CANADA. Interview with the Archbishop of Quebec
Mary’s role is deeper than that of Peter
A talk with Cardinal Marc Ouellet: «Ecumenic orientation is not sufficiently centred on the bases of the faith and hence on the role of Mary which – and in this the Orthodox are very close to us – is deeper than the role of Peter or of the bishops. Thinking about the Marian principle as the basis of the unity of the Church would be useful»
by Gianni Cardinale
Cardinal Marc Ouellet
The new cardinal is the third Canadian cardinal belonging to the Sulpician Society of Apostolic Life after the late lamented Paul-Émile Léger, Archbishop of Montreal from 1950 to 1968, and the 85 year old Edouard Gagnon, who retired to his country after long service in the Roman Curia. The archdiocese of Quebec also counts a Cardinal Emeritus, Louis-Albert Vachon, Canadian Primate from 1981 to 1990. Both Gagnon and Vachon were unable to participate in the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the pontificate and the Consistory following. « Gagnon», Ouellet tells us, «has had health problems for some time, but is still very lucid. Vachon is very elderly, he’s 91 years old, however he phoned me on the morning of my nomination as cardinal. He was very glad that the cardinal tradition of Quebec continues...».
Your Eminence, you were ordained priest in May 1968, a rather troubled period... What do you remember about the atmosphere at the time?
MARC OUELLET: The atmosphere was pretty chaotic. I remember well that on the very day of my ordination, a very close member of my family told me: you should reconsider, because it looks as if the Church to which you are about to give your life is collapsing, doesn’t look to have a future. And he said it seriously, not as a joke.
And you weren’t in any way intrigued by that “revolutionary” atmosphere?
OUELLET: No. Even if there was something profound in the student protest that went beyond simple political and social protest. There was a search for meaning, a global dissatisfaction with the structures of society, even the religious ones... I must say in that regard that I finished university in April and so did not experience May firsthand. I remember however that in October the seminarians who frequented the campus took part en masse in the students’ movement and so as to gain more credit with the other protesters they were the most radical of the lot. The seminary closed for a fortnight, after which only those who promised to submit to the authority of the superiors were readmitted.
After being ordained priest you worked for two years as assistant parish priest in Val d’Or…
OUELLET: It was a splendid time. The priest was seventy and we worked well together. I dealt mostly with pastoral work for schools and I took care of the singing and the liturgy, that was going through a particularly chaotic moment...
We’ll come back to the issue. You began academic work that mainly took place in Latin America. There, too, you found a delicate situation...
OUELLET: I began teaching philosophy in the seminary of Bogotá in 1970. In that period there was a real crisis in vocations. There were plenty of moments of tension and protest from the seminarians, but the situation was nevertheless under control...
At that period Liberation Theology began to spread.
OUELLET: In effect the first book by the theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez dates precisely from 1971. But I must say that Colombia was not particularly touched by the version of Liberation Theology dependent on Marxist ideology. Not least because of the intense counter-activity set up by the then bishop, now cardinal, Alfonso López Trujillo.
The basilica of Saint'Anne de Beaupré in Quebec City
OUELLET: Certainly yes. Liberation Theology came out of the Word of God: it was a manifestation of the Spirit in the sense that it gave voice to the cry of the poor who were asking for justice, who asked for help and who were inspired by the Bible, in particular to the Old Testament. Liberation Theology left a very positive legacy, a demonstration of vitality, through the ecclesial grass-roots communities. What Liberation Theology lacked was a more profound christology. To the extent to which there was exaggerated influence from the Marxist analysis of society, there was a tendency to push back the evangelical inspiration toward the Old Testament with, for example, a political interpretation of Exodus. Liberation Theology lacked understanding of the fact that Jesus was not a simple martyr to a cause, but the conclusion of human history. That is why the interventions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have been very useful. After its interventions even Gutiérrez deepened the spiritual dimension of his Liberation Theology.
In 1982 you defended your degree thesis in theology on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar at the Gregorian University. A brief personal memory of the famous Swiss theologian...
