Cardinal Marc Ouellet was appointed the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in 2010. Register file photo

Reconfiguring the episcopate

  • March 20, 2012

How do you reform an episcopate and provide new leadership for the Church in a particular nation? Canada is now the model for the Church universal on how it can be done.

The dramatic appointment of Christian Lépine as the new archbishop of Montreal, only six months after he was ordained an auxiliary bishop of the same diocese, has drawn attention to Canada as the exemplar of how an episcopate can be reconfigured for the challenges of the new evangelization.

Just 18 months ago, in the fall of 2010, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec City, arrived in Rome as the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. The prefect is the most senior advisor to the Holy Father on the appointment of bishops. High on the new prefect’s agenda was the renewal of the bishops of Quebec, with a number of retirements pending.

The safe way to appoint bishops is to select archbishops from long-serving bishops, and bishops from long-serving auxiliaries, and auxiliaries from long-serving officials in chancery offices. Ouellet, sensing that a new direction was needed for the Church in Quebec, did not advise the Holy Father to take the safe option. Consider the following:

In February 2011, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Gerald Lacroix the new archbishop of Quebec City, succeeding Ouellet. Lacroix had only been an auxiliary bishop of Quebec City for less than two years.
• In July 2011, Thomas Dowd was announced as an auxiliary bishop of Montreal, to be ordained at the same time as Lépine.  Dowd was 40 at the time — an almost unprecedented age to be made a bishop in Canada.
• In October 2011, Bishop Paul-André Durocher of Cornwall, Ont., was appointed archbishop of Gatineau. Originally from Timmins, the Holy See reached outside the circle of the Quebec clergy to appoint an Ontario francophone to a Quebec archbishopric.
• Last month, Bishop Paul Lortie was named bishop of Mont-Laurier. He had previously been an auxiliary bishop of Quebec City, ordained by Ouellet himself less than three years ago.
• Also last month, the Holy See reached outside Quebec for a second time, appointing Bishop Luc Bouchard as chief shepherd of Trois-Rivieres. A priest of Cornwall, he had been bishop of St. Paul in Alberta for 10 years.

Young bishops, novice bishops, bishops from outside of Quebec — all this is a significant departure from the norm. Ouellet evidently decided that the norm in Quebec needed changing, and so has advised the Holy Father to change it — emphatically. 

In this, Ouellet was drawing on his own personal experience. Quietly teaching his students at the Lateran University in Rome in March 2001, he was plucked from that post to be a bishop in the Roman Curia. The next year, he was appointed archbishop of Quebec. The year after that, he was created a cardinal. From Roman professor to Quebec cardinal in 30 months, Ouellet himself was an object lesson in that swift, sweeping action was possible in the appointment of bishops.

The apostolic nuncio in Canada at the time of Ouellet’s repatriation and elevation was Archbishop Luigi Ventura. The nuncio, or papal representative in Canada, has a critical role in recommending candidates for bishops. After advising the unexpected and daring option regarding Ouellet, Ventura proposed a stunning redeployment of Canada’s episcopal personnel in 2006-2007. In the space of a year, Benedict XVI nominated new archbishops in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa, Halifax and St. John’s. From sea to sea, the new evangelization in its episcopal dimension was firmly planted in Canada.

Sources close to Ventura said at the time that “the Church in English Canada had been done” — leaving the renewal of the Church in Quebec as the next great project. Ventura was transferred to Paris in 2009, but with the advent of a Quebecker as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops in Rome, the Quebec project has now been brought to an accelerated conclusion.

Renewal in the Church does not depend exclusively, or even primarily, upon bishops. The Holy Spirit is not constrained to work only through holy orders. Reform and renewal in the Church more often arises from the religious orders and, increasingly, new movements and lay apostolates. Yet the pastor is critical for the health and vitality of the flock, thus the appointment of bishops remains essential in advancing the mission of the Church.

English Canada in 2006-2007 and Quebec five years later demonstrates that the providential opportunity of coinciding retirements, when embraced with a clear vision, creative thinking and courageous action, can be a moment of authentic evangelical renewal. If in years to come, Catholics speak favourably of the “Canada option” as shorthand for enterprising episcopal appointments, it will be thanks in large part to Archbishop Ventura and Cardinal Ouellet.