‘The agenda is the needs of the people’, says new Saint John bishop

14 November 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

When Bishop Christian Riesbeck arrives in New Brunswick in December to become the new Bishop of the Saint John diocese, he won’t be arriving with a set agenda.

But he does have a clear purpose, and it is something he has been doing since he first was ordained as a priest in the Companions of the Cross in 1996. He wants to help people embrace Jesus and let him into their lives in the best way that he can and at the pace they are comfortable with.

“No, I am not going in with an agenda. They don’t give a checklist of things you must do but allow you to administer to the needs of the diocese,” Bishop Riesbeck said in an interview with the Canadian Catholic News. “The agenda is the needs of the people in the diocese.”

In these increasingly secular times, one of his passions has been working with youth and young adults, and helping them find their way to Jesus.

“When you let Jesus into your life, when people put Jesus at the centre of their lives, it changes everything and puts joy into their lives,” he said.

“We have to introduce people to Christ so they get to know him. You have to do that one person at a time, you have to appeal to the mind and the heart.

“A lot of young people are looking for community and to belong to something,” Bishop Riesbeck said. “You have to build trust and build a relationship so that you can help them create a relationship with the Lord.”

Bishop Riesbeck, who has served as the Auxiliary Bishop of Ottawa for the past five years, takes over as Bishop of Saint John in New Brunswick on Dec. 9 after being appointed to the post by Pope Francis.

Born in Montreal in 1970, for most of his time within the Canadian Church he has served in eastern Ontario and has been directly involved in the Ottawa Archdiocese since 2011.

Bishop Riesbeck attended the University of Ottawa, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then obtained a Bachelor of Theology from Saint Paul University in Ottawa and a Master of Divinity from St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto.

He was ordained a priest as a member of the Companions of the Cross in 1996 and his ministry has included pastoral assignments in Eastern Ontario and Houston, Texas, where he was stationed from 1999 until 2008.

After his time in Texas he completed further studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa and obtained a master’s and licentiate degree in Canon Law in 2010. From 2011 to 2016, he was chancellor of the Archdiocese of Ottawa and later became episcopal vicar for canonical Affairs in 2012.

From 2012 to 2014, he was associate superior general of the Companions of the Cross. In January 2014, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Ottawa and ordained bishop in Ottawa in March 2014. After his episcopal ordination, he served as vicar general and delegate for national parishes, communities and the faithful of the archdiocese.

Those who know him and have worked with him are convinced that Bishop Riesbeck’s enthusiasm for sharing the “joy” of having Jesus in his life will become a defining feature of his oversight of the Saint John Diocese, where he is taking over after the retirement of Bishop Robert Harris.

“The people of New Brunswick will come to know him as a dynamic pastor who encourages all to be missionary disciples ready to share his episcopal motto Evangelii gaudium—the ‘joy of the Gospel’—with others,” Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast said of Bishop Riesbeck.

“Since 2011, the Archdiocese of Ottawa has gleaned his wisdom as a canonist and been challenged by his energy as a pastor. I am sure the clergy, religious and lay faithful of Saint John will soon know and love this remarkable servant of Christ and his Church,” he said.

Bishop Riesbeck arrives in Saint John at a time that the diocese is undergoing a revitalization effort and where some churches have been closed in recent years.

The Diocese of Saint John has 28 parishes, 68 churches and chapels, with a Catholic population of about 115,400 served by 53 priests, two deacons, and 66 nuns.

According to Bishop Riesbeck, it is his understanding that the diocese is about 80 per cent English and 20 per cent French. He speaks both languages fluently.

It is a region he knows well, as he has family in the area and while he has visited a few times since his appointment, he is looking forward to getting to work in his new role on Dec. 9.

“There are pastoral challenges everywhere,” Bishop Riesbeck said of the challenges that he will face in his new role within the Church but he is eager to meet those challenges head-on.

“I am excited about taking on this mission,” he said. “I have truly been blessed.”