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Vatican II inspired bishop to listen, then get out of the laity’s way

NCR Staff
Victoria, British Columbia

Call it a response to the art of being a bishop. It happened a decade ago, a hesitant, tentative letter from an artist at the end of the 1989 Victoria diocesan Festival of the Arts.

The artist, Dolores Pflanz, a self-described “fringe Catholic,” said that because of the arts festival, which had been part of the diocese’s 1986-91 “People’s Synod,” she found “I did have something to offer the church -- pictorial statements about Creation and its Creator.”

Pflanz, of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island in the territory of the Victoria diocese, wrote, “Please continue to draw out us ‘fringe’ Catholics creatively.”

Drawing people out creatively as Catholics, trying to involve them ever deeper in shaping their church, is precisely what Remi De Roo, Victoria’s bishop for 36 years, has attempted to do. His vehicle for encouraging people to shape the church: the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). He is practically transfixed by Vatican II.

De Roo comes across as an intense man but doesn’t want to be -- he’s trying to get in touch with his feminine side, he said during an interview at the Pastoral Center here.

Currently a little wan -- he’s recovering from hepatitis picked up following in the footsteps of St. Paul (by air-conditioned bus) in Turkey and Greece -- De Roo is an avid walker, keen cross-country skier, and relaxes listening to cello and organ music.

He’s simultaneously shy yet vigorous, outspoken and direct. The shyness -- and an appreciation of the arts, he said -- come from his mother; the directness from his father.

Some await ‘better days’

The De Roos were a large farm family in Swan Lake, Manitoba, where close kin still farm two spreads and have family gatherings every five years. De Roo’s was a hard life of tough winters and the Great Depression. His rural background and his farming parents and grandparents run through his conversation like a refrain.

The other De Roo refrain is the council. He and Pope John Paul II are now among the final few, the last bishops still in office who were at all four sessions.

Admittedly, De Roo attended only the final 10 days of the initial session as a freshly minted 37-year-old prelate. But once there he was extremely active. The Canadians fielded a strong and well-organized episcopal team at Vatican II.

But in Victoria these days, that’s all in the past. What the Vancouver Island diocese’s Catholics see is Vatican II’s results -- such as University of Victoria Catholic chaplain Kate Fagan preaching Sunday evenings at nearby Holy Cross Parish, or blessing weddings and baptizing babies. There’s a quiet Canadian satisfaction to it all -- most people talked these things out during the “People’s Synod,” called by De Roo, who then got out of the way and let the laity get on with saying what “church” should mean in this place.

The synod spawned its own 280-page book: Forward in the Spirit, a fine, personality-studded compilation of those years.

Catholic Victoria has its foibles and, like elsewhere, young people here hit and miss as church-attending Catholics. And not everyone agrees with De Roo. As Patricia C. Brady remarks in her 1986 book, Has Anything Really Changed? The Diocese of Victoria Since Vatican II, “The more successful the implementation appears among the majority, the more clearly do the few groups stand out which have so far resisted the renewal.” She said that the groups resisting renewal -- such as Catholics United for the Faith or the followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated -- tend to be quite vocal.

And De Roo’s retirement in February 1999 will not be mourned by all. As a recent letter in the Island Catholic News said, “ ‘Bad news’ is ‘good news’ to what one might nearly describe as a large, almost underground church in the diocese, waiting, rosaries in hand, for better days.”

Animadvertants to one side, in Victoria’s Catholic heart there appears what one might nearly describe as a genuineness to the search. They’re tolerant, these Catholics. That’s also the word most frequently applied to De Roo. Tolerant and flexible.

Flexible? Within diocesan boundaries are 6,000 or so native peoples of three distinct Indian nations. Brady writes about Oblate Br. Terrance McNamara who, two decades ago, newly initiated as a dancer in the Coast Salish tradition of the Long House, wanted to be ordained.

But the Long House required his weekly attendance during the dance season. That would make seminary attendance very difficult. De Roo permitted McNamara, while living and working with the native peoples, to pursue his studies under the bishop’s direction. And the Oblates allowed McNamara to attend seminary in two fall sessions rather than sequentially.

Brady calls this “a rare instance in the modern Western church of preparatory studies for the priesthood so pursued.”

De Roo, born on Feb. 24, 1924, and ordained for the St. Boniface, Manitoba, diocese in 1950, has a doctorate in sacred theology from the Angelicum in Rome. He served in St. Boniface as assistant priest and later pastor before being named Victoria’s bishop in December 1962.

His new coadjutor, Bishop Raymond Roussin, 59, formerly Bishop of Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, a Marianist, is already in town. He’s a fellow St. Boniface, Manitoba, native, and word around town is that Victoria should consider itself very fortunate to have Roussin in De Roo’s progressive wake. (Fortune has smiled on Roussin, too. Vancouver Island has the mildest weather in Canada.)

