Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
June 21, 2010
Social justice advocate revels in his work
Bob McKeon's job as archdiocese's social justice officer allows him to practice joyfully
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON - Bob McKeon says he has been privileged "to have a spiritual life that includes the social dimension of the Church."
It is "a spirituality rooted in prayer, but also mediated through action in community," said McKeon, social justice officer for the Edmonton Archdiocese.
McKeon told about 60 members of the charismatic renewal June 12 that the archdiocese has made him "a paid activist, a paid agitator."
When he was asked to speak to the Catholic charismatic renewal, "My response was, "I think you've got the wrong person.'"
But in his talk he witnessed to a faith that was rooted in a suburban family in New York City and developed through various forms of service, education and social justice ministry.
He served three years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War and, on a ship of 1,000 men, was asked to be the Catholic lay leader.
Pondering what to do when he completed his service, he responded to an ad in a Catholic newspaper for a Jesuit volunteer group. He hoped they would send him to an exotic place such as Africa. "In fact, they sent me to Missoula, Mont."
Within days of leaving the Navy, he found himself receiving formation for his volunteer work from "radical Jesuits" who were peace activists in Portland, Ore. "I met a brand of Christian I had not met before."
Even though he didn't and doesn't agree with everything the Jesuits did, he liked how their social ministry "took faith seriously."
"I was called to look deeper into my faith," he said and was called to reflect on notions such as Christian pacifism and the Church's just war teaching.
"There was so much more about my faith that I had not heard to this point."
After his time with the Jesuits was over, he volunteered two more years with the Frontier Apostolate in the Prince George, B.C., Diocese.
He chose to give his life to God and thought the way to do that was to become a priest. So he entered St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton as a seminarian for Prince George.
McKeon said he loved the opportunity to study theology. As well, he prayed and reflected once a week with a community that the Scarboro Fathers were establishing in Edmonton's inner city.
VOCATION OF MARRIAGE
After a year of difficult discernment, he left the seminary and joined the Scarboro community of men and women and married Mary Amerongen, who was part of the community and the provincial animator for Development and Peace.
"As a lay person, (discernment) can be a challenge because there's no set career path." No one else takes responsibility for your decisions, he said. "It's trusting that one thing will lead to another, that my family will not be caught lacking."
At that time, Father Duncan MacDonnell came back to Edmonton after serving as a missionary in Peru and had "a passion for social justice." MacDonnell persuaded Archbishop Joseph MacNeil to organize a justice ministry for the archdiocese and McKeon was hired in 1977 as its first part-time director.
MacDonnell became a mentor for McKeon as did some Sisters of Providence who set up an apartment in the inner city and some Medical Mission Sisters who were instrumental in setting up the Boyle-McCauley Health Centre.
It was a different era in the Church, he said, partly because the Canadian bishops year after year issued clear statements calling for justice in society. Many people took those statements seriously and went to work serving the poor and advocating for justice.
McKeon became involved with the health centre, helped set up the Edmonton Food Bank and got involved with housing issues.
"It was incredible to be a bearer of this tradition of the Church, while still able to work in the community," he said.
McKeon left his work with the archdiocese in 1989 to get his doctorate in theology and was asked to teach at Newman Theological College. He taught at the college until about two years ago when, because of a severe financial crunch, he and two other lay faculty were laid off.
Shortly thereafter, Archbishop Richard Smith asked him to return to the archdiocese and revive its social justice ministry. "It is a different time to be doing that kind of ministry today," he said. "But it's still a real gift."
He works with many groups that are committed to the Church's teaching on justice - the Good Friday Way of the Cross, the Salvadoran community which annually celebrates the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Inner City Pastoral Ministry, and Church leaders such as St. Paul Bishop Luc Bouchard who defended "the integrity of creation" being undermined by tarsands development.
Then there is a group of 25 inner-city people - some aboriginal, some survivors of residential schools, some non-aboriginal - who meet regularly to reflect and share their stories.
"I get paid to be a witness to things like this. What an extraordinary gift!"
McKeon hastened to add that social justice is not just the work of activists such as himself, but it is a dimension of the life of the whole Church. "The reality is that this is something shared."
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