OTTAWA, Canada (CCN) – The Canadian Church faces major challenges in the next five years as more than 20 bishops reach the age of 75, several dioceses already lie vacant, and decreasing priestly vocations leaves a shrinking pool of possible candidates.
“It’s the challenge that we face in every aspect of ministry in the church,” said Halifax Archbishop Terrence Prendergast. “We have fewer young priests to be pastors and to be bishops in the long run. We have to pray that God will help us.”
Yet Archbishop Prendergast remains optimistic. “I’m confident we’ll find the right people.”
How does the pope find the right people? Is there going to be a difference in Benedict XVI bishop, or will there be continuity with those of John Paul II? How does the church combat the relativism, subjectivism and pluralism that the pope has identified in Canada? Is there a special kind of bishop needed for that job? What role do Canada’s bishops and ordinary Catholic play in the choice?
While Prendergast compares to trying to discern who might get appointments to tea leaf reading, some insight might be gained through a close look at the process for selecting candidates.
According to Father Frank Morrisey, a canon law expert at St. Paul University here, three men have a “significant influence” in the appointing of bishops. The pope, who makes the appointment, usually from a list of three names, though he is not bound to that list; Canada’s Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Luigi Ventura; and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. For some northern dioceses, still considered missionary areas, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is involved instead.
There have been two few major appointments under Benedict to tell whether there will be a difference between a Benedict bishop or a John Paul II bishop, Father Morrisey said, though he notes the late pope tended to pick “safe” or more conservative bishops in the latter part of his pontificate. “They were looking for doctrinal integrity.”
Archbishop Ventura, Father Morrisey said, seems to have been putting forward names of candidates with “good pastoral experience and that’s an essential quality.”
Archbishop Ventura arrived in Canada on Sept. 10, 2001, and Archbishop Prendergast describes him as “very pro-active.”
“Overall our bishops like him a lot,” he said. “The ones I know find him very friendly and pastoral to us. Very welcoming. I think he’s done a great job.”
The nuncio presents three names to the Congregation for Bishops, which goes then goes through the detailed dossier on each candidate. Archbishop Ventura, however, does not “just pick a name out of a hat,” according to the nuncio’s first secretary, Msgr. Michael Crotty, an Irish priest who has spent nearly three years in Ottawa after previously serving in Kenya.
Archbishop Ventura relies on Canada’s bishops who, according to canon law, are to meet in their ecclesiastical provinces every three years and supply the nunciature with a list of prospective candidates. When there is a vacancy, the process of consultation begins. Msgr. Crotty said nunciature deals with five to seven vacancies a year in Canada.
The Edmonton Archdiocese, the Edmonton Ukrainian Eparchy, the Kingston Archdiocese and Saint John Diocese are vacant. Ottawa’s archbishop has announced he will retire in June. Five bishops reach the age of 75 this year, though that doesn’t mean the pope will accept their mandatory resignations. Some bishops are already past age 75. Each diocese has its own special needs, to be matched with the right candidate.
“[The bishops] have a major say,” said Archbishop Prendergast, noting the ecclesiastical provinces in the Maritimes meet together. There each bishop presents names of priests that would be good bishops. Prendergast also sends out a letter to priests to find out whom they would recommend. Each meeting comes up with 10 to 12 names.
“Some names are not found to be suitable. Some people don’t handle stress well. To be a bishop you have to handle stress. Some people have a hard time making decisions,” Archbishop Prendergast said.
The archbishop said doctrinal reasons may form an obstacle for a candidate. According to canon law, a candidate must be “outstanding in strong faith, good morals, piety, zeal for souls, prudence and human virtues,” and other gifts necessary for the job.
He said he never approaches a priest enquire if he’d be interested in being a bishop or to let him know he’s on a “bishop’s track.”
Archbishop Prendergast does not know about any jockeying for power or people actually seeking to be bishops. “Maybe I’m very naïve,” he said. Instead he finds that priests tend to have a have a high regard for the episcopacy, but do not seek to become bishops. Some will have that attitude out of humility, some from concern for the pressures of the office. “When they have a good bishop, they admire them.”
Msgr. Crotty and a staff of four Canadian priests assist the nuncio in the detailed process of consultations. That consultation includes priests, religious, and lay people.
Completely confidential, these consultations allow people to speak freely and to say things they may not be able to say to their own bishops. They are asked to give reasons for their opinions. When the nuncio presents his shortlist or terna of recommended candidates to the Congregation of Bishops, he has to justify his opinions.
The needs of a Northern diocese might be completely different from an urban diocese like Toronto or Ottawa.
