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Jack Sproule's Engaging Quizzical Nature & Perceptive Flair

Volume 30, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 21, 2016

Paul LeMay, Vancouver

Writer Paul LeMay, Father Jack Sproule, Editor Marnie Butler and Lawyer Kevin Doyle (ICN photo)

     Memory is a funny thing. Some things we remember with crystal clear clarity like it was just yesterday; others, not so much. Perhaps it’s due to the impact some events and people have on our lives. Of course, some people and events we'd sooner forget. Others we prefer to recall and cherish long after they've passed. So it is of my memories of Father John Sproule. 
     The precise details of when I first met Father ‘Jack’ have faded like a pair of jeans over the last two and half decades. Yet I seem to recall that it took place at a Synod held at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre in Nanaimo in early 1991. The editor of the Island Catholic News suggested I attend the Synod to write about my neophyte experience for the paper. 
     Since the event involved meeting and interacting with dozens of people, my recollections of meeting Jack during the occasion are scant. Still what little I do remember were his contributions to a small group discussion in which I took part. Though the details of what he said are now a blur, my lasting first impression was Jack’s engaging quizzical nature and the perceptive flair of his observations. Many who knew Jack well will likely resonate with that view.
     My acquaintance with Jack grew thanks to both Pat Jamieson and Marnie Butler (aka Berger), then editors of the Island Catholic News, and Father Terry McNamara. One social occasion arose when all of us, including another of Jack’s great friends, Kevin Doyle, took part in a disarmament march held in Victoria. 
     Again, it was another exposure to Jack’s rapier wit. Not long after that Terry invited me to dinner at the rectory where Jack lived. Whether my own previous ‘call’ to enter the priesthood some years earlier had a role in that, I don’t recall, but it may have. Either way, the conversation-filled evening was never dull or lacking in its frankness, laughter or meaningfulness. 
     As I got to know him over the years, I discovered him to be one of the most honest and down-to-earth yet intellectually and emotionally inquisitive Catholic priests I ever met. Here was a chap who was not only open and deeply attuned to the spiritual sensitivities of his own Christian tradition, but to the spiritual sensitivities of his First Nations neighbours, the people who had lived for literally thousands of years on the land where his rectory and the little wooden church next door – Our Lady of Assumption – on West Saanich Road now sat. 
     And in keeping with his more universal small ‘c’ catholic view, Jack made a point of affixing a bumper sticker to his car which read: “My God is too big to fit into just one religion.” It was as though this one-time “Jack-in-a box” sprang out of it so he could better extend his arms.  
     Though I had to return to Ottawa in August 1991 due to a lack of gainful employment, I never forgot my early connection and rapport with Jack. Indeed, every time I got a chance to visit British Columbia, and there were many, I always made a point of visiting him, and more often than not, was lucky enough to be his house guest. 
     Those visits gave us a chance to share many a deep and probing conversation on all manner of topic – among them, world politics, church politics, the virtues of Vatican II, his vocal dislike of what he saw was the regressive policies of John Paul II and Benedict (e.g. ignoring the call to ordain women to the priesthood), the vital relevance of psychology and personal growth workshops to spiritual life, the importance of asking questions and of building solid trust relationships with people. 
     On their surface, conversations on topics such as these may seem little more than a chaotic cacophony mirroring news headlines. But through these it has become easier to see the fabric of the man who entwined himself in the communion of those conversations. 
     By being so thoroughly engaged with life on its own troublesome terms, the purpose, if not curriculum of Jack’s method was to find a way through the many thorns so many folks were also required to navigate in their own lives. Doing so meant he was better equipped to guide the way. 
     Embodied within Jack’s great intellectual intensity to probe and poke unquestioned convention, I noticed that his deeper interest was to wake people up to themselves and their own inner lives. In fact, if there was anything that drove him a little wonky, it was the capacity of people to live their lives half asleep. This became evident after I once asked if he’d ever move back to Montreal from whence he hailed. “Never!” he snapped. “Why’s that Jack?” Borrowing from James Joyce he bluntly quipped: “It’s the land of the living dead.” 
     Similarly, if ever there was a single phrase which to me captured the essence of Jack’s priestly call, it’s one uttered by Socrates when facing his own execution, namely – “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Jack wanted people to understand that to awaken to the spiritual dimensions within themselves, they needed to examine and question themselves more often. Yet in the midst of his own persistent efforts to wake the so-called dead in his midst, he also possessed the ability to listen and hear the softer spiritual voice within us all, and he was keen to see others recognize and nurture it no matter what others might say to squelch it.  
     At Jack’s memorial service in Sidney in the early spring, one I made a very conscious point of attending, nothing could have been more fitting than the reading he requested for the occasion – John 21:15-17. It’s the passage where Jesus asks Peter not once, but three times: Do you love me? 
     Jack echoed that same measure of persistent questioning. First comes the question, and then like a half-asleep Peter, we too might be prone to respond with our own half-awake or half-present reflexive answer. Then just like Jesus, Jack would ask the same question not just a second time, but even a third, and it was enough to rattle the patience of anyone on the receiving end. Jack’s deeper purpose? 
     To wake us up to the habits of our own slumberous minds; and he wasn't content until he had. In this sense, Jack’s great gift to us all was to not only prod us out of our sleepiness, but to shatter it. It was the technique he used to feed Christ’s flock.
ICN Board Member, Paul LeMay is the author of Primal Mind Primal Games Why We Do What We Do and Primal Mind Primal Games Dawn Breaks Over Armageddon.