Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 4, 2005
The Lord called him; he stayed
Archbishop Gervais remembers praying the rosary as a family after dinner
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais recalls how his family used to kneel and pray the rosary right after supper, even before the dishes were washed.
There must have been a mountain of dishes, because Gervais was the ninth of 14 children, one of eight sons and six daughters born to devout Catholic parents who maintained the French Canadian tradition of evening prayer, even though both were born out West.
When Father Francis Peyton began his Family Rosary Crusade and began broadcasting on the radio in the 1940s, that's when the nightly rosary began in the Gervais household.
Reflecting on his life several days before the June 15 celebration of the 25th anniversary of his ordination as a bishop, Gervais said he credits the faith of his father and mother as the foundation for his vocation.
Nightly prayer went on until his youngest brother was a teenager and sports events and television began to interfere.
"Prayer was never an inhibitory thing. It was a very human and warm thing. We'd often have fits of laughter," he said.
He was born in Elie, Man., in 1931, and his family bought a tobacco farm in southwestern Ontario when he was 13.
They attended Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Aylmer, and Gervais, for Grade 13, for the first time went to Catholic high school in St. Thomas, where despite cramped facilities, he encountered wonderful teachers and said his vocation "started to materialize."
While at the school, he was doing some dating and "going out" that he described as normal for a young man his age. But one day, an "engaging" young priest, Father Jim Hollerhead, stopped by while Gervais was out working in the fields.
The priest wanted Gervais to borrow his father's car to bring some young men to visit the seminary for a "come and see."
"I wasn't the slightest bit interested in going there," he said. "I took the other two guys."
He said he was "sorely disappointed" by the beautiful neo-Gothic buildings, which he found "very spooky" because of their dark halls and poor lighting. He recalls eating hotdogs there with the other visitors.
Hollerhead died of cancer at a young age, but was instrumental in persuading Gervais to go to seminary.
"If the Lord is calling me, I'll stay," he remembers telling himself. "All this time, I was hoping they'd find something wrong with me and send me home."
He trusted the teachers at the seminary to discern whether he had a genuine vocation or not.
Ordained a priest in 1958, Gervais went on to do further theological studies in Rome. He was present in St. Peter's Square for the election of Pope John XXIII, and was among the first priests to meet him.
He and Bishop John Cody of London, Ont., were told that when they came in for their papal audience they were to genuflect upon entering the room, advance, genuflect again, advance some more, genuflect a third time, and then reach for the pope's hand and kiss his ring.
When they entered the room, Gervais and Cody were shocked to discover Pope John waiting just inside the door, not a metre away.
"It was impossible to genuflect and he offered his hand in such a way that you could not kiss his ring," he said. "It threw everyone off balance."
"He won me over completely," Gervais said, remembering the "marvellous conversation" and subsequent meetings with the pope who initiated Second Vatican Councils.
Gervais found especially inspiring the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, Our Time, which, he said, "literally opened up the church to all Christians, to the Jews, the Mohammedans and all religions of the world."
"It took away the defensiveness that we had been raised with," he said.
"It's hard to describe the kind of liberation I experienced as a young priest while the council was going on," he said, recalling the first time he heard the liturgy said in French, or hearing a lay person do a reading.
He said it was pure excitement to see these changes, and saw in the future greater lay involvement in both liturgy and in ministry.
"My father did not know how to read or write anything except his name. My mother had a Grade 8 education," he said, noting that halfway through the raising of their large family, his other brother had gone to University of Toronto and Gervais had also attended university.
The progress in education was not only reflected in his own family, but in the society at large. No longer could the Church maintain a "consumer" faith where people attended only to receive the sacraments, Gervais said. The Church had to encourage members to participate in its ministry if it was to survive.
Unlike some Catholics who felt crushed in the authoritarian pre-Vatican II era, Gervais said his family had a different image of the Church. "The Church was on our side. It was pulling for us. We did not see it as oppressing or limiting."
He said instead, he saw the Church as one that educated him and his family and encouraged them to go forward.
A leader in interfaith dialogue and ecumenism in Ottawa, Gervais has also helped root Catholics in the knowledge of the Sacred Scripture.
Published The Journey
From 1977-80, he published The Journey program of 40 lessons on the Bible while he was professor of Sacred Scriptures at St. Peter's Seminary in London. The program is still used by Canadian Catholics today.
Appointed a bishop June 11, 1980, he served as auxiliary bishop of London from 1980-85, as bishop of Sault Ste-Marie from 1985-89, and coadjutor archbishop of Ottawa in 1989. That year he also became archbishop.
A leader in the Canadian Church, Gervais was president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) from 1991-93. He is president of NET Ministries of Canada (National Evangelical Teams), a lay Catholic movement aimed at evangelizing young people. NET recruits and trains teams that reach about 20,000 young people a year.
Gervais also provided guidance to the Companions of the Cross, a new order of priests that began 25 years ago in Ottawa.
More than 1,100 people jammed Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica for the June 15 celebration, including 50 bishops.
Eleven of Gervais' surviving 12 siblings were able to attend, and the 114 parishes in the archdiocese each displayed their banners in a ceremony one observer described as "breathtaking."
Responsible for 400,000 Catholics, Gervais has not hesitated to speak out to prime ministers, who like Prime Minister Paul Martin, have become members of his cathedral parish.
Earlier this year, he spoke to Martin about his stand on same-sex marriage.
In March 2005, Gervais issued a statement saying, "As the leader of the party in power, he believes that his personal opinion is not relevant to his role as leader. While I do not agree either with his argument or his conclusion on same-sex marriage, I do not think, at this time, his position merits refusing him Communion."
Gervais has consistently upheld the Catholic teaching on marriage in the public square, most recently appearing on behalf of the CCCB at hearings before the special legislative committee examining Bill C-38.