Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 1999
The many hats of Joseph MacNeil
Archbishop recognized for being both ecumenical and orthodox, strong and gentle
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
A leader wears many hats.
Archbishop Joseph MacNeil was more than just the shepherd of 300,000 Catholic faithful. He donned much more than the bishop's mitre these past 26 years as archbishop of Edmonton.
During a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of MacNeil's ordination as a priest in May 1998, Msgr. Felix Otterson roasted His Grace using three different hats to reflect the archbishop's various personas.
"The Dr. Suess hat, because he was a dreamer and creative. A cowboy hat, because he came from the East and accepted the West. And a bishop's hat, because he was a good shepherd."
Few would rebuke Otterson's sentiments for the archbishop, who retired from his post June 7, about three months shy of the 26th anniversary of his installation as Edmonton's archbishop.
During his time as archbishop, MacNeil has been anything but timid. He made himself known to Edmontonians, both within and outside the archdiocese.
His name carries weight among leaders and is often greeted with a smile. He may have been a Maritime boy, but he's made himself at home in Alberta's capital.
Sister Frances MacDougall met MacNeil when she was a student at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Back then, the young MacNeil was a sociable person, which over the years has not changed.
"He always struck me as a person who was very people-centred," said MacDougall, who heads the formation team at St. Joseph's Seminary. "He has great leadership qualities, he always had people skills. He was very popular."
Beyond the archdiocese
MacNeil didn't live in a bubble of the Catholic faith. Perhaps it was his love for interaction with others that made him get involved with people within and outside the diocese.
"He was very active in the total community, active in ecumenical projects, both in the Catholic and non-Catholic community," said former Edmonton Catholic Schools superintendent Harold MacNeil.
"He is well known and respected among the Church leaders outside of the archdiocese. He's worked with them, but he's also been firm in his beliefs."
This outreach to other churches reflects the archbishop's sense of community and his commitment to people regardless of their faith, said Harold MacNeil.
"Many of them (clergy) tend to carry out among their own people. (MacNeil) was active among the community."
The archbishop often joined local bishops and leaders of other denominations for lunch every second month.
Anglican Bishop Victoria Matthews has been part of the luncheon ritual for the past two years.
She has seen first hand the "wisdom and generous spirit" MacNeil brings to the meetings and the community.
"When I was doing ecumenical ministry out in Sherwood Park, there was a freedom that the Catholic parish out there had that they could be part of what I was doing.
"The parish welcomed me and for me to have experienced in their church what I probably would not have been able to because I wasn't Catholic, that meant a lot. They accepted me into their church."
MacNeil's ecumenical spirit has been reflected in churches such as Sherwood Park's Our Lady of Perpetual Help, said Matthews. It shows leadership capabilities different and far more accepting than those of other Catholic leaders she has encountered in the past.
"That kind of (ecumenical) attitude reflects on the bishop," Matthews said. "I see him as someone who cares about the community in and outside the Church.
"We're all called to be one in our Lord Jesus Christ and the fact that we are different denominations should not diminish that. Archbishop MacNeil has recognized this."
Bob McKeon, former director of the archdiocesan Social Justice Commission, also praised MacNeil for his community spirit.
"I think he's had a very empowering presence, in the sense that he's worked with a variety of people . . . to be able to find that relationship with that many and that variety of people, it really shows the kind of leader he is."
Former senator, Jean Forest, has had a close working relationship with the archbishop for two decades.
She has seen his support for ecumenism. She has recognized that MacNeil's push for community unity also exists within the Catholic community on a greater scale than just the archdiocese.
"Archbishop Anthony Jordan started (Newman College), but I think it has really grown under Archbishop MacNeil's leadership," she said.
"I wasn't at the (recent) opening ceremony, but I heard there were 16 bishops there celebrating the Mass. Back in the early days, it was strictly Edmonton's baby. It's nice to see this kind of support from all these other bishops."
The blessing of Newman College's expanded facilities coincided with the Western bishops' meeting in Edmonton in March.
MacDougall added, "He has a big heart in all ways; he doesn't think small. He always thinks larger than just the parishes or dioceses. He looks at it as a universal Church."
Franciscan Father Don MacDonald, former president of Newman College, recognized MacNeil's concern with doctrinal orthodoxy.
But MacDonald said MacNeil "was not a heresy hunter who immediately suspected individuals or institutions of 'unorthodoxy' or 'anti-clericalism' simply because they might not do things the way he would do or say them.
"He was concerned with the necessity of authentic change in the Church, he was not a faddist who would accept uncritically any new idea or way of doing things."
A public spokesperson
There are those who believe in an absolute separation of Church and state, that the political podium is no place for a religious leader.
Words from the mouths of clergymen should be reserved for the pews. Public policies stay in the legislature. And never shall the two meet.
Had MacNeil believed in this philosophy and never uttered a word with political pretense, his name would not have such respect among the who's who of Alberta's policy makers.
Bishop Gilles Ouellet of Rimouski, Que., once said "When Joe speaks, you listen. When Joe MacNeil asked for the floor at the assembly of the Canadian bishops, everybody listens."
MacNeil wasn't timid. But he wasn't one to force feed his views to government officials either.
"I liked the way he dealt with the government - he uses the soft stick approach. It's better than making war with them," said Ed Wachowich, retired chief justice of Alberta.
