Retired Catholic archbishop V. James Weisgerberâs religion places heavy emphasis on the symbolism of âthrees;â for example, the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the three days between Jesusâs death and resurrection.
To follow the theme, Weisgerber himself has been a priest, a bishop, and an archbishop. One could identify him as a pastor, an administrator, and a teacher. Heâs a son, a Father, and a brother.
The concept of religion itself can also be trisected. It can be a tool, a shield, and a salve. And when tracing the paths of Weisgerberâs lifeâfrom his earliest days, growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, to being named to the Order of Canada in 2013âall three notes have been struck in his chord.
Ordained at the age of 25, Weisgerber has held numerous titles over his 50-year career. Between 1990 and 1996, he was general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB); from 1996 to 2000, he was bishop of Saskatoon; and from 2000 and 2013, Weisgerber was the archbishop of Winnipeg.
Weisgerber also holds a variety of honorary degrees, and was president of the CCCB between 2007 and 2009.
However, he tells P&I that one of his most-treasured titles is that of âbrother,â having been adopted in 2012 by a quartet of Anishinaabe elders at a Winnipeg ceremony as a tribute to his efforts to facilitate reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and Canadaâs indigenous peoples after the churchâs role in the residential school system.
Throughout his varied positions, Weisgerberâwho eschews formalities and is most comfortable being addressed as he started, Father Jimâsays he has seen religion at its best and its worst.
While religion and faith is often meant to be used as means of providing comfort, Weisgerber says heâs had his eyes opened to how it could be viewed as a weapon among those who suffered abuse in Canadaâs residential schools, a project implemented by Christian churches and the Canadian government to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture.
But instead of hiding behind it, Weisgerber dug into the word of God, and used it to bridge the gap between people like Phil Fontaineâwho was one of the first to share his story as a residential school survivor in 1990âand Pope Benedict XVI, who was then the head of the Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict held an audience in the Vatican in 2009 with Weisgerber, Fontaine, and others who were part of the small Canadian delegation. He expressed âsorrowâ over the suffering wrought by the school system.
In his own words, Weisgerber tells P&I about his 50-year relationship with the Catholic church, finding truth, facilitating reconciliation, and where he believes religion can fit into an increasingly secular Canadian society.
This interview has been edited for length, style, and clarity.
âI lived in a little village in Saskatchewan, which was completely Catholic. And there was a big church and a convent full of nuns, two of whom were my motherâs sisters. There werenât many career opportunities in those days and in that Catholic context, the best you could possibly do is to be a priest.
âI keep telling people I had very little choice in the matter; it seemed to be the right thing to do and it was certainly supported by everybody. The bigger question, of course, is why I stayed a priest a er I left there. Itâs been a wonderfully, wonderfully fulfilling career.
âItâs been a wonderful life for me.â
âIn 1979 I asked to go and serve on Indian reserves. … I asked the bishop to go because there was no one, and I was quite willing to give it a whirl. And it was absolutely wonderful, you know? Because I got to know aboriginal people on their own turf. I was welcomed onto the reserve, and I got to their ceremonies and I got to be good friends with so many of them.
âThe residential schools, at that point, were not an issue. And most of the people that came to and were involved in the church were people whose lives were pretty good. And the people who were angry and suffering were not part of the church community. But I really didnât know that.â
âIn 1990, when I went to be general secretary [at the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops] I had hardly warmed the chair when Phil Fontaine made his disclosure about having been abused, and that really set off this whole residential school debate within the country.
âThat was really a steep, steep learning curve for me because I had grown up with the myth that these were wonderful places and heroic work was being done, and I had no idea what was really going on there or why they were created.
âSo it was really difficult because being on the hot seat … you become defensive, and I knew lots of people that worked there and they seemed to be awfully nice people. So it took a long time. It was really very painful to work my way through all of that.
âBut they kept the pressure on, and we kept meeting and talking.â
âWell thereâs a way of doing things, protocol, and thereâs a way of not doing things. And I chose the way of not doing things…. I was in Rome for a regular visit with the Popeâthe presidents [of the conference of bishops] do that once a yearâand I was sitting across from Pope Benedict.
âWe had not talked about this, we had not planned anything, and I just told him the situation and that we needed the head of the church to apologize.
âThe kind of disappointing thing was the Holy Father really never got a good explanation of what the situation was … So in the end, the Pope kind of saw it as a question of institutions where sexual abuse occurred, and that was part of it, but [not the] whole larger issue.â
âThe Truth and Reconciliation Commission has really put this on the national scene. Up until then, there were people who knew enough, but it wasnât a national issue as it is today where people are all talking about it.
âItâs a whole new reality. I think it would be very good if the Holy Father would come and address this.â
âThe church is an institution that changes. I think it was [theologian] Karl Barth who said that the Christian has to face the world with a bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other.
âWe believe in e Word of God, and that persists and that will always be with usâthe gospelâbut the way we understand the gospel comes very much from whatâs happening in history, God speaks through history, too.â
âFor about the last thousand years, the church had a social role in societyâ basically being moral policemenâand everybody kind of accepted that, especially people whose lives were together, who could follow the rules, it was pretty good, … But thatâs not the role we have anymore, and thank God, because it frees the church to really preach the gospel and find new ways of living the gospel.
âThe church is not a voice that is heard. I think we, as disciples, and people of the gospel, we have something important to say, but so does history and so do other people, and we need to, somehow or another, establish a dialogue where we listen to each other.
âNobody has all of the truth and if we listen to others we learn and we get a different colour of what weâre talking about. This has always been, at least, my understanding of the way the gospel works.â
âI think we really need to be perceived as people who are listening to what the others are saying. Weâre not going to agree on certain things … but we listen.
âThe church has to changeâitâs not the bastion of knowing everything and telling everyone what to do, because people donât want that, but I think people are open to kind of questioning and listening.
âThereâs ways, there are lots of other spaces where you can welcome people, and help people, and make people feel theyâre part of thisâeven if theyâre having some difficulty. But we havenât much been an institution that was open to any doubt or questioning.â
âJesus is very clear in the gospel: if you hang on to your life, youâll lose it. And if you give your life away you will discover who you really are. You couldnât think of any better advice when weâre talking about differences and diversity and all of that. … the wonderful thing about Catholics is, being universal, it means thereâs room for everybody.
âSo, we have a special responsibility. And this is one of the problems Iâve always seen; they really didnât make any room for First Nations people. We wanted to make them like us. I think their culture is something absolutely unique, that only they can offer to the universal church. And weâll get there. We have to enable and help them and we canât do it for them but they have to rebuild and become strong and then we can have a real good dialogue.â