Canadian Catholic News: Jesuit archbishop faced major struggle at call to the episcopacy
OTTAWA, Canada (CCN)— Ottawa’s new Archbishop Terrence Prendergast entered Jesuit seminary in Montreal in 1961 at the age of 17, never imagining he might become a bishop.
“Jesuits take a promise not to become bishops,” he said in an interview at his Ottawa residence. “We promise not to seek nor accept an ecclesiastical dignity.” When the apostolic nuncio called him in 1995 to tell him that Pope John Paul II had chosen him to become an auxiliary bishop in Toronto, Archbishop Prendergast felt torn. “I really wanted to refuse.” “It was the most difficult time of my life,” he said. He asked the nuncio what he should do. The nuncio told him the pope knew of his Jesuit vows. But compounding the problem was another Jesuit vow to obey the pope in whatever mission he chooses. The nuncio told him he could write the pope a letter explaining the reasons for his refusal, but Archbishop Prendergast realized, “I can’t do that,” so he accepted. “It took me about five years to become comfortable as a bishop,” he said, “I was always apologizing for being a bishop because that is not what Jesuits do.” “But this is what this Jesuit does because it’s what God called me to do,” he said. “If the holy father calling me to be a bishop is not what God wants, I find it hard to think of any other way I could know his will.” “It is not something I sought,” he said, though he admitted that we never know what our hidden motivations might be. “I wanted to serve the church as a teacher. I find I’m called to be a teacher in a different way.” “I’m very much a Jesuit,” he said. “I try to be a bishop in the Jesuit way whatever that means. All bishops are servants, but I try to do it in a selfless way that’s our own way.” Archbishop Prendergast became interested in the order while attending a Jesuit high school in Montreal. Blessed with a eucharistic piety for as long as he can remember, he credits the life of faith in his Montreal home with giving him a good start. After he had been an altar server for about five years, one of the parish priests asked him if he had ever though about entering the priesthood. He admired the Jesuit priests and the young scholastics – those not yet ordained – at his school because not only did they celebrate mass, hear confessions and preach, but also they taught, coached sports teams, directed people on stage and helped build confidence in young people. In his last year of high school, he went on a retreat in Alexandria, a train ride away, to discern whether he had a vocation. “I prayed the whole weekend for enlightenment, and some insight of what to do and I went away frustrated because it I wasn’t clear what I wanted to do.” But on his way home, the revelation came. Off the train, he had to take three different buses to get home. On the last bus, between the second to the last stop and home, “It just came to me I’m going to enter the Jesuits this year.” The insight left him feeling peaceful and joyful. The next day he told the high school chaplain, “who just about fell off his chair” because it was already June and others who were to enter the seminary that fall had applied months before. He applied and a couple of days realized, “I’d better tell my parents.” They told him they would not put any pressure on him, but would accept what he decided. He entered the Jesuit order when he was 17, just before the Second Vatican Council started. Two years later, at the age of 19, he took his vows. “All my growing up was in the Jesuit order.” In 1972, he was ordained priest. He did experience “crises every now and then,” when he asked himself if he had done the right thing. During and after Vatican II, many of his peers were questioning the faith and many left the order. “Whatever momentary questioning there might have been in my life, it never lasted very long,” he said. “I always felt I had given my word I would be there forever and I tried to keep my word.” While everything around him was changing, Archbishop Prendergast managed to stay consistent. “Christ doesn’t change,” he said. “Christ is always there. The blessed mother is always there.” After four years in Toronto, the pope appointed him archbishop of Halifax. In 2002, he took on the added responsibilities of apostolic administrator of the Yarmouth Diocese in Nova Scotia. Though he’s more comfortable now with his role as bishop, he admitted he is “starting over again in Ottawa” and has to get “the lay of the land.” “I’m going to learn what it’s like to be a bishop in Ottawa,” he said. “People tell me good luck and they are praying for me and they have a meaning to that but I’m not sure what it is.” He said people told him the same thing when he went to Halifax, and perhaps had a different meaning. “You don’t come and impose on people a particular point of view,” he said. “They expect you as the bishop to represent the church under apostolic succession and make the decisions under the guidance of the spirit for the good of the church here.” Archbishop Prendergast maintains a simple lifestyle. On Aug. 15, he hosted a luncheon for several Jesuit brothers from across Canada and took them on a tour of the archbishop’s residence on St. Patrick Street next to Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica here. They ate in the informal basement cafeteria where he usually takes his meals, as do the other priests who live in the residence. The simple, institutional setting is a far cry from the red-carpeted formal dining rooms and sitting rooms on the first floor, where Archbishop Prendergast showed his guests the art adorning the walls, including portraits of previous bishops. He noted visitors seldom use the front door into a carpeted foyer – one visitor in recent years who did was the Dalai Lama. But the formal rooms are not living quarters. His first floor apartment of two medium-sized rooms, with a vestment-crammed closet and a bathroom, reflects a simple, even austere lifestyle also shared by his predecessor, Archbishop Marcel Gervais, who now lives in a top-floor suite. Archbishop Prendergast fights the temptation to become so busy that he neglects the prayer life so vital to his episcopal ministry and to consistently choosing Christ over self. “If you always know that you should be a person of prayer it helps to get back to it,” he said. “I don’t know how many times I’ve started over.” He tries to weave prayer into his daily life, from praying the breviary or psalms, to doing the Jesuit “Examen of Consciousness” a couple of times a day. The examen helps put him in touch with “where God is in our lives.” “If you weave into your life communion with God, Christ, life in the spirit, the saints and the angels, you begin to see all reality that way,” he said. “God is there everywhere, you see God.” Archbishop Prendergast admits that the homilies he preaches are as much for himself as for anyone else. He used to listen to CBC Radio in the car, but ever since another bishop told him he prays the rosary, he’s been doing the same. “It helps me be calmer and be nicer in traffic.”
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Canadian Catholic News Service.- - -
Among CCN governing members is the Western Catholic Reporter (http://www.wrc.ab.ca), serving Catholics in Alberta and published by the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
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