Archbishop James Weisgerber
When the Second Vatican Council began in 1962, "it was like Mary meeting Elizabeth. There was something new, wonderful and energizing," said Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber.
Weisgerber described how he completed his priestly formation just as Vatican II began and how until then the Church "was an extremely different Church" from what we know today.
"And that was symbolized by tradition that had become very heavy," he said at a Mass marking his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination.
"The Church had answers for everything. We spoke of ourselves as a perfect society. We had no responsibility to the world and we needed nothing from the world." Weisgerber said the Church "was very much like Elizabeth."
When Elizabeth was greeted by Mary, she was old, representing the traditions of Israel. As Mary approached, Elizabeth felt the baby inside her leap for joy, the archbishop said in his May 31 homily on the feast of the Visitation.
Mary brought something new, he said. Likewise, the action of God is to bring "something far greater than what was there before, but consistent with what had gone before."
Addressing the realities of today's Church, Weisgerber spoke of aging congregations, fewer people entering vocations and non-practising Catholics being the biggest religious group in Canada.
"It's very easy to become bitter, or we can see Mary pointing us to the living Christ as someone to leap for joy over. The Lord is calling us in ways he never has before.
"He's calling us to take a chance to become different from other people. As his disciples we can't do what everybody else does and live like everybody else and still be believers."
Ordained as a priest for the Regina Archdiocese in 1963, Weisgerber served in several parishes, including one where he had responsibility for four Indian reserves. He later served five years as general-secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) before being ordained bishop of Saskatoon in 1996.
Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Winnipeg in 2000, and he served as president of the CCCB from 2007 to 2009.
Following the May 31 Mass, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, current CCCB president, thanked Weisgerber for his many years of service to the bishops' conference.
"Of all he has done," said Smith, "the most significant and closest to his heart is his work toward reconciliation with our aboriginal brothers and sisters," a comment which brought an ovation from the large gathering.
Weisgerber also received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Manitoba May 29 for what the university called "his visionary commitment to social change and justice."
He was praised for being "instrumental in bridging the divide between the Catholic Church in Canada and Canada's aboriginal peoples, a divide which developed because of the abuse of aboriginal peoples in residential schools."
Weisgerber was recognized for working "tirelessly to bring about the meeting in Rome in April 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI met with leaders of Canada's aboriginal peoples at the Vatican to express his sorrow at the anguish caused by the conduct of some members of the Church."
The archbishop was also recognized for creating Micah House, the Archdiocese of Winnipeg's Catholic Centre for Social Justice. It was also noted that Weisgerber was symbolically adopted by several First Nations elders at a ceremony in 2012 that made him a brother to the First Nations community.
Weisgerber spoke of how his 25-year involvement with the CCCB gave him opportunities to see people throughout the world.
"We met people where they live and it is heartbreaking to see how the majority of the people of the world live. There is violence, there is poverty, there is homelessness, especially for women."
"In Canada," he continued, "we are safe, we are secure, we are educated and we have unlimited possibilities. It is among the best places in the world to live.
"But what is very disappointing is that a great number of Canadians don't know that. They take it for granted with a sense of entitlement that it will always be like that."
The archbishop said contemporary culture supports individualism and being "really concerned with one's own private affairs, accompanied by an abandonment of society and public life."
"We need to be informed and conversant with the issues," facing the country and society, Weisgerber said.
"You have an obligation to become informed and involved in the public life of the country. We need to become engaged and when we do we will find it very rewarding."