An interview with Cardinal Marc Ouellet on the second anniversary of his appointment as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops

CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

I once asked the late Cardinal Andrzej-Maria Deskur whether he expected the election of a non-Italian cardinal after Paul VI’s death. Much to my surprise, he resolutely replied: “Not only did I expect the election of a non-Italian cardinal, but of one cardinal in particular, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła.” When I asked him the reason for his prediction, Cardinal Deskur, familiar as he was with the Curia and the running of Vatican institutions, answered me: “As everybody knows, the new Pope is elected by the conclave, but his great elector is, in a way, his predecessor, who appoints the members of the Sacred College, thus influencing the conclave’s decision. Paul VI had a great admiration for Cardinal Wojtyła and, in my opinion, he prepared the Polish cardinal to succeed him. First, he chose him as preacher of spiritual exercises for the Roman Curia in order to make known his great knowledge and deep spirituality. Then he appointed him relator general for the Synod of Bishops on evangelization. This came to everyone as a surprise, since a relator from a mission country was expected. Yet, thanks to Paul VI’s decision, even cardinals from the Third World could come to know the Krakow archbishop and his pastoral and missionary zeal. It is important that Paul VI encouraged Cardinal Wojtyła to travel in order to learn more about the realities of the local Churches.”

If every Pope is a great elector of his successor, and his choices and decisions affect the choice made by the conclave, then certain facts should be taken into account, if we are to find out who the candidate chosen by Benedict XVI is:

— When in 2010 the new prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most important congregations, had to be chosen, the Pope appointed the then-archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

— When Benedict XVI’s new book Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection was released in the Vatican press room on March 10, 2011, who presented this important work by the theologian Pope? Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

— The spiritual exercises for Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation), one of the most dynamic movements within the Catholic Church, not only in Italy, but also in other parts of the world, were held in April. At the end of the exercises on April 22, the Holy Mass for 26,000 participants was celebrated by Cardinal Ouellet, a friend of the late founder of Comunione e Liberazione, Fr. Luigi Giussani.

— When the Holy Robe was displayed in Trier (Germany) from April to May, the Pope sent Cardinal Marc Ouellet as his legate to preside over the inauguration of the event on April 13.

— When the International Military Pilgrimage to Lourdes was held from May 11 to May 12, 2012, Cardinal Ouellet presided over that pilgrimage.

— The 50th International Eucharistic Congress was held in Ireland in June. The Holy Father sent Cardinal Ouellet as his legate.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet Feb. 14 meeting with U.S. bishops from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin on their ad limina visits to the Vatican

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, second from right, opens a Feb. 14 meeting with U.S. bishops from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin on their ad limina visits to the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

— The 64th meeting of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (one of the world’s biggest bishops’ conferences with lots of cardinals, i.e., the electors in the next conclave) was held from May 21 to May 24. Who celebrated Mass for the 232 members in St. Peter’s Basilica? Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

Of course, we cannot read into the Pope’s mind and know why he gives so much prominence to the present prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, but this Canadian prelate has no doubt become one of the most outstanding personalities in the Catholic Church in recent years. His curriculum vitae, crammed with studies and pastoral experience, accounts for all this.

Marc Ouellet was born in La Motte, in the Canadian diocese of Amos, on June 8, 1944. He developed his vocation in the 1960s, the years of global protest; every authority was rejected, even the Church’s authority. Despite this unfavorable atmosphere he managed to follow his priestly vocation and in 1968 he was ordained to the priesthood for the diocese of Amos. In 1972 he joined the Company of Saint Sulpice, whose main pursuit is the training of priests.

He began to travel for work and study reasons: first to Columbia, South America; then to Rome, where he studied at the Angelicum and the Gregorian University; to Austria (Innsbruck) and Germany (Passau), where he studied German. This young priest from Quebec was greatly enriched by his studies and journeys. In the 1970s and 1980s, working in various seminaries of Columbia, he had the opportunity to learn Spanish and to know the Church of South America, where the majority of Catholics live. As a theologian he is linked to the Catholic quarterly review Communio and to Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet speaks during a press conference to present Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week — From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, at the Vatican on March 10, 2011. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In 1996-97 he returned to Rome to teach at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. In 2001 the Pope appointed him secretary to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, but he did not stay there for long, because John Paul II sent him back to Canada and appointed him the 14th metropolitan archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, and raised him to the cardinalate in 2003. In Canada Cardinal Ouellet had to face the deep secularization of French Canadian society, until recently very religious and strongly linked to the Catholic Church, along with a dramatic vocational crisis. He did this with great zeal and courage, winning the admiration of the faithful and the Pope. When Benedict XVI had to choose a successor for Cardinal Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, his choice fell on the archbishop of Quebec. So Cardinal Ouellet returned to Rome once more to become one of the Holy Father’s closest collaborators.

