Dear Confreres, Associates, Family and Friends
Once again, I have neglected my writing and reach out to you now, just in time to wish you the best of the Christmas season, but not yet. Let’s step back a few weeks and share some of the news that has transpired since the last time I wrote.
In my upcoming article in this week’s Prairie Messenger I write about the “Dark days”. Inuvik has said good bye to the sun for the last time this year. Once it slips below the horizon it will not be seen again for 30 days and the long cold dark nights will now be followed by long cold dark days. That might seem like a depressing thought, and certainly an extra dose of vitamin D is recommended for winter living in the north, but I have come to find the dark days of winter one of the most precious times of the year. It is not that they are not difficult or that they don’t offer a challenge to our ordinary daily routines but instead, it is precisely in those difficulties and challenges that we receive a wonderful gift that perhaps helps us appreciate life in a way that others might take for granted.
When the sun finally returns in early January there will be a collective cheer as the communities pull out the stops to welcome the fresh beginning. There are fireworks and a bonfire made from all the old wooden pallets gathered from the year past. It is a symbolic torching of the old to make way for the new. As people’s faces are set aglow in the warmth and light of the flames, one senses that a transformation has taken place. The darkness has not just been a gap or a pause between one part of the year and the next but, rather, it has been a crucible into which we have been forged into something new and who does not like an opportunity to begin again?
Speaking of new beginnings, at last the long awaited all-season road from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk is complete and, on November 15th, its opening was marked by a one-hundred-car convoy driving the length of the new road, book-ended by celebrations in each community. In attendance were the premier of the Northwest Territories, Bob McCleod and the governor general, Her Excellency, Julie Payette. The communities truly outdid themselves in marking the occasion as they celebrated this new land bridge that will now connect them year-round to the south making access for food, education and health easier and more affordable. I had the pleasure of being a part of the convoy coursing along the Mackenzie river from Inuvik and then upward and out of the valley into the Arctic tundra beyond. We meandered through a myriad of lakes and over several bridge crossings. As we traveled, red foxes and ptarmigan, unused to the road traffic, watched curiously from the side of the road, reminding us that, to them, we were interlopers in this exotic wilderness. I stayed in Tuk overnight with Sr. Fay and was pleased to have the road all to myself on the way back to Inuvik the next day. I was greeted with the most perfect weather and sunshine so I took my time to savor the expanse and beauty of the vistas that were enough at times to bring me close to tears.
At the end of November, I enjoyed a trip back to my former home of Saskatoon for the occasion of Bishop Mark Hagemoen being installed as the new Bishop of the diocese. It was an inspiring celebration with at least 20 Bishops present and what must have been at least 100 priests. The massive cathedral was filled to capacity and the atmosphere was joyous. Bishop Mark was formally welcomed by many representatives highlighting the diversity of this culturally rich diocese. At the end of the celebration the papal nuncio, His Grace, Luigi Bonazzi gave a brief fervorino to the attentive crowd sharing the many ways the diocese was responding to the call of the Gospel and encouraged them to “keep on doing it”. The honest, heart-felt message brought smiles to the faces of everyone and his charming Italian accent made it even more appealing to hear.
Back in Inuvik we put the final touches on the preparations for the highlight of our year, the community Christmas concert in the Igloo church. Every year we open our doors to the entire town of Inuvik and everyone shows up. From kindergarten to long-term-care, all demographics are represented in this homespun homage to Christmas in the truest sense of the word. In no other community I have lived have I found people so at ease with talking about their faith in the public sphere, it is truly refreshing. The talent ranged from cute to exquisite and Master of Ceremonies Louie Goose was in rare form bringing us to laughter and tears between each set. As we sat warm and cozy in the beautiful round church, outside the snow gently fell on the Holy Family silhouetted in a softly back-lit snow cave while an Inukshuk made of freshly carved river ice stood guard. The entire evening was memorable but perhaps even more poignant for me as I was grappling with a secret that I had just heard and which I knew might mean that this particular Christmas concert in the Igloo Church might be my last.
On December 15 my secret was revealed as Pope Francis announced publicly that I was to be appointed as the next Bishop for the Mackenzie-Ft. Smith diocese. In a letter I sent to my Redemptorist confreres that same day I said the following,
“The decision to say yes to this appointment is one which I looked at very seriously, with the knowledge that it would change my life in many ways. If you know me at all you will know that becoming a Bishop has never been my ambition. Yet I cannot look at this appointment outside the context or separate from what brought me to this place. If I truly believe that my vocation is inspired by the Holy Spirit, then I have to see this new call in the same light, even if it does not configure to what I had imagined.”
So now, as Advent calls us to do, I wait in hope knowing that this prayer which I thought God had answered by bringing me to Inuvik is in fact just the beginning of a bigger plan that God has in store for me. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.
I wish you and yours the very best of this Holy Christmas season and much joy and good health in the New Year to come.
Until next time, Peace