Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Year of the priests

Clergy reflect on their challenging and rewarding calling

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His days as the spiritual leader of the city's Italian Catholics begin early and usually end late, but Rev. Sam Argenziano isn't complaining about the heavy demands of the priesthood.

"There are high points every day," he says about leading the flock at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church on River Avenue. "Just being with my parishioners, celebrating life with them, celebrating their weddings, their children, their 50th wedding anniversaries."

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Priests in the Archdiocese of Winnipeg are encouraged to fast and pray every Friday over the next 12 months to mark the year for priests inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI on June 19, says Archbishop James Weisgerber.

"It's awfully important to pause for awhile and see what has gone right and what has not gone right, to make sure we continue the important contribution of the priesthood within the Catholic Church," explains Weisgerber, also the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Ukrainian Catholics, a separate rite in the Catholic Church, are also spending time evaluating the role of priests as well as publishing materials to support priests, says Archbishop Lawrence Huculak of the Archeparchy of Winnipeg.

"It's an ongoing review of the identity of the priesthood... working out the harmony of the ordained office and the laity," says Huculak, who also serves as the metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada.

Argenziano interprets the year for priests as an opportunity to evaluate his 30 years in ministry and to acknowledge the good and the bad of the priesthood.

"It's not a year of applause; it's a year of reflection and discovery, of being a servant of faith, of spiritual renewal, intellectual renewal, physical renewal," says the 61-year-old priest, who schedules an hour-long walk into his daily routine for the latter reason. "It's journeying with people and being a blessing for them and allowing them to be a blessing for us."

Part of that reflection is acknowledging the hurt caused by sexual abuse by members of the priesthood, says Weisgerber, and how that has affected the Catholic Church. Priests are now trained differently, schooled in protocols to avoid potential abuse, he says.

"There's no question that the sexual abuse scandals really lowered the reputation of the priests," he admits.

But taking priests off their pedestal means they're right among the people, exactly where they should be, says Rev. James deBeer, 28, who is moving from his Winnipeg parish to western Manitoba next week to serve three small-town churches.

"I've come to the understanding that we're here as priests to bring Christ into the lives of the faithful," says deBeer, who will live in Erickson and also serve parishes in Minnedosa and Elphinstone in his new job. "I've come to realize how important it is to know the people and journey with people in their lives. Not preach at them, but preach among them."

Weisgerber, 71, says the priestly role has changed significantly in the last few decades, with fewer men assuming the vocation and more lay people taking leadership in parishes. As archbishop, he continually faces the challenge of recruiting enough priests to serve the needs of the diocese, and new priests are coming to Winnipeg from India and Nigeria.

"The Archdiocese of Winnipeg has never provided enough clergy for itself. We've always imported people. A mature church should provide for its own needs."

That shortage of priests means looking for alternatives within a parish, says Argenziano, who has enlisted a retired priest to take Wednesday and Saturday morning masses, as well as one of the five weekend masses. For deBeer, handling three parishes will mean lots of driving from one town to the next for Sunday mass and weekday events.

"They're smaller communities, relatively speaking, but they're still communities, trying to live their mission as the church in the world," says deBeer, who spent a year serving a parish in Dauphin before his ordination in 2008. "As pastor, you're there to empower the community to live their mission."

For Argenziano, empowering the community means employing his strengths to serve the 800 registered families in his parish and the estimated 15,000 Italian Catholics in Winnipeg.

As a seasoned priest with 30 years' experience, being an extroverted person is a great help in what he calls walking with people "from cradle to crypt."

"I am who I am. I bring my personality to the priesthood. I'm salty, I'm loud, I'm Italian American," says the New York City-born Argenziano, who now considers Winnipeg his hometown and learned Italian after coming to Holy Rosary 14 years ago.

By the time the year for priests winds down next June, Argenziano will probably have married 45 couples, baptized about 100 babies and said a final goodbye to several dozen parishioners. All this hatching, matching and dispatching is part of the daily life of a priest who serves the faithful and walks with them through all stages of their lives, he says.

"We are here to preach, we are here to strengthen, we are here to teach, but the faith rests in God's people."

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2009 A9

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