Among Canada’s bishops, one stands out as extraordinarily vocal when promoting and defending the culture of life. He is Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary. In promoting the Catholic church’s teaching on life and marriage, Henry has clashed with former prime minister Paul Martin, the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal, Revenue Canada bureaucrats threatening his tax-exempt status and even fellow pro-lifers on occasion. The bishop refuses to be intimidated by those who would relegate pro-lifers and people of faith to second-class citizenry.
Most recently, Henry published an open letter to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. The bishop chided the premier over the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal’s decision against Pastor Stephen Boissoin. For those unfamiliar with the case, Boissoin was fined $7,000 and ordered to remain silent from the pulpit for having criticized the homosexual agenda in a letter he wrote to his daily newspaper. The bishop did not mince words in defending Boissoin.
“Each judgment emanating out of our various human rights commissions seems to be more brazen and bizarre than the one that preceded it. However, for inane stupidity and gross miscarriage of justice, our own Alberta Human Rights Tribunal deserves to take first prize for its treatment of Stephen Boissoin,” the bishop wrote.
Henry concluded his letter by calling upon Stelmach, a Catholic, to protect religious freedom in the province and abolish Section 3(1)(b) of the Alberta Human Rights Act. “Every person has the right to make public statements and participate in public debate on religious grounds,” the bishop stated.
Yet the bishop’s commitment to faith, family and religious freedom began long before the church named him a bishop. It is a commitment steeped in his Catholic faith.
Henry was born to a strong Catholic family. He was the oldest of five brothers. The family also prayed the Rosary daily, as a family. “The rule of the house is that we didn’t leave the supper table until praying the family Rosary,” Henry said. “Some nights, we roared through that Rosary, but that was just part of our regiment.”
Obligations to faith and family prayer came before hockey games, prioritizing things in the Henry household. This reinforced the family’s commitment to their Catholic faith. Because of this commitment to family prayer time, the boy grew up understanding the importance of Catholic teaching. This included belief in a consistent ethic of life and recognition of the sanctity of human life at every stage.
Henry was a young boy when he first felt God’s call to the priesthood. He had just made his first Communion and become an altar server. “I looked at the priest and saw some of the neat things he did,” the bishop remembers. “He fed the people the Body and Blood of our Lord. He was there for funerals, for marriages, for baptisms. I thought, boy what a neat job!” He then began to ask whether a life of Christian service is what God had in store for him.
Yet, his mother’s recollection is somewhat different. The family was praying at Mass one day when Henry, still a preschooler, pointed to the priest and blurted out: “When I grow up, I’m gonna be one of those.”
The bishop does not recall this incident. “But I have to admit my mother does not tell lies, so I accept her words on faith,” he said. He refers to his mother’s recollection as the unconscious level where God’s grace is working in one’s life.
The boy continued to foster this vocation until he was old enough to enter the seminary. Upon completion of his seminary studies, he was ordained to the priesthood. He pursued further studies, obtaining an M.A. in philosophy from Notre Dame and a licence in theology from the Gregorian. He would teach at St. Peter’s Seminary in London from 1973 until 1986, when he became the auxiliary bishop of London.
The newly consecrated bishop did not quite know what to expect. So he looked toward Pope John Paul II, the man who had named him a bishop, as a good pastor and a strong pro-life advocate. “It’s pretty hard to think of anybody who was a more staunch defender of life itself,” the bishop said. So he decided to emulate the Pope’s example.
“Be not afraid” was the theme of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, Henry notes. While the young bishop had not intended to become controversial, he attracted controversy by speaking out on key issues affecting society, although early on, his focus was often on environmental stewardship and the dignity of labour. He realized that God had given him the grace as bishop to present and defend Christian teaching. “God does not give you a job and not give you what you need to carry out the job,” he says.
Christians need not fear standing up for the culture of life, says Henry. “What can people do to you? They can beat you up or kill you, but you win in the end.” Thus, it is critical that pro-lifers speak out in defence of life, marriage and family, he says.
Unfortunately, Henry laments, society has brainwashed Christians into privatizing their beliefs. “That’s wrong. The Lord said you’re supposed to be salt and light. This is not the time to retreat and withdraw. This is the time to speak up about what’s going on around you and to try to influence the culture any way you can.”
Nevertheless, the bishop cautions pro-lifers against becoming needlessly divided over tactics. “We sometimes disagree or argue over strategy and we end up dividing ourselves from one another,” he says. “We must remember that we are united in principle.”