Bishop in the Far North

Interview with Reynald Rouleau, OMI
The Most Rev. Reynald Rouleau O.M.I. has been bishop of the diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay for 16 years. The diocese has a Catholic population of approximately 6,500 people and extends to the Polar circle. Here is an account of the missionary activity of a bishop who made this territory his land of adoption.

  • The man sitting in front of me has beautiful white hair. Smiling, he speaks with much admiration of the Inuit people who have welcomed him for the last sixteen years. I would even say that his remarks betray the fact that this change of culture led him to re-examine some of the values that he had when he lived in the south. Bishop Rouleau says that he was impressed from the very start of his life with the Inuit by their capacity to live an intense spiritual life.

“I remember that I found the ceremonies very long. There was no end to the singing. It annoyed me. One day, I realized that song was a way for them to express all their feelings. They can express all the dimensions of the human experience in song. That is why they attach so much importance to it. They can sing together for a whole hour. It even becomes spellbinding. They do it with such incredible enthusiasm. The longer the song is, the more it contributes to pacifying the assembly. I had to adapt myself to this feature of their culture.”

  • Bishop Rouleau became aware very quickly that the Inuit do not have the same notion of time as we North Americans. We are obsessed by time. Nothing goes fast enough.

“Shortly after my arrival in the diocese, I noticed that time does not count for them. It is not necessary to make an appointment before visiting someone. If you are passing by, you can stop and knock at the door of the couple you wish to meet. It is all very simple. I have adapted and now I do as they do. I do not announce myself when I go to visit somebody,” says the bishop of Churchill. “I feel closer to the role of a parish priest than to that of a coordinator of the pastoral activity. I do this work, but it is not the essence of my presence nor of my activity. I am there to share their life. That is also how people perceive me. A woman involved in the pastoral work can call me directly and say: ‘Hello, this is Theresa….’ It is as if I knew her. They present themselves to me as if I knew them personally. It is really a relationship of fraternity and not only a pastoral one. It is not because the bishop is in the house that they will clean the table. I just sit down and it is like I was home to have tea. We do not have a business type relationship but a family one.”

  • Oblates have been present in this area since 1912, with Bishop Arsène Turquetil. This territory is remote and it depends on others, as much for finances as for the recruitment of the priests and pastoral agents. There are at present 6 priests, 2 Sisters and 8 lay pastoral workers, including one Inuk, at the service of the population of this immense territory. Bishop Reynald Rouleau is at present satisfied with the services rendered, and he says that he is not able to hire more permanent helpers. The people who serve the Churchill-Hudson Bay diocese do it voluntarily. It is true missionary work.

“We give them an allowance of $3,500 for their personal expenses. We also contribute to their pension funds and we pay for their annual trip to visit their family. We have a budget of $700,000, of which a third is for travel expenses. Our territory is very large, 2,300,000 square kilometres, and travel is costly. A part of our budget comes from the Canadian bishops, and another part comes from donations collected by “Esqu-o.m.i.” We have very generous benefactors who almost adopt the bishop and the cause of the Inuit. I am very touched by this show of solidarity.”

  • A very important decision was made in 1970. The diocese decided to promote the training of Inuit leaders.

“We observed that they had leaders for the other social and political activities. We did all we could to give them a good formation. Every year we have a training course that lasts for 15 days. There are at present 60 leaders working in the field. They are mainly couples. This is original. Both of them are the leaders and we are satisfied with this formula. We decided on this because the family is the fundamental unit of indigenous culture. Moreover, when one speaks about the family, that includes the grandparents, even if they are dead. The bonds start with the ancestors.”

  • Bishop Rouleau explains that it is very fulfilling for the couples to be involved in the service of their community.

“They are very devoted and they help the community to improve. Of course, they also have difficulties but their prayer life is intense. Their biggest sorrow comes from being criticized or ridiculed by their neighbours. These couples do not have full control over the activities of their children, and there are people who reproach them by saying that they do no better than others.”

  • However, observes Bishop Rouleau, these couples are unequalled when it comes to supporting those who are suffering some hardship. The community is then very important.

“There are, like everywhere else, tragic events and when they occur, it is not long before the leaders organize an evening of prayer. That helps those who suffer to find hope and courage. These people have experienced tragic events, and I can say that they have like a culture of the tragic, but I find also an extraordinary courage in them.”

  • How will the younger generations react? Bishop Rouleau does not quite know what to say. One thing is certain: television is everywhere. The tendency among young people is to use English as their language of communication. They have access to all the services of modern society.

“The influence of North-American society is certainly greater than it was 60 years ago. I do not know which choices the young people will make. The traditional way of life is changing. This society was formerly nomadic and the purpose of all its activities were centred on survival. This is no longer the case. But some values are still important for them.”

  • The problems of the residential schools and the abuse that young Inuit have undergone are still an actuality. These schools were closed in 1963, but there are still problems to resolve. The Canadian Government is taking steps in order to remedy certain situations, but there are cases of sexual or other kinds of violence to be studied. Bishop Rouleau believes that this does not affect the relations with the diocese. He notes however that people want to clarify situations, and he believes that it should be possible to settle everything in a few years. According to the bishop, there are complex cases, and to his knowledge, there are two or three very serious situations.

“I notice that the Inuit personalize these cases instead of attacking the Church in general. They put the responsibility on a precise person. It is healthier than an ideological campaign.”

  • Reynald Rouleau is a man happy to be living in the North.

“I found the first year difficult. I had to adapt myself to this culture. Today I would not change place. I have developed very strong bonds with the pastoral workers and the Inuit leaders. I could not see myself in the south with the responsibility for 80 parishes. This kind of life has really marked me.”

By Jerome Martineau, Notre-Dame du Cap, April 2004, p. 14-15.