Deacon Greg Bittman assists Archbishop Joseph MacNeil at the June 1996 Mass at Holy Family Church in St. Albert at which he was ordained a deacon
It was a vocations retreat that he attended a year or two after high school that stirred Greg Bittman to think seriously about the priesthood. But the seed of a priestly vocation had been planted many years earlier and it took many more years to come to its full flowering.
"I have no exciting story; there's nothing extraordinary about my life," Edmonton's new auxiliary bishop said in an interview a few days prior to his Sept. 3 ordination.
When you grow up immersed in a Catholic environment, where everything supports the faith, there's no need for flashes of lightning and crashing thunder to herald God's vocational call. It can just grow organically.
For Bittman, there were the Ursulines of Jesus at St. Edmund's School, an immersion in the life of St. Edmund's Parish, a faith-filled environment at St. Joseph's High School and more people of faith at the Misericordia School of Nursing.
Then there was Grandma Anna Lech down near Olds.
Every summer, the three Bittman boys went to visit Grandma on the farm for anywhere from two weeks to a month.
Grandma taught those boys the rosary, a modified Liturgy of the Hours and she answered their questions about the Catholic faith.
"We just sat around in the mornings and talked about the faith," the new bishop recalls. Their questions always received an answer they could understand.
"If I woke up really early in the morning, I would see my grandma on her knees praying."
Visits to Grandma's farm were much more than catechism classes, of course. There many things to be done, says Bittman – climbing trees, picking raspberries, exploring and helping Grandma with her baking and in her huge garden.
The boys jumped on haystacks, held baby pigs, gathered the eggs from the chickens and consorted with the cows, cats and dog.
"That time in the summer was a real treasure," he said. "It was a different type of faith formation."
In high school, "I met just wonderful people. We had great teachers. I met so many new friends there, faith-filled friends." Together they discussed the faith, prayed together and read materials about the faith.
"That was an important time when my faith really came alive. I really wanted to pray and to go to Church."
Bittman left St. Joe's and headed to the U of A with dreams of becoming a doctor. He loved biology and became even more entranced when he began to study physiology and anatomy in university. "It was fascinating – the wonder of how things work, of how God created us."
Why didn't he go to medical school? "Because you have to be a genius and I'm not a genius."
The entry requirements were based solely on academic achievement and while Bittman was a good student, he wasn't that good.
One day when he was in the Rutherford Library on campus, he overheard two girls talking about nursing. It put a bug in his ear and the next fall he was in the Misericordia School of Nursing.
"Again, I met some wonderful Catholic people there and we could share our faith."
By that time, however, he was thinking seriously about the priesthood. After the three-year program at the Misericordia, he began nursing at the hospital and studying to get his nursing degree from the U of A.
"I worked like a dog to get that nursing degree," he recalls.
He knew, however, that once he had earned that degree, he would be off to the seminary at Mission, B.C., to see if he was called to be a priest.
It seems like an odd choice – a young man from a city with a major seminary going instead to a seminary in another province.
But Bittman had been to Mission for retreats and had no idea of what a seminary was like or what happened there. "Mission was the only place I knew at the time."
He was an independent student there, connected neither to a diocese nor to a religious order. He did consider entering religious life and heard the urgings from other seminarians to come to their dioceses.
He loved the life of the Benedictines who run Christ the King and their spirituality of work and prayer. "The monks were such fantastic models of what it means to follow the Lord."
During his third year there, Bittman decided he would study for the Edmonton Archdiocese. "I'm a Prairie boy. I grew up on the Prairies. I love the Prairies. When I smell the soil, when I smell the poplar trees, when I experience a summer storm, the winter weather – this is home for me."
After one more year in Mission, he came to St. Joseph Seminary for a year and then began his pastoral year at Holy Family Parish in St. Albert.
As the year progressed and his ordination to the diaconate drew near, he balked. It was a permanent step and "I didn't feel ready to do that."
During his pastoral internship and his first year as a priest, Fr. Greg Bittman had a mentor in Fr. Karl Raab. Raab died in 2004.
He withdrew from his pastoral year and returned to nursing full-time. "It was a testing of the call: 'Is the priesthood really what I am called to?'"
A spiritual director helped him through his discernment. It took four years. "In the end, I discerned that this is what God wanted me to do."
In January 1996, he returned to Holy Family to work alongside "that wonderful great priest Father Karl Raab." He finished his pastoral year and then Archbishop Joseph MacNeil ordained him a deacon in June and as a priest on Aug. 15.
"It's been full steam ever since."
He spent a year in St. Albert, also serving the parishes at Gibbons and Redwater. Then, it was on to Daysland. Bittman expected to stay there for several years, but after two, he was transferred to Stettler. One year later, Archbishop Thomas Collins named him chancellor of the archdiocese as well as making him pastor of St. Agnes-St. Anthony parishes in the city.
"Those first years of priesthood, all I remember was looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing the place where I had been fading away and I'd be crying. This was not what I had envisaged."
Still, Bittman loved being a parish priest. "People are so good to you. There's all these wonderful, wonderful experiences and there's all these wonderful, wonderful people that you meet."
In Daysland, he got to run a combine during the harvest; in Stettler, he rode in the engine of a train.
The pastor, he says, sees God working in the lives of his congregation. "You are formed by them. You learn so much from them."
One other not-so-small detail: "There are so many great cooks out there."
Now, it was time for yet another experience. He had nary an idea of what the chancellor did and so he rode on the shoulders of and learned from the outgoing chancellor, Father Mike McCaffery, co-chancellor Marguerite Bilodeau who had a thorough knowledge of canon law, and Msgr. Frank Patsula, who is "a walking Code (of Canon Law)."
Above all, there was the archbishop. "Cardinal Collins was my mentor."
After two years, it was decided that Bittman would be trained to be a canon lawyer. So every summer for four years, he went to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., to earn his licentiate in canon law.
The studies were "intense," but after completing his thesis, he received his degree in 2009.
Those 12 years as chancellor were challenging, Bittman says. "There's no shortage of work, that's for sure. This is a big, active diocese. There's tons of things going on."
Among the major projects completed on his watch were the archdiocesan policy manual, the Call to Protect program and the new volunteer management program. "These are all huge undertakings."
Then, there is a never-ending stream of daily activities from overseeing the operations of the Catholic Pastoral Centre to dealing with marriage annulments.
Now, Bittman faces his largest task yet – being an auxiliary bishop responsible to an archbishop and also with responsibilities to the universal Church. He'll be a leading shepherd in a society that does not always provide fertile ground for the Gospel.
While admitting the existence of a negative situation, he prefers to preach the positive: "Who is Jesus Christ? What has the Church got to offer people? What's the Church all about?"
People who are disconnected from God need to know that God's love is real and that it is freely available to them, Bittman says.
"That's the most wonderful thing; it's the people – being able to be part of people's lives."
As the new bishop looks ahead, still youthful at 51, he says, "It's a great adventure."