Outgoing Calgary Bishop Fred Henry never failed to speak the truth of Catholic teaching. Register file photo

Opinion: Bishop Henry brought loud and clear voice to our faith

  • January 12, 2017

I have crossed paths with Bishop Frederick Henry for nearly 20 years on visits to my family in Calgary. He has always been kind to me, made me welcome in his diocese and I have enjoyed the occasions we have had time to talk.

That all being said, when his retirement was announced in the early days of the new year, I learned something about the bishop that I didn’t know.

“I have been on the anti-inflammatory drug Naproxen for 37 years and Humera, a new biologic self–injected drug, for about five and a half years which has brought some pain relief,” wrote Bishop Henry to Pope Francis in February 2016, detailing his lifetime of coping with an auto-immune form of arthritis.

“However, I live with severe chronic pain and stiffness of the spine affecting both posture and daily activity. My condition cannot be reversed. I have jokingly said that ‘pain is my best friend, we are always together’ but it is wearing me out and limiting my ministry. I believe that someone younger with more energy, stamina and pastoral vision should take over the role of Ordinary for the Diocese of Calgary. The needs of this ever-expanding diocese are enormous. I have given it my best and I am past my ‘best due date’ — it is time to retire.”

The Holy Father accepted the “early” retirement and appointed Bishop William McGrattan of Peterborough as Henry’s successor. Only Catholic bishops retiring a few months shy of their 74th birthday are considered as going early!

Reading Henry’s letter to the Holy Father, there can only be wonder that Henry served so long and so generously without complaint.

The day before the news from Calgary, I had a day’s worth of pain, likely due to a GI tract virus. I remarked to a friend that such a passing encounter with modest pain leads to great admiration for those who heroically suffer chronic and severe pain.

Those for whom pain is a stranger live in a different world from those for whom pain is a constant companion. The impressive witness of Bishop Henry likely means that his world is more real; the drama of suffering calls forth greater virtue.

I admire Bishop Henry for more than his personal virtue. His was a voice clear, challenging and Catholic.

Bishop Henry’s trumpet blasts never sounded uncertain. He spoke the truth of Catholic teaching in a culture where speaking clearly on anything at all — let alone the Christian tradition — is often considered impolite, even offensive.

Bishop Henry was clear and confident, both on matters of Catholic doctrine and on those matters where different prudential judgments were permissible. I appreciated the latter as much as the former.

Henry was often in the progressive camp on issues of income equality, homelessness, poverty, labour, the environment and gambling. He demonstrated that Catholic orthodoxy was compatible with centre-left politics, something often forgotten in an age when the social gospel tradition has been almost entirely abandoned by the political left in favour of lifestyle libertinism. It confused those observers who thought that being pro-life somehow must go together with being against redistributive social policy. Bishop Henry was not subject to such confusions, and would happily provide clarity to any who asked — and even to those who didn’t.

He respected the opinions of others, too. He was a great supporter of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. When I would criticize it for being the sort of worldly NGO that Pope Francis warned Catholic agencies not to be, I would hear, bluntly, from Bishop Henry. I appreciated that.

Bishop Henry was frequently attacked, sometimes in personal terms, by those who would prefer religion to be limited to the margins of our common life. They are not without power or influence, and are often exasperated by pastors who refuse to cooperate in their own marginalization. Bishop Henry refused to cooperate. That exasperated some. It inspired his flock.

Bishop Henry had to deal on occasion with attempts by the state to restrict his religious liberty. Those will only increase in the years ahead. More common though, is the growing culture of contempt for religious believers, especially those who are clear and confident in their public interventions.

Bishop Henry’s ministry was a compelling model — not the only model, to be sure, but a compelling one — of how to resist and proclaim the Gospel. It will be missed.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium.ca and a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ont.)

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