Canada as a whole faces special challenges, challenges the pope acknowledged when the Canadian bishops made their every-five-year ad limina visits to Rome this year. Those challenges perhaps provide insight into the kinds of shepherds Canada needs.
“The reality of the Church is very wounded in contemporary society,” said Msgr. Crotty, noting the breakdown of marriage, increased divorce and the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“Nobody can be in any doubt about what the church teaches on marriage, on life issues, but there is a large misunderstanding,” he said. “The pastoral challenge is to explain, catechize, set forth the church’s teaching.”
Yet the despite the problems, Msgr. Crotty, like Archbishop Prendergast, is optimistic. He sees a growing enthusiasm among young Catholics the Canadian Church can tap into. Worldwide, the church is reaping the benefits of 20 years of World Youth Day (WYD) observances instituted by John Paul II, and Canada is seeing the fruit of World Youth Day in Toronto five years ago.
Msgr. Crotty mentioned youth evangelistic movements like Catholic Christian Outreach, and the growing influence of Salt and Light TV as evidence. He points to how the 2008 Eucharistic Congress is using some of the same advance preparation involving catechesis as the WYD model and is actively involving youth across the country.
The challenge is to keep the enthusiasm of the young people alive, he said. These Catholic youth are seeing the church as “countercultural,” he said, adding that they want to know why. “The big pastoral thrust is to reach out to young people and give them answers why.”
The pope is framing those answers in a positive fashion, he said, proving false his unearned reputation as a scold and naysayer, who as Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was portrayed as always saying “No.”
Instead he is laying out a vision of “being positive, of being open,” Msgr. Crotty said.
“The church is a church that says, ‘Yes!’ Yes, to life, yes, to marriage,” he said.
The pope is inviting people to be positive, to say “yes,” accepting a new life in Christ, he said. Christ doesn’t ask us to say “no,” Msgr. Crotty said, “he asks us to say “yes” because he wants what is good for us.
Msgr. Crotty noted how the nuncio’s address to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (CCCB) annual plenary last October stressed the importance of three of the pope’s major texts. They included: his encyclical God is Love; his Regensburg speech on the crucial relationship between faith and reason; and his Dec. 2005 address to the Roman curia where he talked about two views of the Second Vatican Council. One view sees the council as “one of discontinuity and rupture,” the pope said, and the other as one of “reform and renewal in the continuity” of the church. The pope critiqued the view that the “spirit” of the council could be separated from its texts.
Msgr. Crotty notes a more liberal paradigm has operated over the past 30-40 years that seemed to suggest the church’s teachings had to change to “go where the people are going.”
“That paradigm has actually failed,” he said. “You can’t change the teaching of the church because it belongs to Christ. Christ’s message doesn’t change. We have to change. Sometimes it’s easier to ‘change Jesus’ than to change ourselves.”
”Those who set out in the 1960s to go out and change the world and wanted to change the church didn’t succeed,” he said. “The process of trying to ‘changing Jesus’ has been going on for a long time,” he said referring to society as a whole with its Jesus Seminar and now the new Jesus Project, aimed at debunking Jesus’ historical existence.
Now it’s time to “allow Jesus to change us,” he said.
The Canadian Church’s challenges concerning vocations go hand in hand with growing secularization. “God is less and less a part of people’s lives and culture,” he said. “Vocations are the fruit of the faith community. It’s not a question of increasing church personnel, there is a need to grow the faith, to nourish the faith, and the faith will bear fruit in more vocations for the priesthood and religious life.”
“We need to be full of enthusiasm,” he said. “You don’t attract people to your ranks if you lack enthusiasm about who we are and what we are.”
The ultimate way to promote vocations, however, is to focus on the family as a “domestic church,” he said, pointing to one of the teachings stressed in Vatican II. There is a tendency to pray for vocations in the abstract, but not for vocations from within one’s own family. He said there is a “NIMBY” (“not in my backyard”) approach to vocations, with some of the greatest opposition to holy orders coming from a prospective priest’s own family.
Msgr. Crotty points out that in dioceses where there has been a more “radical engagement and commitment” to young people, for example in dioceses with fulltime vocations directors, vocations are up. That, he acknowledges is a long term solution. In the short term, priests can be drawn from other parts of the world that were once mission fields for Canada.
Sometimes priests, however, decline to become bishops. Father Morrissey said some might say no for health reasons, perhaps because there is a “skeleton in their closet” from their past, or the individual does not feel up for the responsibility. He added a bishop must be “thick-skinned. “No matter what a bishop does today, he’s criticized.”
Father Morrisey pointed out that originally bishops assigned to Canada came from overseas. “Someday we’re going to look to other countries, too,” he said.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Canadian Catholic News Service.
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