Prendergast named archbishop of Ottawa

  • May 22, 2007
{mosimage}One of Canada’s most outspoken Catholic bishops is going to the nation’s capital, where legislators, judges, policy makers and media will be counted among his flock.

Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., 63, to replace Archbishop Marcel Gervais as head of the archdiocese of Ottawa May 14. Prendergast will take possession of Ottawa’s cathedral in late June or early July. Gervais submitted his resignation when he turned 75 last September, as required by canon law.

In his nine years as archbishop of Halifax, Prendergast has been a colourful figure on the public stage — admonishing the CBC for a blasphemous sitcom, urging Catholics to go out and see any movie other than The Da Vinci Code and telling Parliament to rethink its redefinition of civil marriage to include gay couples.

Prendergast arrived in Ottawa May 14 with a seminarian who plans to join the Oblates in tow, typical of a bishop who has worked hard at engaging youth and encouraging vocations.

“Like every diocese, his problem (in Ottawa) is going to be to find enough priests to be able to preach the Gospel,” said Jesuit Father Bill Ryan, a long-time Ottawa observer.

Turning around a downward trend in vocations requires the church to talk to young people about their lives in terms of vocation, Prendergast said.

“There is certainly a responsiveness in the young people in Halifax to see their life as a vocation — whether it’s to marriage, or the single state, or to consecrated life, or the priesthood,” he said. “If we affirm all the vocations, then we will have all the vocations we need. If people do not see their situation in life as a vocation, as a call, then we shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have good marriages, and shouldn’t be surprised if we don’t have young men responding to the priesthood.”

A shortage of French-speaking priests to serve about 20 per cent of Ottawa’s parishes has been met in recent years by men from the French-speaking countries of Africa. The two pontifical universities in Ottawa, the Dominican University College and Saint Paul University, have seen few of their graduates ordained in recent years.

As archbishop to about 400,000 Catholics in Ottawa, with more than 300 priests, 80 permanent deacons and nearly 900 religious sisters and brothers spread over 111 parishes and missions, Prendergast isn’t coming to hector politicians, second guess judges and berate the media.

“If we’re going to get into the role of the church in the life of the politician, then I need to listen as well as share what the church is teaching,” the Jesuit Scripture scholar told The Catholic Register.

Last September Prendergast wrote a pastoral letter to the people of Halifax urging them to campaign for Parliament to reverse its decision to include gay couples in the definition of marriage. That kind of engagement with politics is always part of the job for an archbishop in Ottawa, said Ryan.

Prendergast said his approach to members of Parliament will be to invite dialogue.

“I’ve tried to meet with members of Parliament and shared with them courteously. We don’t always see eye to eye,” he said. “Some of them are not Catholics, so I have to respect that. But they respect the church’s insights, and the church’s defence of life and quest for justice and so on. Sometimes they don’t see the consequences that we do, but that’s a learning thing.”

Prendergast claimed to be amused by attempts to decide whether he is a conservative or progressive on church matters.

“A bishop has to be a conservative of the tradition. And a bishop has to be open to innovation. How do you do the two things? That’s the tightrope that we walk all the time,” he said.

Along with the shortage of priests in Ottawa comes local battles over parish closures. When Gervais closed the 117-year-old St. Brigid’s parish a year ago it led to a court challenge. Prendergast went through a similar battle over closing St. Joseph’s, a pre-Confederation church on the Halifax peninsula. Bishops have to make difficult decisions to put churches where the people are, he said.

“Of course some people are never going to be pleased with a solution that’s not their own, but we have to move on and we have to do the best that we can,” Prendergast said. “We’re called to address the issues of the 21st century, not the ones of earlier generations.”

As bishop of one of Canada’s most bilingual cities, the colloquial French Prendergast learned on the streets of Montreal as a youth in the 1950s will serve him well, said Ottawa Msgr. Peter Schonenbach, pastor of St. Joseph’s parish.

“We’re better off having a very intelligent English bishop who speaks good French than having a francophone bishop that always feels he musn’t show any favouritism,” Schonenbach said. “I think the French sector will get a fair shake from him.”




Archbishop’s bio


A few highlights from Archbishop Terrence Prendergast’s life in the church:

  • The 63-year-old archbishop was born and raised in Montreal and entered the Jesuit novitiate out of high school in 1961.

  • On his way to being ordained a priest in 1972, Prendergast earned a Bachelor of Arts from Fordham University in Brooklyn, New York, plus a Master of Divinity, Doctor of Theology, and Licentiate in Theology from Regis College of the Toronto School of Theology.

  • His career as a Scripture scholar and academic administrator has included teaching at the Atlantic School of Theology from 1975 to 1981, rector of Regis College 1981-87, Regis’s dean of theology 1991-94, Daniel Hannin Professor at Campion College of the University of Regina 1988-89, executive secretary of the Vatican’s apostolic visitation to English Canada’s seminaries 1992-94, Catholic Biblical Association of America visiting professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem in 1994-95.

  • For 10 years he contributed weekly Sunday Scripture columns to The Catholic Register.

  • The academic career faded when he was made auxiliary bishop of Toronto in 1995.

  • He became the eleventh Archbishop of Halifax June 30, 1998 and had duties as apostolic administrator of Yarmouth added in 2002.

  • He is a member of Vox Clara, the advisory body to the Congregation for Divine Worship on English translation of the Roman Missal.

  • He has been prominent in the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as a director of the Catholic Office for Life and the Family and the Theology Commission.


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