Pope Benedict XVI, from Rome, appointed father Gary Gordon to be the fifth bishop of the diocese of Whitehorse Thursday.
“It certainly came right out the blue for me,” said Gordon from his busy office at St. Mary’s parish in Chilliwack, British Columbia, where he currently works as a pastor.
“How did the shepherds get picked on the hillside to get the message from the angel that they were going to visit the newly-born Jesus? — That threw them for a loop, too.”
The Whitehorse diocese, officially designated in 1967, serves 8,000 Catholics in 20 parishes and missions throughout the Yukon and Northern BC.
It has been without a bishop since 2000, when Thomas Lobsinger, 72, died in a plane crash on Fox Lake.
Usually, it takes two and a half years to fill the post, but the Vatican took six years to appoint a new bishop because the diocese was in turmoil, said father Jim Bleackley from Whitehorse’s Sacred Heart Cathedral on Steele Street.
It was dealing with claims from its Lower Post residential school, which closed in 1975, and didn’t want to bring in somebody new to deal with the complicated issues.
The diocese went through a time of strife and a brush with bankruptcy, but now the appointment of Gordon heralds a time of renewal, said Bleackley.
Gordon spent the past 24 years working as a pastor in BC, where a crowning achievement was his healing and reconciliation work with local First Nations groups.
“It’s been a bit of a mess in terms of how things have unfolded,” said Gordon of the church’s relationship with First Nations.
He cited the legacies of residential schools and colonization.
Specifically, Gordon guided a reconciliation process called Returning to Spirit, which focuses on moving residential school victims forward towards healing.
“There are no fast or quick solutions and I certainly don’t have them,” he added. “But if you’re able to walk together and journey together and struggle together, you come up with a new way.”
Growing up in Burnaby, BC, Gordon’s family always had strong ties to the church, and local priests were familiars around his childhood home.
He entered the seminary in Grade 10, and studied at Christ the King in Mission, BC; at St. Jerome College at the University of Waterloo; and St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ontario, over the next 10 years.
He kept getting “green lights” affirming that he was on the right path and, in 1982, Gordon was ordained into the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Gordon, 48, spent his life following the call of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Father. Now he’ll follow it to the Yukon from Chilliwack, where he’s lived half his life.
“I’ll exchange my webbed feet for snowshoes,” joked Gordon of the upcoming move.
And he knows a little of what to expect North of 60, as he did a whirlwind tour of the Yukon and Alaska a few summers ago with his parents.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I can still remember sitting on the banks of the Yukon River at 1 a.m. reading.”
The upcoming move means excitement and apprehension for Gordon, but he lets the Holy Spirit call the shots.
“When the Holy Father asks you to do something … it’s kind of hard to say no,” said Gordon. “I’ve never said no to any assignment that the church has asked me to do.”
Gordon, a self-described adventurer at heart, looks forward to exploring the Yukon wilds.
He loves mountain climbing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, golfing and fishing.
“It’s been a big part of my life — to go out into the wilderness and have a nice long conversation with God in the solitude.”
Gordon has three months to be ordained bishop in the diocese.
Bishops usually hold office until age 75.