On the second anniversary of his appointment as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, I caught up with Cardinal Ouellet to talk about his mission in the Church.

On June 30, 2010, seven years after your appointment as archbishop of Quebec, Benedict XVI called you back to the Vatican to direct one of the most important congregations, the Congregation for Bishops. Was it difficult for you to leave your diocese for a post in the Roman Curia, albeit a very prestigious one?

Cardinal Marc Ouellet: It was difficult because in seven years I had established a very deep pastoral and spiritual relationship with the people of Quebec, which is my homeland. I wasn’t thinking about other assignments, so the Pope’s call came to me as a surprise. Anyway, I must confess that coming to Rome was for me a difficult emotional detachment.

Could you tell us in a few words what the Congregation for Bishops deals with?

Ouellet: It deals with everything concerning dioceses: their creation and suppression, but above all, the preparation of episcopal nominations, which involves working in close contact with the apostolic nuncios and bishops’ conferences to gather information regarding prospective candidates to propose to the Holy Father. Another task of the Congregation is to follow the pastoral governance of dioceses (we intervene if there are any particular problems in a diocese that need to be resolved).

Who assists you in your work?

Ouellet: Those with the principal responsibilities of the Congregation are three: the prefect, the secretary and the undersecretary. We also have about 30 people, mostly priests, who work in our dicastery.

In your capacity as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, you have the great privilege of seeing the Pope on a regular basis (usually on Saturdays). How do these meetings take place?

Ouellet: Our meetings are working meetings which are conducted with great simplicity and cordiality. The entire meeting is focused on the documentation that I bring with me: the Holy Father receives this documentation in advance so that he is aware of its content. Then we can share our reflections and the Pope makes his decisions.

In your opinion, what qualities should a Catholic bishop have in this difficult moment of our history?

Ouellet: He must be a man of strong faith: the most important thing is to have the faith of a pastor. He must be a man of solid learning, able not only to preach the faith, but also to defend it. This is a feature which Saint Paul stresses when speaking of bishops. I think we need courageous men. Christian values are not so visible in our culture, and the media are sometimes very critical of the Church. Therefore one needs courage to face these attacks and to protect the faithful from all the anti-Christian currents of thought and to help them keep their faith alive.

Are there ever candidates who refuse to become bishops?

Ouellet: Yes, there are. If someone refuses, we must respect his conscience (he should have serious reasons for not accepting). In such a case the Holy Father is asked to dispense him from accepting the episcopal appointment in order that the candidate may be at peace with his conscience.

Can refusal to accept the episcopal appointment originate from the fear of facing the task which this appointment involves?

Ouellet: If anyone is afraid it means he does not have sufficient faith. If he does not have a strong faith then it is right that he not accept.

Do you think that the investigative process for choosing a bishop works well and that it enables the Holy Father to choose the best candidate?

Ouellet: I hope so, even though there is not a 100% guarantee that the candidates we submit to the Holy Father are the best ones possible, because we can also make mistakes. Yet the research process is conducted seriously. Competent people are consulted who under “pontifical secret” can say what they know and think without having to fear that what they express will be revealed to those being examined. Information on every candidate is thus collected and analyzed in a plenary meeting of thirty cardinals and archbishops at which each of them can express his opinion. I, as prefect of the Congregation, bring to the Holy Father the results of that discernment. It is then up to the Pope to make the final decision.

What is meant by pontifical secret?

Ouellet: Those who are asked about candidates must keep the pontifical secret, which means that they may not reveal to anyone information regarding the candidates about whom they were questioned, the content of their responses or even the fact that they were consulted.

Can the Holy Father choose a candidate of his own, other than what you have proposed?

Certainly. He is the head of the College of Bishops, the successors to the Apostles, and can make his own decision. Our Congregation prepares a dossier for the Holy Father, but he receives some news and information about people from other sources. Therefore, while not neglecting the opinions expressed by our Congregation, he is completely free to decide.

One of your Congregation’s tasks is to organize the visits of bishops to the Vatican required by canon law, referred to as the visits ad limina Apostolorum. But now there are 5,000 bishops all over the world. What difficulties does this create?

