Spiritual Wellness: The gift of a companion in our search for meaning

A conversation with Dr. Charles Pottie-Pate, sj
By Dr. Lance Dixon, Director of Campus Ministry

Fr. Charles, you have visited our campus quite a few times in the past, but during this term you will be around on a more regular basis. For those who haven’t met you yet, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’d love to. I was brought up in a French Acadian family in the east coast, very Catholic! I was one of eight in my family. I had a good upbringing in a tight community. It was at university where surprises in my life began to emerge. I now call them wonderful moments of grace. It began when I first met Jesuits at university. I never thought I would be a Jesuit. They were great teachers, and I liked their sense of community, but never occurred to me I would become one.

But I had a very good mentor, a gifted musician, a diocesan priest. He recognized my gift and passion for learning, and my value for community, and he thought being a Jesuit would be a good fit for me. It was my first sense of being called to something, which I initially resisted of course!

I eventually did join the Jesuits, and for me it was an adventure. My mom thought I’d be gone forever on far-off missions, but early on I was directed toward teaching and studies. I’ve actually spent most of my life in what we call the teaching apostolate, or teaching mission. As a professor in liturgy and theology, I taught in many places; in Toronto, Ottawa, Rome, Regina, and Halifax.

I was already 65 when I was sent west, and with a very different call. I became involved in fostering Christian Life Communities, based on the Ignatian spirituality of the Jesuit order.

I was, and still am, the only Jesuit in Alberta when I arrived about 8 years ago. I was attracted to St. Mary’s University right away, always having been part of a university community. I love teaching and learning. I enjoy coming here.

Could you talk more about ‘vocation’. A lot of our time at university is spent trying to prepare for a bigger life purpose. How did you figure yours out? And how do you help others find what makes life meaningful for them?

Well, vocation literally means ‘calling’. So, the question is simple, what do you feel called to do with your life? Hearing the answer though can be more complicated. For me, when I entered the Jesuit order I wasn’t sure how exactly that was going to turn out. I just knew, I had a sense, that I wanted to serve others. That was the general calling, I wanted to serve people. But over time that evolved, and unfolded into something more specific. I realized I wanted to be involved in teaching. I experienced it as important method of carrying a sense of God’s presence in the world. So I would say that’s how I discerned it; through the actual experience of doing it, by doing some teaching and discovering ‘I like this’. At the same time, my superior encouraged me to build on my musical gifts and pursue further studies in liturgy – and that’s how I eventually became a professor of church liturgy. So we discover our vocation as we reflect on what direction our gifts and life experiences are taking us.

Could you say more about what ‘liturgy’ is? What relevance does it have to the average Joe walking down the street?
Liturgy is a technical term, it literally means ‘service of the people’. Where it makes sense, I think, is tying it to the very human habit of ritual. Human beings express the need to ‘punctuate’ moments of importance – birthdays, graduations, weddings. When someone has passed away, for example, we spontaneously light a candle or lay flowers – or disasters as we witnessed in the recent Humboldt tragedy – even if people don’t ever go to church they know there’s something they want to do to express their connection to the moment. Ritual is not just something routine. Ritual is expressing, through tangible ways, our lived experiences. This, in a sense, is what the sacramental life of the church is all about, rituals that exist to help us get in touch with the meaning of life. It’s about marking and celebrating our lived experience of God’s story of grace and redemption through history.

So, tell us about your role here at St. Mary’s in the coming months? What do you anticipate doing?
My role here is part of the university’s initiative to create an environment of holistic wellness. The invitation was to work alongside the campus ministry office in support of spiritual wellness. This really resonates with me, because I see my role as being a companion for others on the spiritual journey. Really, my whole purpose on campus is to accompany people in their search for deeper meaning. My experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius has taught me how listening happens through prayer and discernment. It’s a rich part of my training that now, in the last phase of my life, I have the privilege of sharing. I find it very enriching, to share in people’s journey of faith. It encourages me and deepens my own journey. Being asked to come here, I want to be present, to listen to whatever questions people are asking; how do I live in the world today with meaning? Or it might be about the question, How do I learn how to pray? Or, How do I find peace in my life? Everyone’s journey is unique, but we’re all searching. No one has all the answers, including me. It’s about listening together, What is the better way to live my life? That’s the goal of discernment. Sometimes we need a person or space set apart where there’s no other agenda than to listen.

So, for a person who is thinking about this kind of conversation for the first time, what should they expect? Is there a ritual, or certain way of starting the conversation, when they first sit down with you?

It simply begins, there’s no set formula. It just starts with a desire to talk with another person about what’s going on in one’s ife. It’s up to you what you want to share, and the only thing I presume is that you want to talk out loud with someone. It may be that you need to talk to someone about one’s values in life, or how better to pray, or find deeper meaning in one’s daily life or in making decisions. It might be about the need for forgiveness. In situations like that, sometimes rituals can help. I can offer what’s called the sacrament of reconciliation, which marks a new beginning, free from whatever happened in the past.

Thank you, Fr. Charles. As you know, university life can be a stressful time, with deadlines and unexpected life questions surfacing all the time. We are grateful to know people such as yourself are here to encourage us during this important time of our lives.

Fr. Charles will be available every Wednesday afternoon during this winter term at the campus ministry office (C112). You can schedule a time to visit with him by sending him an email (cpottie@jesuits.ca) or drop by anytime between 2-4pm. Any student, staff, or friend of StMU is welcome to visit with Fr. Charles while he is on campus.