Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 7, 2008
From humble origin, Marc Ouellet grew to become a leading prince of the Church
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
"My deep motivation for becoming a priest was spiritual and intellectual and a search for the truth."
"And now to be involved in making that fruit, you know, in an event. That's extraordinary."
Also extraordinary is Ouellet's rise from humble beginnings. Born in 1944 the third of eight children, he grew up on a farm outside La Motte, a small village in Quebec's western Abitibi region. His mother was only 18 when she married.
His father, largely self-taught, found various ways to provide for his large family. The Ouellets kept a cow or two and a flock of sheep. Though never hungry, the family was relatively poor.
Ouellet began to consider whether God was calling him while attending a school run by the Clerics of Saint-Viateur in Berthierville.
"It was a very Catholic institution. It was normal there to be invited to join the community, or to think about possible vocation," he said. "I remember at 14 years old, the question of vocation was very much alive in me but undecided."
His father had different ideas. He brought him home to attend public school in Amos, where Ouellet took courses aimed at becoming a teacher. His paternal grandfather, who intuited Ouellet's vocation before he did, helped him choose courses that would prepare him for the seminary.
Ouellet loved sports and looked forward to playing hockey every winter. When he was 17, he broke his leg and missed a whole season. The decreased mobility resulted in a period of reflection and deepened prayer. At the same time, his study of science, philosophy and good literature awakened deep questions.
While studying astronomy, the immensity of the universe, and the velocity of light deeply impressed him. "Who are we humans on this very small planet there, lost in the universe?"
"I was reflecting on God and creation and our position in the universe and at the same time on what would be my role in life," he said. He began to read books by St. Francis de Sales and others. The spiritual autobiography of St. Th‚rŠse of the Child Jesus was "probably the book that was more decisive than the others."
"At 14 years old, the question of vocation was very much alive in me but undecided."
"My deep motivation for becoming a priest was spiritual and intellectual and a search for the truth," he said. "I wanted to consecrate my life to something important, dealing with the meaning of life."
In 1968, not quite 24 years old, Ouellet was ordained in the same village church where he'd been baptized and confirmed. He then served two years in Val d'Or as a parish priest, with an eye on joining the Order of St. Sulpice.
In 1970, the Sulpicians sent him to Colombia in South America to test how he might perform as a missionary in a seminary. He landed there not knowing any Spanish. With hard work, he mastered the language within a few months. After a year and a half in Colombia, Ouellet joined the order in 1972. He then went to Rome for further studies in philosophy.
It was during these studies he came across the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a contemporary Catholic theologian whose theology "fascinated" him with its mystical dimension. They struck up a friendship that lasted until von Balthasar's death in 1988. Ouellet described him as his chief mentor.
Ouellet wrote his doctoral thesis in German on von Balthasar's theological anthropology. "The main focus of my thesis is to show how much you become yourself to the extent that you accept in faith to share in the mission of Christ."
-WCR file photo
In the 1990's, then-Father Marc Ouellet served as rector of Edmonton's St. Joseph Seminary.
Von Balthasar was among several Catholic theologians who proposed refocusing the Church on Christ and returning to the sources of the early Church fathers and their mode of doing theology. This ressourcement movement had a profound impact on the Second Vatican Council.
"The Catholic Church needed a very strong re-centering on Christ," Ouellet said, "Which was exactly the event of the Second Vatican Council"
It involved "getting out of the mess of rationalism, which has been a sort of poison for modern theology," he said.
Ouellet studied for the priesthood at the Grand Seminaire of Montreal from 1964-68. During his formation, the ideas that eventually emptied the churches in Quebec and led to many leaving the priesthood and religious life had not yet penetrated.
Those ideas sprang from an interpretation of the Second Vatican Council as one of rupture with the Church's tradition, he said.
"This has been a big problem in Canada, in Quebec in particular." Many in Canada worry that the "spirit" of the council has been lost and needs to be recovered because reforms have not gone far enough, he said.
Ouellet shares Pope Benedict's view that the council was in continuity with the Church and Tradition. "We are still receiving the Spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council."
Ouellet served in Colombia in between and following his studies in Rome. In 1990, he returned to Canada to serve as rector at seminaries in Montreal and Edmonton. From 1996 to 2001 he taught in Rome at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Lateran Pontifical University.
In 2001, John Paul II ordained him bishop and appointed him secretary of the Congregation for Christian Unity. "It was a big surprise to me," he said. "I was not prepared for that."
"For me it was a school of openness to other realities, Church realities." He worked with the World Council of Churches, worked on the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue on Mary, and visited with the Orthodox in India. It was an extraordinary time of discovery.
"I was starting to say, okay, now I start to know where I was to go, then, I was pouf! sent here to be archbishop of Quebec." Installed in 2002 in Quebec City, Ouellet was named a cardinal within a year, a rise Vatican observer John Allen Jr. described as "meteoric."
Before the 2005 conclave that selected Benedict XVI, several journalists described Ouellet as papabile, or literally, "pope-able." Ouellet told Radio Canada's Pierre Maisonneuve, he was flattered by the attention, but laughed at the thought, according to Le journaliste et le cardinal (Novalis 2006).
Ouellet said he had no desire to die as pope. Maisonneuve wrote he expects Ouellet to remain on the papabile list for the next conclave.
Despite his international accolades, Ouellet's five years in Quebec have often been controversial. Critics viewed him as a conservative Rome imposed on the Quebec Church to bring it back in line.
Soon after his arrival he faced protest from his priests when he did away with the routine practice of general absolution. He admitted the "huge reaction" was painful, but once the decision was made the priests obeyed.
The news media have also criticized Ouellet for blaming Quebec's social ills on the collapse of Catholicism and publicly lamenting the spiritual void left by the Quiet Revolution's rapid changes that emptied churches in the 1970.
Quebec dropped from having the highest church attendance to the lowest. Now the province has the highest rate of children born out of wedlock, a low birth rate and a high suicide rate.
The difficulty of the mission in the world has been less painful for Ouellet than the "search for unity within the Church."
"This has always been the main challenge and the most difficult," he said. But the conflict is not unusual. "That's the normal state of mission, where you go forward with the cross of Jesus Christ. That's exactly his way and you cannot go forward without going the same way."
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