Bishop Fred Henry, left, the long time head of Calgary's diocese, has resigned due to health reasons. Peterborough's Bishop William McGrattan will take his place. Register file photos

Years of 'chronic pain' force Calgary Bishop Fred Henry to resign, replaced by Peterborough's McGrattan

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  • January 5, 2017

OTTAWA – Years of suffering from “severe chronic pain” have forced one of Canada’s most outspoken bishops to relinquish his ministry.

Pope Francis accepted Calgary Bishop Fred Henry’s resignation for health reasons on Jan. 4 and named Peterborough Bishop William McGrattan as his replacement.

In his resignation letter to the Pope, submitted in February of 2016, Henry, 73, explained that he has been dealing with a painful auto immune disease that causes a form of arthritis affecting his spine.

“I can no longer turn my head sideways but must turn the whole upper body to look left or right,” he wrote Pope Francis. “In addition, I can’t really look up but have a permanent stoop and my feet are much more familiar to me than the sky.”

The illness has also caused painful flare-ups of inflammation in other parts of his body, including his eyes, and reduced his lung capacity.

Henry wrote that he lived with “severe chronic pain.” He is stepping down two years short of the mandatory retirement age of 75 set by Canon Law.

“My condition cannot be reversed,” he told Francis. “I have jokingly said that ‘pain is my best friend, we are always together’ but it is wearing me out and limiting my ministry,” he said.

“I believe that someone younger with more energy, stamina and pastoral vision should take over the role of Ordinary for the Diocese of Calgary,” he wrote. “The needs of this ever-expanding diocese are enormous.

“I have given it my best and I am past my ‘best due date’ — it is time to retire.”

Outspoken and controversial, Henry led the Calgary diocese for 19 years. Though dubbed conservative when it came to moral issues surrounding abortion, marriage and, most recently, gender theory and transgender guidelines for public schools, Henry also gained the ire of some conservatives for his support of social justice issues.

During the debate leading to the redefinition of marriage in 2005, he faced human rights complaints for a pastoral letter defending traditional marriage that also ran as a column in a local newspaper. Those complaints were later dropped after mediation. In 2004, he received phone calls from Revenue Canada that threatened his diocese’s tax status for his defence of Catholic teaching in the public square.

In 2000, Henry clashed with Conrad Black, the then-owner of the Calgary Herald, over a five-month strike at the newspaper. Henry urged Black to negotiate with the workers. Black responded by calling him a “useful idiot,” among other insults.

That same year, in the then Black-owned National Post, the late conservative columnist Ted Byfield called Henry “Red Freddy” and a “pinko bishop.” Christian leaders in Calgary rallied in support of Henry, calling the attacks “outrageous” and “unChristian.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto offered his prayers and best wishes to Henry in retirement, calling him “an exceptional bishop.”

“I will always be grateful for his fraternal support,” he said.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said he was pleased for Henry’s sake the Pope had accepted the resignation, but admitted he had feelings of “sadness and regret.”

“Bishop Henry has served not only his diocese but also the Church in Canada exceptionally well,” Smith said. “Of particular note is the outstanding contribution he has made in the field of Catholic education in both Alberta and across the country. I consider it a blessing and privilege to have worked closely with Bishop Henry, from whom I have learned a great deal.”

Born in London, Ont., in 1943, Henry was ordained a priest in the London diocese in 1968. In 1986, St. Pope John Paul II named him Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese.

In 1995, he was appointed Bishop of the Thunder Bay diocese. Three years later, in 1998, he was named to Calgary.

McGrattan, 60, was also born in London and studied at St. Peter’s Seminary there, where he earned a Master’s of Divinity in conjunction with the University of Western Ontario. Ordained to the priesthood in 1987, McGrattan studied in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. After obtaining a licentiate in 1992, he returned to the London diocese to take up several pastoral appointments.

In 1997, he became rector of St. Peter’s Seminary, a position he held until he was named Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto in 2009.

McGrattan has been serving in Peterborough since 2014. He will be installed in Calgary on Feb. 27 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

“We will miss his valuable contributions in Ontario, but are heartened in knowing he will be passionately engaged in the life of the faithful in Alberta,” said Collins.

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