ROME — On March 27-31 some 22 bishops from Canada were in Rome participating in the semi-regular visits to Rome the world’s bishops pay every five years, to meet with the pope and all the offices of the Roman curia.

“The very first words [Pope Francis] said to us were ‘I understand that being a bishop is a very difficult task, and I want to thank you, and I want you to share with me what you’re experiencing in your homes, and allow me to talk to you as a pastor’,” said Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Diocese of New Westminster, British Columbia.

Nowakowski spoke at length with Crux about their meeting with Francis on Monday 27, after celebrating Mass on the tomb of St. Peter, in St. Peter’s Basilica. Among the issues they spoke about with the pope during their 2.5-hour encounter was the youth, Canada’s assisted suicide bill, and sinodality.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is the largest of the 22 Eastern churches in communion with Rome, and has a large membership in Canada, where many people went after leaving Ukraine.

Talking on March 30, Nowakowski also spoke about the “blessings” and “many challenges” of having married priests, something the Ukrainian church has had for centuries, in response to comments recently made by Pope Francis on this regard.

Although they’re set to occur every five years, this was the first ad limina visit for the Canadian bishops since 2006. The reasons for this delay were many: From the fact that the five-year term is somewhat flexible, to the resignation of Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’s election, and the Holy Year of Mercy in 2016, during which most ad liminas were suspended.

Crux spoke with Nowakowsi in Rome on Thursday. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: I understand Pope Francis was your very first meeting this week. How did that go?

Nowakowsi: It was surprising for us, because we understood you usually meet with the Holy Father towards the end, as an opportunity to talk about what you’d heard and seen in the various dicasteries. But, then we got information that our very first meeting was in fact going to be with the Holy Father. And I suppose you could joke about playing hooky the rest of the week, but that’s not what we want to do.

Our first encounter was with Pope Francis. But our first action as group of bishops in our ad limina, was to celebrate Mass at the tomb of St. Peter on Monday morning. And that was so moving. Archbishop Richard Smith, of Edmonton for the Latin Rite Church, was the main celebrant and homilist.

He reminded us that we are the successors of the apostles, who’ve come to be with Peter, our brother. And there we were, Eastern Catholic Bishops and Latin Catholic bishops, praying for our eparchies, dioceses and faithful, preparing to meet with Peter.

And when you did, it was for two and a half hours!

We were surprised. We knew from the meeting with the Atlantic Bishops of Canada that one of the bishops had looked at his watch, and the Holy Father had asked, “Oh, do you have somewhere you need to be?” And the bishop responded, “No, but we thought you did, Holy Father.” To which the pope answered: “No, no, no, I’m fine.”

So, probably all of us took our wrist watches off, to avoid the temptation! We were told that we would get maybe an hour or 90 minutes. And it was incredible. We were welcomed very warmly, not only by the pope but the staff. From the first moment, when we met with the Swiss Guard, it felt like he was excited at us being there.

And then Archbishop Georg Gänswein [Prefect of the Papal Household], when he met us, tried to put us at ease. It was wonderful.

When we were shown to the library [in the Apostolic Palace, where the meeting took place], for me it was spectacular, because the pope greeted us with, Slava Isysy Khyrsty! Which means “Glory to Jesus Christ” in Ukrainian. Automatically, I realized that he knows who I am, that I’m from the Ukrainian Church, and that this is the greeting which Ukrainian Catholics use. He made us immediately feel welcomed.

We took our seats in this beautiful library, we were alone with him, and it was like being with a brother. He told us that he was going to pretend to throw a soccer ball into the center, and whoever wanted to kick it could go first. It sounded like a good way to proceed. Canadians are a pretty casual group of people, but this was …

The very first words he said to us were “I understand that being a bishop is a very difficult task, and I want to thank you, and I want you to share with me what you’re experiencing in your homes, and allow me to talk to you as a pastor.” It went from there.

It did not feel like we were there for two and a half hours. Time flew by. It was so engaging, the way he talked to us all. He especially made a point of acknowledging that we [Ukrainians] were there, and he was interested in us as well.

What will you take with you from that meeting?

First of all, his emphasis that we’re brothers, that we don’t operate in isolation, our parishes don’t operate in isolation, and the pope doesn’t operate in isolation. We operate together. He really talked about the synodality of the Church, and about the synodal system with which the Eastern churches operate.

But I think he expanded that, to talk about how we need to listen to our faithful, what they’re saying, also our clergy. And we who’ve come here, to talk to him about the Church.

I also found it important to hear him say that in preparation for the synod on the youth, to happen in 2018, we have to listen to youth and what they have to say.  When we were kids, we communicated in a different way, so how do we communicate with our youth today? How do we guarantee that we’re listening, and not just talking, to our youth?

You mentioned the synod. The Chilean bishops, who were here recently, spoke about talking to the pope about the one on the family, and specifically about Amoris Laetitia. Did this come up in your meeting, or was it more general?

I don’t think we talked about this in such specific terms, because our approach in Canada maybe was different. For us, he wanted to listen to us, and we brought forth our Canadian issues, what’s going on in our country and how we are as pastors.

