By Andrea MacDonald
Spend an hour with Matthew Livingstone and it becomes obvious he’s not your average 22 year old.
He speaks of Plato and Aristotle as if they’re old buddies and casually incorporates quotations from Gandhi into conversation. He comfortably uses words like concomitant and synchronism and can shift easily between subjects ranging from African religion to American literature.
But what’s most striking about him is his seemingly subconscious desire to help. When a woman next to him in his favourite local coffee shop drops her sweater, he leaps out of his chair without hesitation to pick it up.
Later, he does the same thing for a fallen scarf without as much as a pause in his sentence. This natural graciousness sets him apart from most people his age.
Graciousness and the fact that he is becoming a Jesuit priest.
“I’m going into something which other people don’t really understand,” he says. “It’s not the kind of thing people do anymore. It’s such a personal, spiritual thing.”
He’s a mixture of awkwardness – occasionally dropping things and laughing nervously – and articulate, endearing charisma as he sits back with his hot drink and tells his life story.
After he graduates from Carleton University’s political science program next spring, Livingstone will begin what could be a 12-year process to become ordained; it involves, among other things, six months spent in isolation in the Jesuit community, a six-week pilgrimage where he begs for money which he then gives to the poor, and the completion of a master’s degree in divinity and possibly even a PhD.
Before his first birthday, his family moved from Alberta to Swaziland in southern Africa where his father, a British emigrant, was an advisor for CIDA water resources and helped construct water pipes between rural villages.
The family briefly returned to Canada before moving to Sudan, where Livingstone says they experienced a civil war, a coup, and the Gulf War, during which they had to be evacuated. Attending Catholic Church was illegal in Sudan- a Muslim country- so his family would sneak to a night church for expatriates to worship.
“It added a new dimension to (going to church),” he says. “It made me interested.”
Later, they ventured to Ghana, where his mother, Sharry Livingstone, was very active teaching and working in orphanages.
She says the years they spent there had a great influence on her son.
“African people are very charismatic and very spiritual, so I think he became that way,” she says. “I think little seeds were planted as a child and they blossomed and grew into what he is now.”
She adds his experiences visiting orphanages with her gave him an appreciation for human life.
“He really loves people, it doesn’t matter what culture they come from,” she says.
After Ghana, Livingstone moved to Bangladesh by himself.
“I lived with a local family and spent about six months there doing my own thing,” he says. “It was self-discovery.”
After living in Pakistan where his father worked for the European Union, the family finally settled down on a farm in Kemptville, near Ottawa, where Livingstone completed high school.
While he missed the security of a childhood spent in one place, Livingstone says he’s grateful for his upbringing.
“I had a lot of exposure to African religions, like Shamanism, which made me think there’s a real spiritual dimension to people beyond Christianity and how we practice it in the West. That really influenced me,” he says. “When I moved to Bangladesh, I started going to Mosque with my friends and I got to learn a Muslim understanding of who God is, which is more personal than the Christian God. There’s no intermediary, it’s just you and God.”
Father Peter Knox, a Jesuit priest, has known Livingstone for two years since moving from South Africa to Ottawa to attend Saint Paul University. He says Livingstone’s experience with different cultures will make him a great priest.
“He’s lived with very poor people, he’s seen real poverty, he doesn’t have the presupposition that Western culture is the only and the correct culture,” says Knox, adding that Livingstone is slightly younger than the average man entering the church. “I think he’ll be great for the church in Canada as (there are) more and more immigrants in this country with different religious and national backgrounds. (He) has a much wider experience of the world. He has genuine friends, not just acquaintances, who are Muslim, Buddhist, and other world religions.”
Livingstone says his own faith incorporates elements he admires in other religions, which he calls synchronism.
“We did everything when I was younger,” he says. “We’d go to missionary churches in the villages, Anglican churches in the cities, Catholic churches. We did it all. I came to Canada and discovered that you can’t really do that here. People’s attitudes are much different.”
Livingstone says synchronism is becoming increasingly possible in Canada as more children are raised in mixed-faith families.
However, he says people still need to figure out exactly who they are and what they believe, which is why, a year and a half ago, he officially converted from the Anglican church to Roman Catholicism.
“I was baptized Anglican but it wasn’t me; it was missing the whole spiritual dimension,” he says. “A lot of people can stay in the Anglican church and be quite happy. Like Ghandi said, there are many paths to God. My path was Catholicism.”
Livingstone was led into the Catholic church at a time when there seemed to be a mass exodus away from the priesthood.
According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the number of priests in Canada has dropped more than 30 per cent in the last 25 years.
Twenty years ago, it wasn’t unusual to have a priest in every Canadian family, says Sylvain Salvas, director of communication services at CCCB.
“Right now, because of the declining number of practicing Catholics, kids are not raised in (that) environment and are not in touch with priests. How can they be influenced or how can a priest change their lives so that they can follow in their footsteps?”
Salvas says one reason numbers are dwindling is because people can do more work with the church today without being a priest.
Another reason is celibacy, which Livingstone says is something he lives one day at a time.
“I am a sexually charged guy, too,” he laughs, open to speaking about something that might make others clam up. “It’s like being in a committed relationship. Every day you should wake up next to that person and say yes, I truly love you and I want you to be my partner from this day on. You have to do that everyday because if you don’t, you lose interest and are tempted.
“It’s the exact same thing with celibacy; each day I have to wake up and say yes, I am committed to the church and I want to do this.”
While he may have unusual aspirations, Livingstone says he’s a normal university student. His weekends are usually spent going to the pub with his friends and not doing his homework. He spends Saturday or Sunday afternoon volunteering at L’arche, an international federation of faith-based communities that creates homes and day programs for developmentally disabled people, where he cooks for the residents, takes them to the park, or just sits and chats with them.
He says he also enjoys visiting the art gallery, one of the few places he can go to clear his mind and pray.
So why has Livingstone chosen a life so different from his peers, one which many people would not consider?
“Sometimes I have problems with it,” he says. “I agree with people who are critical of the church; I think there needs to be reforms.”
He says recent sex scandals in the church particularly bother him, but that most people look at it the wrong way.
“People outside the church talk about it like it’s some sort of evil, but shouldn’t we be beyond good and evil? Pedophilia is a disease; people that commit those acts need to be helped. They need to be corrected, they need to be removed, but they need to be helped. That’s the importance of faith, the forgiveness and redemption. People forget about that.
“I think the church is much greater than all our problems and all our issues, and it represents something which is so beautiful and so human, which is human spirituality, human love, and human weakness. Humans coming together and saying yes, I am human, I am mortal, I’m weak, but we can do this together. That’s why I love the church.”