Cardinal Marc Ouellet on Vatileaks, Benedict’s act of faith and the new pope

In conversation with Father Raymond J. de Souza

Riccardo De Luca/AP

In Rome for the election of a new pope, Father Raymond J. de Souza, a Roman Catholic priest for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ont., and editor-in-chief of Convivium, a magazine about faith in Canadian public life, met with Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, much touted as a papal contender, at the Vatican.

Q: We have a new pope elected, Pope Francis. Could you tell us why this man was chosen?

A: This man was chosen because the College of Cardinals had a sense that the time was right for a leader coming from South America and this was a man of great authority in the area. I’ve known him for many years, we are good friends and, at the meeting of the Latin American Episcopacy in 2007, in Aparecida, Brazil, he was the main figure who encouraged this continental mission. He came to Quebec City [in 2008] out of friendship for me and to support me because usually he doesn’t accept outside invitations. He barely comes to Rome—only when it’s absolutely necessary. Because he is a pastor: he’s concerned with his people. I think we’ve made a great choice. And it will bear fruit in the life of the Church.

Q: Many of the cardinals have said they don’t know him very well. What do you know about him that makes you hopeful?

A: Simplicity. And he’s a good shepherd, very close to his flock. Last Sunday, he was like a parish priest: he did the mass and then he went out and greeted the people. This is extraordinary. For me, the main encouragement for the people in the field is his election. The priests, deacons, pastoral agents will identify with him.

Q: You spent time in Colombia so you have more experience than most Canadian or European bishops with Latin America. Did you get to know Cardinal Bergoglio then or afterwards?

A: Not when we there. I was a member of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America even before being at the Congregation for Bishops. On the occasion of these plenary [sessions] we would meet and talk and we had common friends in Rome. I can say we shared a common vision. He’s a man of experience and I think he’ll be a reformer, too. The name Francis is a conscious choice. He will certainly act in the Curia; we know there is a need of reform, but reform in the sense to regain moral credibility. This was an important factor. The Vatileaks did great damage to the Church. Bad information, all kinds of comments that you couldn’t necessarily contradict and very secretive. I think he’ll be able to do something for that, too. We need a broader vision—beyond Europe. There is a great need of support of Christianity in Latin America to counteract the influence of the Pentecostals in particular. So his election is a great encouragement. It will also have political weight. Not because he’ll be involved in politics but because it will strengthen Catholicism in Argentina, for example. It will force governments to be more respectful of the Catholic community, of Catholic culture in these countries. It’s really good news.

Q: You are a younger cardinal but you’ve participated in two conclaves, one in 2005 and one in 2013. Both conclaves elected a pope on the first full day. What has the experience been like for you?

A: Very good. It’s basically a spiritual experience. When popes were heads of states with great properties it was very difficult to elect a pope because there were many material interests involved, political interests involved. Thank God, we got rid of this. So the more you go forward, the more the College of Cardinals is autonomous. You’re not bound to a context; for example, at this time, the political context of Italy is very uncertain. But the College of Cardinals—there are many Italians in it, but the great majority could make a decision without being conditioned by the local politics. This is a great freedom for the Church. And the combination of the prayer, the intense prayer of the whole Church, and the wisdom of the College of Cardinals, is a great formula to elect a pope, to be free and to give to the world a surprise—a positive one.

Q: One of the great surprises was the resignation of Pope Benedict. He was not only your pope but you were also a student of his—

A: Not so much a student of his. But I would say we had close theological visions. I’m more a disciple of [Hans urs] von Balthasar [the Catholic theologian] and [Benedict] is a great admirer of von Balthasar. When he went to Castel Gandolfo he brought von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics to reread.

Q: Do you hope that he has a continuation?

A: First, I think he did three times what we could have expected from him, being elected at 78. It’s extraordinary what he did, to write his own books.?I said and I repeat: a great doctor of the Church. His homilies will remain as a heritage to be mediated. He’s not just a theologian without a philosophy underneath. So we have a lot to think about after his pontificate and after his intellectual contribution. What he did with his books is he renewed theological exegesis. He bridged a gap between theology and exegesis—extraordinary! We needed that badly. We can build on that for the future.

Q: In the days before the election there was a great excitement in Canada for the possibility of the guillotine to fall on your neck, if I can put it in that unusual way—

A: [laughs] Yes.

Q: Maybe you could comment on what that was like for you?

A: This time was very special for me and my family, an incredible experience and a positive one. Even my family told me, “Oh, we’ve discovered chapters of your life we didn’t know very well, like your 10 years in Latin America.” They’ve interviewed my friends and people with whom I’m still in contact—wonderful. It was a difficult exercise for me. I had to be prepared. Not by ambition, but just by reasoning. I told the media, “In the position I’m in, who knows what can happen.”

Q: Were you afraid at all?

A: Less than before because I’ve been working with the pope so closely. Out of what I was doing with him I could imagine what he was doing with the other chiefs of the dicasteries [departments in the Vatican] and I was part of other congregations—a plenary here and there. I’m very much aware of the whole situation of the Church and I learned so much about situations in the different continents where I’ve studied dioceses to provide for bishops. So all these things told me I had a certain preparation for that but, you know, there are many factors. I’m convinced this was a good choice. His first steps and gestures confirm it. We needed a good shepherd, close to the people. This is already a success. There will be reform: he is free, completely free, he has no link whatsoever?.?.?.

Q: No link to what, Your Eminence?

A: To inside the Vatican. And he knows. But he’s independent. In that sense, he’ll make decisions—not without pressure here and pressure there—but he will listen and then he will make his decision. If you saw, when we met on Friday, at the end of the line, he started business immediately. It was even surprising for me.

Q: Did he ask you for your dossiers?

A: Absolutely! I will not go into the details but he was gesturing with determination.

Q: What is your hope for the Church in Canada?

A: I hope for a year of faith that will make a difference. And we have two or three things that will make a difference. The renunciation of Pope Benedict was a great act of faith on his part. He did that with spiritual discernment; he wasn’t forced. Other popes have been exiled, they’ve been killed, they’ve been forced to renounce. He did it being aware of his limitations so a successor could do it better. For our country, it forces a reflection on what is the Catholic faith, what is our heritage, what is our Church. And maybe, a sort of revision. I think there will be an awakening among the youth. I’ve seen that already in some—they’re not against it, they’re just not aware of what is the Catholic faith. But there will be, I hope, a movement of conversation, because we need to retrieve that if we want to make sense of our presence in this continent. We must be proud of having an American pope—American in the broad sense.

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