Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, walks in St. Peter’s Square after attending the opening session of the meeting on the protection of minors in the church at the Vatican on February 21, 2019. (CNS /Paul Haring)
Rome- When Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet was first appointed in 2010 to head the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, the office that advises the pope on candidates for the position of Catholic bishop around the world, the former professor and theologian was “more attentive to the doctrinal dimension” of the work, he recalls.
“With Pope Francis, we learned the dimension of accompaniment,” Ouellet told NCR. “We have learned that it is not enough to tell people what to do.”
The Congregation for Bishops is one of the most powerful offices in the Vatican, with a difficult mandate to select the right candidates to lead dioceses around the world.
It’s often a top-secret process, and Ouellet, who was widely considered papabile — that is, likely to be a candidate for the next pope — during conclaves in 2005 and 2013, acknowledged that it’s not was no easy task. Although he did not give the exact number of people refusing the request to be made a bishop, he said the sometimes quoted estimate of 30% is “not far off.”
Cardinal Marc Ouellet with Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano)
Ouellet was named head of the congregation by Pope Benedict XVI and remained under Pope Francis, although he acknowledges that some of what is expected of him and other bishops in the Church has changed.
“A pastor must walk with the people,” Ouellet said. “You always have to teach the truth, but at the same time, be attentive, be compassionate and merciful. That’s what I learned with Pope Francis, and I think that’s a plus.”
But the 77-year-old cardinal, who is likely nearing the end of his term, having served more than two five-year terms as head of a curial department, is not renouncing the doctrine.
In fact, on February 17, he will chair a three-day international symposium on the priesthood to be held at the Vatican. The conference will bring together a range of bishops, priests, religious educators and experts from around the world to explore the theological dimensions of the priesthood, including celibacy.
During an interview with NCR on Feb. 15 at the congregational office just off St. Peter’s Square, Ouellet said he hopes the conference finds a balance in advocating for the importance of the priesthood, while resisting the temptations of clericalism.
Ouellet said the antidote to clericalism, which Francis has repeatedly warned against, can be found in the community.
“The focus of the symposium will be on sharing in the one priesthood of Christ,” he said, which includes all the baptized.
“The presence of the community of the baptized is a message for the rest of the world. And it is not only a message in terms of knowledge, it is a message in terms of fraternity to bear witness to love and to be an attractive community,” he continued.
Pope Francis listens to Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s speech during a meeting with newly appointed bishops from around the world at the Vatican on September 13, 2018. (CNS/Vatican Media)
One of the challenges of the post-Reformation era, Ouellet said, is a “very clerical view of the Church,” which has developed as a means of defending the priesthood and the hierarchical structure of the Church.
“We ended up impoverished on both sides,” he explained, “because they [Protestant denominations] have kept the baptismal priesthood, while we have forgotten it.”
“We defended the ministerial priesthood, which is a key part of the Church,” he said, while acknowledging that he contributed to a clerical mentality. He believes that the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on all of God’s people, helped “reconcile” this division.
Still, Ouellet admitted that in the eyes of most of the world, the all-male, celibate Catholic priesthood is a tough proposition. But that’s the one he supports.
His 2019 book, Friends of the Spouse: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacywho explored the global shortage of priests and the challenges of clergy abuse scandals, also advocated for the church to stick to the discipline of celibacy.
Following its publication, the cardinal said a group of about a dozen male and female theologians had begun meeting to plan this week’s symposium on the priesthood, which he said has the full support of Francois.
Ouellet told NCR that the priesthood is “more countercultural than ever” for two reasons: First, a priest’s entire existence in the world is defined by his faith, which Ouellet says presents challenges in a secularized world where faith is increasingly privatized.
Second, single individuals are seen by much of the world as “not entirely human”.
While there will always be “distrustful,” the cardinal said choosing celibacy is “a way of affirming who Jesus is.”
In a postmodern era, he conceded that it was a difficult case to make, but said that if a priest really lived his vocation, it became attractive to others, and that, according to him, is what evangelization.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet exchanges a sign of peace with his fellow cardinals during the mass for the election of the Roman Pontiff in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on March 12, 2013. (CNS/Paul Haring)
While that may be the crux of evangelism, Ouellet admits that among the greatest challenges to the priesthood in recent years has been the self-inflicted wound of clergy abuse scandals that have rocked the Church. in the whole world.
The church, Ouellet said, must “do penance” to recognize its mistakes in how it has confronted sexual abuse and its cover-up, and part of the recognition means “remodeling” the way priests are trained.
In previous decades and even centuries, he said, priests were formed in “isolation” as “a sort of separate group” from everyone else. Although the cardinal thinks it had the benefit of creating a strong sense of brotherhood, he said changes were needed.
Priests, he believes, must develop a greater relational capacity, including with women and families, in order to enter into the “fullness of pastoral life”.
“If someone doesn’t have a healthy relationship capacity,” he said, “that person is not fit for ministry.”
Cardinal Marc Ouellet speaks at St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Roland Park, Maryland, in 2016. (CNS/Courtesy Will Kirk)
The timing of the priesthood symposium comes amid another major inflection point in the global Catholic Church: a newly revamped synod process that was launched last October with the aim of creating a more inclusive and responsive church. listening.
Since its launch, organizers from the office of the Vatican Synod of Bishops have sought to facilitate greater inclusion of lay members of the Church. In November, Ouellet attended the Church Assembly of Latin America and the Caribbean, which helped launch the global synod and highlighted the elevated role of lay Catholics.
Ouellet said he does not see the priesthood symposium conflicting with the synodal direction of the Church, saying that right now the role of the priest is “to really listen.”
He warned of the “fatigue” some priests may express in participating in the process, noting that he witnessed a lot of enthusiasm, which he says can help renew the whole Church, the priesthood included.
As someone known for her more traditional theology, when asked about the synodal journey now unfolding in Germany – where more than two-thirds of all delegates voted in favor of women deacons and expressed a desire for change in the Church’s understanding of homosexuality – the Cardinal said Francis reiterated that the synod was not a parliamentary process.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet chat as they leave a session of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon at the Vatican on October 21, 2019. (CNS/Paul Haring)
“It will be a delicate operation, not to be somehow distorted by ideologies,” he said. The cardinal said that considering Germany’s synodal path, Australia’s plenary council and other similar initiatives, at this stage the Church must wait “until the end of the process to what extent [such proposals] are acceptable to the universal church.”
There are many unknowns, he said, but added that overall he thinks the global synodal process is a sign of “hope” and “renewal”.
Yet many of the fiercest criticisms of the synod are to be found in the United States and the English-speaking world, often linked to resistance to Francis and his priorities. In December, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in an interview that this was particularly acute among “young conservative clergymen” who often hold distorted views of Francis due to social media influence.
While noting that he did not want to address the specifics of the situation in the American Church, Ouellet said a priest must always exercise his priesthood “in communion with” and “under Peter.”
“Maybe they’re not happy because he’s not on their political good side,” Ouellet surmised. “But their criteria are their policies. What we have to look for with the pope is his missionary spirit.”
“I would invite the young clergy to take the pope as an example,” the cardinal continued. “A priest should work in communion with the pope, otherwise he should ask himself: ‘What am I doing here?’ “
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