In Search of A Bishop: Who Need Not Apply?

Amid the visions of airports and helipads, plus suggestions that Cape Breton should be a new province, a new territory or a partner with Membertou, and the publication of the financial position in which the CBRM finds itself, CBU Professor Tom Urbaniak’s notion that the seat of the Diocese of Antigonish should be moved back to Cape Breton, where it was founded in Arichat in 1844, seems to have been lost somewhere in the shuffle.

The proposal seems out of place, given the way the diocese, celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, has evolved over the years. Urbaniak’s reasons for the move include the fact that Cape Breton is pretty much poverty-stricken, but how having the diocesan seat somewhere on the island would change that particular situation (as he views it) baffles me.

At the time the decision was made to move the seat from Arichat to Antigonish, there was quite an outcry, and rightly so, especially considering that in 1853, Bishop Colin MacKinnon, the new diocese’s second bishop, had established a seminary, St. Francis Xavier College, in Arichat to supply its people — 78,000 in 58 parishes and 38 missions by that point — with “a native-born, locally trained priesthood.”

Should we be at all surprised that those in the hierarchy, whose job it was to make or break dioceses, would okay the building of St. Ninian’s Cathedral in Antigonish, completed, by the way,  in 1874, without consulting its Catholic population in Arichat? Not really.

Professor Urbaniuk sees, in the upcoming selection of a new bishop for the Antigonish diocese, an opportunity to reverse that 133-year-old decision, although he doesn’t for a moment suggest that Arichat should be restored to its former glory, but rather that there are a number of Cape Breton churches that could fill the bill as the new cathedral. If this were ever considered by Rome, and the good people of Antigonish even remotely concurred with the idea, the church that would have been the obvious choice to serve as the cathedral would have been Sydney’s Sacred Heart, which is no longer a place of worship.

In fact, the diocese has declined from 123 parishes in 2006 to 99 today — many of them actually groups of four or five parishes sharing a pastor. The 2019 pastoral appointments give a strong indication of the hardship faced by a bishop dealing with a very limited number of priests, more and more of them retirees, as he attempts to provide church-going Catholics with pastoral leadership. The influx of clergy from dioceses around the world has been on the increase for years now and without them, the number of parishes would decline even further.


Bishop Brian Dunn, who has led the Antigonish diocese in recent years, became Coadjutor Archbishop of Halifax-Yarmouth Archdiocese on July 5 and will become Archbishop when Anthony Mancini resigns in November 2020. Dunn will continue as Apostolic Administrator of Antigonish diocese until the appointment of his successor, possibly before the end of 2019.

In his column, Urbaniak accused former bishops (no names) of numerous sins including “corruption.”

Bishop Raymond Lahey qualifies in my books, but I would view the behavior of others throughout the many decades of the abuse scandal as fraught with stupidity, arrogance and, above all, an unwavering, if misplaced loyalty to a hierarchy in Rome that opted for silence on the entire sordid affair. (Had the diocesan seat been in Cape Breton, would the response have been any different?)

So Bishop Brian Dunn entered a minefield when he accepted his appointment to Antigonish, and it would be wrong not to acknowledge the manner in which he carried out the thankless task of dealing with the various aspects of a very unique situation – horror on the part of diocesan Catholics, anger on the part of the many who opposed compensation for victims, church closures (most of which would have happened anyway) and disheartened clergy, shamed by the “corrupt” behavior of some of their fellow priests.

On the most important aspect, Bishop Dun dealt fairly and compassionately with the victims, many of whom had suffered in silence for years. For that alone, he deserves credit and thanks.


Professor Urbaniak’s fantasy about moving the seat of the diocese back to Cape Breton includes setting up a committee, including laity, who would have a say in the selection of the new bishop.

Though it sounds fine to have both women and men “give meaningful, positive input to the short-listing and vetting of a new bishop,” the occasion of naming of a new bishop gives local clergy an opportunity to suggest names for the man they feel would make the best head of the diocese. The Vatican may act on the names submitted or choose someone not suggested in this process. In the past, the new bishop as chosen by Rome has not necessarily been one who met with the approval of the clergy, even if Catholics might have no problem with him.

Bishop Brian Dunn, St. Mary’s Basilica,5  July  2019. photo by Aurea Sadi, Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth source: Diocese of Antigonish 

Let’s face it – how many members of any diocese actually know a bishop? (Reminds me of the story of a playground leader asking the kids if they had any pets. One little boy volunteered that “he had a dog and knew a cat.”)

Truth be told, I can say I’ve met four bishops and spoken to a fifth, so I actually can’t say I “know” any of them. The fact is that a bishop of any diocese has very little contact with parishioners, unless they serve on the various committees that are part and parcel of most dioceses.

Although he presides at the sacrament of Confirmation which counts as his “annual visit” to the parish, and ordains seminarians (a declining species) to priesthood, and presides at funerals for clergy and celebrations of anniversaries of parishes, overall, the bishop has little control over those Catholics who make up his diocese. He does, however, have control over the clergy. He is the “boss of them,” deciding in which parish and for how long they will serve, deciding which of them will become pastors, and, unfortunately, as we have discovered over the past decades, moving them from one parish to another for sins that should have called for defrocking, if not excommunication.

That prompts the question of just how the laity would judge a bishop’s performance, given their actual lack of personal knowledge of a particular bishop unless word of how he’d carried out his episcopal duties had leaked over the past few years (in which case, he probably wouldn’t make anyone’s list anyway).

I think local clergy would be better placed to evaluate candidates for the position and I’d be willing to accept their choice, given that my life won’t be altered by any such appointment. However, there might just be an alternative solution.


But if we’re to use the selection of a new bishop as a catalyst for change in the diocese, why not go for real change? I propose we run the following ad:



One bishop, aged 45 to 70. Excellent physical and mental health a prerequisite. Must have spent career in quiet, unnoticed parish service and exhibited willingness to sacrifice personal and family time to assist pastor in understanding of parish and people. Experience as lector, Eucharistic minister, religious education coordinator (or teacher), choir member, sacristan, housekeeper or other low-profile role facilitating the pastor’s concentration on service to God’s people would be an asset. Only women need apply.


Yes, I am saying it once again: the ordination of women is one obvious solution to many of the church’s woes.

Sadly, as recently as April 2nd of this year, Pope Francis, while insisting the church should “admit to a history of abuse of women” and of “male domination,” and that young people have complained of a “lack of leading female role models,” had no new ideas on the subject.

He also seems to have had little to say about the fact that in April, the Vatican’s monthly magazine that deals with female issues saw its staff resign when “a new editor sought to put them under direct male control.” At the end of last year’s synod, women’s requests that they be allowed to vote at future synods were not addressed. The Pope seems very concerned that the church attract more young people, confident, it would seem, that women will hang in regardless of being treated as second-class Catholics. Oh, for a weekend when no women show up for services. Disaster!

Pope Francis  has asked young people “not to be disillusioned by the sexual abuse scandal” — a “tragedy” in his words — and declared the Catholic church a “living church” that “can look back on history and acknowledge a fair share of male authoritarianism, domination, various forms of enslavement, abuse and sexist violence,” (this is a church we’re discussing here?) an outlook he says means the church “can support the call to respect women’s rights.” When will this happen, one wonders?

Possibly when the seat of the diocese is moved to Cape Breton.

Or when you-know-where freezes over.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.