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Northern bishops face immense challenges

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — A six Northern Canadian dioceses prepare for a transition from missionary to normal dioceses, their bishops say they face immense financial, social and personnel challenges.

The dioceses of Whitehorse; Mackenzie – Fort Smith; Churchill – Hudson Bay; Moosonee; Grouard – McLennan; and Keewatin – Le Pas are presently under the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. But a process of consultation is underway to see the dioceses move to normal or “common law” status under the Congregation for Bishops. Because they are not self-supporting, the change would require more direct help from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The conversation has been going on for a couple of years, initiated by the Congregation, that maybe it’s best for Canada to be taking responsibility for these dioceses,” said the new CCCB president Hamilton Bishop Douglas Crosby. “The dioceses agreed to that, with the hope that, and desire that the Canadian dioceses in the south would assist not only with financial support but with personnel as well.”

During the recent CCCB plenary in Cornwall, Ont., Sept. 14 - 18, two northern bishops told their stories, “sensitizing the bishops to the real situation in the North and the need for this kind of support,” Crosby said.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain and MacKenzie-Fort Smith Bishop Mark Hagemoen gave slide presentations Sept. 14, illustrating the immense joys of ministering in the North, as well as the huge challenges.

Travel costs within a diocese can be exorbitant — a return flight from Yellowknife to Cambridge costs $2,230; food costs are double or triple what they are elsewhere in Canada; salaries for priests, religious and lay staff “continue to rise and outpace income,” the bishops reported.

“Despite the challenges, there is great beauty and blessing in working with the people; the simplicity, and faith are inspiring,” Chatlain said.

“We are asking for help,” he said. “We cannot do it by ourselves.”

Hagemoen reported on the challenges of maintaining buildings in the North due to “climate shift and limited resources,” though the people there “want their buildings maintained” because “they are extremely important to them.”

The social difficulties in the North are also immense. “The suicide rate among Aboriginal young men is a huge problem in the North,” he said. He also spoke of a breakdown among generations, as younger people do not learn the language of the elders and are, like their southern counterparts, becoming more interested in interacting with electronic screens than with the older generations.

The northern dioceses also face difficulties in staffing its far-flung mission parishes, most of which are not self-supporting. Chatlain urged bishops to consider encouraging priests to come to the North to help out during Christmas or Easter, to experience the beauty of worship among the peoples there.

He suggested the possibility of southern dioceses developing “twinning relationships” with northern dioceses.

“The decision to be transferred to the ‘common law’ of the church will of course eventually be decided by the pope,” said outgoing assistant general secretary Bede Hubbard in an email. “Those being consulted in this process are the six mission dioceses in the North, the CCCB, and the Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, with both the Congregation for Evangelization and the Congregation for Bishops responsible for bringing the recommendation eventually to the Holy Father.”

Hubbard said the Congregation for Evangelization has been remitting back to Canada a portion of the monies Canada collects for missions, an amount of about $55,000 per diocese that the CCCB would have to make up, “not a huge amount in terms of expenses for travel and living in the North, but still helpful.”

The Congregation would like to send all the money from the Mission Sunday Collection to missionary dioceses in the Global South, he said. “At the same time, bishops in southern Canada have indicated that it could be time for the church in Canada to take care of its own mission territories, but for that to happen it would be better if the six mission dioceses in the North were part of the ‘common law’ for dioceses in general.”

He pointed out both the bishops and the Congregation “recognize that while the six mission dioceses in Canada’s North are not fully self-sufficient, they are not in the same situation as the mission dioceses in the Global South.”

The northern dioceses receive a great deal of help from Catholic Missions in Canada and its French-language counterpart Missions chez nous.

“Over the coming months and years, the CCCB will be working with both organizations, as well as other Canadian Catholic organizations, to explore how best to assist the church in the North,” Hubbard said.

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