Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger

Ouellet is third Canadian to merit papal consideration

  • March 10, 2013

Associate Editor Michael Swan is in Rome to report on the conclave. Selecting a pope is a world event, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a Canadian perspective. Here Swan looks at Canada and the conclave.

If Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet has appeared on your television lately more often than Law and Order reruns, it should come as no surprise.

“Ouellet probably has a real chance (to be elected pope),” Jesuit historian Fr. Jaques Monet told The Catholic Register.

The conventional wisdom that any cardinal getting a lot of media attention won’t be elected is probably bunk. People come to prominence for a reason, and there’s no reason to think the cardinal electors will vote to cut down the tall poppies among them.

But Ouellet is not the first Canadian to be considered a serious candidate. Two other 20th-century Quebeckers have gone into a conclave accompanied by buzz.

In 1939 the Oblate bishop of Quebec, Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve, was a contender. With doctorates in philosophy, theology and canon law, Villeneuve was an intellectual heavyweight. He was also on the forefront of Catholic social teaching, campaigning on behalf of labour unions and speaking the language of civil rights as Canada and the world suffered through the Great Depression.

Villeneuve was media savvy for his time, making regular contributions to the Quebec daily Le Droit and appearing on radio. This was a time when many in the Church were deeply suspicious of modern media and its democratizing influence. Most seminaries in North America forbade newspapers and radios on the premises right up to the Second Vatican Council.
In the end, however, the conclave of 1939 could see the threat Europe was under from Nazi ideology. The cardinals elected the former nuncio to Germany, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, in just three ballots. Pope Pius XII emerged from the shortest conclave of the 20th century.

The next Canadian cardinal to get serious consideration for the papacy was Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger in 1963. He was a magnetic figure, almost a rock star among churchmen. A former professor of sociology, apologetics and theology with a doctorate in canon law from the Catholic Institute of Paris, the Sulpician priest became Archbishop of Montreal and then a cardinal just in time for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

Already prominent, Leger was a force at the Second Vatican Council. “He had direct access to the Pope (John XXIII),” said Monet. “He could leave the committees and walk right up to the papal apartments and get in right away.”

Leger was one of 30 cardinals who took on the critical preparatory work before the opening of Vatican II. It was Leger who led the bishops in a vote that rejected the cautious, limited agenda and conservative documents drawn up by Vatican officials for the council.

“Most people would admit that was the first sign that the council was going to be something different from what the curia had prepared,” said Monet. “Leger was a leader in that vote.” In the May 18, 1963 issue of The Catholic Register, Leger authoritatively put forward a vision of the council that defined the Church for a generation.

“It is the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church,” Leger wrote in response to questions from this newspaper. In Montreal Leger was already a leader in Church reform, experimenting with liturgy in the vernacular for the Native people of Kahnawake, addressing the struggles of married lay people and pulling the Quebec Church back from its former dominance over almost every sphere of life from education through health care so that lay people could play their proper role.

“It has become evident that the majority of the (Second Vatican Council) fathers are convinced that the Church is in real need of adaptation and internal renewal,” Leger wrote. When Pope John XXIII died in June 1963 the cardinals knew the Church was embarked on something truly momentous. They searched for the man among them who could bring the council to its fullest flowering. In the end they chose Leger’s great friend and closest ally, Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan.

As an Italian, it’s likely Pope Paul VI was less of a threat to the conservative wing of the College of Cardinals.

Of course there’s more to Canadian influence (or American influence, or African influence, etc.) at the conclave than candidates for the papacy. As Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto stresses in every media interview he gives, the general congregations where cardinals speak of the challenges and opportunities before the Church are at least as important as what happens after they’re locked in the Sistine Chapel. Canadians can add to those conversations on the state of the Church, said Jesuit history of religion professor Fr. Terry Fay.

Canada’s evolution from a mainly French missionary Church of the 16th through the early 19th centuries, followed by its ultramontane, highly Romanized incarnation from the middle of the 19th century, to the Second Vatican Council and finally its embrace of multiculturalism, gives Canadians a unique perspective on the Church, said Fay.

Canada’s northern bishops have repeatedly requested permission at ad limina visits every five years to ordain married men — respected leaders in their Native communities. As when Leger used the case of Native Canadians to argue for vernacular in the liturgy, the question of ordaining more married men may be framed in terms of the new cultural context.

The Canadian Church is not the only one that advocates leadership roles for women. But its experience with women and leadership in the Church goes back further than in most countries.
In 1971 Cardinal George Flahiff pointed out the gap between the roles women now assume in society and the roles open to them in the Church. Flahiff never suggested ordaining women, but he did want women better represented in the Church.

Finally, Canada has a great deal to say about a Church that must deal with the multicultural reality of the 21st century.

“In the long run, multiculturalism is in and we’re moving away from monoculturalism,” said Fay. “Canadians have a charism in multiculturalism.”

The new evangelization can’t go forward unless it knows the cultures it is evangelizing, and those cultures no longer exist in discrete, separate units anchored in a particular place and defined history.

People have become more mobile. Their connections to past generations are more fragile. Media has ramped up its democratizing role as social media invites everyone to speak as well as listen. The Church now must address its message to a shifting target of rapidly evolving, global culture.

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