McCaffery celebrates half century of inclusive priesthood

Fr. Mike McCaffery

September 26, 2011

Even he himself wonders how he did it. Father Mike McCaffery, a lifelong advocate of married priests and the ordination of women, is marking 50 years of priesthood.

“I saw a lady the other day who said, ‘Oh, you are celebrating 50 years of priesthood. I thought you’d be dead by now or married.’

“I talked about married priests for so many years that many people thought I would go that way. I must say that I thought about it occasionally.”

The other thing is that few of the male McCafferys have lived past 70 “so I never I thought I would reach 50 years of priesthood.” He is now 76.

Has he changed his mind about married priesthood and the ordination of women? “I don’t think so,” he quickly replies. “I still believe in that.”

Will it ever happen? “I think so. There are so many people that support it. I realize and accept the fact that the official Church says we shouldn’t really talk about it too much but I think we should talk about it.”

The Catholic Church has consistently taught that ordination to the diaconate and priesthood is reserved to men and that the Church has no authority to ordain women.

McCaffery says the two things Jesus talked about most were inclusiveness and forgiveness. He laments that “sometimes we are more concerned about excluding people because of this or that than we are in trying to bring people into the fold and keeping them in the fold.”

The Church, he said, should look at the reasons why youth and women are leaving the Church “and re-examining some of our positions.”

McCaffery said he has worked at trying to be inclusive. “I think when we read the Gospel, Jesus’ focus was looking after the excluded. And of course forgiveness is a big thing, maybe that’s because I’m a sinner too.”

McCaffery reached local fame in 1988 when he officiated at the wedding of Wayne and Janet Gretzky at St. Joseph’s Basilica. As chancellor of the archdiocese through most of the 1990s he handled sexual abuse cases and began the reorganization of the parish structure.

“I guess I’ve done many jobs but I’ve always considered pastoral ministry (to be) the most fulfilling. I enjoy journeying with people — the good, the bad and the ugly.”

McCaffery officially retired in 2000. But he continues to perform Baptisms, weddings and funerals. His business card says it all: “C.M. McCaffery — Retired but Hatching, Matching and Dispatching.” For the past three years he has been celebrating Sunday Mass for the St. Mark’s Deaf Community.

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil said he entrusted McCaffery with many positions of responsibility during his tenure “because he was the right man.”

“I consulted with other people and they’d said, ‘Obviously, Father McCaffery is the best person for the job.’ And in each instance that’s the way it worked out. He made me look very intelligent, very smart.”

MacNeil described McCaffery as “very prayerful, very spiritual and very pastoral.”

“He loves people and it’s very easy for him to relate to everybody else and he and I related very well together. We are very fortunate to have had Father McCaffery with us all these years. He is very talented and he is still helping out in so many ways.”

After a tornado swept through northeast Edmonton in 1987, Fr. Mike McCaffery was one of the first on the scene.


After a tornado swept through northeast Edmonton in 1987, Fr. Mike McCaffery was one of the first on the scene.

As a boy growing up in Edmonton, McCaffery was being groomed to become a dentist like his father. “But I was never much of a student. I was never interested in some of the academic stuff but I was always interested in learning.”

When he graduated from high school, the priesthood hadn’t even entered his mind. But the recently ordained Father Bill Irwin, founder of Catholic Social Services, was grooming one of McCaffery’s best friends to become a priest and they dragged McCaffery to a meeting.


He decided to give the seminary a try and entered in 1954. During the second year he “sort of fell in love with a girl” and began struggling with his decision to become a priest. He took some time off and worked for the social action department of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Ottawa.

He spent a year in that job, which gave him new insight into the social teaching of the Church. “So I decided to come back to the seminary and finish my fourth year.” He was ordained in 1961.

It wasn’t going to be an easy priesthood but support from family, fellow priests and bishops gave him strength. “I’ve struggled with celibacy,” he admits. “I’m an Irish romantic, you know. And Irish romantics fall in love easily.”

McCaffery began his priestly career at St. Anthony’s Parish under Msgr. Foran, who gave him the best advice of his life. “He said, ‘McCaffery, I want you to preach six minutes and no notes.’ I followed his advice most of my life. So I’m remembered for my brevity, not necessarily my content.”

McCaffery has tried his hand at many things. “I seem to have gone in many different directions throughout my 50 years. Some people probably wondered whether I knew where I was going but I’ve had a very interesting life.”

Between 1969 and 1972 he completed a master’s degree in sociology in New York and worked for a year, first for an advertising company doing market research and then for the Canadian consulate.

Then he spent a year working for the British Columbia Alcohol and Drug Commission. He did similar work in Edmonton in 1974 and 1975 before going to Notre Dame University in Indiana to study pastoral theology and counselling.

He returned to Edmonton in 1976 to become president of Newman Theological College. After six years, he returned to parish work as pastor of St. John Bosco Parish.

He became rector of St. Joseph’s Basilica in 1987 and spent the next six years there. “Wayne Gretzky’s wedding is what I’m remembered for,” he smiles. “That certainly made me famous for five seconds.”

Eventually, MacNeil brought McCaffery to the pastoral centre as chancellor.


“I went from the frying pan into the fire,” McCaffery said in a 2001 interview. The job of chancellor was “good” but also very “painful” as he spent a third of his time dealing with sexual abuse cases.

Asked about the hardest times in his priesthood, McCaffery struggles to respond. “I think as a priest you always wonder about the people you hurt by what you say or don’t say. You don’t want to hurt people or offend people yet we do it so often by our lack of hospitality and our lack of inclusiveness. And I am as guilty as anybody.”

His two regrets are that he never learned to speak French and that he never nourished his piano-playing abilities. “I can play, I can read music but never really developed this gift.”

However, he has worked hard at his golf, travelling yearly to Palm Springs with other Edmonton priests to play. “I’m addicted to golf. I really enjoy it.”

McCaffery’s 50th anniversary of ordination will be celebrated with a Mass and reception at St. Joseph’s Basilica Sept. 25 at 7 p.m.