Since the departure of Bishop Luc Bouchard in March, parishioners of the St. Paul Diocese have been waiting for a new leader. The wait is finally over, as Bishop Paul Terrio takes the helm.
With 53 parishes, eight Catholic school boards, and 53,000 Catholics to oversee, Terrio will have his hands full ministering to the varied needs of a farflung bilingual diocese that is short of priests.
Father Paul Thekkanath, who pastors in Fort McMurray, said they have been waiting a long time for a new bishop, and "everybody feels this is the right choice."
Thekkanath emphasized that one role of the Church is to share its standpoints on social and ethical issues, as Bouchard did during his 10 years in St. Paul.
Bouchard shared his prophetic voice on many subjects, such as gambling, Catholic education, the faith formation of children and the shortage of priests. In particular, his pastoral letter on the oilsands garnered a lot of mainstream media attention. Thekkanath expects that Terrio will take a similar approach.
Wherever people go, whether it's a restaurant, retail store or church, Thekkanath said people expect immediate service. The Church must respond to that same expectation.
However, with Fort McMurray being a booming city of more than 100,000 people, a major challenge for the priests is ministering to the people of their two churches and four missions.
"Just the two priests here are trying to run around and do things for people, so it's a really demanding place. Of course, we'll be talking to the new bishop about finding a couple more priests for up here. There is definitely a need for more pastoral ministry here," said Thekkanath.
Yet another challenge for the diocese is bringing people together for a common celebration when they are spread out over such a vast land area. Even if people from distant parts of the diocese want to attend the annual Chrism Mass, for example, not everyone can.
"One of the challenges for any bishop in Alberta is the distance, and St. Paul is no exception to that. For me, traveling from Fort McMurray to St. Paul is almost a five-hour journey. It's the same with going from St. Paul to the west, Whitecourt or Fox Creek, it's a five-hour journey," he explained.
The diocese has only five priests from Canada, and the rest are immigrants, including Thekkanath. When meeting with Terrio, the priests were told of the need to pray for vocations.
Father Gerard Gauthier, who serves at St. Paul's Cathedral, agrees that every bishop must focus on vocations.
"When we don't have vocations, we have to look at finding priests from someplace else to help us. In an ideal world, we would have enough of our own that we wouldn't have to rely on others," said Gauthier.
"At one time we had 60 priests in this diocese, and now we have about 20-some. Way back we had a lot of priests that came from Quebec."
Gauthier's focus is on the vocations of the laity, and allowing the laypeople to share in the work of the priests and use all resources that God provides.
"A lot of work gets done, and it's not just by priests and religious," he said.
Having previously served as pastor in both Fort McMurray and Whitecourt, and now in St. Paul, Gauthier has witnessed struggles unique to each community.
"Every diocese has its own challenges, with different people in different areas. In ours, we have the oil up in Fort McMurray, Cold Lake and Bonnyville. We have the different demographics throughout the diocese. Other places are basically farming areas."
With towns having their own unique needs, the bishop must be discerning in setting the diocese's areas of focus.
"In a perfect world, we can name everything as a priority, but then we have the reality of our limitations, whether it's time or distance or resources. We cannot always do everything that we want," said Gauthier.
Father Hong Nguyen, a member of the Sons of Mary Mother of Mercy Congregation, pastors at St. Emile Parish in Legal with missions in Vimy and Waugh. A challenge for him is the language.
"I don't speak French very well, but they have no other choice but to accept me. But they would prefer to have a francophone priest," admitted Nguyen.
He agreed that developing a culture of vocations is essential. Promising young boys and men must be asked to pray and consider the priesthood.
"We need more priests. It's better to have local priests than to import them from somewhere because adjusting to the culture is not always easy," said Nguyen. "More local vocations are the solution."