Newly ordained Bishop Christian Riesbeck, who will serve the Archdiocese of Ottawa, signals a coming of age for the Companions of the Cross. The order, founded by Fr. Bob Bedard, is just short of 30 years in existence and Riesbeck is the first member called to the episcopacy Photo courtesy of the Companions of the Cross

Companions of the Cross make history

  • March 20, 2014

OTTAWA - The March 19 episcopal ordination of Ottawa Auxiliary Bishop Christian Riesbeck marks a “coming of age” of the Companions of the Cross, an order that is not yet three decades old, says the order’s general superior.

“This is a first for us, to have a bishop named from among our number,” said Fr. Scott McCaig,the Companion’sGeneral Superior. “We’re getting a little older; we’ve come of age, so to speak.”

Fr. Bob Bedard, an Ottawa priest, founded the Companions in 1985 out of what had initially been a prayer group and support group for seminarians and priests that began informally in 1984.

“His main thing was to support seminarians in their formation and support priests in their priesthood by community life,” said Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, who invited the Companions to Halifax when he was archbishop there.

Bedard stressed a model of companionship that sees priests serving several parishes living in community in one place, Prendergast said.

Since those small beginnings, the Companions have been formally established as a Society of Apostolic Life in 2003 and now Companions serve in Ottawa, Halifax, Toronto, Houston and Detroit with 10 parishes, three university chaplaincies, 37 priests, one deacon and 14 seminarians.

“The Companions of the Cross are a blessing to our archdiocese and, I believe, to the other dioceses where they are located,” said Prendergast, who is also the Companions’ Episcopal Moderator.

Now that Riesbeck is in episcopal ministry, his relationship to his order will change. Prendergast said the new bishop’s relationship to the Companions will be similar to his with his Jesuit order after he was named a bishop. He will continue to support his community, and like Prendergast, he will have his salary go to his community. But he will be unable to hold office in the order, or vote, the archbishop said.

McCaig noted once Riesbeck, 44, was named a bishop, “it becomes his full time job,” and “Rome releases bishops from any obligations to the constitution and rules of a community.”

“He’s obviously not under obedience to members of the community, or under residency obligations or anything that would interfere,” he said.

In this respect, coming of age can also be challenging, McCaig admits.

“It’s tough to lose a really good man, a really good priest like Bishop Christian.” He also loses him as Assistant General Superior.

“I knew when I sent him for further studies (in canon law) that definitely he was going to be a candidate for the episcopacy,” said McCaig. “We all saw it coming. The only surprise was it happened so quickly. He’s just that quality of an individual that it really didn’t surprise anyone.”

After having lived with Riesbeck “for numerous years as a close friend and a brother,” McCaig knows “there’s a necessary distance that has to happen now.”

“He’s no longer just our man; he’s not a special interest bishop, but an auxiliary bishop for the diocese,” he said. “We do have to let go of him, for the wider ministry. There’s a certain sadness in that though we have discussed his desire to remain close to the Companions’ ministry.

“We don’t exist for ourselves, we exist to serve the Church and to serve the renewal of the Church,” McCaig said. “If Jesus through His Church asks for one of our men to serve in this capacity we’re glad to be able to do it.”

Prendergast suspects Riesbeck will miss his community, as he misses his own Jesuit community, but he works at seeing them regularly, and he imagines Riesbeck will do the same.

Riesbeck not only exemplifies the charism of his order and Fr. Bedard in his passion for evangelization, but he represents the kind of bishop Pope Francis has said he is looking for, McCaig said.

“This is not a man who is trying to climb a ladder. He does not have that vice of clericalism,“ said McCaig. “He’s a very genuine man of God who wants to serve the people of God, who probably would rather not have been a bishop but answered the call because of the thought it was the call of the Church and call of God. He’d rather not be in the spotlight.”

McCaig said Riesbeck reflected the founder’s charism in his choice of Evangelii Gaudium, the “Joy of the Gospel,” as his episcopal motto, inspired both by Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation as well as his religious community’s heritage and charism.

McCaig said Bedard grasped what Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi stressed about evangelization being “a priority in the life of the Church” in a way that enfolded those principles into the Companions’ charism, he said. Since those days, the Church universal has embraced evangelization in a new way and it is “no longer a dirty word or suspected of not being Catholic.”

Riesbeck, who had the opportunity of living in community with Bedard while discerning his priestly vocation, “brings the charism and formation of Fr. Bob” at a time when the Church is “working towards the New Evangelization.”

“He will be a blessing for those he serves in his episcopal ministry,” McCaig said.

Prendergast suspects the Companions will greet having a new bishop from their order in a similar way the Jesuits did to his ordination, with a mixture of surprise, delight “one of their members has been called to this service,” disappointment “at losing one of their gifted leaders” and “joy this fledgling group has received ecclesial approbation of sorts in that one of their priests has been called to be a bishop.”

“Wouldn’t Fr. Bedard be proud,” the archbishop said.

The Archdiocese of Ottawa is also rejoicing in the new bishop, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1996. He noted Riesbeck’s parents and his two sisters live in the archdiocese.
In June, Riesbeck will have the opportunity to ordain “one of his own brother Companions,” Bryan Sabourin, to the priesthood, McCaig said.

“God has been very good to us. We accepted eight new men in fall of 2013, seven are still with us in first-year formation,” McCaig said. “We look to have a fairly full class of about the same number coming in this fall as well.”

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