Archbishop Joseph MacNeil: We grew together into Christ

By Glen Argan

Many people knew Archbishop Joseph MacNeil who died Feb. 11, 2018 at age 93 better than I did. There are priests, such as Fathers Mike McCaffery, Jack Hamilton, Archie MacKenzie and Don MacDonald, who worked closely with him over the years.

McCaffery especially. MacNeil made him, at various times, president of Newman Theological College, rector of St. Joseph Basilica and chancellor of the archdiocese. MacNeil’s reliance on the outspoken, empathetic McCaffery showed that he knew the people need mercy more than legalism. Women too, such as Jean Forest, Margot Bilodeau and Josee Marr, also served closely with the long-time archbishop. I hope we hear remembrances from all of them before MacNeil’s body is laid to rest on Feb. 16.

I can only speak for myself. I first met MacNeil in 1978 when I was a reporter with The Red Deer Advocate, but really got to know him once I became editor of the Western Catholic Reporter in 1981. Very few people have had a more positive effect on my life than Archbishop MacNeil. He helped me to grow up from a know-it-all young journalist to a know-it-all old journalist.

One conversation from early on in our growing relationship: We had a board of directors that oversaw the WCR, and some times I was at odds with the board. Once, when the two of us were alone in his office, MacNeil said, “Don’t be so stubborn.” Me: “I try not to be.” Him: “Well, try harder.” Observers might claim the conversation made no difference, but I did take his words to heart and tried to reform my ways.

From the beginning, I admired the way he ran the archdiocese . . . or let others run it. Every archdiocesan office, or so it seemed, had a commission which worked with staff, just as the WCR had its own board. It was the heyday of the laity, and you could see how the archbishop’s trust in lay people, including women, spread across the archdiocese.

MacNeil’s motto was, “Let us Grow Together into Christ.” He did a lot to publicize that motto and to live it too. The motto slowly took root in my thought processes and in the minds of many others too. Each word spoke volumes – “us,” “grow together,” “into Christ.”

Ultimately, the local Church became more of a family, formed in and through Jesus Christ. That’s hard to do when the family comprises 300,000 Catholics, but we worked at it. For me, it came to mean that journalism is more than news and opinion; it also plays a vital role in community formation and development.

The pressures on MacNeil the archbishop were intense, especially during my first four years at the WCR. The ferment following the Second Vatican Council was still intense, he served two years as president of the Canadian bishops’ conference when governments were busy formulating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and then there was the papal visit of 1984. As editor, I was under a fair amount of pressure to “write this,” “write that” and “don’t write that!!” before the sainted pope’s visit. I can only imagine how much more intense it was for the man at the eye of the storm.

My favourite picture of Archbishop MacNeil was taken during that visit. It was of him and the pope in the entrance to the basilica with MacNeil’s cheeks beet red and his face smiling ear to ear. The whole damn thing had reached fruition, and MacNeil looked like he was about to pop.

He did know how to relax. We both lived in the Oliver neighbourhood in those days, and a couple of evenings when I was jogging through the grass above the Victoria Park Golf Course, I ran into him walking in the other direction. I prepared to stop, but he said, “Keep going! Keep going!” Probably, he wanted some well-deserved peace; perhaps, he didn’t want to disturb my fitness routine.

In an interview I did with him for the WCR on his 90th birthday, he joked about his frequent walking expeditions in Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton: “I got to know the buffalo by name.”

Actually, he got to know everybody by name, quite a remarkable feat, but perhaps not so great for a Cape Bretoner who lived and breathed the importance of community.

When MacNeil finally retired in 1999, two months after his 75th birthday, it was like a 10-tonne weight was lifted from his shoulders. He relaxed and began to give the most marvellous homilies. He finally got the time he wanted to pray, read and reflect. We had more relaxed conversations than previously, and my wife and I began to invite him over to the house. It became a bit of tradition for us to host him on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. (I think the Franciscans regularly offered him hospitality on Thanksgiving Day.)

On his first visit, our young daughters took a real shine to him. After an extended period of kibitzing, they asked MacNeil, “Can you stay for a sleepover?” Of course, the sleepover didn’t happen, but it showed the depth of a relationship he could build with young children.

MacNeil was out with the people till the end, having several lunch and dinner engagements right up to the day before he had the massive stroke which took his life. We all have to die some time, but it’s sad to see this man go. He made a huge difference to a lot of us, and our lives were greatly enriched because he passed our way.

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