We also talked about some of the very difficult questions that face us, including the legislation on assisted death, to which there’s no easy and quick solution. I would say there was an understanding that we have to look at this. His big thing was courage, have courage to come outside of your offices, meet with the people. Don’t feel like you have to hide behind a wall or door. That’s what I think was encouraging.

On the situation with doctor-assisted suicide, he wanted to know where is this coming from, and how can we as pastors address it, both as bishops of Canada, but also as people. If you’re choosing to commit suicide, you’re doing this as an individual, so my priests and I have to look at the individual, not treat this just as a collective thing or legislation. How do we deal with this pastorally in our society?

The language of euthanasia is that it is charity, it is kindness by allowing, assisting somebody to die. So we have to be careful about how we are presenting what charity and kindness is.

What language did you speak with the pope?

He greeted us in English, and then told us that for the sake of better understanding, he would speak in Italian. He had a wonderful translator, a priest from South Africa. So we spoke in English, he in Italian. And for those of us who spoke both, I have to give top marks to the father who was translating, because he did an incredible job.

I don’t feel like the language was a barrier because of the good translation.

Can I change gears completely, to talk about married priests? The pope recently made some comments about this, signaling an openness to ordaining married men. The Greek Catholic Ukrainian church has optional celibacy, hence, married priests. Can you talk about your experience with this?

For my understanding, the pope was answering a question about the possibility of ordination of married deacons in the Latin Church. In the Ukrainian church, we have a centuries-old tradition of ordaining married deacons into the priesthood. In fact, the concept of permanent deacons is not one that we would understand, because all our deacons tend to be transitional.

For us, normally, you would not ordain someone a deacon until they are 24, and it would be assumed that within a certain period of time, they would be ordained priests. The majority of our deacons are married men.

I think it’s a blessing, but there are also many challenges.

Such as?

When I was growing up, my parish priest was a married man. I think that it wasn’t until I was 12 that I realized that not every priest is married, both in the Latin Church and the Eastern rite.

When I entered the seminary at 26, here in Rome, I had a pretty clear understanding that I wanted to be a celibate priest. Both because it’s a vocation, and because in our Church there’s optional celibacy, which means that not everyone marries.

Both marriage and the vocation to the priesthood and celibacy are charisms and vocations, and we need to be open to the Holy Spirit. As a result, over the centuries, our Church has had to understand how we have both celibate priests, some of whom are diocesan, plus those who belong to religious orders, as well as married ones.

In my eparchy, where our parishes are so far apart from each other, I think that having a wife and a family is a very good thing for support of that man, who most of the time are not from British Columbia, so they have no family there.

We need to understand how a married priest can be wonderfully supported by his wife and children, and by the community.

I think that in Ukraine, in the past, certainly before the Soviet Union, the wife of the priest played a key role in the life of the parish, giving catechesis, helping with the choir, through acts of charity. The reason for that was that daughters of priests often married seminarians, so they had a very clear understanding of their own vocations.

When I was rector of Holy Spirit Seminary in Ottawa, for the Greek Ukranian Catholic Church in Canada, one of the things that for me was very clear was that if your wife did not have the vocation to be the wife of a priest, you didn’t have vocation to be a priest.

Why not?

Because as a celibate, your discernment is with your rector, your spiritual director, formation staff and your bishop. But in the case of married seminarians, the discernment absolutely has to include his wife. It has to include what’s going to be her participation and role in the Church, the parish, his life.

This is a profession where often transfer is the norm, and with celibate clergy, transfers tend to include fewer considerations. In the case of a married priest, if he has school-aged children, you don’t want to transfer half way though the school year. You don’t want to transfer him when they have a kid in their last year of school.

And, you have to take into consideration the possible career of the priest’s wife. You’re not just transferring a person, but a family. Also, you have to take into consideration the rectory you’re transferring the priest into. Not every rectory that I have in my eparchy could fit a family with six children.

You told me earlier that if they become widows, they can’t remarry. What happens if he and his wife separate?

It happens. These are all things that we have to face, but on an individual basis, just like in the case of celibate priests who leave the priesthood to marry. In the case of married priests, you have marriage breakdown, though hopefully, not often.

You also have to consider the children. They often have to be far better than any other child in the parish. And that can be a great psychological pressure. The kids did not sign up for that! And it’s a very important aspect of married clergy.

I can only talk about our tradition. I don’t think I would even want to comment on the possibility of married priests in the Latin Church. My formation, and my understanding of the way our clergy works, is different than what is experienced in the Latin Church, and it has to be discussed in that tradition.

We can give an example of what happens with us, but we’ve had these traditions for hundreds of years. Our seminaries, in general, are ready for this. Our married priests don’t live in the seminary but in houses and apartments close by, and we invite the wives and families for activities on Sundays, and we have the traditional coffee or brunch.

And also, it’s a wonderful opportunity for those preparing for priesthood to understand the struggles of young families when we see that the seminarian is serving on the altar, and his child is crying in the first pew.