by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
Dr. Knight: You are a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. How and when did you decide to become a priest?
Father Ramil: I knew when I was in 2nd grade (1972), at Ascension Catholic Grade School (in Oak Park, Illinois)! I don’t recall ever having an ‘Aha’ moment. I never questioned going to Mass on Sundays, and the occasional school Mass, so you could say it was almost a part of my DNA from the beginning.
Of course, back in the ‘70s there was a bit of ridicule from peers and classmates (as today, of course) about any young man thinking of becoming a priest. My parents never discouraged me, but felt that I needed to be the one to initiate since it was my vocation, my future.
The thoughts of becoming a priest never left me, though I did have my high points and low points in my relationship with the Church. Again, I would say that’s the case for almost every person, and that it is a good thing to struggle with one’s beliefs so that we have clarity about what we believe, and why.
The turning point in my definitive ‘yes’ to God and the vocation came in 1986, after graduation from the University of Illinois. I had my first job, and was now more conscious about asking myself deliberately: “now what?” I would stop by St. Peter’s-in-the-Loop, and Holy Name Cathedral before going to work, during my lunch hour, and before heading home, to either attend Mass, go to confession or even just a few moments to say a prayer or two.
I recall one year (1991?) there was a poster of (now Saint) Pope John Paul II with the line “Come, we have God’s work to do.” It struck me, and I asked the friars if I could have it after the campaign (Peter’s Pence, I think it was) was concluded. In fact, I still have that poster, it’s framed in my office.
It took me 13 years (from 1986 to 1999) to discern! When I finally expressed my decision to study for the priesthood to my parents, they were actually quite nonplussed about it. They said, “we always knew you’d do it, but never wanted to say anything to force you in either direction since it is such a tough choice for you. It’s your vocation, not ours. You have to be absolutely certain it is yours.” I was stunned, especially since I am the only son in the family, the family name comes to an end with me. Again, my parent’s response stunned me: “God gave us the family name, now we give it back to Him. We only ask that, at your first Mass, you place our family on the paten with the Host and raise it back up to God for us.”
(This is why I had engraved in Latin on my chalice which my parents gave to me as a gift Our Lord’s words in the Gospel of Saint John - Et ego, si exaltatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum [‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself!’ (Jn 12:32)].)
I explored both religious and diocesan priesthood; I had several spiritual directors over the years who helped me answer some basic questions. Eventually, the questions became: If not now – when? If not you – who?
I finally entered formation in August 1999 with the Diocese of Peoria (IL) under Bishop John Myers, but after discussing my vocation with him at a routine meeting in early 2001, he very graciously agreed that my vocation was most likely with an urban population, as well as my home where I grew up, and arranged for me to meet with Francis Cardinal George of Chicago. I interviewed with the Archdiocese in May 2001 and was accepted as a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Chicago in June 2001. I started my studies at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in August 2001.
Dr. Knight: You are a priest but have special duties as a canon lawyer. Could you explain what that means?
Father Ramil: My first assignment as a newly ordained priest in July 2004 was as the parochial vicar of Saint Clement Church in Chicago’s north side Lincoln Park. I remained there until my term expired on June 30, 2009. At the time, I presumed that I would receive a new parish assignment, but due to circumstances in the parish, I was approved to continue my studies in the S.T.L. (Sacrae Theologiae Licentiatus or Licentiate of Sacred Theology) Mundelein Seminary. I remained ‘in residence’ at Saint Clement to assist at Masses and confessions, while the bulk of my time was for studying, researching and studying towards the degree.
At the Chrism Mass of April 2010 at Holy Name Cathedral, Cardinal George approached me and personally invited me to strongly consider going away to school in the fall full time, to continue my education but instead continue for the J.C.L. (Juris Canonici Licentia or Licentiate of Canon Law). He gave me the options of either the Gregorian University in Rome, The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., or Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada).
Not only was I shocked, but also deeply honored that I was invited to do so, since this was a very deliberate re-directing of my future as a priest: I was being asked to primarily focus my priesthood in serving God, His Church and the people entrusted to me not as a priest in the ‘front line’ ministry of a parish, but as a member of the diocesan curia, with pastoral duties more focused and particularly specific to administration. It was a very tough decision for me to make. Everything in me was geared towards serving in a parish capacity, never once did I desire or expect to be asked to do anything special.
In fact, two thoughts occurred to me when I was studying for the priesthood. First, I remembered reading a book on-or-by (now) Pope Saint John XXIII in which he wrote that his happiest days were not as a bishop, a papal diplomat, a cardinal or even pope. His happiest memories were serving as a parish priest, which had been his only desire. His willingness to serve otherwise was his personal sacrifice to God that his (Pope John’s) only happiness was to do what God wanted of him, even if it was not his preference.
