After 2 years, Roman Catholics on P.E.I. still waiting for a new bishop

Bishop Richard Grecco resigned in March 2021, when he turned 75 — the mandatory retirement age for bishops. He was also being treated for cancer.   (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)
Bishop Richard Grecco resigned in March 2021, when he turned 75 — the mandatory retirement age for bishops. He was also being treated for cancer. (Steve Bruce/CBC - image credit)

Roman Catholics on P.E.I. have been waiting almost two years to find out who will be named Bishop of the Diocese of Charlottetown, which encompasses all 51 of the Island's parishes.

Bishop Richard Grecco retired in March 2021 when he turned 75  — the mandatory retirement age for bishops. Grecco also began chemotherapy at the time.

Father Brian MacDougall has been the administrator of the diocese since then. And he is surprised he's been doing it that long.

"To be honest, I thought maybe eight to 10 months at the most. But here I am. It's almost two years," he said.

Submitted by Father Brian MacDougall
Submitted by Father Brian MacDougall

"Oftentimes what will happen is when a bishop retires like Bishop Grecco did, they are sometimes asked to stay on until a bishop is named ... but with Bishop Grecco, he had been battling cancer," he said. "So when he retired, it was a complete retirement."

MacDougall is a busy man.

He's also the full-time pastor of three churches which form what the diocese calls the Holy Trinity pastoral unit: St. Theresa, The Little Flower in Morell, St. Peter's in St. Peter's Bay and St. Lawrence O'Toole in Green Meadows.

Those are the parishes where he celebrates mass, and conducts baptisms, weddings and funerals.

'Overseer and caretaker role'

As the Charlottetown diocese's administrator, MacDougall said he deals with any issues that may arise at the diocese level — but he isn't allowed to start new initiatives.

"It's kind of an overseer and caretaker role in the absence of a bishop."

For now, he said, things are in a holding pattern because there are many things that only a bishop can do.

I've been asked literally hundreds of times. It might even be over 1,000 times. 'Father Brian, when are we getting a new bishop?' — Father Brian MacDougall 

"For example we're getting to have fewer and fewer priests. So things like parish amalgamation of different groups of parishes, and sometimes maybe closures of parishes," he said.

"That's really something that ultimately only a bishop can do unless there's some, you know, kind of dire emergency ... and it has to be addressed."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

MacDougall said people are very curious about who will get the job.

"I've been asked literally hundreds of times. It might even be over 1,000 times, 'Father Brian, when are we getting a new bishop?', and 'What's taking so long?' And I say to them, 'Well, it's in process.'"

"I don't have any inside information as to when exactly that will be. Like all of the priests and people of the diocese, I'm hoping that it would be sooner rather than later, although it's not uncommon for it to be a couple of years before a bishop is announced."

P.E.I.'s size may be a factor

Robert Dennis, chair of UPEI's religious studies department, said two years is a long time to wait for a new bishop, but that it likely has something to do with the Island's size.

"Bigger places like Toronto would get a bishop right away," said Dennis.

Submitted by Robert Dennis
Submitted by Robert Dennis

"It makes some sense that the places with the larger population or have more pressing needs, will get episcopal appointments right away. Unfortunately, it's very important to us," he said.

"But in the scope of the billion or so plus Catholics of the world, P.E.I. is a fairly small place. So we tend to have to wait as other smaller places would."

And he said there may be additional factors holding things up, including COVID-19.

And then there's the process itself.

The process can be long 

Dennis said someone called the "apostolic nuncio" — essentially the Pope's ambassador to Canada — has a role in gathering names and information.

But he said there's a new person in that position who may need time to familiarize himself with the clergy and bishops in Canada.

You want somebody who's young enough to bring some energy to the job. — Michael Swan

"The nuncio would be working with names from across Canada. And out of those names, for each individual vacancy, he would submit three ... to an office in Rome called the Congregation for Bishops," he said.

"That office would then look at those names. And then the head of that office, the prefect — who until very recently was Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Quebec City — would then make a recommendation to the Pope.

Steve Bruce/CBC
Steve Bruce/CBC

Dennis said the Pope can appoint anyone he wants, but usually relies on the advice of the prefect.

"They would then relay that information through the nuncio, who would give a call to the person selected and ask if they accept this appointment. If they do, then they would be installed as bishop of that place," Dennis said.

He said he thinks it's possible there will be a new bishop named within a year.

"I make this guess thinking that it would be extremely abnormal to go three years," he said.

"There are other comparably-sized dioceses — maybe not in terms of geography, but in terms of population — somewhere like Hurst, Ontario, which has recently been given a bishop and the resignation of their previous bishop was about six months before P.E.I."

Remo Casilli/Reuters
Remo Casilli/Reuters

Age matters

As the associate editor of The Catholic Register in Toronto, Michael Swan keeps an eye on issues within the church.

He said there are some things to keep in mind when thinking about a new bishop.

"You know, you don't hire a 74-year-old guy to a job that he has to retire from at 75. And if there's been no bishop for a couple of years, there's probably work to be done, right?" he said.

"So you want somebody who's young enough to bring some energy to the job. Many other dioceses in Canada face similar situations," he said.

Planning is underway 

Father Brian MacDougall said he hopes they will hear soon.

"I've kept saying to people that ask me recently, 'Look, it's almost two years so surely to heavens one of these days the word will come down and the announcement will be made by Rome and then we have a committee set to go to plan the whole process,'" he said.

"If they're already a bishop, I think they have two months to come to the diocese. And if it's a priest that has to be ordained a bishop, then it's usually I believe two to four months before they would be officially installed."

In response to an email inquiry from CBC News, the Secretariat of the Apolstolic Nunciature in Canada said the process of appointing a new bishop "is always attentive to the situation of the diocese, and may take more or less time depending on any number of particular circumstances.

"In every case, however, the process is deliberately kept confidential to allow the involved parties freedom from any public pressure which might hamper a maturely considered appointment."