Image: Ordination of Bishop Jon (Photo by Brent Currie)
Today’s memorial is particular to the liturgical calendar of the Church in Canada, as we commemorate one of its very first bishops. In 1658, Francoise de Laval was appointed to what was then New France, now known as Quebec, to bring some stability to the missionary territory of the burgeoning Church.
Conditions at the time must have been quite formidable with vast distances to cover between missions and very few priests to meet the increasing demand for the Sacraments. It is said that on the day he arrived after a long voyage across the Atlantic, the new Bishop immediately went to work Baptizing the waiting converts and anointing the sick.
Only 34 years old when he was made Bishop, Francois had many years to develop his diocese and he began quickly by building the first seminary on Canadian soil, in order to build up the priesthood required to serve the growing nation.
Saint Francois is the patron saint of Canadian Bishops and as I reflect on his life, I can see some parallels to life as a bishop here in the Mackenzie-Fort Smith diocese. Certainly, times have changed, and things are much easier now then they were 300 years ago, yet the vast distances of the north are still a challenge and our shortage of priests and lay pastoral ministers remains an obstacle to effective pastoral ministry. Many of the social issues also remain the same as Francois’ time was devoted to the cares of both; new immigrants who were facing the loneliness and difficulties of starting fresh in a new land as well as the indigenous peoples who were facing great changes in the face of the development brought by the settlers.
What it means to be a bishop also has not changed. Often seen simply as administrators or disciplinarians, the true purpose of a bishop is laid out in our readings for today. First and foremost, they are called to be witnesses and to share the word of God with passion and conviction. The letter of Timothy writes that the one who is to lead the people must be consistent in sharing the word of God whether it is popular or unpopular and to do so with utmost patience.
In the Gospel we once again find John using the metaphor of the Good Shepherd and this is perhaps the most apt description of one who is called to be a leader of people in the ways of faith. More than a hired hand, a Bishop is called to service to the point of laying down his life for the ones he serves, not to run away and hide at the first hint of trouble. He must be familiar with his people. As Pope Francis famously quipped about pastoral leaders, “they must have the smell of the sheep on them”.
Before I was made a bishop the only thought that I ever gave to the role was that it must be burdensome and fraught with difficulties. My impression now, after two years on the job is that it is a privilege and a joy. The daily challenges certainly are there but they are more than compensated for by God’s Grace and the gift of so many encounters with the lives of people who find comfort and strength in their faith.
Pray for your Bishop and all who serve the Church. Remember that by our baptism we are all called to the ministry of priesthood and to give witness to the Gospel with our lives. May the life of Saint Francois de Laval inspire us and may he intercede for us and bring the needs of our diocese before God.