Cardinal Marc Ouellet, top, is thought to be a leading candidate to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. Register file photo

Could a Canadian be the next pope?

  • February 24, 2013

Cardinal Ouellet high on many lists to succeed Benedict XVI

OTTAWA - As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would abdicate the Chair of St. Peter, speculation began to mount that a Canadian, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, could be the next pope.

Ouellet’s picture has graced the covers of newspapers and magazines in Canada and elsewhere; his name appears in the top three of most Vatican-watcher’s lists of papabili; and even the odds-makers rank him at or near the top.

Quebec Archbishop Gerald Cyprien Lacroix, who served as one of Ouellet’s auxiliary bishops before succeeding him as archbishop, told journalists he was not surprised to see Ouellet’s name mentioned as a successor because Ouellet has been a close collaborator of Pope Benedict’s.

Ouellet also enjoyed a close relationship with Pope John Paul II, who appointed him to the Council of Christian Unity and ordained him a bishop in 2001. In 2002 he made him archbishop of Quebec. The next year, John Paul II gave Ouellet his red hat.

Pope Benedict called Ouellet to Rome in 2010 to head the Congregation for Bishops that helps the Pope determine the best candidates for bishop in dioceses around the world. Lacroix pointed out the Pope also sent Ouellet on the “delicate mission to Ireland” to be the Pope’s representative at last year’s Eucharistic Congress in Dublin when the Irish Church was experiencing the height of a clerical sexual abuse crisis.

But Lacroix noted: “There are many other wonderful men in the Church, be they cardinals or not.”

Ouellet has beautiful spiritual qualities, deep spiritual convictions, Lacroix said, noting Ouellet’s facility with languages, his knowledge of the Church from time spent in the Roman Curia, in South America and differing parts of Canada. He is “well-known throughout the world,” he said.

Ouellet is perhaps the strongest candidate among the three Canadian cardinals, Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast told journalists, but he also praised the abilities of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, who he said would make “a strong candidate,” and Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the retired archbishop of Montreal, as well. He noted, however, Turcotte was unwell when he resigned as archbishop, and has earned his retirement.

“It’s never wise to speculate,” said Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford. “There’s a saying that whoever goes into the conclave a pope comes out as a cardinal.”

However, if a Canadian is elected pope, Clifford expects Canadians “would be delighted.”

She also pointed out the importance Canada’s three cardinal electors will play in the conclave to choose the next pope.

“Those three men will have an important role with the rest of the cardinals in discerning the needs of the Church at this time,” she said. “That in itself is a pretty important contribution.”

The fact that so many are speculating about a Canadian pope is a sign of two things: the likely desire of the cardinals to look for continuity, and Ouellet is considered someone whose thinking is close to Pope Benedict’s; and an openness to consider a pope from outside Europe, Clifford said.

“My suspicion is that if the conclave is going to look outside of Europe they would actually look more to the south than to Canada,” she said.

That could mean a pope from Africa or Latin America.

“The issue is finding someone who can really engage the cultural diversity of the global Catholic community,” Clifford said, noting the Church is twice the size it was 50 years ago and far more culturally diverse than it was during the Second Vatican Council.

McGill historian John Zucchi said he does not like speculating about who will be the next pope, but noted Ouellet’s name and that of Milan Cardinal Angelo Scola come up frequently among the likely choices.

Zucchi described both men as “very much from the same cloth of Benedict XVI,” as men who share his vision of the Church, who are both “extremely intelligent and have engaged with the modern culture.”

Ouellet proved to be a lightning rod for negative mainstream media coverage in Quebec for his defense of the Church’s teachings on difficult issues such as abortion. He also played a much more public role defending Catholic teaching and religious freedom in the public square that brought praise from some quarters for his courage and criticism from others.

Former Bloc Quebecois MP Fr. Raymond Gravel told news media a Ouellet papacy would be disastrous for Quebec. However, Zucchi disagreed. “Someone of (Ouellet’s) holiness, intelligence and love for the Church bodes well not only for Quebec but for the entire Catholic world and beyond.”

Clifford said the conclave might choose someone like Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who now heads the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Africa represents the fastest-growing community of Catholics in the world, she said, while Latin America has the largest Catholic community.

“(Ouellet’s) experience is interesting, especially in Latin America, but I don’t know in the time that he served in the archdiocese of Quebec he was successful in engaging the secular culture of the province of Quebec.”

Quebec’s highly secularized culture, some observers argue, could work against Ouellet. But Zucchi thinks Ouellet’s Quebec background will be “neither here nor there.”

“The pope is not chosen on grounds of ethnicity or even age for that matter,” said Zucchi. “The Holy Spirit really does guide the cardinals when they’re holed up in the Vatican. There’s a special moment of grace that goes beyond the mere choosing of categories or on a political basis.”

But would Ouellet want the job? Ouellet told a journalist from Quebec’s Le Soleil in 2011 he would view the papacy as a nightmare, an unenviable, crushing responsibility. Prendergast said he’s never spoken to Ouellet about the papacy, but if the cardinals elected him, he could always say no — but he could say yes.


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