Montreal Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte is seen walking outside St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto on Sept. 14, 2012. The cardinal entered palliative care on Mar. 24, 2015. Register file photo

Montreal's Cardinal Turcotte admitted to palliative care

  • March 26, 2015

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte of Montreal, one of the most popular Quebeckers alive even as the province grew more decidedly secular, has entered the last stage of his life.

Archbishop of Montreal for 22 years from 1990 to 2012, Turcotte’s health took a turn for the worse last summer when he was admitted to hospital. He was out in time for Christmas, but his health continued to decline and he was admitted to a palliative care unit on March 24.

At a point in Quebec’s history when there was widespread resentment and suspicion of the Church, Turcotte was a favourite among Quebec media and a popular figure with the public.

“People were allergic to religion” when Turcotte became a bishop, said Normand Levesque of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal. “It was thanks to his outlook towards the people, and not to the inside of the Church. He opened or supported so many places to help the poor. He was very social justice oriented.”

If there was anything Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops president Archbishop Paul-André Durocher learned about being a bishop from Turcotte, it was to stay close to the people, Durocher told The Catholic Register. 

“He always kept a very common touch,” said Durocher. “He grew up, even as a young priest, very involved with movements that were close to people, close to the reality of workers, of young people. He was involved in Catholic Action movements. It impressed me about him.”

“He was a man of prayer, a man of God, a man who loved and supported young people and believed in them,” said Isabel Correa, the Archdiocese of Montreal's director of youth ministry.

Turcotte never shied away from the difficult topics. He tried to promote more women to roles of responsibility while dismissing the issue of ordination.

“Women can exercise a lot of responsibility that doesn’t require them to be priests,” he said.

He defended the use of condoms for those who are HIV positive as “morally obligatory.”

In 2006 he called for open dialogue about homosexuality and with homosexuals. He was against gay marriage but thought same-sex civil unions “may be acceptable.”

His stand on abortion was less absolute than some would have liked when he said, “I am against abortion, but I can understand that in certain cases, when someone has been attacked, there is almost no other choice than to practice it.” But he cheered pro-life campaigners when he sent back his Order of Canada medal rather than share the honour with Dr. Henry Morgentaler in 2008.

The cardinal’s nationalist instincts came to the fore when he told Le Devoir in 1997 that the people of Quebec and not the Supreme Court of Canada had the right to decide whether or not the province remained in Confederation.

Born in Montreal’s east end in 1936, Turcotte has remained a down-to-earth, humble pastor. When reporters asked the cardinal whether he might want to be pope, he would joke that he kept his Latin and Italian deliberately bad to prevent such an eventuality.

He was a product of the Christian Worker Movement, ordained in the church of St. Vincent de Paul in 1959. After studying in France for a year he came back to take up various administrative posts with the archdiocese. He was made a bishop in 1982 and became one of the principal organizers of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Canada in 1984. He succeeded Cardinal Paul Grégoire as archbishop in 1990.

“He is truly a man of the Gospel and of deep, deep faith,” said Durocher. “In that sense, I know he once told me, ‘I’m not a theologian, but I’m a man of faith and that’s what I want to share with the people.' ’”

In Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins is praying for Montreal’s cardinal along with the faithful across the country, said Archdiocese of Toronto spokesman Neil MacCarthy.

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