A year ago I visited the Diocese of Whitehorse, heading north to the Yukon for the first time. Last week, the bishop of Whitehorse – which comprises all of the Yukon and a little of northern British Columbia – returned the visit as it were, preaching the priests' retreat for the Archdiocese of Kingston, here in the Thousand Islands.
I had met Bishop Gary Gordon on his home turf – or at least his new home tundra, as he was a priest of Vancouver before being consecrated a bishop, and looked forward to meeting him again in my home. He is affable and good humoured with an easy manner of speaking about the truths of the faith, a winning combination for the new evangelization.
Yet what I really wanted to talk to him about was a disagreement we have precisely about the New Evangelization.
Last year, I filed a column from the Yukon that praised the heroic sacrifices of generations of missionaries, but questioned today's pastoral approach.
"The story of the northern missions is that of heroic, sacrificial devotion to serve very, very few," I wrote. "Does it still make sense to do that, now that the Oblate missionaries have largely died out? In strict numbers, there is a certain madness to it all. The 11,000 Catholics in the entire Yukon would not constitute a large parish in Toronto, to say nothing of Manila or Guadalajara.
"Why devote heroic resources to serve, in a limited way, places where the traces of the faith are faint indeed? Bishop Gary Gordon and his few priests drive thousands of kilometres to offer Mass intermittently in missions to a handful of the faithful here, five or six there, perhaps a dozen on a good day. It is admirable. But is it the way forward? . . .
"Bishop Gordon is a gifted evangelist, so if he were to focus his energies here, along with one or two priests, it would be a shift from a vast territory thinly served to a small city rather intensively served. The price would be the practical abandonment of the far flung missions.
"Is that a valid evangelical tradeoff? Perhaps, as the evangelization of souls first requires that there be souls to evangelize, and they are lacking in in the rest of the Yukon."
Bishop Gordon took vigorous exception to that: He was not wasting his time on the road. My standard was too worldly. Evangelization is not a matter of statistics.
The reason I challenged the bishop's approach in the North is because those challenges face the Church all over Canada. Should heroic sacrifices be made to preserve for as long as possible the structures as they used to be, or is it better to devote personnel and resources to the demands of the New Evangelization – youth, campus ministry, the marriage and family apostolate?
At our retreat, Bishop Gordon told a story from his time as a priest in Chilliwack, in the Fraser River Valley. For a few months he drove for more than three hours each Friday to offer the Holy Mass in a women's prison.
No one came. Not the first week. Not ever. Father Gordon went every week. I would have considered it madness, and abandoned that fool's errand after a few pointless drives.
But we are called to be fools for Christ. After eight weeks of no one coming to Mass, the head prison chaplain called Gordon to thank him for his service, and said that the inmates were grateful.
"No one came," replied Gordon. "I don't know what you are talking about, that they are grateful. No one ever came."
"That's true," the prison chaplain replied. "And they feel bad that they didn't come. But they heard your footsteps and knew that you cared."
"That experience changed my entire approach to ministry," Gordon told us. Afterward, I told him I was grateful for that story, as I now understood better our disagreement.
Evangelization, I would contend, requires actual hearts and ears to hear the Gospel proclaimed. As Bishop Gordon described though, perhaps it needs only for souls to hear the footsteps and know that there is a disciple of the Lord Jesus who cares.
I would never drive 10 hours to remote Telegraph Creek to celebrate Holy Thursday with one person present, as Gordon did a few years back. But he does, and I admire him for it.
The New Evangelization needs committed evangelists, of which Bishop Gordon is one. But not all evangelists agree on how best to evangelize.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org