A Dying Cardinal

The Pope flew to northern Italy on Monday for his summer vacation. Two years ago, I flew to Montreal to visit Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, who was on his death-bed. I spoke to him one month before he died

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

Sometimes, a story unfolds in an hour.

Sometimes, it takes 30 or 40 years.

Sometimes, it never unfolds at all. It remains a secret forever.

I’ve had some interesting days since my last “newsflash” three days ago, but the people I’ve spoken to have asked for anonymity. I have to honor that, much as I believe the words of Jesus: “The truth shall set you free.”

One thing I can say is that the battles around this Pope are intense, and they range in importance from fundamental issues, on the one hand, to superficial ones, on the other. I’ll explain in more detail in coming dispatches, God willing…

But I think it important things to keep in mind, in coming days, these points, no matter what happens:

1) the sacraments (mysteries) of the Church are channels of grace providing direct contact with the Risen Lord of History, Jesus Christ; therefore, other mystical experiences and events, no matter how seemingly beneficial or grace-filled, are of relatively little importance in comparison to these sacraments

2) the Bishop of Rome — the current Pope or any Pope, any successor of Peter — is capable, as are all human beings, of erring in prudential matters, but is guided and protected by a special and infallible charism when he defines faith and morals ex cathedra.

I was a friend of the late Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, who died two years ago at the age of 89 (his dates were January 15, 1918 to August 25, 2007) (photo).

A Canadian who was for many years the President of the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Gagnon was known in Rome for his full support of the prohibition of artificial contraception in Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. (Note: The demographic collapse of the West is often attributed, in Rome, to the rejection by the West of the teaching of Pope Paul VI in that encyclical. Inotherwords, the social, cultural and historical, as well as moral and spiritual, consequences of the rejection of that encyclical have been profound.)

He died on August 25, 2007 in Montreal at the Saint-Sulpice Seminary.

On hearing of his death, Pope Benedict XVI said that Cardinal Gagnon was a “faithful pastor who, with an evangelical spirit, consecrated his life in service to Christ and his Church.”

It is widely known in Rome that Gagnon went on a special mission for Pope John Paul II in the late 1980s to investigate the Society of St. Pius X, found by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (photo), in the hope of finding a way to avoid a schism, and that his mission failed.

It is now generally forgotten that Pope Paul VI gave Gagnon a different mission 10 years earlier, in the late 1970s in Rome.

The following is drawn from an interesting 2007 article by Msgr. Vincent Foy, the oldest diocesan priest in the Archdiocese of Toronto, a canon lawyer by training.

“About 1977 the Pope (Paul VI) asked Bishop Gagnon to conduct an investigation of the whole Roman Curia. There were widespread rumors of corruption and infiltration by enemies of the Church. These led to the often-repeated saying of the Pope that the smoke of Satan had entered the Church [my emphasis]. This was an immense task, which took many months of intense work and many interviews.

“Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, in a (2001) interview with Latin Mass magazine, reprinted in Christian Order this year (2007), gives this account, based on a conversation of Bishop Gagnon with an Italian priest, Don Luigi Villa of the diocese of Brescia.

“Bishop Gagnon (she said) ‘compiled a long dossier, rich in worrisome details. He requested an audience with Pope Paul in order to deliver personally the manuscript to the Pontiff. This request for a meeting was denied. The Pope sent word that the document should be placed in the offices of the Congregation for the Clergy, specifically in a safe with a double lock. This was done, but by the very next day the safety box was broken and the manuscript mysteriously disappeared. This theft was reported even in L’Osservatore Romano (perhaps under pressure because it had been reported in the secular press). Cardinal Gagnon, of course, had a copy, and once again asked the Pope for a private audience. Once again his request was denied. He then decided to leave Rome and return to his homeland in Canada’… (end of Hildebrand quote)

(still Foy writing) “Bishop Gagnon wrote me on June 10th, 1979, about ten months after the election of Pope John Paul II (October 1978). He said, in part, ‘He (the Pope) must feel that if he started changing or contradicting the VIPs around him he would be engaged in a constant battle and would not be left enough time or strength to preach and write — all you can do for the Church is to pray and fast. We should not judge him — but I am waiting for his settling down after Poland to tell him that I am sorry for him and cannot continue working in the present set-up…”

(For a full report on this matter, see: https://catholicinsight.com/online/features/article_764.shtml)

Having known Cardinal Gagnon, and having read these accounts of his work in the 1970s and 1980s, I was always hopeful of conducting a long interview with him. However, the opportunity did not present itself, and in the summer of 2007, I learned that the cardinal was dying. I therefore decided to buy an airplane ticket and travel to Montreal to pay my last respects to him before his passing. This is what happened…

Two years ago, on July 22, 2007, I wrote this report to myself; it has never previously been published:

“I am writing this at 11:06 on Sunday morning in Montreal. It is a perfect summer day under an azure sky with a light breeze blowing over the square cobblestones of the piazza in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady — Notre Dame — in the center of Montreal.
“I first thought I would not be able to get in to see the cardinal. The courtyard was empty, a sign said the rectory was closed on Sundays, when I looked in there was no one inside, and there was no white bell. So I walked around the basilica, then inside it, spoke with an usher, and he told me I could go back to the sacristy. There, I met a priest, who told me to go back to the same door of the rectory at 116 rue de Notre-Dame. I went back, and pushed the asterisk number. No answer. Again. No answer. Then I saw a man sitting inside at the desk. He had not been there before. I knocked on the window. He buzzed and the door opened and let me in. (The following conversation then occurred.)

“Who are you and what do you want?”

“I am an old friend of Cardinal Gagnon. I would like to see him.”

