Archbishop Murray Chatlain

Challenges loom for north with status change

By 
  • September 26, 2015

OTTAWA - Six northern Canadian dioceses face immense financial, social and personnel challenges that could become more pronounced due to a looming change in status from missionary to normal dioceses, according to their bishops.

The six dioceses, which cover a vast swath of territory across Canada’s Arctic and the far north of Ontario and the western provinces, currently fall under the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. That entitles each diocese to annual funding of $55,000.

But a process is underway to have the status of these dioceses changed to “common law” under the Congregation for Bishops. That change would mean these dioceses would require additional 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 new CCCB president Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton. “The dioceses agreed to that, with the hope and desire that the Canadian dioceses in the south would assist not only with financial support but with personnel as well.”

The affected dioceses are: Whitehorse, Mackenzie-Fort Smith, Churchill-Hudson Bay, Moosonee, Grouard-McLennan and Keewatin-Le Pas.

“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 e-mail.

“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 Vatican’s 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. He called that “not a huge amount in terms of expenses for travel and living in the north, but still helpful.”

The Vatican would like to send all the money from the Mission Sunday Collection to missionary dioceses in the global south, he said.

He pointed out both the bishops and the Vatican “recognize that while the six mission dioceses in Canada’s north are not fully selfsufficient, they are not in the same situation as the mission dioceses in the Global South.”

“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.”

During the recent CCCB plenary in Cornwall, Ont., two northern bishops spoke about the issue, “sensitizing the bishops to the real situation in the north and the need for this kind of support,” Crosby said.

Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain and MacKenzie- Fort Smith Bishop Mark Hagemoen gave slide presentations to illustrate the challenges of ministering in the north. Travel costs within a diocese can be exorbitant.

A return flight from Yellowknife to Cambridge is $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.” Maintaining buildings in the north due to “climate shift and limited resources” is also challenging, Hagemoen reported. Additionally, there are significant social issues that require pastoral care.

“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.

Northern dioceses also face difficulties in staffing far-flung mission parishes. Chatlain urged bishops to encourage priests to come north to help out during Christmas or Easter and to experience the beauty of worship among the peoples there. He raised the possibility of southern dioceses developing “twinning relationships” with northern dioceses.

The northern dioceses currently receive a great deal of financial support 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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