For Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, being elected president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is a "great honour and privilege."
Gagnon, who leads the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, was elected to the top position during the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) annual meeting in Cornwall, Ont., last month.
"It’s a big responsibility," he said, adding he’s humbled that his colleagues "have placed their confidence and trust in me."
As president, Gagnon will lead the national assembly of the bishops of the Catholic Church in Canada as it addresses various issues.
"We don’t issue orders," he said. "Our role is to provide guidelines" and assist the dioceses in "moving forward" on various issues.
One of those issues is reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and whether the CCCB will invite Pope Francis to Canada to issue an apology for the church’s role in residential schools.
Such an invitation is "an ongoing discussion" Gagnon said, adding the Pope is "open to the idea."
"I realize many people want him to come," he said. But "this is not a box for him (the Pope) to tick off."
A papal visit, he shared, would be just one part of the larger process of reconciliation happening in local dioceses across Canada, although he acknowledged it would be a "powerful symbol."
Another item on the agenda of the CCCB is clergy sexual abuse.
"It’s a very important subject," he said, adding it will continue to occupy their attention in the years ahead.
The goal, he added, is to "create a culture of prevention, response and education" in the dioceses. This includes promoting its new guidelines, titled Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation, across the country.
"We want people to be aware of (it), to make sure it is being put into effect... we want to be proactive and preventative," he said.
The CCCB will continue meeting with survivors, he said, adding he believes they and the CCCB are on the same page when it comes to "getting rid of the abuse of minors in the church and throughout society as a whole."
With regards to requests from some survivors to release names of credibly accused priests — as has been done by some American bishops — Gagnon says it is under discussion.
He does wonder, however, what that means, since "each case is different."
"We need to clarify what that means to be credibly accused," he said, adding he wants to continue to work with survivors on this and other questions related to sexual abuse. "We want their input."
Another issue that will continue to get the attention of the CCCB is religious freedom in Canada. This includes Bill 21 in Quebec.
People of faith in that province "should be allowed to express it in public, not hide it," he said, adding the CCCB has no immediate plans to contact the Quebec or federal governments about it.
"We could have more initiatives on this issue," he said.
Other issues he sees needing attention include the freedom of conscience of medical staff and Catholic hospitals around not participating in medical assistance in dying, and exploring deeper interfaith relations and relations with other Christian groups.
One thing that will not be discussed by the CCCB is whether priests can marry — an issue that has received a lot of attention recently due to a request from bishops in South America’s Amazon region.
Despite the shortage of priests in Canada, especially in the North, "it is not on the agenda," Gagnon said.
For Gagnon, one of the chief concerns is finding ways to balance his work leading the Archdiocese of Winnipeg with his new national responsibilities.
"Ask me six months from now how it’s going," he joked, quickly adding he has great teams to work with both here in Winnipeg and at the CCCB. "I’m not on my own."
Gagnon is the third archbishop from Winnipeg to be elected head of the CCCB. The others were James Weisgerber, 2007-09; and George Flahiff, 1964-67.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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