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Friendship is a ‘wonderful way’ to evangelize: Kasun

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register


NEW BISHOP — Toronto will welcome its newest bishop, Bishop Robert Kasun, with an Oct. 6 mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral followed by a luncheon. At some point during the introductions, Toronto Catholics are bound to learn they haven’t just had another bishop bestowed on them — but they have also gained a friend, writes Michael Swan.(Photo by Michael Swan)

TORONTO (CCN) — Bishop Robert Kasun has been to Rome to buy a pectoral cross, mitre, ring — all the gear you need to be a bishop. But Kasun, ordained on Sept. 12 in Edmonton to serve as auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Toronto, didn’t really have time — and he was a bit put off by the prices — to pick up a new crozier.

There are cheap bishops’ staffs, but they can be a problem. The wooden ones break and the metal ones bend. It detracts somewhat from the dignity of any liturgy when the bishop has to stop and straighten out his crozier. One of the older priests in Toronto’s Basilian community suggested Kasun might find what he was looking for in the Basilian archives.

Indeed, he found a treasure. Kasun now sports the crozier of Toronto Archbishop Denis T. O’Connor, who led Toronto Catholics from 1899 to 1908.

With an image of St. Basil carved into the crook, Kasun’s used crozier is a link back to his own roots as a Basilian priest and a link forward to his new post as one of the four auxiliary bishops who help Cardinal Thomas Collins shepherd one of the world’s most diverse Catholic dioceses.

Kasun, who was picked to become a bishop in June by Pope Francis, will guide the archdiocese’s central zone, with its mix of poor and rich parishes and a broad range of Catholics from every part of the world.

Toronto will welcome its newest bishop with an Oct. 6 mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral followed by a luncheon. At some point during the introductions, Toronto Catholics are bound to learn they haven’t just had another bishop bestowed on them — but they have also gained a friend.

Basilian Father Don McLeod thinks of Kasun as “a very open, caring, compassionate man.” Those sound like good qualities for a bishop, but McLeod goes further. Kasun’s principal virtue is his capacity for friendship, said McLeod.

“He’s a very, very good and loyal friend,” said the St. Joseph’s College theology professor who was ordained the same year as Kasun, 1978. “Certainly he’s been that to many for many, many years. When I say a good friend, I mean Bob is a man who looks at each person and tries to see in each person, honestly, the image of Christ. He goes from there.”

If not every Catholic immediately makes the leap between the office of bishop and friendship (the Greek word Episcopos, from which we get the English bishop, means overseer), then they haven’t really paid attention to Pope Francis.

“Francis proclaimed a jubilee of mercy and Bob, in my experience of him, especially in his roles as pastor of St. Thomas More in Calgary and at St. Alphonsus-St. Clare in Edmonton, he epitomized what Pope Francis means by mercy,” said McLeod.

Kasun is too modest to lay claim to McLeod’s high praise. But friendship is something he values.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to evangelize, by offering friendship,” he said.

Friendship, Kasun believes, is built on trust, and trust on honesty.

“If people don’t trust the leader, then what kind of a leader is he? You see that in politics all the time,” he said.

As a parish pastor, a member of the Basilian general council, a high school teacher, vocation director for the Basilian Fathers, Kasun has through his 38 years of priesthood been called to exercise different kinds of leadership in many roles. He’s learned that the honesty we should expect from a good friend is also necessary in leadership.

“Sometimes we try to be gentlemanly and skirt around issues because we don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings,” he said. “But in the long run, that will backfire. You can lose a friend because that person to whom you are speaking probably doesn’t believe you. I’ve learned that in any kind of issue, whenever there’s a problem, you have to be honest.”

In the 1990s, as the pastor of a comfortable, middle-class parish in northwest Calgary, Kasun went to Bishop Fred Henry and asked for a poorer parish, somewhere where cultures clash, immigrants and refugees adjust and the welfare cheques perk up the neighbourhood. Henry was only too happy to oblige.

Kasun, however, does not take credit for any decision to seek out the poor of the city.

“The Basilian Fathers made that decision,” he insists.

