If you have sat in the pews of St. Teresa of Avila Church in Elmira, you may have heard about the spiritual GPS: the starting point of your trip is your birthplace, the destination is Heaven.
“How you get from one point to the next is up to you, and there are many voices telling you to go in one direction or another,” said Father Ray Reitzel, who is set to retire from his role at the church at the end of this month. “My view is ‘God’s Pathway Saves’… GPS.”
Reitzel has been teaching the Catholic faith for more than 50 years. He left home to be a teacher at St. Jerome’s High School in Kitchener where he spent the next 16 years. Following that role, he travelled to North Bay to teach at St. Joseph-Scollard Hall for another 15 years. He retired from teaching in 1993 and returned to Kitchener to pursue his vocation in the church and became a Pastor at Blessed Sacrament in Burford, before transferring to St. Louis Parish in Waterloo and then finally to St. Teresa.
He sees his time with several different churches as a blessing, and a time where he has become part of a large family in his community; one of his favourite verses seems to sum up that sentiment.
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“‘As anyone who has left houses or family or career, for my sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom, will receive a hundred-fold in this life and an eternal reward in Heaven.’ That’s from Matthew 19:29,” he said.
“An eternal reward in Heaven, well that’s the best stocks and bonds you can get, I think!”
In his half century of teaching and preaching, Reitzel has experienced many challenges and changes to the way faith plays out as society grows and stretches and changes.
When he first began, he was speaking to the congregation in Latin. Around 1965, the ways of the church changed and masses were spoken in the vernacular language of the region.
“That was one of the major turning points for the church,” he explained. “People were able to understand and relate to what was being said.”
Soon after that, however, attendance began dropping dramatically. This time it had nothing to do with the sermons at all, but distractions instead.
“As soon as TV became a household item, that’s when church attendance and vocations dropped significantly,” he said. “Just before that time, the seminaries were so busy they were building new ones, but within 10 years they were white elephants – nobody was coming in anymore.”
He saw this phenomenon close to home, even in his own family. Reitzel is part of a large family: he was the ninth child of 12. Of that group, three of the boys became priests and two of the girls became nuns. Now, Reitzel has 52 nieces and nephews and not one of them has shown interest in pursuing a religious vocation.
“It’s a sad thing for me, that none of them have chosen this, but that’s part of what we teach about the faith,” he explained. “Through baptism, we become one with Christ but anyone who lives their life according to what they honestly believe is true in their life is baptized by desire. It is their choice.”
Today, it seems to Reitzel that more and more people are distancing themselves from the church and he notes that only 20 per cent of families who attend St. Teresa Catholic School are regular visitors to the parish, something that he finds challenging in his role.
“It’s easy to teach people who are searching and who are willing to ask questions, but how you teach those people who just cover their ears to it? I just don’t know.”
He hopes that with his teaching, he may have been able to allow some people to explore their faith and ask questions of him.
“When you are in high school, Jesus is not cool in that stage of life,” he said. “But hopefully, I have planted a few seeds so that when they grow up they take root, and come back to the church. Many come back to the faith around the time of their marriage or the birth of a child and we are always glad to see them.”
And upon his approaching departure date, it is the people of his congregation that he will miss most.
“People whom I have met in Elmira are so welcoming,” he said. “They are very happy, always smiling, they are good people.”
But now his GPS is taking him down the road to the priests’ residence at St. Jerome’s in Waterloo. He plans to spend some time pursuing his hobbies: swimming (he does 60 lengths in 60 minutes each week), cross-country skiing and walking for half an hour each day – his time to think and pray. Reitzel also plans to return to St. Teresa’s on occasion to help out the new priest if he is needed.
“That’s what I am looking forward to,” he said with a smile. “I can be of help, but not be working morning, noon and night. I will leave the administrative stuff up to someone else.”
Reitzel will celebrate his last mass on Sunday, June 27. There will be a special mass at 1 p.m. and a reception in his honour between 2 and 4 p.m.