Ordaining married men to serve the North is not a “focused issue” says CCCB vice-president

Archbishop Murray Chatlain and young confirmands at the northern pilgrimage site of Sandy Island in the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas. There are many challenges facing Catholic dioceses in Canada's north. (Photo by Tim Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News)

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News

[Cornwall, Ontario – CCN] – Canada will look to the Amazon synod for cues, but so far the issue of ordaining older married men is not a big issue for Canadian bishops, according to Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg.

“This hasn’t really been a focused topic in Canada in that way,” said the Vice-President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) at a news briefing Sept. 23 following the first day of the annual CCCB plenary here running from Sept. 23-27.

Gagnon acknowledged the similarities of the vast Amazon region to Canada’s north – both are sensitive ecological areas, with vast resources, and are home to many differing Indigenous Peoples.

Earlier that day, five bishops of Canada’s northern dioceses shared the progress being made in linking to dioceses in the south for the sharing of personnel, finances and the opportunity for missionary experiences, the archbishop said.

The northern dioceses face huge distances between far-flung communities, most of them made of various Indigenous communities. Like the Amazon region, they face difficulties in transportation, and shortages of priests. Both the Amazon and Canada’s north are sensitive ecological areas with vast mineral resources and vulnerable to exploitation and environmental degradation.

Gagnon said of Pope Francis: “Being a good Jesuit, he raises certain topics and throws them out there, and then there’s a lot of discussion about that on various levels.”

Pope Francis made reference to the issue of ordaining married men when the Western bishops made their last ad limina visit to Rome in 2017, the archbishop said. The pope also raised the issue of “the role of women in the Church at every level.”

“These are things we’ll hear something about in the Synod on the Amazon for sure,” he said. “I think the Amazon synod will have something to say the Church of Canada.”

Several Catholic bishops from Northern dioceses have raised the issue of ordaining married men over the years, because of an acute shortage of priests to minister to far-flung communities.

None of the five bishops from northern dioceses raised the issue on the floor of the CCCB plenary. Instead, Archbishop Murray Chatlain of Keewatin-Le Pas requested the bishops in Canada’s south offer more priests on loan. “It’s a big ask,” he said. “There are not extra priests lying around.”

With the support of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, Fr. Richmond Diala is providing parish ministry this year in the northern diocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.

Many dioceses have been relying on missionary priests from the global south.

“It is a challenge,” Chatlain said, describing the difficulty of explaining to an African or an Asian priest what to expect when they land in a place like Whitehorse.

The archbishop observed that sometimes God gives a “call within a call” to go north, and if the Lord is encouraging priests to go north, the bishops could help by putting the invitation out and allowing priests to come for a period of two years.

All five of the northern bishops spoke of dioceses encompassing huge territories, serving small Catholic populations, including many Indigenous communities. Transportation is mainly by plane in the northern parts of the dioceses and the cost is high. Other modes of transport, such as snowmobile, or winter roads, can be dangerous, with no gas stations, no motels, and changeable weather conditions.

Bishop Jon Hansen, CSsR, of the Roman Catholic Diocese of MacKenzie-Fort Smith described how his diocese includes the entire Northwest Territories and part of Nunavut and serves 20,000 Catholics with six priests, three religious and many part-time lay pastoral workers. The diocese was linked with the Archdiocese of Edmonton prior to its move from a mission diocese to a normal diocese under the Congregation for Bishops.

Bishop Jon Hansen, CSsR, was ordained and installed as bishop for the northern diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith in March 2018. (Photo by B. Currie, courtesy of Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese)

MacKenzie-Fort Smith now has a lay missionary from the Toronto archdiocese who is involved in sacramental preparation and adult faith formation. The diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith is looking forward to welcoming two new priests from Toronto as well, Hansen said. “It is a feeling of tremendous gratitude for the generosity I have witnessed to this point.”

Bishop Héctor Vila of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse also spoke of the difficulties in serving 8,500 Catholics, 20 per cent of whom are Indigenous, in a huge geographical area. A positive development is that several Catholic families are in the diocese “leading a missionary life,” he said.

Archbishop Gerald Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan said his massive territory has one large parish in Grand Prairie, AB. The rest of his diocese consists of very few small towns and many small communities. Among them are four different First Nations and four Métis communities.

Because of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the cost of maintaining aging buildings, and the cost of travel, the diocese struggles to afford the essentials, he said.

The Grouard-McLennan diocese partners with Toronto, he said. One concern is the cathedral, built in the 1940s, has a small and dwindling congregation. Its basement hall needs renovations to remove mold, improve access and bathrooms.

Bishop Robert Bourgon of Hearst- Moosonee diocese also spoke about the challenges facing northern dioceses. Hearst-Moosonee was created when the predominantly Francophone diocese of Hearst was merged with the predominantly Cree diocese of Moosenee (where there is some English spoken). It has 28 parishes and 22 active priests.

“We have similar problems with transportation and buildings falling apart,” he said. Bourgon  noted that Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario is not the only community in his diocese  without drinking water. “They have to buy it (water),” he said.

Living in the north is a constant struggle, he said. Medical services are virtually non-existent; and food and other essentials are extra costly.

Bourgon said his diocese had nine reserves that were not served. “We’re working with them,” he said. “We ask them what they wanted.” One reserve where a church had burned down and services ceased, found a new place for a chapel, and the bishop blessed it and now the community again has Mass every Sunday, he said.

Another reserve has starting using the school for services. “I just did a confirmation with 38 confirmands, children and adults,” he said. “There is a tension in the communities I serve,” Bishop Bourgon said. “The people generally feel the church is the heart and soul of the community. If they lose the church, they lose the soul of their community.”

He related how the people tell him: “We’re Catholics… ’We’ve been Catholics for 400 years. Don’t let all this stuff come in. Just continue to be Catholic and we’ll be with you.”

In 2016, the Holy See officially transferred six missionary dioceses in northern Canada (including the now merged Hearst and Moosonee dioceses) who were previously under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples, to the common law of the church after studying ways to support these dioceses in Canada.