Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon. Michael Swan

It’s been a full 40 years for Winnipeg archbishop

  • July 29, 2023

Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon said his 40 years of service to the Canadian Catholic Church, first as a priest and then as a bishop, “has gone by so quickly and is so full of events and people.”

So much so that he admits “one has difficulty focusing on those four decades with any accuracy because there is constant movement in ministry with different experiences and situations one right after another.”

Nevertheless, Gagnon endeavoured to provide The Catholic Register with a 40,000-foot encapsulation of his vocational career a day before he was celebrated at a special thank you Mass on July 20 at Winnipeg’s St. Mary’s Cathedral

The 75-year-old, born to Therese and George Gagnon in Lethbridge, Alta., recalled that he first entertained the possibility of being a priest when he was either attending Grade 3 or 4 in the Vancouver Catholic school system. His calling to the priesthood really took root during his 20s. He was working as a public school band teacher, possessing talent as a clarinet, flute and saxophone player.

“I had a realization that there must be more to life than what I was experiencing it in terms of fulfillment,” said Gagnon, who also credits the inspirational lives of the saints for drawing him towards the priesthood.

Gagnon completed his seminary studies at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome from 1978-1983. He was ordained a priest at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver on June 24, 1983, which is the feast day of John the Baptist.

His early ministerial assignments were as assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Parish and then Corpus Christi Parish in the Vancouver area. In 1986, he was appointed pastor of St. Jude’s in Vancouver. Especially during his early years, Gagnon enjoyed a tight-knit association with the Catholic Women’s League. He served as spiritual advisor for the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s CWL starting in 1986 and then he was named to the provincial council for B.C. and Yukon in 1992.

“I found that these were terrific women,” said Gagnon. “They were well-versed in the Church’s teachings. They were dedicated to their tasks. Very intelligent, and who were very inspirational in their dedication to the Church, the ways they went about their duties to the league and how they advocated for their causes, particularly being pro-life, in society.”

Pope John Paul II, installed as pope the year Gagnon began his education in Rome, loomed as an influential figure in his career. It was John Paul II, in 2004, who would appoint Gagnon as the 16th Bishop of the Diocese of Victoria.

“John Paul II was a very important presence and very influential,” said Gagnon. “He was a giant in a sense. He straddled the world and the Church with his presence, teachings, encyclicals, travels and example. He showed me and many others what it means to live a full human life. He was a missionary at heart, a pastor, an intellectual, an artist — a universal man in many respects.”

Gagnon hailed the late Pope Benedict as “an intellectual presence, a formidable theologian and a very humble man who was a real gift to the Church.”

As for the current shepherd, Pope Francis, Gagnon said he is “another pope suitable for the times. He gave us a real pastoral sense of the modern world and how we are to approach the question of evangelization and relationships with others.”

Pope Francis named Gagnon Archbishop of Winnipeg on Oct. 28, 2013, just seven months into his papacy.

A defining chapter of Gagnon’s leadership in Manitoba was navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic between 2020 and 2022.

“COVID was filled with pastoral challenges,” said Gagnon. “There was a lack of outreach and presence in the Church, but at the same time there was a lot of creativity and goodwill from clergy and others and keeping churches active with its contact with people. Even though those two years saw congregations often not meeting and the style of Mass was very different, I, as a bishop, stayed busy in different ways.”

Gagnon praised “the perseverance” of Manitoba’s Catholics during this tribulation, while also recognizing that a segment of churchgoers has not returned after public health restrictions lifted either because of ongoing fear of COVID-19 or becoming accustomed to remote liturgical broadcasts.

On the horizon, Gagnon said there is a lot of excitement over the upcoming Synod in Rome. Before the worldwide Synod on Synodality began in 2021, the archdiocese completed a synodal process from 2016 to 2018. The pandemic substantially delayed the implementation of the 42 recommendations that arose from the archdiocesan synod. But now progress can be made toward new initiatives that should bolster evangelization efforts, ties with Indigenous peoples, faith formation, social outreach and youth and young adult ministry.

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