What he means is that the Basilian Fathers had begun to describe their charism — their fundamental, motivating purpose — in terms of service to the poor and marginalized. If that is indeed the Basilian charism, then Basilians should re-examine their parish commitments, Kasun reasoned.

For Kasun, leadership isn’t coming up with brilliant ideas that sweep across the whole community. It’s taking that next careful step. It’s grounded in what’s gone before. It requires constant, open communication.

“What was particularly fascinating was when I announced it to the parish where I had been serving for 11 years that we were moving . . . a lot of people really supported that,” he said. “Not that they wanted to get rid of us, by any means. But they could see what the purpose was. We were seeking out a certain population of the Catholic Christian community that we thought could benefit from our service. It was a source of pride for the parishioners.”

Change — change of pastors, change of mass times, change in music, etc. — is rarely a moment of calm, quiet, prayerful acceptance among parishioners. But Kasun figured out early on that even the hard decisions are easier if everyone knows what’s going on.

In Edmonton he took over a pair of parishes at the moment they were being twinned under a new pastoral plan.

“I get into the pulpit and speaking about this twinning project. I notice this stunned look on the faces of the parishioners,” he recalled.

It turned out that nobody had told these parishioners their parish was going to be twinned. There had been some vague talk a couple years before about a general necessity to rationalize and twin parishes, but they had no idea it was about to happen. “I was shocked. The two previous pastors hadn’t said a word.”

The wall of silence, assumptions about who needs to know and the exclusion of those who don’t, are not how Kasun thinks the church should be led.

“With everything we are supposed to have learned in the church about communicating effectively and honestly and consulting and collaborating — sometimes, for whatever reason, in spite of goodwill, it does break down,” he said.

Whether repairing damage or launching new plans, Kasun’s formula is always the same: talk, listen, be honest.

Despite the years he spent teaching at St. Michael’s College School and his years spent studying theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, Kasun recognizes he’s coming to a bigger and more diverse city where there are no easy assumptions about a common culture.

“Of course we’re trying to create communities of care and concern for one another. But the obstacles, as you know, are real,” he said. “Chiefly, it’s the attitudes of people. In spite of good efforts of city fathers or of various religious denominations, it can be awfully difficult to crack attitudes.”

With more than 300,000 Muslims, 100,000 Jews, thousands of Hindus, Buddhists and others, Toronto represents a vast experiment in creating an urban culture.

“I’m hoping the Holy Spirit will breathe something into someone’s ear and that that person will hear,” Kasun said.

There’s no easy formula. But Kasun spent five weeks this summer on retreat at a Benedictine convent tucked into a largely Muslim section of London, England. A prairie boy born in 1951 in Cudworth, Sask., he found himself walking busy streets surrounded by women in hijabs covering their hair and many of them in niqabs covering their faces. It made him uncomfortable and made him think about why he was uncomfortable.

“That challenged me to reflect a whole lot,” he said.

He noticed the strangeness of traditional Muslim dress, but he also noticed the closeness and joy of Muslim families.

“It was really beautiful because you would see at night, even late at night, families with mom and dad, the kids all in tow, quite a few of them, and they are all going out to a restaurant or to a café and it was beautiful,” he said. “Those are things where you say, ‘I want to remember those.’ ”

The prospect of being a bishop and confirming young Catholics brings out the educator in Kasun.

“Actually, I am looking forward to speaking to, preaching to, kids of that age — and to their parents,” he said.

But again he’s aware of how his mid-century upbringing in the Abbacy of Muenster is a world or two removed from the experience of 13-year-olds in Toronto today.

“Their upbringing, the world in which they live, is so different from the world in which I lived. It’s just so radically different,” he said. “You can’t presume anything religiously about the youth. But I think there is significant interest in spiritual matters, even though the kids might not express it openly. I think they’re looking for something. There is great interest in youth today looking for some greater meaning.”

If friendship requires trust and honesty, it also requires a sort of curiosity — an interest in other people.

“Father Kasun has demonstrated a true pastor’s heart, especially for the needy and neglected,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said by way of goodbye. “The Archdiocese of Toronto is blessed to receive the many gifts that he will bring.”

Those many gifts include a kind of imagination, the ability to see what we could be, said Kasun’s old seminary classmate, McLeod.

“Bob has that vision.”

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