Whitehorse: Two Priests and a Bishop

Bishop Hector Vila near his house on the Tahkini River, Yukon.

Periodically I get inquiries about volunteering for mission work. It’s understandable since we are an organization concerned with evangelization. From a practical point of view, we make people aware of and raise funds for home missions, but we don’t place missionaries. That’s the jurisdiction of bishops.

It would be great if there was an agency that found, trained and placed missionaries. Unfortunately, each bishop has to do this himself. The placement of a missionary in the current litigious environment makes it a complex process. Bishops wonder about a candidate’s character and history and whether they’re capable of functioning effectively in an isolated situation under extreme conditions. In most cases it’s expensive to bring a candidate to a diocese and look after them.

Those who inquire with us are good people, with good intentions for a week or a month. I recently spent 6 weeks helping the Diocese of Whitehorse because it was short of priests. I haven’t served in the diocese for 6 years. Nobody knew me in Watson Lake. I was there to administer Sacraments in 5 distant faith communities. During that time, there was nothing a lay volunteer could do that would justify the expense of travel. In fact, there was little that I could do, other than say Mass and hear confessions.

I don’t mind responding to the inquiries of interested individuals. There aren’t many and God bless them for their good intentions. I don’t want to discourage inquiries, as some may be able to commit 3 or more years to being a pastoral assistant administering a mission and preparing for when a priest will make his rounds. I know some wonderful women religious and lay missionaries, without whom bishops would be lost. They can baptize, lead Liturgy of the Word with communion and inter the dead. They keep the faith community together.

I wish priests would inquire. They are most needed in the missions because they are trained for ministry and can celebrate Sacraments. The reality of what is now called evangelization involves travelling to multiple faith communities by car, plane, snow machine or boat so that the faithful can worship the Lord at Mass. It takes a priest to hear confessions, bring viaticum and anoint. This is not to denigrate our lay missionaries. They’re doing a great job, but it’s different work.

I helped Bishop Vila because 3 priests were leaving to go elsewhere. Only 2 priests and a bishop remain to cover 23 communities spread between 18 hours of driving. Whitehorse is not the only mission diocese short of priests, but it’s the most in need. If any priests are reading this, maybe the Holy Spirit is calling you. If any bishops are reading this – well, you know what I’m asking.

Fr. Leo Llames and Bishop Vila in front of the rectory in Porter Creek.

On my last night in the Yukon, I took the remaining priests, Fr. Slawomir (Slawek) Szwagrzyk of the London ON diocese and Fr. Leo Llames of the Toronto Archdiocese to dinner. We were all over 55 years of age. Fr. Leo reminded me that he came to the Yukon at my suggestion. He was at my office in Toronto and I mentioned that he should consider working in the missions, so he did. We discussed the situation in detail but there were no new ideas. They were fully ready to do the job and seemed in good spirits. Three foreign priests are scheduled to come but are held up by Immigration.

Fr. Leo and Fr. Slaweck are centred in Whitehorse and will rotate with the bishop around the diocese – 12 hours to Fort Nelson, 6 hours to Beaver Creek, 9 hours to Telegraph Creek, 5 hours to Faro and places in between. It takes time to recover from driving on rough roads, not to mention during winter conditions. I don’t know of any other diocese where there’s so much driving. During my 6 week stint I drove over 3,000 kms.

As we left the restaurant, I felt a knot building in my gut thinking of the load that was about to descend upon them. Please keep them in your prayers.