Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 19, 2008
Joseph MacNeil: 60 years a priest
Retired archbishop still active at 84
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"I think he epitomized the kind of bishop that Vatican II talked about."
- Fr. Mike McCaffery
The archdiocese will mark MacNeil's 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood May 23 at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph Basilica.
In an interview at his Pastoral Centre office, MacNeil speaks candidly of his family, who planted the seed of faith early in his life and of Mr. Campbell, who taught him to question the status quo and placed him on the road to the priesthood.
Born the oldest of three children in Sydney, N.S., on April 15, 1924, MacNeil was named Joseph in honour of his uncle Joe who died in battle during the First World War. He describes his childhood and youth as happy - filled with sports and dances as well as responsibility.
His parents - John and Katie - were excellent role models who provided the MacNeil children with a stable home and lots of love and affection.
True to their Scottish ancestry, the MacNeils were devoted to their faith - praying early in the morning, at dinner and at bedtime. Although they had to walk two miles to church, they attended Mass every Sunday.
Joseph enjoyed the mystery of the Mass but never had a chance to be an altar boy because altar boys had to live close to Sacred Heart Church and he didn't.
He received his elementary schooling at St. Joseph's Catholic School and his high school at Sydney Academy, a public institution. There were no Catholic high schools in Sydney at the time so a priest by the name of Father Herie would gather the Catholic boys from the academy to teach them about Jesus.
Mr. Campbell, who taught English literature, math and other subjects, encouraged his pupils to think and to ask questions. Joseph admired him for that. "He really taught us how to think."
Joseph was a good student and a good-natured young man and Mr. Campbell took a liking to him. He encouraged him to attend university and to seriously think about becoming a priest.
"I started asking myself why," the archbishop recalled.
"I knew my parents would be happy but I wasn't sure God really wanted me to be a priest."
The thought never left his mind. But at that time thinking was all Joseph would do. He was not yet conscious God wanted him to be a priest.
- WCR file photo
Archbishop MacNeil welcomed Pope John Paul to Edmonton in 1984.
He enrolled at St. Francis Xavier University, a place of great social experimentation at the time. Professors, most of whom were priests, were actively involved in the struggle for workers' rights and social equality.
MacNeil liked that because it showed him that the priesthood was more than a strictly sacramental vocation but also a tool for social change. He knew how workers felt because the young man worked at a steel plant during summers until he completed his university and seminary education.
During his third year at St. Francis Xavier, MacNeil took the decisive step when he wrote a letter to his bishop asking him to accept him at the seminary. The bishop accepted him and that was for MacNeil a sure sign that God wanted him to become a priest.
"That's when it became clear to me," he recalled.
In 1944, following his university graduation, he enrolled in the Halifax Diocesan Seminary. Four years later, on May 23, 1948, MacNeil was ordained a priest along with 10 others. Bishop John MacDonald of Antigonish performed the ceremony.
With the cathedral bursting with people, including his large extended family, MacNeil tried to be calm.
"It's kind of like when a person is getting married," he smiled. "But I had a feeling that something extraordinary - something beyond ourselves - was taking place."
MacNeil came to the priesthood ready to make a difference in the lives of people. His upbringing, his summers as a steel worker in Sydney and the social teachings he had learned at St. Francis University had coloured his view of the priesthood.
- WCR file photo
Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil celebrates the mystery of the Mass.
For seven years following his ordination he served as assistant pastor in Bridgeport, Sydney Mines and Antigonish, helping people to improve their lives by setting up cooperatives and credit unions.
After studying in Rome and getting a doctorate in canon law, MacNeil served as officialis of the diocesan tribunal until 1959, when he became administrator of the Antigonish Diocese when MacDonald died.
The new bishop, William Power, appointed him pastor of St. Ninian's Cathedral but, to MacNeil's disappointment, that wouldn't last. After four months at the cathedral he became director of the extension department of St. Francis Xavier University - a responsibility he agreed to take on "only because the bishop asked."
Nine years later, in 1969, Pope Paul VI appointed MacNeil bishop of St. John, N.B. That would last only four years.
In 1973, MacNeil received one of the biggest shocks of his life when the pope named him archbishop of Edmonton. His sense of obedience to the pope led him to accept the new post.
"With great regret and considerable reluctance I left Saint John," he once told the WCR.
In Edmonton he found that his predecessor, Archbishop Anthony Jordan, had left him an "extremely well organized" archdiocese. Not only was there a high degree of lay involvement but there were also many institutions vital to the life of the Church such as Newman Theological College, St. Joseph's Seminary, St. Joseph's College as well as several Catholic school districts and hospitals.
MacNeil, a true believer in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, made it his goal not only to continue his predecessor's reforming work but to expand on it.
Slowly but surely lay people began to take on different roles previously filled by the clergy.
"He had a great respect and reverence for the priests and at the same time he spent so much energy to advance the place of the laity of the Church," said Notre Dame Sister Frances MacDougall, a Newman College professor who worked with MacNeil for many years. "That is rare and I think that's what made him a Vatican II bishop because he could balance those two."
MacNeil's social conscience and the need for the Church to express itself in the social justice arena led him to create the now-defunct Social Justice Commission.
His desire for lay input and participation led to the creation of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council.
His concern for the place and role of women in the Church led to the creation of the Council for Women.
He gave Spanish-speaking Catholics a home and the opportunity to worship in their own language. He did the same later for Aboriginal people when he turned Sacred Heart Parish into the first native Catholic parish in Canada.
"I think he was a bishop who carried a strong pastoral vision and who supported and invited people to become part of that vision of Church," says Bob McKeon, a professor at Newman Theological College who worked for the Social Justice Commission for 12 years under MacNeil.
"For me it was a very exciting time. I think it was a time of real growth of different ministries.
"(During his term) we certainly experienced a Vatican II experience of Church, bringing the Gospel message to the wider Church and certainly to the world . . . and we were able to collaborate with the clergy, the religious and the lay people in really effective and creative ways."
Kevin Carr became the first lay president of Newman Theological College in 1995.
"Archbishop MacNeil certainly encouraged participation of lay people," Carr noted. "I found him to be a shepherd in the true sense of the word in that he would provide the guidance and the direction that was necessary.
"But one of the things I found about Archbishop MacNeil is he empowered people to do the tasks that were assigned to them."
McCaffery, the former chancellor, said he found MacNeil "very easy to work with" mainly because MacNeil loves people and is incredibly tolerant and kind.
"One of his greatest traits, I think, was that he always seemed to put people first. I always found him very respectful of people - it didn't matter who they were or what they did, he treated them as God's children.
"He is a very kind man. He sort of meets people where they are at."
MacDougall, who led the archdiocesan synod convoked by MacNeil in the mid-1990s, described the archbishop as a man of compassion who is blessed with a "gracious presence" but also with a great personality, a good sense of humour and unparalleled attentiveness to people.
"He was a gift for all of us whether you worked with him or met him or met him on the street," she said. "And I think in that way he was experienced by many as a father figure.
"He loved school kids and it was delightful to see how he interacted with the kids."
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