Yesterday, the Archdiocese announced with deep sadness the death of the Most Reverend Joseph N. MacNeil, Archbishop Emeritus of Edmonton. He would have turned 94 years of age in April of this year.
Archbishop MacNeil served the Church of God with great devotion throughout his seventy years as a priest and nearly fifty as a Bishop. The Archdiocese of Edmonton has been the beneficiary of his many gifts ever since he came to us as Ordinary in 1973. He is rightly celebrated across the country as an attentive and caring Shepherd of the people entrusted to his care, a distinguished churchman and servant of God, and a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Here in Edmonton, while we experienced and were grateful for all of that, we came to know and love him as something more. He was our father, and, in his later years, our grandfather. That’s how we are mourning his death.
Our grief, of course, is that of Christians. It is tempered with the joy that springs from faith in the triumph of Jesus Christ over death. We are sad for ourselves, but rejoice that he is with the Lord he has long loved and served. Archbishop MacNeil chose to follow Christ as his Lord and Master and did so with wonderful fidelity, dedication and love. By his death, he enters into the Master’s joy! How can we not rejoice with and for him?
I admired many things about Archbishop MacNeil. He was a true friend and reliable confidante, always ready to listen and offer advice, quite often over some very fine Scotch. What has really stood out for me is the deep knowledge he had of the people he served. He not only remembered names. He could also tell you where they were from, their family background and profession, and, not unusually, even the names of their cousins! There was more to this than just an excellent natural memory. Jesus named as the essential quality of a shepherd the knowledge he must have of his sheep (cf. John 10:14). The Archbishop took this to heart. We knew that he knew us, and, knowing us, loved us. We loved him in return, and delighted in what we were privileged to know of him.
And we got to know a fair amount, because of his penchant for stories. In any gathering, he quite naturally “held court” as he regaled us with story after story, usually leaving his listeners breathless from laughter. What fascinated me was that as I listened to them – and I heard plenty of his narratives – there were never any repeats. His treasure chest of experience was seemingly inexhaustible. Particularly deep, though, was the love which animated his telling of the great story, namely, the Gospel of his Lord, Jesus Christ. Now, that story he did repeat often, relating it in both word and witness. A Bishop is successor to the Apostles, and is thus sent to tell the good news of salvation in Christ. This, too, he took to heart, and dedicated himself so to proclaiming the Gospel that we might all grow in Christ. In this way, he lived out his episcopal motto, Crescamus in Christum, “Let us grow into Christ.”
Well, his own growth into Christ now continues as he passes by God’s grace from this world to the next. We are grateful to Almighty God for the countless blessings poured out upon us through the person and ministry of Archbishop Joseph N. MacNeil. May our Blessed Mother, together with all the angels and saints, now “receive his soul and present him to God the Most High,” who we know stands ready to receive “Joe N.” with tender mercy, and perhaps also an ear eager to hear some more stories.