He once predicted that the next pontiff could come from Latin America, and he has often said he doesn’t want the job because its heavy responsibilities would be “a nightmare.”
And yet, from the moment a decade ago when he knelt to kiss John Paul II’s ring at his elevation to the College of Cardinals, there has been recurrent speculation that Marc Ouellet could one day be a successor to St. Peter.
The hockey-playing, small-town boy from Quebec’s hinterland who became one of Canada’s three cardinals was again mentioned as a potential pope after Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement on Monday that he is stepping down.
Erudite and able to speak five languages, the 68-year-old Cardinal Ouellet has been a seminary teacher in Colombia, a professor of theology, an archbishop in Quebec who never shied away from controversy, and a Vatican insider responsible for the selection of bishops.
When the 118 cardinal electors gather at the Vatican next month to appoint the next Holy Father, his name could come up if the cardinals decide to break with tradition and pick someone from outside Europe.
Cardinal Ouellet “is in the running. He is well spoken of in the Vatican and has lived in Latin America, so the Latin American cardinals like and respect him,” said Anne Leahy, the former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, who knows him well.
A friend, McGill historian John Zucchi, recalled seeing Cardinal Ouellet at a book presentation attended by high-ranking clergy in Rome in 1997, sitting at the back by himself, not making small talk or hobnobbing as a more ambitious person would be expected to do.
“He’s not a calculating person. … He’s as surprised as anyone else as to where he has ended up.”
Still, another long-time friend, Montreal-area Bishop Lionel Gendron, noted that, through several important positions in Rome, Cardinal Ouellet has built a network within the church hierarchy.
“No doubt other candidates such as [fellow Canadian cardinal Thomas] Collins are just as worthy to be elected pope. But Cardinal Ouellet is much better known … especially among cardinals from Latin America.”
The third of eight children of a school principal in the northern region of Abitibi, Cardinal Ouellet decided on the priesthood as a teen, while recovering from a hockey leg injury. Quebec was on the cusp of the Quiet Revolution, which would make it resolutely secular.
“I felt a deep desire to dedicate my life to something important, a life to live, a search for truth,” he recalled in Actualité et avenir du concile œcuménique Vatican II (Current affairs and the future of the Vatican II ecumenical council), a book published last year.
For most of the 1970s and early 1980s, he alternated between teaching philosophy at seminaries in Colombia, teaching in Montreal and learning German and studying theology in Europe.
Bishop Gendron recalls that four months after landing in Bogota, his friend had mastered the language and built close ties with the community that helped attract new seminarians.
The Roman Catholic Church has lately not thrived as much in developed countries as it has in Africa or South America. “This is one reason why ... they may turn to someone from outside the European-North American axis,” McGill University theologian Douglas Farrow said. “But if they were to consider someone from that axis, Cardinal Ouellet would be high on the list.”
Cardinal Ouellet – who is a confidant of the outgoing pope, with whom he converses in French or Italian – is often seen as a traditionalist.
As archbishop of Quebec City, he was outspoken in his comments against abortion, gay marriage and school teachers with a “Marxist” approach to education.
He triggered an uproar in 2010 when he called abortion a moral crime, even after rape. In his book, he said that “for the last 40 years, there has been a limitless cult of abortion in Canada.”
He later conceded that he struggled in Quebec City. Many local priests, he said, seemed defeated by the province’s secular mores.
Dr. Farrow said Cardinal Ouellet was merely being faithful to his religious ideals, even if they no longer matched Quebec’s social values.
“One reason you have bishops … [is] to instruct the flock, not merely to echo what they hear around them,” Dr. Farrow said, adding that he does not expect the next pontiff to stray from Catholic teachings. “That’s their job and they’re going to proclaim it.”
Prof. Zucchi said that, until he got high-profile Vatican appointments starting in 1997, Cardinal Ouellet’s career seemed to have stalled.
In 1996, he was chosen to teach at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, perhaps because Cardinal Ouellet was an expert on Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian Pope John Paul II greatly admired.
By 2001, he got his first major Vatican post, as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Although he had little pastoral experience, he was appointed in 2002 as archbishop of Quebec City, and the next year elevated to cardinal.
At the consistory where he became cardinal, he spoke with The Globe and Mail about the dynamism of the church in South America. “Half of the Catholics in the world are in Latin America. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next pope came from Latin America,” he said.
More recently, he was asked again about his papal prospects when he returned to Rome in 2011.
“I can’t stop people from dreaming,” he told a journalist for Le Soleil, adding: “It would be a nightmare. I see the workload that the pope has to handle. It’s not something I would envy. It’s a crushing responsibility.”
With a report from Eric Reguly in Rome
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