Father Jack Sproule’s second funeral, a memorial service, was held at Bethlehem Centre at Nanaimo, Saturday April 23. The Roman Catholic funeral was held fifteen days earlier in Sydney at St. Elizabeth’s church on April 8. Saanich Peninsula Parish was his last post as a pastor, retiring some eight years before his death from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Both funerals were attended by both of Jack’s bishops, present Bishop of Victoria Gary Gordon and Remi De Roo, bishop emeritus (1962-1999). Bishop Gary had his Golden Labrador dog Merlin in attendance as a tribute to Jack’s great love for such dogs. Bishop Remi gave the homily for his friend who came to the Diocese of Victoria to serve with him in the early 1980s.
Originally a priest of the Archdiocese of Montreal, Jack was an early searcher for spiritual truth, making his way controversially into the Catholic church as a young man under the influence of his closest life friend David Fitzpatrick, also a priest of Montreal diocese. In the end he had moved well beyond conventional Catholicism as an enclosed system.
His wide reading and life work was masterfully outlined by Jock McKeen at the Nanaimo event. Jack had made the acquaintance of Jock and Bennet Wong at their personal development centre The Haven on Gabriola Island also at Nanaimo. This occurred in the 1980s when he was pastor at St. Peter’s. Once he had experienced The Haven environment, Jack’s psyche fairly exploded in new directions, building on the decades as a theology professor and scholar of spirituality that was his life prior to Victoria.
What Dr. McKeen wished to emphasize and both events underlined was how Jack was ‘a real guy,’ how spontaneous and mirthful he was, full of prankster and trickster energy, loving nothing better than a practical joke that would puncture pretence or cant. McKeen compared him to his now deceased partner Ben Wong in how human they both were in their foibles and predilections. In spite of personality trait limitations, he said, both men brought their whole being to every occasion where they were present. As a result a massive multitude of encounters followed. The funerals were attended by people who needed to retell their unique experiences of the phenomenon that was ‘Father Jack’.
I had met Jack at a home liturgy in Brentwood Bay a number of years beforehand, but my first experience of his preaching came at St. Elizabeth when attending a liturgy while delivering the latest edition of Island Catholic News, then a monthly. I was pleasantly astounded how candid he could be without being maudlin. He spoke directly for the edification of the congregation of his personal development work at The Haven including the sexual identity awareness process he was undergoing.
Jack always had his finger directly on the pulse of what was ailing in the Catholic Church. For example his parish (he would grimace at it being called his parish, ‘it’s the people’s parish’) was the only one in Canada to have a chapter of The Voice of the People, the original organization to stand up and name the problem the sexual abuse crisis is to the church and stand beside the victims.
I could see that this was an extraordinary person who was self-consciously breaking new ground. The sexual teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is indeed treacherous ground, long out of date and defying logic and science in its obdurate and crippling attitude toward updating its thinking. It requires a complete revamping but who was there to bell the cat?
It was not a matter of Jack doing risky things. For him they were not risky at all, they were what his fearless journey had led him to and his integrity required. He was entirely true to himself.
Vancouver writer Dan Gawthrop’s testimony at Bethlehem showed how evolved Jack was in his pastoral response. It could never be scripted. When Dan took him aside at his family garden party and ‘confessed’ that he was gay, Jack’s immediate response was that the Gawthrop family just became a lot more interesting. “Congratulations, you are becoming who you were meant to be – more fully yourself.” Gawthrop dedicated his 2014 book The Trial of Pope Benedict to Jack, and stated that if more priests were like Jack, a lot less young people would be leaving the church. But Jack Sproule’s process of personal and pastoral growth was the result of hard inner work.
Natural, spontaneous and as Jock McKeen said, Jack was the real thing, bringing his whole brilliant and loving self to the pastoral moment at hand. Though seemingly casual and often joking around, Jack brought all his background to the task at hand. A zen master of a sort, of the spiritual life.
My own experience of Jack came primarily through the former ICN editor Marnie Butler who was his great spontaneous and abiding pal. I felt like a foil and a straight man when around those two. She met he and his mother at an anti-nuclear demonstration in Bangor Washington, never quite suspecting he was a priest at first.
We would get together weekly at least for years. We just liked each others company. Where Jack and I met most closely was around the strange turf of church politics with its odd psychological roots. Full of irony, he always depicted it in comically absurdist terms. His mind worked sideways to the kill, he worked up trenchant metaphors rather than tedious analysis and was always dead on; the priest as poet, or the poet as priest.
It was Jack who called us out one summer evening to the house in Brentwood Bay to present documents that started to turn the tide on the Lacey Land saga. From his work with Ben and Jock at The Haven, Jack had come up with the image everyone carries within them a microscopic digital chip that contains all their psychological makeup including the deepest darkest secrets they will do anything to keep hidden.
Jack saw his pastoral work as helping individuals to make conscious all this content in a secure and sacred setting so that it could empower them rather than cripple their life and self. As Jock McKeen made plain, Jack knew exactly what he was doing
Jack’s politics worked the same way. He had an accurate and instinctive analysis of the institution of the church, how its shadow energy worked. With the Lacey Land documents Jack provided, we all sensed that we had our hands on the microchip of the Diocese of Victoria.
Many of us knew from the character of the man that Bishop De Roo was being framed in an attempt to muzzle and politically discredit him. This proved to be true and it was Jack who came up with the evidence emerging in the Globe and Mail coverage of the court room trial preliminaries that set ICN and its incipient community on the path to capturing the story in its detail. The Vindication of Remi De Roo, our collective book on the subject was the result.
Jack, through administrator Muriel Clemenger, was the conduit to the business partner Joseph Finley who opened up the whole can of worms and revealed the ugly underbelly of church politics that the RC Church had become under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, who were indeed our collective trial.
Current issue: Vol. 30, Issue 4,5 & 6, June 6, 2016