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Building bridges with faith in an increasingly secular society

By Charelle Evelyn      

Father Jim, former archbishop of Winnipeg, reflects on a 50-year career in the Catholic Church, facilitating reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations, and how religion can fit into a modern and diverse Canadian culture.

James Weisgerber was profiled in the book 'They Desire a Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories' which features some of the Canadians who have been awarded the Order of Canada. Photograph courtesy of ‘They Desire a Better Country’ taken by Colin Boyd Shafer
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Retired Catholic archbishop V. James Weisgerber’s religion places heavy emphasis on the symbolism of ‘threes;’ for example, the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) and the three days between Jesus’s 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. He’s 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 Weisgerber’s life—from his earliest days, growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, to being named to the Order of Canada in 2013—all three notes have been struck in his chord.

James Weisgerber was presented the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston in September 2014. Photograph courtesy of MCPL Vincent Carbonneau

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 “brother,” 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 Canada’s indigenous peoples after the church’s role in the residential school system.

Throughout his varied positions, Weisgerber—who eschews formalities and is most comfortable being addressed as he started, Father Jim—says 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 he’s had his eyes opened to how it could be viewed as a weapon among those who suffered abuse in Canada’s 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 Fontaine—who was one of the first to share his story as a residential school survivor in 1990—and 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 “sorrow” 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.

On picking his vocation:

“I 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 mother’s sisters. There weren’t many career opportunities in those days and in that Catholic context, the best you could possibly do is to be a priest.

“I 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. It’s been a wonderfully, wonderfully fulfilling career.

“It’s been a wonderful life for me.”

On his first experience working in indigenous communities:

“In 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.

“The 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 didn’t know that.”

On facing the truth:

“In 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.

“That 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.

“So 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.

“But they kept the pressure on, and we kept meeting and talking.”

On bringing it to the attention of Pope Benedict XVI:

“Well there’s a way of doing things, protocol, and there’s 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 Pope—the presidents [of the conference of bishops] do that once a year—and I was sitting across from Pope Benedict.

“We 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.

“The 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.”

On the need for a new apology from Pope Francis:

“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has really put this on the national scene. Up until then, there were people who knew enough, but it wasn’t a national issue as it is today where people are all talking about it.

“It’s a whole new reality. I think it would be very good if the Holy Father would come and address this.”

On Canadians’ shifting relationship with Christianity:

“The 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.

“We believe in e Word of God, and that persists and that will always be with us—the gospel—but the way we understand the gospel comes very much from what’s happening in history, God speaks through history, too.”

On the church’s shifting role in society:

“For about the last thousand years, the church had a social role in society— basically being moral policemen—and everybody kind of accepted that, especially people whose lives were together, who could follow the rules, it was pretty good, … But that’s 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.

“The 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.

“Nobody has all of the truth and if we listen to others we learn and we get a different colour of what we’re talking about. This has always been, at least, my understanding of the way the gospel works.”

On bringing youth, or non-practicing Christians, back to the church:

“I think we really need to be perceived as people who are listening to what the others are saying. We’re not going to agree on certain things … but we listen.

“The church has to change—it’s not the bastion of knowing everything and telling everyone what to do, because people don’t want that, but I think people are open to kind of questioning and listening.

“There’s ways, there are lots of other spaces where you can welcome people, and help people, and make people feel they’re part of this—even if they’re having some difficulty. But we haven’t much been an institution that was open to any doubt or questioning.”

On connecting with the country’s changing demographics, and moving on from mistakes of the past:

“Jesus is very clear in the gospel: if you hang on to your life, you’ll lose it. And if you give your life away you will discover who you really are. You couldn’t think of any better advice when we’re talking about differences and diversity and all of that. … the wonderful thing about Catholics is, being universal, it means there’s room for everybody.

“So, we have a special responsibility. And this is one of the problems I’ve always seen; they really didn’t 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 we’ll get there. We have to enable and help them and we can’t do it for them but they have to rebuild and become strong and then we can have a real good dialogue.”

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