Bishop Gregory Bittman admits he doesn’t know a whole lot about his new diocese in southeastern British Columbia yet, but he does know his top priority: “My plan is to go there and listen and get to know the people; that’s the first thing I’ll be doing.”
News of Bittman’s appointment as the new Bishop of the Diocese of Nelson came from the Vatican early Tuesday morning. He has served as Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton since 2012. In Nelson, he will succeed the Most Rev. John Corriveau, OFM Cap., who is retiring after 10 years in the office.
In a message to parishes, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith conceded that his popular Auxiliary will be dearly missed.
“Please join with me in praying for God’s blessings upon Bishop Bittman as he undertakes the responsibilities and care of his new flock in Nelson,” the Archbishop wrote.
“While we are sad to see him depart from Edmonton where he has devoted his pastoral ministry with such generosity and wisdom, we assure him of our profound gratitude and prayerful support. I am confident that his ministry will bear great fruit for the people of God in the Diocese of Nelson and that he will continue to bring a significant contribution to the Church in Canada.”
Bishop Bittman, 56, said it will be hard to leave his hometown of Edmonton, but he’s looking forward to a “new adventure” in the Nelson Diocese, which stretches across the Kootenay and Okanagan regions of B.C. and is home to about 71,000 Catholics.
“I’m going to leave a piece of my heart here,” he admitted in an interview. “I was born and raised here and I’m a Prairie boy. My mom’s parents had a farm, so I’m used to working in the dirt, smelling the dirt, and looking out where you could see for 30 kilometres all around.”
After his ordination in 1996, Father Bittman served in a handful of parishes before taking on the job of chancellor of the Archdiocese, a position he held for 12 years.
“So my roots are deep here, and my relationships are deep and longstanding. There’s going to be a lot of tears shed when I leave. It will be like all the assignments that I’ve ever had – I drive away and I’m crying as I look in the rearview mirror. But you have to look ahead.”
“There will be great people, new experiences, in this new place. I’m kind of taking it like I did with a new parish – there’s lots to learn and there’s good people everywhere.”
Bishop Bittman said he’s looking forward to experiencing milder winters in the Okanagan, enjoying the fresh fruit and B.C. wines, and exploring the region’s lakes – if he has time.
He said he’s heard compliments about the chancery staff in Kelowna, where the diocesan offices are located, but they may not know what they’re in for. Bittman’s sense of humour is nearly as wicked as his sweet tooth.
“I hope there’s one or two people there with a candy bowl, because I love to eat sweets, and if I’m in stress, then you’ll notice that the candy bowl will be empty by the end of the weekend. But I’m also a good Catholic, so I go and make a Confession to anyone whose candy bowl I’ve emptied.”
Parishioners in the Nelson Diocese will soon learn that their new bishop is a man of many talents. He enjoys skiing and scuba diving, and he’d like to play some soccer or volleyball with the students at the local Catholic schools “rather than just sit there and talk.” He is also an avid and competitive long-distance runner.
“I’ve run a few marathons, I run two or three times a week, and I’ve also started interval training,” he said. “I’m looking forward to running in Kelowna; I did a marathon there which I can’t remember because I just about died after running that one.”
So avoid trying to outrun the bishop — and don’t even think of fighting him. He took up karate in 1984 and earned his black belt in 1996, the year he was ordained to priesthood.
“So I do have a few tricks up my sleeve, should someone try something on me, but I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody,” he quipped.
With 11 years of nursing experience before he joined the priesthood, Bittman would be as adept at offering first aid to an injured person as he would be at anointing them with holy oil in preparation for death.
“I learned a lot about humanity in nursing, stuff that people don’t normally encounter in life,” he said. “To me, that was invaluable training and experience before I became a priest.”
Bishop Bittman also plays piano and is skilled in home renovation. He has a deep love of animals, especially cats, and plans to bring his cat Lola to Kelowna — if he can convince her to make the trip in a kennel.
Even though moving is never easy, Bishop Bittman said priests learn to get used to it.
“It is supposed to be a greater sign of our reality, that our time here on earth is temporary,” he said. “So this keeps us grounded in the fact that this is not the final place; the final place is eternity. That’s a reality, and it’s a sign value to everyone else.”
He considers himself blessed to have the opportunity to serve as an Auxiliary before taking on his own diocese.
“I’ve learned how to do bishop things, how to be the centre of attention even though I don’t want to be. At an event, everyone’s fussing over you, and I don’t think of myself as a special or important person. I’m just me.
“But you carry this office with you, and there are great expectations. There are certain things I’m better at and other things that are not my strength. Archbishop Smith did a lot of the heavy lifting here, but now all the responsibility is going to shift onto me.”
He’s not worried, though: “God knows what he’s doing. Every experience, every relationship, every situation has been a chance to learn something. God keeps adding to your toolbox so you can deal with things.”
Bishop Bittman said he won’t make “any big grandiose plans” until he hears from his colleagues and parishioners.
“I want them to tell me what they need. I’ll be counting on the people there to share their wisdom and experience.”