Bishop Donald Harvey, the third bishop of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, is encouraged by the challenges that face the people of diocese’s 42 parishes. In his view, those challenges have helped foster a creative approach to life, including life in the church.
“In the past several years the whole outlook has been darkened by the cod moratorium,” Bishop Harvey said. “Even those who have never been on the water have been affected by the spin-off. While we hope and believe the cod fishery will recover, we know things will never be the same. There has been a large amount of outward migration.”
Historically, he said, Newfoundlanders prosper in the face of adversity. “We tend to put on our survival gear and get on really well.”
Not that it is easy to do in the face of economic uncertainty. There are hopes for the success of the Hibernia Oil fields and, for some, a nickel smelter at the controversial Voisey’s Bay development. Although the preliminary planning and building of both projects has provided badly needed jobs and money, their long-term viability is still in question.
“Certainly, it has been very good in the short term, but it is hard to do forward planning,” said Bishop Harvey.
The diocese encompasses 197,000 sq. km and includes the city of St. John’s, the Avalon Peninsula and, curiously, almost all of Labrador. It was, said Bishop Harvey, a case of logic prevailing over geography.
Even though Labrador is on the mainland, and well west of the diocese, when the dioceses in Newfoundland were being established in the mid-1970s, it was decided to make Labrador part of Eastern Newfoundland. The St. John’s airport provides easy access back and forth. Including Labrador in the diocese also provides Bishop Harvey with an official mandate to travel to Labrador, a place that became very dear to him over the five years he served in Happy Valley/Goose Bay.
Each of the three dioceses in the province work closely together. In fact, Bishop Harvey and Bishop Leonard Whitten of the diocese of Western Newfoundland, are related by marriage: June Whitten and Trudy Harvey are sisters.
What makes Eastern Newfoundland distinct is the fact that it includes an international port of call and several rural areas. Each has challenges of its own, but all are united in an optimistic view of the future, coupled with high participation in the Alpha and Cursillo movements. Several churches, though they may be part of multi-point parishes, host ongoing Bible study programs and most hold events that keep the churches as active players in their communities.
“I think we are very optimistic, and rightly so,” said Bishop Harvey. “Even if we had virtually nothing we can have it all – if we look at things in the right light.” Two years ago, Bishop Harvey launched Mission 2000 and dubbed it Mission Possible. The mission calls for the “gathering in” of the diocese’s religiously uncommitted by “knowing Christ and making Christ known.”
Essentially, church members are being called upon to be evangelists – to live what they do and say in church on Sunday morning throughout the rest of week, and in so doing, reach out to those people on the fringes of church life. “Those fields are ripe for the picking,” said Bishop Harvey.
“We’re after nothing short of changing attitudes, and if we can put some energy behind the challenge, then the sky’s the limit,” said Bishop Harvey, who has encouraged parishes to develop their own creative ways to grow and reach out.
Some have launched bring a friend to church campaigns; others have elected to reach out to those who are marginalized.
In an effort to rejuvenate a “somewhat dormant” youth ministry, Bishop Harvey invited two youth delegates from every church in the diocese to spend a weekend talking about they want from the church. The catch was that only one of the delegates could be a church member.
“I must confirm roughly 1,000 young people every year,” said the bishop. “I know that when I put my hands on the heads of about half of them I should probably just shake hands and say goodbye. The preparation they get for confirmation is excellent, but many of them fall by the wayside. We lack follow-up and follow-through. There has to be a way to keep that energy going.”
On that weekend, the bishop learned the younger members of the flock were aware of Jesus – and that he was a part of their lives. They just didn’t feel the need to go to church.
“They are wondering what the church can be in their lives,” said Bishop Harvey. “We did a little survey asking them to respond to two images, and asked them to vote for which image meant more to them. The figure of Christ on the cross received a large response – far more so than the image of a church building.”
He also learned that he couldn’t distinguish between who attended church regularly and who never went.
“It was hard to tell if we were providing what they were seeking,” he said. “I even put myself on the hot seat and I was prepared for being asked just about anything. We spent most of the time talking about confirmation.”
The challenges of keeping the diocese growing and energized are made easier, said Bishop Harvey, in knowing that Christ has done the hard work.
“I don’t think a Christian can be anything but optimistic,” he said. “On Good Friday, Satan was vanquished. If we can only keep up our enthusiasm, then nothing will be able to stop us in our work of spreading the gospel.”
Nancy Devine is a freelance writer and editor based in Aurora, Ont.