Wachowich met the archbishop more than 25 years ago when he was asked to sit on the Alberta Catholic Health Corp.
He's seen some of the trials and tribulations which MacNeil has had to endure with government budget cuts and threats of provincial hospital closures.
"I liked his thinking, his compassion for his work," Wachowich said. "He didn't react quickly to things, he was a very patient man. He was very thorough and would think things out before acting on them."
The former director of Misericordia Hospital, John Barry, recognizes MacNeil as "a great spokesperson for the Catholic community.
"Anything of contention with regards to the hospitals, health care or education, he was always involved," Barry said.
"He worked well with the government, very forceful and articulate. I think that going back through the premiers, that he's been able to demand a lot of respect from them."
During his 14 years as premier, Peter Lougheed could depend on the archbishop for honest input.
"He could be someone I could talk to about problems of the day and he would listen and come back with an intelligent answer," Lougheed said.
Downtime? What downtime?
There was little white space on MacNeil's calendar. Confirmations, special Masses in the archdiocese and endless committee meetings are only part of what filled his daily routine. He was a busy man, no one can contest that.
"He seemed to put himself out to fulfill every commitment," said Dick Gruenwald, former Lethbridge MLA. "In the years I was on the (Alberta Catholic Health Corp.) board, I don't think he ever missed a single meeting."
Sister MacDougall added, "He's very gifted in terms of his stamina. All the things he does in a week, I don't know how many people can do what he does."
Boss of the year
During his term, MacNeil has shown his commitment as well as support for parishioners involved in archdiocesan and community projects. Coordinators and volunteers of archdiocesan programs praised MacNeil's support for their work.
Many of these committees he spearheaded as a means of including people in archdiocesan decision-making. He founded the Alberta Catholic Health Corp. and was instrumental in establishing regional and archdiocesan pastoral councils.
He incites people to get involved and to cooperate, said Marguerite Bilodeau, who has been MacNeil's executive secretary since he was installed in Edmonton.
"When consulted, he often responds 'Do not extinguish the little spark.'"
In 1984, Jean Forest was western representative for a committee set up by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, to look into the role of women in the Church.
"We came up with 14 recommendations," Forest said. "It was roundly denounced by a number of bishops, but (MacNeil) was very supportive of the work. There was so much negative press about (the recommendations), but he was always supportive of our work.
"When the chips are down, he really stands up for you."
When the committee completed its work, MacNeil asked Forest to head the archdiocese's new Council of Women.
"I always found him very welcoming and an open minded person. He really understands the problems of Christians living in what I call a post-Christian era."
One of the most important projects Sister MacDougall worked on with the archbishop was the archdiocesan synod.
The evening of the first synod meeting, MacDougall, who was the coordinator, was expecting 300 people from parishes throughout the diocese. But the poor weather that November evening in 1995 was not going to make it easy to fill the hall.
"We were meeting in Sherwood Park and there was a blizzard that evening," MacDougall said. "They were saying that everyone should stay off the roads. And I kept asking (the archbishop) 'Well what do you think? Should we cancel it?'
"He said it was up to me. He lets the person in charge stay in charge. Sometimes that's hard for someone in a leadership role. It's sometimes hard to let go when you're in charge, but he knows how to delegate and step back.
"I decided to have the meeting and that night 270 people showed up."
Father MacDonald added, "He knew how to delegate authority because he had confidence in people, especially his priests. He was a diplomat, sometimes to the point of being dubbed the 'stickhandler.'"
A leader in all trades
MacNeil is pretty handy at balancing a chequebook. We're not sure about his personal chequebook, but he kept the archdiocese out of the red.
Fred Barth can vouch for that. The retired chartered accountant has worked with MacNeil on the archdiocesan Finance Committee and refers to him as "a solid financial leader.
"He's supportive and helps where he can, but he doesn't try to do everything himself. He doesn't try to second guess you all the time, he gives you that freedom to work at it on your own, to make the decision."
Calgary's retired Bishop Paul O'Byrne has been working alongside MacNeil since 1974. He views the archbishop as a "real humanist.
"He does not theorize about things. He's very concerned about people and cultivating education."
Otterson said as archbishop, MacNeil seeks no special treatment, nor does he think he deserves any.
"He keeps his feet on the ground. I would consider him a humble man. He recognizes his good points and also recognizes his limitations.
"I think he's really tried to make the Church in Edmonton the Church of the people. When you consider the Church, there's hierarchy.
"But I think he's worked hard to make it the people's Church. I don't think he lets the fact that he's archbishop go to his head."
Wachowich labelled the archbishop as "more laid back than most people I know in a position like his."
MacDougall has seen MacNeil apply that same relaxed attitude to others.
"He has that ability to tell us to relax, that God is in charge," MacDougall said. "Whenever someone is worried about something, he'd say 'You know, we've been through this before, we'll get through it again.'"
MacNeil is a person of dialogue, not of confrontation, said Bilodeau. She recalled a man coming to the chancery office angry and verbally abusive. He demanded to see the archbishop.
"(MacNeil) invited him in and five minutes later, the man came out just as a little lamb, quiet and at peace," she said.
The humour in it all
When Forest resigned from the Senate last year, her office was bombarded with phone calls. MacNeil sent her a note which read, "You can't even quit a job without making a fuss."
"I remembered how much that made me laugh," she said. "That just made my day.
"He has such a great sense of humour."