Second, I recalled a talk given by Mundelein Seminary’s rector at the time Msgr. John Canary, who reminded us that our sole and highest purpose for being a priest was to serve God and the Church by being priests in a parish, priests 100% for the people’s salvation and sanctification. If I recall correctly, he stated along these lines, ‘If you are asked to do other things for the Church, then fine, so be it and accept. But remember: your greatest duty, your first love, is to be a priest in a parish.’
I never forgot that. It still resonates in my memory to this day.
Dr. Knight: Do you need a special degree in order to be a canon lawyer and where did you get that degree?
Father Ramil: Indeed, it is a three-year degree program, and I chose to study at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, (Ontario) Canada. About one half of our judges at the Tribunal studied at Saint Paul, and its program has a very fine reputation for its perspectives in canonical interpretation and praxis, as well its approach to judicial writing skillsets.
Dr. Knight: You are bound to confidentiality by your position. What does that entail for you?
Father Ramil: The same sort of confidentiality as anyone else who undertakes a special duty for any organization, but with the particularly strong injunction that I am ministering for Our Lord Himself and on His behalf, as a judge of the Tribunal.
As a priest, we are entrusted with people’s very deepest stories, their hopes, fears, joys and struggles. We are confided in by the people we encounter, and by the parishioners we serve. This is particularly evident in administering the sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation: learning to solely be the instrument and channel by which a penitent speaks directly to Our Lord, to step aside and allow that privileged communication between the two – without noticing it or partaking in it – is a skill and sensitivity a seminarian learns. Whatever my personality, my strengths or weaknesses: all of ‘me’ is subjugated to Christ the Merciful Healer Himself in the confessional
Dr. Knight: Does being a canon lawyer add something special to your priesthood vocation?
Father Ramil: Special? I wouldn’t necessarily say that. Rather, I have been entrusted with an additional responsibility, duty and insight into people’s lives than the parish priest. So if there is anything “special” added to my priestly vocation, it is the additional burden of knowing, interpreting and applying the law of the Church as an Ecclesiastical Judge, while never separating it from the experience of the Merciful and Loving Judge Himself, Jesus Christ!
Dr. Knight: Recently, you gave a talk at Holy Name Cathedral on Evangelization. Could you share with our readers what that entailed?
Father Ramil: My Catholic Faith and My Parish: What Can I Do to Bring the Gospel to the World?” was the talk I gave at the request of the Faith Formation Commission. I based my talk on several things: 1) Speeches and documents written by Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis; 2) a presentation just the week before at Holy Name Cathedral on Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta entitled “The Poverty of Love”; and 3) a presentation given in 2005 by Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany (NY) on the role of the contemporary parish in evangelization.
I structured it in three questions: WHY do I begin? WHERE do I begin? HOW do I begin?
WHY? Because our Lord asked – COMMISSIONED – us to go out into the world to preach His name and the Good News of Salvation in His name!
WHERE? Bishop Hubbard’s presentation was about the parish setting, and he suggested four steps found in the Gospel which a parish must consider: koinonia (friendship), diakonia (service) kerygma (proclamation) andeucharistia (thanks and praise). He suggested that outreach to others must begin with friendship that is enticing, convincing, and a perspective of Christ Himself; so much so, that others are intrigued by the way Jesus’ followers emanate the very Light of Christ in a way so inviting that they must pursue Christ because of ones’ witness and living out of the Gospel message itself. The joy of the Gospel, the Gospel of Life. People will frequently only respond if they perceive that they are first reached out to in conversation and friendship, if there is a genuine sense of interest in them! Some might not move beyond this first stage of koinonia, but if that is all we can accomplish with them with our best efforts, then the seed has been planted and as Our Lord’s parable says, we have done what we could!
But I added that, as Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta said so often: “Calcutta is all around.” One needn’t go very far to find the poor, needed, unwanted, hungry, the sick. We needn’t go very far to find the ‘existential peripheries’ Pope Francis speaks about. It could be in our own family, our immediate neighbors, office workers in the cubicle next to us, people on the bus or train with us.
Mother Teresa very much encourages us to begin with ourselves, that is: prayer! We get to know God and therefore ourselves. Only then (as the Holy Name presentation was called) will we understand ‘The Poverty of Love’. Only when we have nothing more to give, physically, materially, emotionally, spiritually, when we have emptied ourselves of all that distracts (that is, ‘ourselves’), can Our Lord work in and through us unhindered, that the work He has called us to is all His own, because of Him alone. We simply allow Him to work through us!
