A journey in pastoral care

Archbishop completes his first canonical visitation in over two years

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

As he wraps up his three-week canonical visitation in Deanery 2, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas has much to reflect upon.

Marking his first visitation since 2019, the archbishop has spent his days with parishioners and priests, students and teachers, families and seniors, and people from all walks of life. With this unique chance to spend so many weeks in Peace River, Fairview, Manning, Grimshaw and other small farming communities, he got to experience first-hand many of the joys and challenges the Catholic peoples of this area face.

There were a multitude of common concerns and topics of interest brought to His Grace during the April 30th-May 15th visitation, often related to the long-term effects of pandemic restrictions, Catholic education, Indian Residential Schools, healing and reconciliation, and the Pope’s upcoming visit to Canada.

But perhaps the most pressing of all concerns was the aging demographics within many churches, and the worries that there will be no one in the next generation filling the pews once the current generation is gone. It was an anxiety voiced in every community the archbishop visited.

“It was a concern for almost everybody: the diminishing number of people who come to Mass on Sundays,” Pettipas said.

As part of his canonical visitaiton, Archbishop Pettipas celebrated evening Mass with the Peace River CWL and presided at their recommitment of officers and members.

“They’re especially concerned about the youth. They hardly see the youth at all at Mass. And they say to me, ‘I’ve been volunteering for years in this parish. Now I’m getting to the age where I know I can’t do this much longer, but I don’t see any one coming up behind me who is able to do this. And because it is so important that there are engaged parishioners, what is going to happen to this parish if no one comes forward?’

“I am very much concerned about it myself. Many young people move out of these communities for work or school, and of course, we can’t force people to stay. We need people to want to move to these areas.”

It’s a question with no easy answers, Archbishop Pettipas says, and one that requires multifaceted solutions. But it’s the intimate face-to-face opportunities that these canonical visitations provide that help the bishop ponder these issues more deeply – in a way he wouldn’t get to on a briefer visit.

“That’s what motivates me most in this – a pastoral concern for all of our communities,” he said. “I get to a number of parishes every year anyway for confirmations, but with these visitations I get to go to even the smaller churches that I don’t get to see for confirmations. I get to meet the people for a more significant amount of time than usual, and if there’s something they want to bring to me or I to them, there is now this opportunity to do so.”

It was after his first year as a bishop that Pettipas started these visitations, each year going to one of the archdiocese’s five deaneries. It’s a way to ensure he gets the opportunity to be with every community of the archdiocese – no matter how small or large, close or out-of-the-way.

The Archbishop visited classrooms throughout Deanery 2.

“When I was ordained a bishop, I can say with all honesty I knew nothing about being a bishop,” His Grace recalled. “Being a religious priest, our life is different than diocesan priests whose superior is the bishop. The nuncio thankfully gave me a document on the life of the bishop, and one thing this document said was that a bishop should visit every church in his diocese once a year or at least every five years.

“I looked at our diocese and saw that we have five deaneries. And I thought, rather than visiting our churches with scattered trips here, there and everywhere, I could use the deanery system as a way of scheduling my time around the diocese. And so, every spring I take three or four weeks in a deanery, making sure I have a good number of days in each parish or quasi-parish. That way, over a five-year period, I’ll have made it to every church, community and every Catholic school in the region.”

Now with 15 years as the archbishop of Grouard-McLennan, Pettipas is on his third rotation of deanery visitations, with plans to visit deanery 3 – which includes the communities of Grande Prairie, Sexsmith, Beaverlodge, Valleyview, Spirit River and many others – next year.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the June 2022 edition of Northern Light