Ouellet: The norm is for every bishop to make his ad limina visit every five years, but there are many bishops. Although the regulation has not been changed, the interval between visits is now, in practice, lengthened to seven years. Also, there is a certain limit to the private visits with the Pope: the traditional 15-minute private visits with individual bishops are still possible, but they are not as frequent. Now bishops meet the Holy Father in small groups.

As prefect of the Congregation for Bishops you are in a position to understand the ecclesiastical reality of many countries and to know bishops from all over the world. From your privileged observation point, how do you see the situation of the Catholic Church and the “state of the faith” in the world?

Ouellet: There is a crisis of faith, especially in the Western world. It is by no mere chance that the need for a new evangelization has become a burning issue over these last years and that Benedict XVI has proclaimed the Year of Faith. It is a worrying situation and is seen in the decrease in religious vocations and the difficulties that confront priests. I think the new evangelization can be based on a new and more intense ecclesial communion. New ideas and projects are good, but what is convincing is real communion within the Church. Unless we are in communion with one another, God’s presence is not evident and the Good News of the Gospel is not passed on.

The documents produced, the meetings organized by the various institutions of the Church, the many beautiful words which are heard do not arouse faith in people today. People discover faith and draw close to the Church thanks to those bearing real witness to the Gospel. How can we turn believers into authentic witnesses to the evangelical message?

Ouellet: The family is the key to the future of evangelization. Nowadays we are confronted with an anthropological crisis: the absence of God also obscures the meaning of man. Hence there is the need to rediscover man’s identity. This identity is always in relation with others, and the basic relations are those established within the family. We must rediscover the grace of God in the sacrament of marriage, which is the key for the future. From new and generous families vocations are born.

With reference to marriage and the family, you taught at the Pontifical Institute John Paul II for Studies on Marriage and Family. Nowadays one of the enemies of the family, understood as the union of one man and one woman, is gender ideology. What are the dangers deriving from this ideology which is trying to impose a new vision of man, a new anthropology?

Ouellet: It is a new anthropology which has no divine or biblical foundation.

We are created in the image and likeness of God. God is relational in the complementarity of three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, not only the individual, but also the family in its complementarity is the image of God.

This ideology, on the contrary, does away with the natural complementarity of the sexes. It reduces it to a cultural factor, denying that man’s identity comes from God and, in this sense, denies the work of God, becoming an anthropology without God. From the viewpoint of this ideology man can choose who he wants to be; he can “recreate” himself and find fulfilment by his willpower alone. This is seen already in Genesis: we want to become like God, but without God. God, instead, wants “to deify” us in His grace, that is, in the free exchange of love between Him and us in Jesus Christ.

A large image of Christ serves as a backdrop as Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops, celebrates the opening Mass of the 50th International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, June 10, 2012 (CNS photo)

Various lobbies want to impose this ideology on the people even by means of civil legislation. The Church must therefore propose the truth about man in the light of Revelation.

What are the challenges facing the Church today?

Ouellet: The big challenge is the globalization of communications, which has brought about a new world, a digital world. So we must find our place in this world, and we must also see how we can put this world at the service of the Gospel. We must be present there to offer the light of the Gospel to everybody. I have no technical or strategic solutions, but I feel that this is a big challenge.

Your Eminence, you often travel and you know well the ecclesial realities all over the world. Where do you see signs of hope in the Church?

Ouellet: I find them first of all in the great ecclesial movements and in many new communities (I am thinking of the Focolare Movement, Communion and Liberation, the Community of St. Egidio, the Neocatechumenal Way, the Charismatic Movement and, in Poland, “Luce e Vita”). In them a new evangelization is taking place which is already bearing fruit: I have seen this in various parts of the world. In these movements there is an impulse towards family life and the Christian life, from which new vocations are born.

The reality of the Gospel is the encounter with Jesus, the Risen One, who fascinates and gives birth to communion. And where there is communion there is the Church. The new communities are the new reality of the Church which can revitalize parishes and the ecclesial fabric.

Your Eminence, you are very familiar with Latin America, the most Catholic continent. How is the situation of the Church evolving in response to secularization and the proselytization of sects?

Ouellet: I would say that, in spite of everything, the situation remains positive. For many decades the Church in Latin America focused on justice issues.

The well-known preferential option for the poor…

Ouellet: That’s right. This theme cannot be abandoned. However, especially following the turning point of Aparecida, the principal mission of the Church must be stressed: to announce Jesus to the world.

We cannot solve all the social problems of the world. Hence I see also in Latin America a new missionary thrust: a continental mission has been organized that will last ten years (from 2007 to 2017). This is a wonderful witness for the whole world. So that continent continues to be the “Continent of Hope” for the Church.

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