OUELLET: I contacted him for the first time in 1973. He was starting on Teodrammatica, the second part of his Trilogy, he was almost seventy and he thought he wouldn’t make it. I remember that he tried to dissuade me from doing a thesis on his theology. But he didn’t succeed. I was fascinated by the mystical dimension and the wide cultural scope of his theology, and I concentrated on a burning issue, that of theological anthropology. From that was born a deep friendship that also showed itself in a thick exchange of letters. I’m still struck with the speed with which he answered, despite having much to do. I’ve never managed myself. What struck me about him was above all his eagle gaze - the symbol of Saint John is the eagle - his ability to observe everything – Holy Writ, tradition, literature... – from the loftiest standpoint, and hence the deepest, possible. Von Balthasar illuminated my mind and my heart.
After teaching at the Lateran University, you spent a short but intense period as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
OUELLET: After Vatican Council II the Catholic Church entered the ecumenic movement in decisive and irreversible way. And this is great Pentecostal fact of our time, to be judged very positively. But the thousand years separation from Orthodoxy and the five hundred from the communities born out of the Reformation cannot be quickly knitted back together. There’s need of time. I believe that with this pontificate the Catholic Church has become the motive force of the ecumenic movement...
Not always with great success...
OUELLET: Unfortunately the great expectations aroused by the event of grace of the encounter between Paul VI and Atenagora, an event of enormous symbolic import, have not been satisfied. On our side no large obstacles are seen to unity with Orthodoxy from the dogmatic and sacramental point of view, even if the problem of the unity of the Church cum Petro and sub Petro still remains. But from the Orthodox point of view the things are not simple: on their side there is a centuries-long mistrust, there is the fear of an invasion by us of their traditional territories, of a Catholic proselytism. Sometimes I wonder whether we Catholics are sufficiently alert to this psychological, cultural, historical factor, in our methods of dialogue and approach.
The time is particularly difficult with Russian Orthodoxy, and in this case we need to practice the virtue of patience, but we must recognize that enormous steps have been made precisely in these years with Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. In this dialogue we must be at pains to avoid, when relations become tense, acting – so to speak – “politically”, through a media battle as well. It’s not healthy to use these means in ecumenic relations.
A Canadian believer in Saint Peter’s Square during the ceremony of beatification of Mother Teresa 19 October 2003
OUELLET: With the encyclical Ut unum sint the Pope opened the way to discussion of the issue, inviting the separated brethren to make known their point of view on the way in which the primacy could be exercised in the manner most acceptable to them. Consultation is still continuing. There is an openness on the part of the See of Peter to suggestions and this means that there is a willingness to change something. Probably we can assimilate more the principle of synodality, much developed in the East. On the other hand, however, the Orthodox world has great internal difficulties in co-ordinating itself. For thirty years there has been talk of a pan-Orthodox assembly but they still haven’t managed to organize it: they lack the Petrine principle with its effectiveness, while the national principle prevails that blocks everything in favour of interest of another kind.
All the Church must therefore be willing to make an exchange of gifts that goes beyond finding political, let’s say, formulas. That is why in my thinking on the ecumenic movement I tried to develop the Marian principle.
In what sense?
OUELLET: The ecumenic orientation is too centered on the episcopacy, on relations between collegiality and papacy and not enough on the bases of the faith and hence on the role of Mary, that – and in this the Orthodox are very close to us – is deeper than the role of Peter or of the bishops. Thinking is needed on the Marian principle as the basis of the unity of the Church. This fact, according to me, has not been still sufficiently gone into in ecumenic dialogue.
Isn’t there a danger that the Marian principle will be less effective with the Protestant world?
OUELLET: I wouldn’t say so. In dialogue with the Anglicans I’ve discovered that they keep Marian feastdays in their liturgical tradition. Certainly they, different from us, don’t pray, don’t invoke Mary, but on other essential questions a shared text has been created on the mystery of Mary in Christ and in the Church that should soon come out. Furthermore in 1997 a rather detailed document was made by the Groupe des Dombes, which concluded that Mary is not a divisive factor between Reformed theologians and Catholics. Thus between Catholics and Orthodox, but also between Catholics and Anglicans and between Catholics and Reformed there are points in common of great importance that could lead to positive developments. Always starting, it’s well to remember, from Scripture. Because unity is possible starting from Revelation and from the way in which we can accept Revelation together. And Mary is the key biblical figure for teaching us to accept the Word.