“He is very weak, too weak to see anyone.”

“I called some days ago, they said I could see him briefly.”

“Come, we will go and ask.”

I walked behind him into the hallway of the rectory. “Wait here,” he said. I waited in a waiting room. There was a Documentation Catholique on the table about the Pope’s trip to Brazil.

The priest came back. “He is too weak. He does not wish to see anyone.”

“But I have come so far.”

“No, I’m sorry,” he said. “He is too tired.”

I pulled out a copy of my magazine. “Take this and ask him one last time.” Reluctantly, he took the magazine, turned and went back down the hall.

Another minutes passed as I waited alone in the reading room. Then, his voice: “Robert? (pause) Robert?” I went to the door and looked down the dark hall. He was standing up on top of four stairs at the end of the hallway. He motioned to me. “Come. He will see you. But only for you to say goodbye to him, nothing more. You can only stay for a moment.”

I walked down the hallway and into the room. Light was coming into the living room, and off to the left was a door leading in to a less bright bedroom. There, on a hospital bed with intravenous tubes set into his arms on each side, lay a very old, pale man. Two oxygen tubes entered his nostrils. It was Cardinal Gagnon.

“Your Eminence,” I said. “I have come to say good-bye to you.”

His eyes recognized me. “You are doing good work,” he said. “I read your magazine.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Very tired,” he said.

“I wanted to thank you for everything you have done, the work you have done for the Church.”

He barely acknowledged my words.

The priest stood in the doorway of the room. “Come away now, let him rest,” he said. “Don’t tire him any further.”

I reached out my hand and took his hand.

“Your eminence, many years ago, you helped me. I wanted to thank you for that. You helped me at the very start of my career…”

“You have written well,” he said. “Continue. Your work is important.”

The other priest was insistent now. “Come,” he said. “It is time.”

“Your Eminence,” I said, “you have done so much for the Church….”

He was silent, and his eyes closed.

“Your Eminence, you must be tired. All the struggles over the years…”


“Robert, it is time to go,” said the priest who had brought me to him.

“Your Eminence, the study you made for Pope Paul VI in the 1970s…”

He opened his eyes and looked directly into mine.

“The study that was stolen,” I said.

He knew what I was talking about, I feel sure. He knew immediately and clearly.

“Did you keep any copy of the document?”

“No,” he said, and I felt a great weariness in him. “They ordered me to destroy every copy,” he said. “And I obeyed.”

“So there are no copies of your report?”

“No,” he said. He closed his eyes. He seemed enormously, extraordinarily tired. I felt like I was almost cruel, to continue to push him to think, to recall, to speak…

The other priest called to me again. “Robert,” he said. “Don’t ask him anything else. It is enough now.”

But I had one more question.

“Is there anyone else you confided in, who knows the content of your report?”

“There is someone,” he said, with a sigh, and closed his eyes as if he were going to fall into a slumber out of his great weariness.

“Who?” I asked.

“Monsignor…” and he coughed as he said the name, and a little spittle came out onto his thin, dry lips…

“Who?” I asked again. “I couldn’t hear what you said…”

I bent my head closer to his lips. I put my ears only an inch or two from his mouth.

Monsignor (name),” he said, and whispered the name. “He helped me prepare the report.”

Monsignor (name)?” I said, repeating the name.

“Yes,” Gagnon said.

Monsignor (first name) (last name)?” I said, giving both his first and last names.

“Yes,” said Gagnon. “We worked together on it. He knows everything that it contained.”

My heart skipped a beat. I had not obtained the report itself. But I had gotten something almost as good: a living witness…

“Go talk to him,” Gagnon said. “As you see, my time remaining in this world will be brief now… You must pray for me.”

“I will pray for you,” I said.

“The other priest said, ‘Come, come, he is too tired now…”

“Will you give me your blessing?” I asked Gagnon.

He lifted his thin, white, bony hand, where there was a long red splotch underneath the skin due to a hemorrage from an intravenous needle.

“Benedicat te omnipotens Deus, Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus.” (“May Almighty God bless you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”)

He moved his hand about an inch and a half, trembling, in the sign of the cross.

He closed his eyes. He was simply too tired to keep them open.

The priest tugged on my arm, and gestured with his eyes towards the door.

I left Gagnon’s side and walked out of the bedroom, out of the living room, out into the green hallway, down the steps and out to the front door.

“You were lucky,” the priest said to me. “You shouldn’t have been able to see him today. I am never here on Sunday mornings. I don’t know why I came down. And if I hadn’t come down, no one would have been here to let you in.”

“Thanks for helping,” I said.

“You were very lucky,” he repeated.

And he let me out the door, and it closed behind me.

Four days ago, on Saturday morning, July 11, as I wrote that evening in my last “newsflash,” I was able to be in the press pool which covered the visit of the Prime Minister of Canada and his family to see Pope Benedict XVI.

Monday morning, I went to the photo office of the Osservatore Romano and ordered prints of some of the photos from that day.

Today I picked up the photos, and now I am able to send one of them with this newsflash.

In the background, one can see Suor Giovanna of the Vatican Press office. The picture was taken in the Pope’s private library a minute or two after Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his family left the room through the door in the background.

Psalm 121

A song of ascents

1 I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,
from whence cometh my help.

2 My help cometh from the LORD,
which made heaven and earth.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved:
he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel
shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The LORD is thy keeper:
the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand.

6 The sun shall not smite thee by day,
nor the moon by night.

7 The LORD shall preserve thee from all evil:
he shall preserve thy soul.

8 The LORD shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in
from this time forth, and even for evermore.

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