Since last writing, I have received the wonderful and overwhelming news that Pope Francis has chosen me to become the next Bishop of the Mackenzie-Ft. Smith diocese. One of my first thoughts and concerns was how I was going to break the news to the people I serve that I was going to be moving away from them after only a little more than two years. I was sure there was going to be tears and maybe some anger or, at the very least, mild disappointment. Wasn’t I surprised at the reaction I received and consider it one more lesson learned about the people of the north.
Across the board the reaction was joy, pure self-less joy at what God was doing with their pastor. Each person congratulated me and said that they knew God had something good in store for me. It seemed that the goodness that came from the honor was not just for me, but they claimed it also for themselves. It was only after the first reaction of joy that they then paused and said, “we are going to miss you”, but the look in their eye let me know that they were going to be alright.
The people of the northern Church manage without a priest not because they do not desire the Eucharist but because they are used to being on their own. In urban centers families have the luxury of deciding which Mass to go to on the weekend, even which Church they might visit. In many small, isolated communities not just in the north but across Canada, people are happy that they might see a priest come for Mass once a month or even less seldom. In its place, the people continue to gather, and the church relies on the good hearts and perseverance of faithful lay leaders who keep the spark of faith alive.
In the north I have been privileged to work with good couples like Hank and Marlene Wolki in Paulatuk. While Marlene prepares families for baptism and couples for marriage Hank is making sure the heat stays on in the Church and repairs of the facility are taken care. When the priest does arrive, they provide amazing hospitality giving up space in their house so that I can have bed.
In Tuktoyaktuk local leaders Jean Gruben and Dorothy Loreen work along side Sr. Fay Tromblay keeping the Church alive despite not seeing a priest for weeks at time. This involves not only gathering people on Sundays and leading communion services but also putting in countless hours of work bagging food and folding clothes as they reach out to the poor of the community through the Saint Vincent de Paul Ministry.
In Tsiigehtchic Grace Blake is a constant supporter of the Church despite being busy with so many other community activities. Even when Church is not well attended she is of the mind that somebody needs to be praying for the community on Sunday, so she remains steadfast in her vocation of service for the Gospel.
One might think that with such a sense of independence the presence of a priest and the Eucharist might lose its appeal over time, but I have come to see the opposite is true. Because of their service in the Lord’s vineyard they become thirsty and hungry and they do not take for granted the opportunity when it is finally offered.
As the new Bishop of the diocese it will fall to me to make sure that we find priests to come and serve these communities. It will not be an easy task as priests in general are getting harder to find and young energetic men who are able to withstand the difficult conditions in the north are even scarcer. As important will be making sure that the lay men and woman who support the Church with their service, in the absence of a priest, are themselves supported by the church. They will need to be given opportunities to grow in their faith and will be made to know how much they are appreciated.