Here I must confess that in the Protestant world, unfortunately, Scripture is spoken of with great emphasis, but it is not followed. Now it’s us Catholics who are bringing dialogue back to the scriptural basis. When there are divergences in the anthropological and ethical fields, for example, we point to Scripture, they, the Protestants, are tempted to point to culture.
To what issues is the Church giving priority today?
OUELLET: The fundamental question is and must always remain the mission. The first question is always that of how to proclaim the Gospel to the world that has still not received it. And it is a question too much forgotten, that gets no space in the media but it is the question of the Church. From this point of view what happened with the beatification of Mother Teresa is symbolic and epochal. In the sense that the great little nun founded the Missionaries of Charity, not the Sisters of Charity, and did it in India. Now these Missionaries, Indians for the most part, are everywhere in the world, they practice a radical charity, free, with the poorest of the poor. This is the symbol of the mission for the third millennium. Paradoxically it is Asia, the least Christian continent, that comes to us and evangelizes, re-evangelizes us...
Cardinal Marc Ouellet during the ceremony of taking possession of the title to Santa Maria in Traspontina, Sunday 26 October 2003
OUELLET: After the Vatican Council II there was a very exaggerated progressive liturgical movement, that did away with the treasures of tradition such as the Gregorian chant. Treasures that ought to be recovered. But above all, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger says, the sacred sense of the liturgy must be recovered, the perception that the liturgy is not something that we manufacture, that we can recompose according to our passing tastes, but is something that is received, that is given us. Hence the objectivity of liturgical forms has its importance. I believe that these reminders of Cardinal Ratzinger are important. I believe that Vatican Council II made a good Constitution on the sacred liturgy, the Sacrosanctum Concilium. But the actuation of the liturgical reform has not – always – been up to it. We need to return to the letter of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Another burning issue in the ecclesial debate is that of collegiality. Do you believe reforms are needed on that front?
OUELLET: Ecumenic dialogue has led me to rediscover the richness of other traditions. We Latins have a more centralized ecclesial life. The Petrine principle is our strength and it mustn’t be made a weakness. In the orthodox tradition synodality rules, while among the Protestants the grass-roots laity is more involved in the life of the community. The development of collegiality needs adjustments that in some way see the wealth of the traditions of our separate brethren as well. I feel the aspiration to a larger participation of the diocesan bishops in relations with the departments of the Roman Curia, I feel that there are difficulties in these relations, due to somewhat rigid attitudes on both sides. It’s clear that something has to be thought of, but I don’t have in mind any recipe ready to propose, not least because my experience in the episcopal college is still too fresh.
Your home country, Canada, could become the third country, after Belgium and Holland, to legally recognize homosexual couples. What do you think of the matter?
OUELLET: In effect the danger exists, a further sign of the tremendous anthropological crisis that the western world is going through, in which any sexual difference becomes insignificant. But now, through the unanimous and strong commitment of the bishops, the people of Canada are waking up again and the government, that backed the bill, has I believe become aware of going too far... It’s no accident that even within the party with an absolute majority [Liberal, ed] there has been a vertical break on this and it has become a real hot potato. I want to hope that with the expected change of leader in the majority party and hence of premier [from Jean Chretien to Paul Martin, ed] the bill will be dropped for ever.
The issue, however, has been put before also to the federal Supreme Court and I hope the judges will interpret the magna carta of rights not merely formally but in the context of national life and also of the philosophical and religious wisdom of mankind, that has always conceived marriage as the union of a man and a woman. That should be evident to common sense. That’s why I hope that the federal Supreme Court doesn’t confirm the judgments of the lower courts that have decided in favor of the legal recognition of homosexual couples passed by a couple of state assemblies. We shall see... but even if the Ottawa Court were to decide in favor it would not be a good news for the world nor for our country.