Then – when others encounter Christ because of us – will we have a commonality on which to successfully build upon?
Dr. Knight: What is your mantra when you give a homily?
Father Ramil: I usually have two: ‘Through Him, and with Him, and in Him” as well as “Do whatever He tells you.”
In the first place, you already know of my love for the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass! All that we do must be FOR Christ, done IN Christ, WITH Christ. Jesus Christ must be always before our eyes, the reason for our behavior and the purpose of our lives. The problem with so much today – even in the Church, I might add – is that we have forgotten or ignored that the Church’s primary and sole mission is to proclaim the Gospel to all creation, that salvation is in His Holy Name. ANYTHING that assists in that mission, our good works, our corporate projects, out studies, our outreach, our future planning, are only worthwhile if Jesus Christ is the reason, the center and the undergirding of it all! Anything which does not pertain to Jesus Christ, if the impetus lacks Jesus Christ as the principal purpose, is already compromised.
Finally, our Lady’s final words recorded in Sacred Scripture only affirm what I tend to focus upon: Jesus Christ. Everything refers back to Him! And she will always help us to see and so that!
Dr. Knight: What is the best way to engage the people you work with in the life of Christ?
Father Ramil: HOW? In the first place, we must be men and women of prayer! We must be firmly convinced in God’s love for me, for you! Therefore, only a man or woman truly in love with Jesus Christ and His Church can be a convincing witness to others. After all, people are pretty good at detecting weaknesses or possibly a divided life in us! We must strive for sincerity and authenticity in our faith life. The key is ‘to strive’. We have been given Our Lord Himself in the sacraments, to not only be aids to grace in the struggle, but to reinforce His own words that He would be with us all days until the end of the age. He does not abandon us.
So how do we pray? You’d be surprised at how often I hear that question! Well, I think the easiest way is to simply begin:
You write, "To pray is to talk with God. But about what?" About what? About Him, about yourself—joys, sorrows, successes and failures, noble ambitions, daily worries, weaknesses! And acts of thanksgiving and petitions—and Love and reparation. In a word, to get to know him and to get to know yourself—"to get acquainted!" The Way, 91
You don’t know how to pray. Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, “Lord I don’t know how to pray!” you can be sure you’ve already begun. The Way, 90
Traditional tried-and-true methods are of course wonderful ways to pray: Aside from Mass and the other sacraments - reading from Sacred Scripture, especially the Four Gospels; using a daily missal (even when not at Mass, especially at home) is a wonderful way to get just a bite of Scripture, and to follow the ritual of the Holy Mass which is the source and summit of the Church’s power, and the root and center of the Church’s life because it is Jesus Christ Himself who is operating through the Church and her ministers, as recalled by the Second Vatican Council.
The rosary, Divine Mercy Chaplet, scapulars, pocket crucifixes, medals and so many other sacramentals that call to mind the mysteries of our Redemption in Christ through the mediation of the many known men and women who mirrored Christ in this world, a.k.a. the saints!
But prayer is never sterile! Prayer impels us to ‘do.’ Faith is so powerful a gift that we are simply incapable of hoarding it, we ‘must’ act. Why? Because of the joy within us, at knowing Jesus Christ, in the Father, and by the working of the Holy Spirit! It is the Joy of the Gospel the Holy Father frequently talks about, it is the joy of knowing and experiencing God Himself.
“Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls” Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta was quoted as saying. If we live lives informed, directed, and fed by our Catholic Faith, then we have joy in our hearts, souls and minds. We have a relationship so intimate with God that nothing – even in difficult times, which must invariably come – can shake our faith and trust for very long.
We needn’t be dramatic about our faith and our practices. Naturalness in living is what is called for; like the very breathing we take, or the beat of our hearts, both of which we pay no attention to, it simply ‘is.’ Faith and action are integrated, and integral. Each informs the other. Our Lord refers in the Scriptures to one’s faith as small as a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds. In fact, it is the simplicity of our lives and its very ordinariness which becomes the setting where we can have the greatest possible impact. The average person operates on the one-on-one, in places of the world (and home!) where we priests might never have a chance to enter.
Each person is called to be a disciple and apostle to the world exactly where they are, so to end once again with Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was asked what one can do, her reply was: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”
So let us begin our mission!
Dr. Knight: Thank you for this insightful interview a\d for your review of David Kelly's book Medical Care at the End of Life: A Catholic Perspective