Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 4, 2002
Northern bishops desperate for priests
They talk of renewing call to ordain married native men
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
The bishops of Northern Canada - in a report described by one Canadian bishop as a cry for help bordering on despair - say they desperately need priests but are hamstrung in large part by the Church's celibacy requirement.
The report by the bishops of the seven dioceses comprising the northern two-thirds of Canada was presented to the annual assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cornwall last month. It notes that vocations in the North have dramatically decreased and that most of the priests are "advanced in age."
In some Catholic communities in the vast, sparsely populated North, Mass and other sacraments are celebrated only two or three times a year. One northern diocese - Mackenzie-Fort Smith - is the largest Catholic diocese in the world. Only seven priests serve its 40 parishes and missions totalling 20,000 people.
Together all seven dioceses, which also include the archdioceses of Grouard-McLennan and Keewatin-Le Pas, and the dioceses of Whitehorse, Churchill-Hudson Bay, Moosonee and Labrador City-Schefferville have a Catholic population of about 125,000 and 84 diocesan and religious priests.
Several years ago, the Northern bishops asked Rome to ease its ban on married clergy so that "indigenous married men, respected leaders in their communities, concerned about nurturing faith among their people, be ordained priests," the report stated. The appeal was turned down.
During their ad limina visit with Pope John Paul in 1993, the Northern bishops handed him a report describing the pastoral reality of the Church in the Canadian North, which included the request for a married priesthood.
Bishop Vincent Cadieux of Moosonee told the Canadian bishops' assembly "we didn't dare" make another request to the Vatican for married priests. But he added, "Maybe we'll have to come back on this. With the support of a conference like this one maybe that would help us."
At the 1997 CCCB assembly, the Northern bishops said "respected individual married native men" would continue to be presented as candidates for the priesthood in areas where there are no priests.
The report said the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have served as missionaries in the Canadian North for over 150 years but when the current crop of aging priests are gone, "their superiors tell us that they will not be replaced."
Several reasons were given for the drop in vocations to the priesthood in the North including the difficulty in enlisting young men from local native communities.
"In many aboriginal communities, as long as there is a non-aboriginal to do the job, locals will not step forward," said the report. It also said young men are often not encouraged by local communities, families or friends to consider a vocation to the priesthood.
"It has been suggested that the problems arising from the residential school system did not help," added the report. About 11,000 abuse claims have been filed against the federal government and the churches that ran the schools. The Oblates operated most of the Catholic schools.
Cadieux also said the requirements for anyone wanting to be a priest in the North are demanding. "These are due to the conditions that the priests are called to live in," he said.
"It's not easy there. The priests are isolated. They live with people who have a very different culture than theirs and also the lifestyles are very different."
Northern residents include Inuit, numerous aboriginal nations, Metis and others. Communities within any given diocese can have different languages and in the more remote locations elders do not speak English or French.
Priests from Europe, Africa, Asia and most recently South America have come to the North as missionaries but many have had difficulty adapting to harsh winters, the diverse cultures, sparse population, isolation and the vast distances between communities.
"Too often people who want to serve the Church in the North come for a relatively short time," the report stated.