Papal visit brings about “a beautiful moment” for Newman’s College in Edmonton

Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives for his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Newman College in Edmonton is preparing to host the Holy Father as he visits Canada on a pilgrimage of reconciliation.(CNS file photo by Paul Haring)

By Wendy-Ann Clarke, The Catholic Register

[Edmonton – Canadian Catholic News] – Newman Theological College in Edmonton, has been abuzz for weeks as it prepares to host Pope Francis during his pastoral visit to Canada from July 24-29.

Pope Francis will be staying on campus at St. Joseph Seminary during his highly anticipated visit. While on Canadian soil, he is expected to deliver an apology to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. Aside from Edmonton, the papal trip includes stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit.

Ryan Topping, vice president and academic dean at Newman College, Edmonton (File Photo – The Catholic Register, CCN)

Ryan Topping, vice president and academic dean at Newman, says the visit is of great spiritual significance for the school and the nation.

“This is a beautiful moment for Canada and for our archdiocese and our little college,” said Topping. “Peter (as Pope, Francis is Peter’s successor) is among us now in a tangible way that perhaps isn’t possible to feel otherwise than in his presence physically. We’re united to the Pope as Catholics but when you’re in the presence of the Holy Father, whoever it is that’s holding that office, then we gain a tangible link to the faith of the first disciples of the Lord.”

While it normally takes a year and a half (or more) to plan a papal visit, this one is being organized in four to six months, said Topping. He is overseeing the preparations, working with project lead Catherine Renneberg and her team of five who have been recruiting and organizing the 2,000 to 3,000 volunteers needed and preparing to usher pilgrims to the various sites in Edmonton.

As part of the first phase of preparation, a strategic plan was put together with sites identified for pilgrims. Currently in phase two, the team is eliciting support and recruiting and accrediting volunteers. The third phase will be the implementation in the week leading up to the visit, and during the visit itself.

With the office of the Pope being both spiritual and temporal, Topping said, the preparations include plenty of precautions around security.

“It’s quite a thing to have a head of state come,” said Topping. “When (Pope) Benedict was in Turkey, he had more detail than George W. Bush on his visit. It’s interesting to see… For months already we’ve had an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) presence here, so we’re learning the mechanics of how the Church not only functions spiritually but also in time and place. It has to interact with the federal government and with police authorities. It shocks in the way that the incarnation shocks. We see how these spiritual realities have to be embodied and what that implies.”

Along with the preparations have come concern for the 85-year-old pontiff’s health. He has been using a wheelchair for more than two months and has struggled to walk and stand. Topping believes the physical condition of Pope Francis is another example of how the spiritual meets the temporal through this visit. Despite the pontiff’s physical challenges, the power of the spirit will be just as potent.

“Just like Christ who had no sin but shared in the human realities that we do — He had to eat, His feet got dusty, He was tired — likewise so does the papal office. Here’s a Holy Father who is coming to us with ailments. He needs to be in a wheelchair and so we have to account for that. There are people who might want to harm him, so we have to account for that and there are thousands of people who want to touch him or have a glimpse of him. Having the shadow of Peter cast over them, their faith is going to be strengthened in ways that that they can’t anticipate.”

Topping recalls being in Vatican City in 2005 when Pope John Paul II died and the positive impact that visit had on his faith. Even in death, amid the millions of other pilgrims, it ignited his faith in a way he couldn’t anticipate beforehand. He feels all involved in the preparations are hoping this will be another opportunity for Catholics to see the face of Christ, to have their faith enlivened and witness the joy of the Gospel spread abroad.

Newman Theological College is a private Catholic academic institution founded in 1969 in the wake of the Second Vatican Council by the Archdiocese of Edmonton. It grew out of the existing structure of St. Joseph Seminary which opened its doors in 1967 to lay people and religious for the study of theology.

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