EDMONTON (CCN) — Call Basilian Father Bob Kasun a most reluctant bishop.
“I find this appointment shocking and really hard to handle,” he said in a June 17 interview.
When he started receiving mysterious phone messages from Ottawa one Friday afternoon, leaving a woman’s first name and a number to call, he deleted them from his phone. Maybe it was a telephone solicitor or some sort of scam.
Besides, the policy at Edmonton’s inner-city St. Alphonsus Parish is that callers leave their full name and a reason for their call. In this case, the calls became more persistent, but no more informative. Eventually, the woman from Ottawa told the parish secretary that Father Bob should call “Luigi” at the Ottawa number.
It took until the following Tuesday or Wednesday evening — Kasun can’t remember for sure — that he finally got on the line with Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, the apostolic nuncio.
“Luigi” said Pope Francis had appointed him auxiliary bishop of Toronto and asked if he would accept the appointment.
“I was floored, and I didn’t know what to say.”
However, the nuncio “was really good” and suggested Kasun take some time to reflect and consult with whomever he need to talk to.
So he did. A couple of days later, he called Bonazzi and explainied at length why he was declining the appointment. The nuncio listened, and then asked Kasun to put his reasons in writing and send them along.
Among those reasons were that he is 64, doesn’t have the energy he used to have, is seriously diabetic and likely will have to retire before the mandatory age of 75.
“But that didn’t seem to bother whoever he was talking to.”
A week later, the nuncio phoned back and announced, “The appointment is confirmed.”
So, on June 17, the world was told — Rev. Bob Kasun, teacher, pastor and friend of Edmonton’s inner-city poor and immigrants — will don the bishop’s silks and serve as one of four auxiliaries to Cardinal Thomas Collins. Kasun says his ordination will take place in early to mid-September, likely in Edmonton.
Pope Francis has repeatedly said the church’s pastors should have “the smell of their sheep.” In this case, he has just appointed a bishop who has that smell.
Still mystified by his appointment, Kasun says, “I’ve never in my life done anything extraordinary. I’m just an ordinary simple pastor.”
The bishop-to-be takes solace from the fact he will be responsible for the Toronto archdiocese’s central zone, an area with a high percentage of immigrants and people on low incomes.
It’s also an area of Toronto where Kasun lived for 12 years while doing his studies, being formed for the Basilian priesthood and later teaching high school students.
In fact, when the interview with this reporter began, what Kasun most wanted to talk about was not his appointment as bishop, but the English as a second language programs for temporary foreign workers run out of St. Alphonsus Church.
The parish runs two sets of 10-week beginner, intermediate and advanced level English classes twice a year for foreign workers. People come from all over the city and beyond to take the popular classes. The teachers were mainly parishioners.
Ten Saturday mornings is not enough time to get a handle on a new language, but many of the workers had learned English in their homelands.
Mostly, the classes are an effort at “trying to build a rapport.” They also give the workers, mostly young adults, an opportunity to discuss the ostracism and prejudice they experience from some Canadians.
“They were so appreciative of any little thing you would do.”
The ESL program is the most successful of the programs Kasun and other Basilians have set up since they assumed responsibility for St. Alphonsus and St. Clare’s parishes in 2009. The parish has run an annual neighbourhood street barbecue, a collective kitchen for women and various forms of outreach to Inner City Housing Society residences.
As to their success, Kasun is frank: “None of them have worked out too well. It’s hard to find ministries that ordinary people in the pews can do with small numbers of volunteers and no money.”
What has been successful are the various drives for food, clothing and household goods run in St. Alphonsus and St. Clare for other agencies. “The parishioners always responded really well,” he said. “Whenever I asked the stewardship committee for something, it was there in abundance.”
The Basilians worked with parishioners to redefine the parishes’ mission to be one of outreach in the inner city and even around the world. “Otherwise, there might not be a reason for St. Alphonsus to exist.”
Kasun’s story began in the town of Cudworth, Sask. (current pop: 770), northeast of Saskatoon, where his father served as the town postmaster and overseer of a region for Canada Post. His dad’s father was a farmer and his maternal grandfather owned a hardware store. He has a sister who today lives in Saskatoon.
The local priests were Benedictines from the abbey in Muenster, but when Kasun went to university in Saskatoon he got to know the Basilians who ran St. Thomas More College.
For young Catholics from small towns, enrolling and living at St. Thomas More was automatic. It provided social activities, a centre of Catholic life and a home away from home.
While in elementary school, Kasun gave some thought to becoming a priest. However, the call dissipated only to return in his last year of high school and his first two years of university. After earning his BA in English, he applied to join the Basilians, was accepted and sent to Toronto for further studies.
Why the Basilians? “I’m still not able to answer that question fully,” he says. What he did find in the order was a strong community life and joy-filled priests. He was also attracted to the variety of work the Basilians do, including both teaching and pastoral work.
In Toronto, he racked up three more university degrees, before being ordained a priest in 1978. He taught for a year each at schools in Indiana, Rochester, N.Y., and Sudbury, Ont.
His main teaching stint was at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto before heading back west to teach at St. Francis High School in Calgary.
In Calgary, he got his first taste of parish work at St. Pius X and St. Thomas More parishes while serving on the Basilians’ general council and the national executive of the Canadian Religious Conference.
After 21 years in Calgary, he came to Edmonton seven years ago when the Basilians centralized their Western Canadian ministries in the Alberta capital. They asked Archbishop Richard Smith for an inner-city parish and, after examining several, they settled on St. Al’s and St. Clare.
In a statement, Smith said he is delighted with Kasun’s appointment.
“In the service of his people, Father Kasun has demonstrated a true pastor’s heart, especially for the needy and neglected,” Smith said. “The Archdiocese of Toronto is blessed to receive the many gifts that he will bring to the exercise of his episcopal ministry.”
In the interview, Kasun said he looks forward to returning to Toronto where he had “some very happy years.”
However, when he spoke to the congregation at St. Alphonsus on Sunday, June 19, his reticence again came to the fore. “I don’t really want the job; I don’t want to go. I tried everything to get out of it. I would have much preferred to stay here.”
Still, it was his preparation for his homily that day on Jesus’ words — “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9.23) — that convinced him he had to move on.
“Well, suddenly, there’s a whole new meaning to that and it’s hard because I’m called in colloquial language, to put my money where my mouth is,” he said in the interview.
Kasun’s reluctance to take up his cross is real, but he will do it in faith. And no doubt when he begins his new ministry, he will exude the same joy that he saw in those Basilians in Saskatoon so many years ago.