youngster, I remember calling afternoon events a “holy tea” rather than a high tea.
Even today the family still has a good laugh retelling the story of Fr. Jakub Szwarz’s reaction to an inappropriate joke I bellowed out as a 13-year-old at the dinner table. His face turned beet red. The joke centred around a play on words that were beyond a young girl’s comprehension. I found out years later what they meant. Boy, was I embarrassed. I remained close to Fr. Szwarz — he baptized my two children — until his death in 2008.
The Mass got me thinking about all the priests in my life, not just the Oblates, and how they have journeyed with me and my family. I thought of Fr. James Casper of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, my confessor for about 20 years, and Fr. Bohdan Winnicki, the chaplain at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, who cared for my mom in her final days, and Msgr. Kenneth Robitaille, the former rector at St. Michael’s Cathedral who so graciously supported me through my courtship days after I met my husband when we both served as lectors at the cathedral.
Leaving the Mass, I felt a remarkable grace, a heartfelt gratitude for the priesthood. My life has been blessed by so many incredible priests and nuns who have journeyed with me in this gift called life. I realized I should commit more time to praying for priests and religious, not just those who have administered the sacraments and provided spiritual care for me and my family, but for priests across the world who faithfully serve their flocks.
Fr. Gioppato’s golden anniversary was an occasion to not only honour his half-century of faithful service but also to celebrate all the priests who have enriched my life. I have been blessed by each and every one of them.
This column was originally published in the Catholic Register. Reprinted with permission.