CCN PHOTO | DEBORAH GYAPONG
Bishop Christian Riesbeck's ordination launces a new era for the Companions of the Cross.
The March 19 episcopal ordination of Ottawa Auxiliary Bishop Christian Riesbeck marks a coming of age of the Companions of the Cross, says the order's moderator.
"This is a first for us, to have a bishop named from among our number," said the Companions' moderator Father Scott McCaig. "We're getting a little older; we've come of age, so to speak."
It also raises to a new level the charism of the order's founder, Father Bob Bedard, who McCaig called a pioneer in the new evangelization, especially in Canada.
McCaig described Riesbeck, 44, as reflecting the founder's charism in his choice of Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel, as his episcopal motto, inspired both by Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation as well as his religious community's heritage and charism.
McCaig said Bedard grasped what Pope Paul VI's 1974 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi stressed about evangelization being "a priority in the life of the Church" in a way that enfolded those principles into the Companions' charism, he said.
Since those days, the universal Church has embraced evangelization in a new way and it is "no longer a dirty word or suspected of not being Catholic."
Riesbeck, who had the opportunity of living in community with Bedard while discerning his priestly vocation, "brings the charism and formation of Father Bob" at a time when the Church is "working towards the new evangelization."
"He will be a blessing for those he serves in his episcopal ministry," McCaig said.
The new bishop, who was ordained to the priesthood in 1996, has a strong track record behind him in pastoral ministry. When he was sent to the order's parish in Houston in 1999, it offered three poorly-attended Masses a week, McCaig said.
Largely through his teaching and ministry, the small community has grown to a flourishing parish with "eight Masses and three priests that are pretty much run off their feet," he said.
"He was the lion's share of why that parish was renewed," he said.
Riesbeck went to Houston and followed Father Bob's prescription to reach out and "evangelize the unevangelized; to disciple those who have been evangelized and to mission the disciples, to help them understand their call as baptized Christians to be priests, prophets and kings in the world."
When McCaig moved Riesbeck out of Houston in 2008, he said, "I thought I would have an uprising on my hands, they so loved him. I used to joke they might put a bronze statue of him in front of the church."
"I knew when I sent him for further studies [in canon law] that he was definitely going to be a candidate for the episcopacy," said McCaig.
"We all saw it coming. The only surprise was it happened so quickly. He's just that quality of an individual that it really didn't surprise anyone."
"He is an extremely genuine and sincere man, very authentic, deeply prayerful and very competent," McCaig said. "No matter what assignment he had, he took it on with all of his heart and gave himself completely to it."
The only times they had to talk to him about his ministry concerned advising him to "take proper days off and not burn himself out," he said.
After Riesbeck obtained his licence in canon law, he became chancellor of the Ottawa Archdiocese. He has also been a member of the Companions' executive council, and since 2012 he has been the assistant general superior.
"He's a good person to work with," said Archbishop Terrence Prendergast.
Another aspect of the Companions' charism is life in community, something Riesbeck will now live out in the archbishop's residence.
Bedard, an Ottawa priest, founded the Companions of the Cross in 1985 out of what had initially been a prayer group and support group for seminarians and priests that dated back to 1984.
"His main thing was to support seminarians in their formation and support priests in their priesthood by community life," said Prendergast, who invited the Companions to Halifax when he was archbishop there.
Bedard stressed a model of companionship that sees priests serving several parishes living in community in one place, Prendergast said.
"Father Bob's concern was that priests need priests; they need to share more than a roof over their heads, but a life," McCaig said. Through mutual support, challenging each other and accountability they become "better priests, better men, better Christians and live fuller more meaningful lives."
Since those small beginnings, the order was formally established as a society of apostolic life in 2003 and now Companions serve in Ottawa, Halifax, Toronto, Houston and Detroit with 10 parishes, three university chaplaincies, 37 priests, one deacon and 14 seminarians.
"The Companions of the Cross are a blessing to our archdiocese and, I believe, to the other dioceses where they are located," the archbishop said.
At the same time, Prendergast pointed out how the "ideal of living in community" may be different from reality and "the actual living of it can be stressful."
Personalities can clash, two coming and two leaving can change the whole dynamic, he said.
"Community life can be life-affirming but also challenging," he said. "It's like family life, we have to talk about things, like 'Why are we not getting along?' Why are things not getting done?'"
Life is a mixture of joy and sorrows, health issues, and moods, he said. A health problem can change the dynamic.
The Companions have handled these challenges well, including a dry period for new vocations, though "now they have a rush of new people coming in," Prendergast said.
Now that Riesbeck is in episcopal ministry, his relationship to his order will change. Prendergast said the new bishop's relationship to the Companions will be similar to his with his Jesuit order after he was named a bishop.
He will continue to support his community, and like Prendergast, he will have his salary go to his community. But he will be unable to hold office in the Companions or vote, the archbishop said.
McCaig noted once Riesbeck was named a bishop, "it becomes his full-time job," and "Rome releases bishops from any obligations to the constitution and rules of a community."
In this respect, coming of age can also be challenging, McCaig admits.
"It's tough to lose a really good man, a really good priest like Bishop Christian."
After having lived with Riesbeck "for numerous years as a close friend and a brother," McCaig knows "there's a necessary distance that has to happen now.
"We do have to let go of him, for the wider ministry. There's a certain sadness in that though we have discussed his desire to remain close to the Companion's ministry," he said.
"We don't exist for ourselves, we exist to serve the Church and to serve the renewal of the Church," McCaig said. "If Jesus through his Church asks for one of our men to serve in this capacity, we're glad to be able to do it."
Riesbeck not only exemplifies the charism of his order in his passion for evangelization, but also he represents the kind of bishop Pope Francis has said he is looking for, McCaig said.
Prendergast said he expects the Companions will greet having a new bishop from their order in a similar way the Jesuits did with his ordination, with a mixture of surprise; delight "one of their members has been called to this service;" disappointment "at losing one of their gifted leaders;" and "joy this fledgling group has received ecclesial approbation of sorts in that one of their priests has been called to be a bishop."
"Wouldn't Father Bedard be proud!" the archbishop said.