Gervais oversaw demographic change

  • May 25, 2007
{mosimage}OTTAWA - Since he arrived in 1989, Ottawa Archbishop Marcel Gervais has done a deft job of maintaining unity in the bilingual diocese covering Canada’s capital where national concerns like same-sex marriage become a unique challenge.
He has managed to keep the peace between French- and English-speaking Catholics during a time of demographic change, leading to church closings in the city centre and sod-turnings for new churches in the suburbs. He has kept the church unified in a diocese where parishes run the gamut from traditionalist St. Clement’s with its Latin Mass, to the liberal St. Joseph’s with its inclusiveness and love for social justice. He has overseen the flourishing of the charismatic Companions of the Cross and recently blessed the habits of the Companions’ first nuns.

Not only that, Gervais has contributed immeasurably to a spirit of Christian unity in Ottawa. His willingness to support the 1998 Billy Graham Mission in the national capital is widely credited with helping drop denominational barriers. Inspired by the Second Vatican Council, Gervais has also been tireless in promoting interfaith dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Hindus and other religions.

In a May 9 interview, Gervais said he has tried to be “friends to them all” during his time as leader of Ottawa’s Roman Catholic Church. His resignation from the position was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI on May 14. Gervais will be succeeded by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, currently archbishop of Halifax, who will be officially installed as leader of the Ottawa archdiocese June 26.

Ottawa, however, not only has local concerns. Gervais has had to minister to Catholic prime ministers and other members of Parliament who publicly supported same-sex marriage while he led the defence of Catholic teaching on Parliament Hill. He was publicly at odds with Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin over marriage and had to take them aside over their public stance, though in the end he decided not to refuse them communion.

{sidebar id=2} “I never felt that excommunication was justified,” he said, noting he appreciated the guidance bishops received from the Holy Father, who he said appreciated the dynamics of democracy and how the positions of leaders were “so intimately tied to the party.”

“Under Chrétien and Martin it was a really difficult problem,” he said, noting that under current Prime Minister Stephen Harper it is less so. “At least he says what his church holds,” Gervais said.

Representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops before a parliamentary committee in May 2005, Gervais experienced the ridicule of a Bloc Quebecois MP who compared Catholic teaching linking procreation and marriage to something from the time of The Flintstones.

He found the marriage battle difficult. Though on a positive note, Catholics were able to speak with one voice on the issue with evangelical brothers and sisters, some of the mainline denominations, wracked with division over same-sex marriage themselves, have grown further apart from the church. “This is a painful reality,” he said.

Gervais said when he arrived everyone believed the population of the diocese was split 50/50 French- and English-speaking. But a Statistics Canada survey proved what he had begun to suspect: francophones were fewer in number. They actually comprise only 30 per cent of the population.

Gervais has been serving as chancellor of Saint Paul University as the university has added courses and programs. He’s especially pleased with the development of the conflict resolution program there.

He has also been serving as president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and NET ministries, a program for evangelizing high school age youth.

Gervais said the aspect of his job he loved most was the celebrations, especially those that gathered Catholics of various ethnic backgrounds together.

“I love it because if you bring people together and they like being together and they like celebrating that’s a sign that the church is healthy.”

What did he least like? He laughs. “I’d rather not talk about it.”

He admits he did experience frustrations. By far, the most painful aspect of being a bishop was the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church in North America. The scandal was brought home to him when he met victims of abuse at the St. Joseph’s School for Boys in Alfred, Ont. Though the abuse had taken place well before Gervais’ tenure in Ottawa, it broke his heart to see the devastation the victims had experienced.

He also found it painful to close churches in the downtown, especially historic St. Brigid’s, built by Irish immigrants who dug the Rideau Canal. St. Brigid’s parishioners sued the archdiocese over the decision and lost.

Gervais plans to keep a two-room apartment on the third floor of the archbishop’s house in Ottawa, but intends to spend most of his time at a cottage he has built on a small Quebec lake. His brother built a cottage next door, so his family has “a little community there.”

“I’m anxious to retire,” he said.

As for his future plans? He may return to writing. But now he needs a hiatus. He said an old nun, a “wise old lady,” told him, “Bishop, don’t look for work. Work will find you.”

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