Archbishop Joseph MacNeil is 90. Good grief! Like many people in this diocese, I can say that I knew him when he was in his 50s. Time passes, and we're all much older now than we were then.
There are many memories, but one that stands out might seem mundane. I knew almost from the day I walked in the door what his episcopal motto was – Let us grow together into Christ, which he took from Ephesians 4.15. More than a personal motto, it was something engraved on the heart of the local Church during MacNeil's 26 years as archbishop of Edmonton.
Every one of those six words in the motto counted. It was an invitation, not a command. It spoke of community, rather than individual, spirituality. It pointed to the unity of that community growing ever stronger. It alluded to the community, not only worshipping and imitating Jesus, but actually becoming Jesus.
Unquestionably, that motto formed MacNeil. Commanding someone to do something was rarely, if ever, his way. Even when he had reason to slap guys like me across the back of the head, he used those occasions to empower us to do better, to grow into Christ.
The local Church was also formed by that motto. If not exactly a communion of equals, it was an organism in which people worked together. Even if we never sang in perfect harmony, everyone who wanted a voice had one. We knew something good and growing was being created in Christ's name.
MacNeil was always a glass-half-full leader. He still is. Right at that moment in his homily when you thought he might turn a critical eye to the woes of the world and the waning faith of our times, he would go the other direction. He would say something like, "And look at you. You have all chosen to come here to Mass today when you could have been doing something else. You are all doing your best to raise your children in the faith, even if sometimes it is difficult and there are challenges."
Some, in the name of prophecy, hoped for criticism of society's disturbing trends. MacNeil unfailingly chose to encourage those who stood there before him rather than to blast those who were somewhere else. He built up rather than tearing down.
We have been blessed to have MacNeil stay in Alberta rather than return to his native Cape Breton, and we have been blessed by his continued good health. He remains a spiritual leader, no longer responsible for the direction of the local Church, but one who, nevertheless, continues to leave a positive mark on our lives. He keeps on pulling new stories out of his vast reservoir; he continues to make us laugh. If anything, his retirement has led to his becoming even more of a pastor.
Happy birthday, Archbishop MacNeil. We are so glad to be blessed by your continued presence.