A cardinal carries his biretta as he arrives for a consistory with Pope Francis in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. CNS photo/Paul Haring

The West should be a cardinal point

  • August 4, 2022

Pope Francis will lead a consistory to install new cardinals on Aug. 27. The 16 new cardinal electors, eligible to vote in the next election of a pope, come from surprising places, and many are involved with people on society’s margins. As observers note, the men this Pope has named princes of the Church often have no pretensions to royalty. They are God’s servants in the vineyard of life.

Some of the new appointees hail from places which folks like me have never heard of or are on the fringes of our awareness– Ekwulobia, Nigeria; Wa, Ghana; Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, among them. Such appointments speak of the universality of the Church and of vibrant faith in remote places. I applaud Pope Francis’ desire to spread the red hats far and wide.

Still, one ecclesial backwater has never had one of its own named to the College of Cardinals. That would be Western Canada. Cardinal George Flahiff was archbishop of Winnipeg when he became a cardinal in 1969. But even Cardinal Flahiff was born and raised in Ontario.

A couple of others were bishops in the west before they were moved to Toronto — James McGuigan, archbishop of Regina from 1930 to 1934, and Cardinal Thomas Collins, bishop of St. Paul, Alta., and archbishop of Edmonton in more recent times. Cardinal Marc Ouellet also spent a couple of years as rector of Edmonton’s St. Joseph Seminary.

Apart from that, no one. Not one single born and bred westerner has ever become a cardinal.

Much the same could be said for the Atlantic provinces. Only one Maritimer, Cardinal McGuigan from Prince Edward Island, received the red hat, and no head of a diocese in Atlantic Canada received that honour. In fact, 13 of the 18 Canadian cardinals in history were born in Quebec, two in Ontario and two outside the country. (Four archbishops of Toronto have become cardinals, but Cardinal Collins was the only one born in Ontario.)

Indeed, no cardinals have had any connection with the north, a region served by some of our most heroic bishops.

The Church of the west is still a young Church, founded barely 200 years ago when missionaries came to bring the faith to Indigenous people and later served the settlers. Today, people have come from all over the world to make their homes in the Canadian west and north. Ours is a racially mixed and diverse Church in which historically the laity have played a significant role.

The Church in Alberta is receiving media attention this week with Pope Francis visiting Edmonton and nearby locations to apologize for the Church’s role and the behaviour of some of its members in the Indian residential schools. The Church came to this region with the attitude of a colonizer, disrespecting the original inhabitants of the land and righteously trying to destroy their culture.

Yet the regional Church itself remains something of a colony. Many of our bishops are transplants from the east just as Canada’s governors-general were emissaries from the United Kingdom until the 1950s. My diocese, the Archdiocese of Edmonton, traces its history to 1871 when it was established as the Diocese of St. Albert. In those 151 years, we have had eight ordinaries, not one of whom was born in Western Canada.

In the Diocese of Calgary’s 110 years, only two of the eight ordinaries have been Prairie boys, including the homegrown Bishop Paul O’Byrne who served for 30 years following the Second Vatican Council.

A bishop with local roots is apt to feel more comfortable with the local Catholic culture and the people of the region. Many of the outsider bishops have done well in adapting — the bishop is reputedly to be married to his people. But just as marriages of couples from different cultures face unique challenges, so too can the marriage of hierarchically-oriented clerics and a faithful with more democratic inclinations.

I did not expect to see a Western Canadian appointed a cardinal this year. Canada currently has four cardinal electors, more than its Catholic population warrants by its share of the number of Catholics around the globe.

But the day will come when Canada’s turn arrives again. When that day comes, the Pope and his advisors could do worse than look to the hinterlands of our great dominion to find someone burnished by the summer Prairie sun and the chilling winter winds to speak for the Church of this region.

(Glen Argan writes his online column Epiphany at https://glenargan.substack.com.)

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