Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 28, 2005
Bishop navigated winds of change
Post-Vatican II history of Calgary diocese documents struggle
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Charged with implementing the Second Vatican Council during his 30-year tenure as shepherd of the Calgary Diocese, Bishop Paul O'Byrne was not always met by a receptive flock.
Vatican II proposed numerous changes to how the Catholic Church conducted its business, often placing O'Byrne between rival factions of liberals and conservatives in the diocese who had differing opinions on pastoral care, dwindling Mass attendance and social justice to name just a few issues.
Dr. Norman Knowles, associate professor of history at St. Mary's University College in Calgary, has edited and co-authored a book chronicling 1968 to 1998, the years O'Byrne headed the diocese.
Titled Winds of Change: A History of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary since 1968, the book is the result of six years of research into the life of the diocese. It includes chapters, written by different authors, looking at several aspects of the diocese's development.
At the vanguard
"Paul O'Byrne's episcopate came at a critical point in the life of the modern Roman Catholic Church," said Knowles, 42. "He was installed just after the Second Vatican Council in the midst of a sweeping wave of reform, allowing the Church to catch up to the modern age. When he was installed he was viewed as being the vanguard of a new Church.
"He was seen as being a new kind of bishop who would embody the spirit of Vatican II in terms of its inclusiveness, its empowerment of the laity and the attempt to make the Church more meaningful to people," he said.
"He was seen to embody all of the hopes and expectations that came following the council."
There were frustrations for those who resisted changes brought by the council. Others became disoriented by the loss of their identity.
"There were frustrations by those who expected the pace of change to be quicker than it actually was," he said. "O'Byrne often found himself caught between two conflicting sets of expectations. He had a very consultative style that frustrated people on both sides who wanted decisiveness and clear direction. He tried to occupy the middle ground, and that is not always a comfortable place to be."
An Anglican, Knowles said he was able to bring the perspective of someone with distance and objectivity, yet someone committed to ecumenism. He is a former president of the Calgary Council of Churches and has worked closely with the Roman Catholic Church.
Knowles came to Calgary nine years ago, near the end of O'Byrne's episcopate. He said he did not get to know the bishop well before his death in 2004, meeting him on only a couple of occasions. He did attend several of O'Byrne's homilies at the college.
"He certainly was a warm person, with a great desire to connect with young people. That can be traced back to his early ministry as a priest."
Knowles noted two major accomplishments during O'Byrne's time. He called the first formal diocesan synod in April 1994 and he helped establish a covenant among the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches.
"O'Byrne desired reconciliation to develop a unified vision for the diocese," he said. "I think the diocese had also fallen into hard times financially and the synod was seen as a means to restructure the diocese with a renewed sense of vision, purpose and unity.
"I think the bishop wanted to reinvigorate the clergy who were fewer in number and getting older with increased responsibilities. The number of priests is nowhere near keeping pace with the Catholic population. I think the synod was not only to shore things up, but to turn things around."
Knowles describes the covenant as "an ecumenical high water mark." The areas of cooperation the covenant aspired to were broad. Knowles found it unique not only in Canada, but also North America. He says the accomplishment is significant.
"O'Byrne was a committed ecumenist. I think it came naturally to him. He got along easily with people of different traditions."
Winds of Change neither celebrates nor condemns the steps the Calgary Diocese took. The book serves as a resource for parish histories, compiled through two surveys sent out to each parish in the diocese. Together with archival documents and other information sources and input, Knowles says this part of getting the book ready for print was important because it got people across the diocese involved by recalling their history.
"There was an earlier book - From the Buffalo to the Cross - that some people referred to. And one cannot underestimate the historical contributions of both the orders of women and men in the diocese. As the numbers have diminished, the role and contributions have changed."
With the decline of the numbers of religious since the 1960s, laity have been called upon to do more in the life of the Church. Knowles said organizations like the Catholic Women's League and the Knights of Columbus have assumed a greater importance.
"The book was a product of the desire of a committee of the diocese to have a sequel to the earlier book. The decision was made to have a professional historian do the project," he said.
"As a historian, I wanted to include all of the complexities - the good and the bad. For history to be useful, you need to confront it as it was. It is not always a story that is uplifting because it was a tumultuous time in the life of the Church."