Reflections on returning home to serve in Saskatoon

Bishop Mark Hagemoen addresses Fr. Stefano Penna at the doors of the confessional in Advent 2018, during a liturgy of installation for a new pastor. (Photo by Tim Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Fr. Stefano Penna, St. Paul Co-Cathedral

[Catholic Saskatoon News] – Last year, Bishop Mark Hagemoen installed me as Rector and Pastor of St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral in Saskatoon on Gaudete Sunday (“Joy Sunday” celebrated on the third Sunday of Advent), which was really appropriate because I must raise my voice in joy to God for leading me home to Saskatoon.

It has been 22 years since I exercised full-time ministry in Saskatoon. I went away to Yale University to study, while my childhood friend with whom I was ordained in 1986 – Fr. Les Paquin – went to the parish of Santa Maria Maddalena in Brazil. Fr. Les always insisted that it was easier to be a minister of the Gospel among the poorest of the poor with whom he lived, than for me amongst the richest of the rich in Connecticut.

In any case, I always tried to see the academic ministry in which Bishop James Mahoney invited me serve as being the complement of the ministry of Fr. Les. I have strived to keep the question – “What does this have to do with the poor?” – before me at all times (perhaps not that successfully).

When I finished up studies in 2002, a position at St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta in Edmonton was offered to me. Bishop Mahoney had told me: “I realize we might be giving you to the service of the Church beyond Saskatoon.” Those words from one of my role models of priesthood sustained me during the time I was “on loan” in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

My 16 years in Edmonton were full ones indeed. Though my doctoral work was in philosophical theology and my license from Rome was in sacramental theology, I was invited to teach religious education. That began the intense and rewarding engagement of teaching and forming Catholic educators.

Twelve years ago I was invited by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith to serve as the Dean of Theology at Newman Theological College as it transitioned to a new location  – an intense experience of loss and discovery. The blur of those years still leaves me kind of breathless. A particular privilege was being involved in the education of future priests at St. Joseph’s Seminary – including some from Saskatoon.

In 2018, a new invitation from the Lord came in the form of Bishop Mark asking me to come home. The prospect of being close to my parents and family – and of being back in the heart of the community for which the Lord called me – was exciting. Exciting and terrifying.

I have always lived in Catholic rectories, but until last year I was never a pastor of a parish. I returned home to find that many of my Holy Cross classmates are grandparents on the verge of retirement and here was I, confronted with a new “fatherhood” (or better, “step-fatherhood” for God is the Father) at the parish of St. Paul Co-Cathedral.

It has been such a blessing. I do not remember such happiness in my priesthood as I have found here as pastor. Why?

Ordained priesthood is essentially about being the minister of the Church’s sacraments. All the things that I was doing as an academic could have been done (and probably done better) by any other of Christ’s faithful. The priest, however, is not to be one launching a quest for self-fulfilment. “The priest is not his own”, as Venerable Fulton Sheen put it. I am given over to Christ by the community to be alter Christus especially in administering the sacraments in which Jesus the High Priest and Shepherd encounters His People. I have long known this completely unmerited grace, but what has been an eye-opening – heart-opening, soul-opening – gift has been meeting God’s people in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Pope Francis made the Sacrament of Reconciliation the cornerstone of the Year of Mercy. I have found it the cornerstone of my life as pastor.

What daily grace to sit in the confessional. What a humbling witness to Christian faith I receive from those who come simply to lay their sins before the Saviour. Their simple words blow away the eloquence of so many of the writers with whom I have spent hours. And I experience the joy of being present to the very moment when our Lord through His Church transforms sins from burden into blessing as they are returned as gifts labelled “forgiven!”

Yes, the Eucharistic celebration is the core of my life. To celebrate the Eucharist in the noble building that has stood as the spiritual heart of Saskatoon for 110 years is overwhelming. When I returned from some holidays this summer I knew that I had fallen in love with the people of St. Paul Co-Cathedral, because coming back was happier than heading out. Yet, the happiest homecoming was settling in the chair in our confessional.