Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 6, 2000
Retired in name only
At 80, Fr. John McNeil continues to tell of God's mercy
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Father John McNeil retired five years ago when he turned 75. So his schedule is a little lighter these days.
He only puts in about two or three days a week at the military base as a chaplain. He gets the occasional call from AADAC (Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission) to do some counselling. He celebrates Masses, weddings, funerals on the occasional weekend and evening. And when weather permits, he heads out to the golf course.
"You don't really retire," said McNeil, who at 80 is youthful looking and equally youthful spirited. "You can't just sit around and do nothing. You have to keep going, you have to do things."
There is a balance of work and leisure in his life. McNeil has always had that balance in his 48 years as a priest in the Edmonton Archdiocese.
McNeil was a full-time military chaplain for 15 years. He was the first chaplain appointed to the United Nations Emergency Forces. He was also archdiocesan chancellor and parish priest at St. Joseph's Basilica and St. John the Evangelist.
But his passion lies in drug and alcohol addiction. He still speaks with great enthusiasm of the treatment counselling work he did.
"You see that (drug and alcohol) abuse in the military," McNeil said. "You see how it affects people."
Born in Camrose, the middle of eight children, McNeil didn't have a career plan, he only knew that he was not going to be a priest. Sometime during his service in the Air Force, McNeil decided the priesthood was his calling. He returned from serving overseas and entered the seminary.
He became interested in addiction treatment, but what he was taught in the seminary in regards to treatment was too simplistic.
"You tell (an alcoholic) to place their hands on a Bible and promise they will never drink again," McNeil said. "I needed to learn more than what I got in the seminary. That's useless. A person can't make that kind of promise. They have to do more than that."
He went to St. Paul's University in Ottawa where he earned his master's degree in pastoral ministry, specializing in drug and alcohol treatment. When he returned to Edmonton, he worked in residential treatment centres and for 10 years was part of the counselling team at AADAC.
He helped to open a day counselling unit downtown, which attracted single mothers with addiction.
"They could come in for treatment while their kids were at school. They wouldn't have to worry about missing treatment because they had to take care of their children."
McNeil has seen his share of rolling eyes when he walks into a counselling session. People expect him to come in ready to preach, with Bible and rosary in hand.
"I don't talk about religion, but spirituality."
God plays a major role in treatment, said McNeil. He recalled one of his former university deans who said, "You have the best psychologist to look up to - his name is Jesus Christ."
Part of the treatment program also focuses on reconciliation, something McNeil said has increasingly become insignificant for many Catholics.
In counselling, addicts are asked to admit their addiction to God and to one other person.
"It reminds me of the story of the prodigal son," said McNeil leaning back in his chair and looking up at the dark painting on his office wall depicting the popular biblical story. "It's a story of all of us. (God) takes us all back - no matter who you are or where you've been."
McNeil shakes his head at the myth that alcohol and drug abuse only affects those in the inner city. He said there are as many professionals addicted as there are poor people.
"Cocaine is expensive. At $300 - who do think are the ones buying that?"
Not every case is a success. McNeil knows he can't save everyone from their addictions, he stopped trying a long time ago. He only puts in his 100 per cent effort and the rest is out of his hands.
"I got over the fact that I can't do everything perfectly. Our Lord also had limitations to his power. He can't change everyone. Why do we think we can do it all then?
"The glory of God is for man and women to be fully alive. I feel like I'm helping people to be fully alive."