Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 1999
The children's archbishop
For 26 years, archbishop has maintained close ties with schools
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
If there is one thing students will remember about Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, it will be his sense of humour.
"He tells great stories. He's not as serious as you expect," says Darrell Sim, a 15-year-old student at Sir John Thompson School in Edmonton.
Sim's classmates agree MacNeil's sense of humour makes him a "welcoming and encouraging" presence in the school.
"He's done a great job," says Tara Cable. "It will be exciting to have a new archbishop, but I'm kind of sad he's going."
MacNeil celebrated Mass at Sir John Thompson in April, and afterward spent an hour answering questions from students.
It was a familiar scene for MacNeil, who throughout 26 years as archbishop has maintained a close relationship with students and staff at Catholic schools across the archdiocese.
He reflected on that relationship in an interview with the WCR.
"I've always enjoyed going to schools, and I think I've had a fairly good rapport with the students. In some ways, I think that rapport and that openness has grown."
MacNeil acknowledges that the schools and the Church have been through many changes over the past 26 years, some more positive than others.
"I think it's probably more obvious now that more and more young people are not going to Church, but I don't fault the youngsters. Maybe it tells us more about what's happening in the lives of the parents.
"I know so many couples are working, and there are so many things that happen on the weekend - so many pressures and distractions now. It doesn't mean that people are not as good as they used to be, or not as religious, or not as spiritual."
On the positive side, MacNeil says, teachers are much better prepared to lead liturgies and share their faith with students.
"I think so many of the teachers are practising Catholics, or they at least have a strong faith, whether or not they are always practising, and that rubs off on the kids. I think the kids sense the whole notion of prayer, they sense the notion of the presence of God, they sense the whole question of respect, for individuals and for each other."
Over the years, MacNeil has tried to visit every school in the archdiocese at least once. But he prefers to respond to invitations from schools, rather than set a schedule.
"There are some schools I go to every year because they ask me every year. Others are worried about my busy schedule, but I try to appear open and interested, and make it known that I would like to get to every school."
Whether visiting classrooms, celebrating a school Mass, or at Confirmation, MacNeil's connection with the students is obvious.
"He talks at the students' level, not down to them, and he uses humour, which always helps," says Gilberte Gagne, principal of Father Leo Green School.
"He is a teacher in a way because he speaks to them as a teacher would, and as a leader of the Church, I think that's very important."
That openness extends to staff as well as students, Gagne says, adding that one thing she appreciates most about MacNeil's involvement in the schools is his celebration of the school year opening Mass for teachers and staff.
"It really gives you a sense of being validated," she says. "Whenever the archbishop visits a school, he makes the staff feel very comfortable, not intimidated."
At Annunciation School, Grade 6 students preparing for Confirmation recently had a chance to visit with MacNeil in the classroom, and asked a range of questions from the practical: "What do you do on a typical day?" to the theological: "Would Jesus still love someone if they were not baptized?"
"He's cool," said student John McDaniel afterward. "But he's not what I expected - I thought he would be like the pope, with a big hat and stuff."
Classmate Rachel Naka agreed MacNeil "seemed like a real person," and he answered all their questions.
That's something MacNeil values immensely. "The kinds of questions that are asked give me some sense of the concerns of children, and to some extent the concerns of the parents and the teachers."
Reflecting on a junior high student who asked why priests are not allowed to marry, MacNeil says that kind of question reminds him that there are important issues for teachers, parents and students which need to be addressed.
"If I can't answer that question, or explain something in words that are understandable and acceptable by most young people, then I've got a problem."
MacNeil says one significant issue facing the Catholic community is how to encourage strong ties between the school, parish and family.
"I think young people are curious about God; I think what they know about Jesus Christ they admire and respect, and they are attracted to that, and when they reflect on the parables, then Jesus comes across as someone they would like to know and get closer to.
"To get them attracted to the Church is not so easy. That's why I see it as valuable, whenever possible, to bring students from the school into the Church, so that they are comfortable there, they are comfortable with praying out loud and praying together."
Sacramental preparation is another opportunity for collaboration, MacNeil says.
"It's not fair to expect the teachers to put any pressure on the parents to come to Church. Parents have their own problems and their own worries."
But by participating in First Communion, Reconciliation and Confirmation, parents who may not be active in their faith have the chance to grow, he says.
"We try to make the sacrament of Confirmation as joyous an event as possible so it will be a positive experience for the students."
But MacNeil says it's important to remember that schools are part of the community and they reflect that community.
"In the real world, what is the situation these students are coming from? How many come from homes where parents are not married, or are married to someone else, or are single parents?
"How many of the children will go home and say 'We had Mass at school today'? How many will say to their parents 'We were asked to pray for you today'? I don't know.
"Suppose there were no Catholic schools. Would it make any difference to the lives of those young people who were at Mass today?
"Well, God will be the judge of that, and maybe others will judge that. But I would like to think that that experience was a good experience in their lives and may have some effect on some people."
MacNeil would also like to think his comfortable interactions with students have helped him get his message across.
"I want to help them understand that in their lives they've got to begin to look at what it is that God wants them to do. When someone begins to think about what they want to do, at some point it becomes 'I wonder what God wants me to do,' and likely what God wants them to do is what they want to do.
"I think many young people will have met me and seen me try to be a little bit like Jesus; try to respect them and be with them and be comfortable with them; try to care for them so they will see that a bishop or a priest is somebody who tries to represent Jesus Christ and tries to help them."
He also wants to teach young people something of their own responsibility.
"When I say they should pray for their parents, gently I am trying to get them to say 'I've got to get used to thinking about others and helping others,' and I hope that message has come across."