After leaving Montreal, Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger helped develop hospitals and schools in many African countries. CNS photo/Leger Foundation

The Register Archive: ‘Crisis of faith’ prompts Leger to resign

  • November 5, 2018

Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger was Canada’s most prominent prelate in the 1950s and ‘60s. Surprisingly, he resigned Nov. 9, 1967 and for the next 24 years, until his death in 1991 at age 87, he dedicated himself to service in the Third World, though he returned to Montreal several times. Here is how he explained his departure in The Register issue of Nov. 18, 1967. 

MONTREAL – Cardinal Leger’s resignation as Archbishop of Montreal came as a shock to the community, but not as a surprise to some.

As far back as 1963 there had been speculation, which was denied at the time, that he was considering such a move.

At a press conference he announced in simple and moving terms that his decision to leave has to do with the present “crisis of faith” in the Church.

He spoke of the “collapse of faith among young people, the indifference of a great number of Christians toward the Church, the disenchantment and disaffection, not to say aggressiveness” of certain classes of society when presented with the religious problem.

“Some may ask and with reason why I am leaving the ship at the moment when the storm is breaking. Yet, in the final analysis, it is just this religious crisis which has led me to give up the position to command, to become a simple missionary priest.

“It was at the Synod,” he said, “during the discussions of faith atheism, that my future became a question of conscience for me. It became clear to me that Our Lord was asking me for deed as well as words.”

The cardinal said that after years in Montreal he must “now allow himself to be led by the hand of the Lord.”

“Even if nature rebels at the thought of leaving so many friends and so many memories, I have experienced a great peace. For peace is the fruit of unity and I know now that I will speak with a new sincerity of the problems which cause so much anguish, to the human conscience. You know these problems: On one hand, hunger in the world, underdevelopment, illiteracy, the silent suffering of thousands of lepers — on the other hand a technocratic, efficient, automated and sophisticated.

“The time has come to go from words to actions. I wish to dedicate the few years allotted me to giving spiritual and material assistance to the lepers. And so I am leaving for Africa.”

He said that in making his decision, however, “I have not thought only of Africa. It is for the greater good of the Church of Montreal that I have become a simple missionary in the midst of the poorest of the citizens of the Third World.”

He also gave as a reason for his going “to be sincere with myself.”

“I have reached the age where a certain sclerosis of the soul and body might set in. The spur must be used to get out of the rut.

“It is so easy to become installed in comfortable habits after having exercised authority for a long time, especially in a diocese where Catholics comprise the large majority. The confrontation with paganism may stimulate faith.”

Asked if he did not feel there were sufficient social and economic problems in Montreal and that he was in effect turning away from them, he said that “you have all the means necessary to give these people what they want here, because you live in an affluent society and civilization. When you think that 200 million Africans have an average salary of $50 a year, I think that I can go with easiness.”

Reaction to his decision has still not been fully felt. He had given no indication in his press conference earlier last week following his return from the Synod, mentioning only that the discussions on faith were very much a problem in the world.

Apparently he felt that this would not be just a dramatic gesture but a real means to help solve that problem. Few churchmen could make such an impact by their departure in this manner, and it is difficult to conceive of a replacement.

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