Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former rector of Edmonton's St. Joseph Seminary is seen – by the media at least – as a strong candidate for the papacy.
March 4, 2013
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
Irish bookies are giving him great odds, Edmontonians are answering urgent media producers' calls asking for memories about him, and inquiring journalists sometimes hear a "no comment" barked into their cellphone or texted instantly back.
"Let's wait until we see what happens in Rome first," advised one patient churchperson.
The man – Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Known throughout Canada, Europe, Colombia, this red hat spent three years as rector of Edmonton's St. Joseph Seminary.
With rumours that the conclave may look beyond Europe for the next pope, celebrated South and North American cardinals and their bios are making the secular world press. Africa too, with its 16 per cent of the world's Catholics, is mentioned as a possible place of origin of the next pope.
Still, when the WCR called people who had worked with or known Father Ouellet when he was rector of the seminary from 1994 to 1997, seven refused to comment about the cardinal. Some were quite abrupt.
One person who declined to comment said that when Ouellet left Edmonton in 1997, he left "some rough edges." But when he returned several years later after becoming a cardinal, he went around to people and tried to smooth things out. "I think that says a lot."
One who did comment was Archbishop Emeritus Joseph MacNeil who headed the Edmonton Archdiocese during Ouellet's time at St. Joseph Seminary.
"We were so happy to get him," remembers MacNeil. "He was a brilliant theologian, but still down to earth, easy to relate to. He came from a small little village in Quebec and he never forgets that. He knows who he is."
He lived out his memories of the parish priest while he was here too, filling in on the weekends at francophone parishes when the regular priest was away.
MacNeil witnessed how that populist element stayed strong even after Ouellet became cardinal.
It was two years ago in Nova Scotia, marking the 400th anniversary of the first Baptism in Canada. (The person being baptized was Mi'kmaq Grandchief Membertuo who converted to Catholicism and was baptized June 24, 1610.)
MacNeil watched as the cardinal spent time with the priests, the native people.
"He got to know them. One day he spent from 7 or 8 in the morning till 8 or 9 at night with them."
MacNeil listened as the cardinal gave his homily. "His first words were in the Mi'kmaq language. And then in French. And then in English. Then he stayed for dinner and well into the night before leaving. He was very much at home. He felt comfortable with them and they felt comfortable with him.
The bottom line question is asked. Would he make a good pope?
MacNeil's reply is immediate.
"If that is the choice of the Holy Spirit, he would make a fantastic pope. I would like that. He is brilliant, prayerful, a spiritual man. He likes people. He understands one of the major responsibilities of the pope is to maintain the traditions of the Church, be faithful to the Gospel and Jesus Christ. He understands that clearly."
CARING AND OPEN
Even brief glimpses of a person can tell a lot. Diane Rouleau, associate director of the Office of Family and Life for the archdiocese replies immediately when asked about Ouellet. "He is a beautiful man, caring, open."
She had encounters with him and watched his interactions during the International Eucharistic Congress 2008.
"He would hold your hand, pull you in when he was talking to you, maintain direct eye contact and hold your hand until the conversation was over. When you were there with him, he was there with you."
Rouleau also shares another vignette about Ouellet during his time in Quebec City.
"He had an open session at Sunday at Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral and set hours when he was in town when people could pop in for Reconciliation. He was present for the people."
FAITHFUL TO CHURCH TEACHING
Rosemarie Fowler was registrar at Newman Theological College and worked closely with Ouellet.
"He was warm, welcoming, a wonderful man of great integrity, very pastoral and faithful to Church teaching."
She remembers his first homily when he first arrived from South America. "He spoke from his heart. It really it touched me. He has great humility, courage, a holy man."
Bill Lerner also worked with Ouellet when Lerner was executive director of the Foundation of St. Joseph Seminary and Newman Theological College.
When Lerner assumed his position, the foundation was getting ready to have a campaign to raise funds and that meant going to every parish in the diocese.
"The best people to tell this would be the seminarians," remembered Lerner. "So I went to see Father Ouellet who said, 'Well, I am not too thrilled with that. Your predecessor came in and told us we were to go and do this and this and this."
Lerner replied, "I don't work that way. I'm requesting this and if it is possible, I would certainly love to have these men come out and give the good news about the college and the seminary to the faithful of the diocese."
It was the right thing to say for Ouellet replied, "I am glad you came to speak to me first. I'll ask the men if they want to do it. I won't order them if they want to go."
Says Lerner, "That was the beginning of a relationship that just got better with time. He became a very full supporter of the foundation."
Lerner's memories of Ouellet are many.
"He also had a beautiful singing voice. One year at our Christmas party at the Star the North he sang Cantique de Noël (Oh Holy Night) in French. It was just beautiful."
But Ouellet is lost in the kitchen.
"One year the kitchen shut down for the month of August," says Lerner. "And the now-Cardinal Ouellet was there basically on his own – no cooks."
The seminarians later told Lerner, "He doesn't even know how to boil an egg."
Lerner understood. "He had never cooked a thing in his life. He was raised in a good French Catholic home in Quebec, he went to school, he went to the seminary and he was looked after. He never did a thing.
"In the end, they ended up giving him a credit card to go to a restaurant."
On the pastoral side, Lerner remembers Ouellet as a well-spoken man, an excellent writer, very much a person of protocol. "Person to person, he was warm and convivial."
As a person of faith, Lerner says Ouellet is a conservative when it comes to the Church and women. "He comes from the culture of the old French Catholic Church. That is where he was raised and this is with him now."
He was concerned about Quebec, says Lerner, that most of the churches were empty, most marriages common law and the only thing keeping the Church alive was the immigrants.
Perhaps the one with the most personal view of the former rector is a seminarian under his tutelage.
Father Patrick Baska, pastor at Edmonton's St. Angela Merici Parish, was one of those seminarians and says the first thing that comes to mind is Ouellet's "very keen intellect. He was able to articulate complicated theological material in a practical spiritual way yet was easy to engage with the seminarians."
Baska took a course with him in spiritual ministry and found him, "very good at drawing from the history and tradition of the Church" and ecumenically minded.
SENSE OF HUMOUR
A proponent of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ouellet sparked a similar interest in Baska.
The pastor says despite Ouellet's reserved demeanour, he found him attentive and gifted with a good sense of humour.
"He enjoyed a good story, to laugh," says Baska. "We had a good rapport sports wise. We had a good rivalry – he with the Canadiens and me with Boston. I looked forward to having a good jab once in a while."
Yes, those stories about Ouellet's hockey prowess are true.
He would don skates and take to the rink and easily deke around the seminarians.
"He would come out to the rink and you could see that he was a good hockey player," admires Baska, "He was very skilled even for his age. He could have gone on to some hockey career."
Baska says he admires Ouellet for his "giftedness, talent, rapport, strength in his principles. He has a compassionate heart but is not afraid to challenge as well, to shake up the status quo."
What will happen at the conclave? The Holy Spirit knows a lot more than Irish bookies. So far, he hasn't commented.