Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil will celebrate his 90th birthday on April 15.

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil will celebrate his 90th birthday on April 15.

April 14, 2014
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Two weeks shy of his 90th birthday on April 15, Archbishop Joseph MacNeil is told he looks healthy.

"I'm faking it – cosmetics, Botox!" the long-retired archbishop shoots back near the start of a wide-ranging 90-minute interview.

Then MacNeil launches into a description of his 40-year history of long walks around Edmonton and environs.

Until a couple of years ago, he made regular trips to Elk Island National Park east of the city, the park where he took Pope John Paul II 30 years ago when the visiting pontiff had an afternoon off.

"I got to know all the buffalo by name. I knew the place so well that I could be out for two-and-a-half, three hours and I had no concerns that I wouldn't be able to find my way back," he says.

"It was a beautiful time out there," he recalls. Sometimes, he would walk with a companion, other times by himself so that he could reflect on upcoming homilies and talks.

Now, MacNeil has slowed down a little and prudently keeps his daily walks to urban areas such as Hawrelak Park and the West Edmonton Mall where, if he gets tired, he won't find himself stranded.

He thinks back to his heyday, in the first 10 years after arriving in Edmonton in 1973, when he would keep his skates, snowshoes and cross-country skis packed in his car so he could make a quick noon-hour jaunt from his downtown office to Hawrelak for some winter exercise.

In the summers, he would go for runs through the river valley from downtown out to Fort Edmonton Park, then near the city's western edge.

"Now that I'm over 40, I'm not as energetic," he quips.

MacNeil expects to spend his birthday "thanking God."

"It's such a wonderful mystery why I'm hanging around till I'm 90, and all kinds of people I know have gone to God a long time ago."

When he came to Edmonton in 1973, he told the people, "Before I came here, this was your diocese. Now it's our diocese."

That was the spirit he brought to his ministry over the next 26 years, always working with the people and trying to live out his episcopal motto, "Let us grow together into Christ."

"There was a wonderful expression that was current a few years ago – It takes a village to grow a child. I say, it takes a diocese to grow a bishop."

MacNeil said he saw his task in terms of "how I might be able to facilitate the spread of the wonderful gifts that were already here."

INCREDIBLY COURAGEOUS

He pays tribute to his predecessor, Archbishop Anthony Jordan, for starting Newman Theological College. "It was an incredibly courageous thing that Archbishop Jordan did."

Jordan wanted local Catholics to be familiar with the Second Vatican Council and saw a theological college as crucial in doing that. "A theological college is not the same as a seminary," MacNeil said. It meant sending priests away for further studies so they would be qualified to teach; it meant an ongoing job of raising money to pay for the college.

"I didn't create these things. I tried to support them and make sure that they survive."

After retiring in 1999, MacNeil took a year-long sabbatical to the sacred places – Cape Breton, Scotland and the Holy Land.

Returning to Edmonton, he took on a schedule of leading parish missions and retreats for priests across Canada and, occasionally, in the United States.

MacNeil continues to rise every day before 7:30 a.m., and, if he is not scheduled to celebrate Mass elsewhere, will celebrate it in his chapel at home. His days are spent praying and reading, going for walks, and visiting with friends.

Asked about how the Church has changed during his 65 years as a priest, MacNeil said, "There is a great difference because we are different, the people are different, the world is different."

WHEN DID IT CHANGE?

When he came to Edmonton, many of the priests had been formed at St. Joseph Seminary and almost all of them had been raised in Canada.

"When did it all change?" he asked. One driving force was the rise of national parishes, first Italian and Polish, and then more and more as immigrants came from all over the world. Priests had to be imported to serve those immigrants.

As president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1979 to 1981, he invited Pope John Paul to visit Canada. The pope's epic 10-day visit in 1984 was a highlight of his career as a bishop.

MacNeil shared five meals with the pope when he was in Edmonton. One morning the pope was obviously tired and the archbishop wanted "to liven him up."

"You say, Holy Father, that our faith should be inculturated in the culture of our people. Well, what's our culture?" Canada has aboriginal people, people of French and English descent, and, more recently, other immigrants.

"Then he said with a nice smile, 'You are just making your culture now.'"

ATTITUDES TRANSFORMED

Said MacNeil: "That's what's happening. We are being transformed as Canadians now. We are changing and our attitude to our Church is changing."

Listen closely to Pope Francis, he continues. "He's talking about collegiality in a new way. He's talking about bishops and priests being more closely related to our people."

As the interview concludes and the notebook is put away, the archbishop starts up again telling how he asked the Oblates to minister to aboriginal people in the city.

"After a year, (the priest) came here and said, 'What are your plans for the native people?'

"I said, 'I don't know. You know the native people much better than I do. Get to know them and work with them.'"

That was MacNeil's approach: "I didn't come here to tell you what to do. I came here to give you a chance to figure it out."