Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 1999
MacNeil grateful for life's blessings
'Wonderful things have happened to me,' says retiring archbishop
By GLEN ARGAN
When Archbishop Joseph MacNeil looks back over his life he is filled with a sense of gratitude.
Gratitude for his parents, extended family, neighbours and teachers who created "an environment that allowed a vocation to flourish."
Gratitude that made it possible for a boy from a working class family in Sydney, N.S., to attend university.
Gratitude for his years in the seminary and his early years as a priest serving in a parish.
Gratitude for his years studying in Rome - an assignment he initially resented - and for his friend, the future Archbishop James Hayes, who helped him through the bewildering array of languages spoken at the university.
Astonishment at being chosen administrator of the Antigonish Diocese at age 35 and gratitude for the support he received in that position.
Gratitude for his many years as head of the extension department at St. Francis Xavier University.
Surprise at being named a bishop in 1969 and resistance four years later when he was asked to become archbishop of Edmonton.
And overwhelming gratitude for all the support he has received over the past 26 years from countless people and organizations of the archdiocese.
"The more I reflect on my life, the more grateful I am to God for all the wonderful things that have happened to me and to all the people in my life who have made it possible for me to do all the things I've done," MacNeil told the WCR recently.
"I have been blessed all my life by people who have been teaching me, been forming me, been giving me a vision of the Church and my place in the scheme of things."
But it's clear from talking with the archbishop that he had no aspirations to ever becoming a bishop. All he ever wanted to be was a parish priest - a role which he occupied for only a few short years at the beginning of his priesthood.
"Those were beautiful days for me," he said.
He visited people in their homes, established Boy Scout troops, prepared couples for marriage, and worked with summer camps and sports teams.
"I was part of many, many families. I was able to be there when they were celebrating their joys and also be there when they were having their sorrows."
"I really looked forward to being a pastor in a rural parish," MacNeil recalled. He would be among the people and all would grow together in knowing God.
Even now, he seems most at home when he is functioning as a pastor - celebrating Confirmation, visiting schools and talking with people one on one.
But being a parish priest was not to be. God had other plans. And so 30 years ago this week, he was ordained a bishop to serve the Diocese of Saint John, N.B.
In Saint John, he carried out the sensitive task of moving St. Thomas University from the Miramichi to the University of New Brunswick campus in Fredericton.
"I loved Saint John, New Brunswick; I loved the people there," he said. "The diocese was of a size that allowed the bishop to move around and spend a lot of time in the parishes."
After only four years, he was named archbishop of Edmonton to replace Archbishop Anthony Jordan who was retiring early because of poor health.
"When I was asked to come here, I found it very difficult. I'd just got started (in Saint John). But I thought it was the will of God."
MacNeil moved to a large and diverse diocese with many well-established institutions and numerous religious orders.
"One thing a bishop has to be aware of when he's coming to a diocese is that he's coming to a community that has its own long history," he said. "This is a reality that a new bishop is inserted into. So what does God expect of him?"
"I found a church that was alive and dynamic," he recalled. "I asked, 'How could I facilitate that growth?'"
He drew strength and vision from his episcopal motto: "Let us Grow Together into Christ."
"I was very much affected by the teaching of the Second Vatican Council as to who the Church is - the Church is the Body of Christ, all the baptized," he said. "The Church is a movement of God to serve the world. . . . I just wanted to see how I could encourage that."
Asked about a comment he made to the WCR many years ago that he was impatient with the speed of reform in the Church, he laughed and said, "I was younger then."
"If I have any impatience, it is with myself and with all of us that we are only beginning to understand the notion of the Church as God's presence in the world."
MacNeil ticked off a long list of highlights during his term in Edmonton - the work of Newman Theological College with lay people, the annual Chrism Mass and assembly of priests, Masses in the Edmonton Coliseum celebrating the 75th anniversary of Alberta and the 125th anniversary of the archdiocese, the work of archdiocesan commissions, the synod on the family.
And, of course, Pope John Paul's September 1984 visit to Edmonton was "a major, if not the major, event during my time here," he said.
MacNeil was president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops when the the pope was invited to visit Canada. In Edmonton, the archbishop welcomed the pope to St. Joseph's Basilica for a prayer service and to a Mass in a farmer's field attended by more than 100,000 people.
"I think (the papal visit) helped people to understand better the universality of the Church," he said. Local Catholics also witnessed Pope John Paul's personal warmth. "The love and respect for the pope as a person and for his office was enhanced enormously by his presence."
But while MacNeil has mostly fond memories of being a bishop, three disappointments stand out for him.
One was the sexual abuse issue in the Church.
"Many people have been hurt, have been victimized. In great measure, it has affected the credibility of the Church, the priests, the bishops," he said. "It will take a while to heal those wounds."
A second is the declining number of priests.
"We still haven't been able to break the mold of being a missionary diocese," he said. "We have assumed somebody else will provide us with priests, somebody else will supply us with our nuns.
"We've never really faced up to the reality that we should be supplying all the priests we need and we should be providing priests to go elsewhere, such as the North."
All Catholics must encourage vocations, he continued. "In the back of our heads, we've thought 'If our pastor dies or is moved, the bishop will find us a priest. That's his job - to find us a priest."
But he is happy four men will likely be ordained in the next year. "It may be an indication of better things to come."
A third disappointment was the inability of the CCCB, during his term as president, to convince Canada's governments to protect the right to life of the unborn in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
"I think Canada's decisions there and in the courts are really going to haunt us," he said. "It's difficult to figure out what this has done to us as a country and as a Church and in relationship to God.
"It's not going to be easy" to reverse that decision, the archbishop predicted.
But MacNeil looks back on his own life with thanks.
"Despite whatever disappointments or pain have come with it, the experience of being a bishop has been a great joy."
And while he'll be going on holidays over the next seven or eight months, he looks forward to being active again as a priest. He plans to spend retirement in Edmonton doing the things he loves the most - helping out in parishes and visiting schools.