De Roo has been active in the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, was a founding member of the World Conference of Religions for Peace and is author or co-author of a half dozen books. It was one of those De Roo books -- In the Eye of the Catholic Storm, written with Mary Jo Leddy and Douglas Roche -- that attracted Fagan to the diocese two years ago.

Fagan recalled that on reading the book she said, “Wow! That’s exciting. I can imagine working for someone like that in a place like that.”

Even so, it wasn’t until the Victoria interview that the dual-citizened Notre Dame master of divinity graduate learned she’d be doing baptisms and weddings. “I’d been trained to do it all,” said Fagan, “spent three years breaking down my insecurities about doing it and then found a place where I could do it. I thought I’d be in my 50s before I found such a place.” She’s 28.

De Roo did not even sit in on Fagan’s interview. “Remi’s big on subsidiarity,” said Fagan. “He abided by the appointment committee’s decisions.”

Experiencing Catholicism

At Notre Dame, Fagan was with 12,000 Catholics. The University of Victoria has 12,000 students, 130 of them self-identified Catholics. Fagan does a lot of pastoral counseling, crisis counseling -- it’s a two-week wait at the university counseling center -- on issues ranging from marriage problems among graduate students to freshman “Who am I?” questions.

“The young Canadian Catholics here don’t have a clear idea of what it means to be Catholic,” said Fagan, “except what they’ve picked up at home. But they’re ready to have Catholic experiences and have you throw out challenges or affirm what they’ve been doing.” That can mean anything from social service to saying the rosary. Students who are not Catholics -- the chaplaincy is interfaith -- come along for the rosary, too. “They think it’s, ‘Wow, that’s neat,’ ” said Fagan. “One Protestant said, ‘I wish we had something like it.’ ”

Ecumenical activity is coming easier to Fagan -- product of table-banging, church-discussing Irish Catholics on both sides of the family -- for her boyfriend is a Protestant minister. They work on sermons together.

How do Fagan’s devout parents respond to their ministerial daughter? “My father tries very hard to understand, and my mother’s just finishing her degree in pastoral studies in Seattle,” said Fagan.

We talked following an evening Mass.

Does Fagan believe she should/could be a priest? “Not as long as the priesthood is celibate,” she said. “I want to have a family some day -- that’s part of my calling. I certainly feel called to do a lot of the work that has been traditionally done by a priest.”

Which is De Roo’s point precisely.

At Vatican II, says council historian Fr. Giles Routhier of Quebec, De Roo was one of a team of three, with St. Boniface Bishop Maurice Baudoux and his auxiliary, Bishop Antoine Hicault, pushing new thinking on the women’s role and the lay apostolate in the church during the council’s final session. Routhier currently is working at the Catholic University of America in Washington as part of the Orbis multi-volume Vatican II history project.

Today, De Roo says, the church “has a long way to go to recognize the feminine dimension of every human and not get caught in the macho trap. And we certainly need to continue promoting the variety of services and ministries that women can perform in the church. I think we’ve made some progress here in that regard.

“Equally,” he said, “we need to appreciate the work of the women theologians. They are helping us to re-examine the whole body of doctrine from the point of view of the heart. We’ve been so locked in our heads, in our intellects.” De Roo usually has his intellect gainfully employed. There’s another book en route. Its working title is Even Greater Things, the ongoing challenge, said De Roo, “of Vatican II, particularly for laypeople, in the task of transforming society.”

His co-authors are Bernard and Mae Daly of Ottowa. Mae’s a singer and music teacher. Journalist Bernard was the Canadian bishops’ press officer throughout Vatican II.

As committed as he is to the laity, however, De Roo understands the priest’s key role, the risks of overwork and burnout.

“My most painful experience,” he said, “has been to watch the occasional priest get discouraged, embittered, finally give up, slip away into anonymity. Talented, dedicated. Just slip into the woods, almost, lost.”

The antidote, De Roo contended, is small support groups. Burn-out comes to talented, dedicated clergy and laypeople who give their all when they are not supported emotionally, he said.

Has he, in nearly 40 years as head of Victoria, ever experienced burnout?

“No, happily not. I’ve faced it more than once,” said De Roo. “But we learned as kids on the farm, from my parents and grandparents, that you don’t give up when things get rough. You just hang in there. You do the best you can until, eventually, things straighten themselves out.”

That’s why he is hanging on to Vatican II. Maintaining the council momentum is a personal quest.

When he retires in February he’ll take a 12-month sabbatical renewing friendships. Yet three months into it he’ll be in Miami to deliver a paper at the International Catholic Theological Association meeting.

The meeting’s theme is the creation of doctrine. De Roo’s taking along the work of Victoria’s “People’s Synod.” He wants the world’s theologians to see how the laity create doctrine in a quiet corner of Canada.

De Roo knows there’s an art to it.

National Catholic Reporter, December 25, 1998