Pope: Will Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet be chosen?

Canadian cardinal Marc Ouellet leaves the final congregation before cardinals enter the conclave to vote for a new pope, on 11 March 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Cardinal Marc Ouellet led the Roman Catholic church in Quebec after becoming a missionary to South America early in his career

The French-Canadian Cardinal, Marc Ouellet, is a complex man: a boy from the sticks who became an academic theologian, a missionary to South America who has ended up as the ultimate Vatican insider.

If he becomes Pope, there will be endless speculation about where he would take the Church. After talking to both his friends and critics, I have a feeling it would be a bumpy journey, exhilarating for some, a dizzying ride for others.

He claims he was joking when he said being Pope was a nightmare job, but the challenges are enough to keep anyone awake at night.

I start to get a real sense of the man when Archbishop Gerald Lacroix shows me around the church, Notre Dame de Quebec, where his friend used to preach.

He says Marc Ouellet, his predecessor, left large shoes to fill. He has to stuff them with tissue paper, he jokes.

The Church needs a Pope who is pastoral, who loves people, the Archbishop says. It is clear, he thinks, that that man is Marc Ouellet.

"He is a man who knows the reality of humankind in the world. He speaks many languages, he's very sensitive," Archbishop Lacroix says.

"He's portrayed sometimes as very rigid and stern and serious. But once you know him on a personal level you see he is very sensitive and very attentive to the needs of people."

I watch early morning Mass at Notre Dame de Quebec. Beneath a gorgeous gilded canopy, golden arms stretching to the heavens, supporting a gigantic figure of a resplendent Christ, two lines of priest in purple robes walk forward two-by-two. They bow and kiss the altar.

Missionary dream

They almost outnumber the 16 grey-haired faithful in the pews. Perhaps that is no surprise in the middle of the week, but it is an indication of the challenges that a new Pope will face, if he wants to do more than manage decline.

I sit in the pews with Father Denis Belanger, who was Cardinal Ouellet's deputy here. A smile plays around his lips as he thinks of his friend.

He has fond memories of a man he says is warm one to one, if not charismatic in front of crowds. He says he prays that the new Pope will be "a man of faith" and obviously thinks the cardinal fits the bill.

He calls him a missionary of the heart, and says his time in South America is important.

"He dreamt of being a missionary when he was very young, and he realised that dream," Father Belanger says.

"He learned so many languages, and that tells you something about the man. He wanted to be in relationships with people from all over. You could see that here in this cathedral at Christmas Masses, speaking in English, German, Spanish and Italian.

"He knows pretty well all the believers on different continents," he adds. "He has this knowledge which is very important for the pastor of the universal church. He's a very gentle man. He likes to chat and to laugh. He can bring the world to the Lord."

This magnificent cathedral is a far cry from the church where Cardinal Ouellet first said Mass as a parish priest in his birthplace of La Motte, a tiny village in French Canada's frozen north.

He is one of eight children. His father was a farmer and as a boy he loved hunting and fishing.

He has said he became serious about his vocation after reading religious tracts while laid up after breaking his leg in an ice hockey accident.

But he has also said he was inspired by staring up at the night sky above La Motte, thinking of the crazy speed of the stars, pondering man's place amid the immensity. There is an intensely philosophical turn to this Vatican insider - he delights in obscure theological argument.


He did his doctoral thesis on the German Swiss theologian Von Balthazar, who is a big influence.

It is dense and difficult stuff, but from what I can understand, part of the message is that the Church cannot compromise with a world that is deserting God, because the world can only be understood by the intersection between God and the world.

Archbishop Lacroix says of Cardinal Ouellet: "He is a man who is very deeply rooted in the Lord and intense spiritual life. He does not live by opinions or what other people think, but his main desire is to be in tune, in touch, in relationship with God."

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Media captionThe robes for the new Pope have been made in small, medium and large sizes

"Does that make him rigid?" I ask.

"I don't think God is rigid," says Archbishop Lacroix. "I don't think that makes you rigid. It makes you even more attentive to the people around you."

But he is worried about the secular world?

"Of course he is," says the archbishop. "Aren't we all? Because he sees more and more people are living their lives and making decisions without any reference to God, as if they were freelancers, as if they were not created by God. And that is worrying."

Whatever you call it, Cardinal Ouellet's attitude ensured his time in Quebec was not trouble-free. Some saw him not as a native son made good, but an imposition from Rome.

He issued an apology for the past sins of the Church - writing that before the 1960s the Church had discriminated against women and gays, and had been guilty of racism and anti-Semitism.

But at the heart of his fierce spirituality is the view that the Church should not compromise with the secular world, which he once said was in the grip of a cult of death.

He refused to back down from his view that even if a woman had been raped, abortion was wrong; he campaigned against euthanasia and gay marriage. His views on celibacy and contraception are very traditional.

But my sense is that this is no simple conservatism, a nostalgic cleaving to the ways of the past, but a militant, evangelical desire to take on a world that, as he sees it, has abandoned God.

'Changed forever'

The dean of Laval University's theology faculty, Gilles Routhier, has known Cardinal Ouellet for years and says that his desire for confrontation could be awkward.

"I would say he is not at ease in the secular world and he tends to challenge it," Mr Routhier says. "I would say he believes we have the truth, and we must try to persuade the other to come to this truth.

"His weaknesses are probably his capacity to listen to others, to take advice and work with others."

Pretty serious weaknesses, I observe.

"It could be, depending on the type [of Pope] we are looking for."

Some claim when it counts, he has not only failed to listen, but also failed to confront the evil of the world.

The twin spires of Basilica of St Anne de Beaupre loom over the low-rise fast-food joints, motels and banks that litter the road leading to this, one of North America's main sites of pilgrimage.

About half an hour's drive from Quebec City, it may aptly symbolise Cardinal Ouellet's view of a beautiful truth hemmed in by a crass world. Yet some say he has not done enough to confront the evils of the world, when the Church itself is at fault.

One of the main problems any new Pope will have to deal with is the aftermath of years of sexual abuse of children by priests.

At the basilica, I meet Frank Tremblay, who takes me to the school behind it. He points, high up, to a window.

In that room, he tells me, he was assaulted several times a week by a priest, whose duty it was to look after the dormitory. It went on for months.

He tells me in graphic detail of the first assault, his shame looking at himself in the mirror afterwards, his guilt then and for years afterwards. The priest is now in prison, but for Frank, the Church has not done enough to pay for his wrecked life.

He clutches a piece of cardboard with a statement written out in English, which he wants to read for our cameras. But in conversation, what he lacks in linguistic fluency, he makes up for in the emotional passion of a shattered life.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Marc Ouellet leads Mass at an Italian church ahead of the conclave

"Once a paedophile touches you, you are changed forever," he says. "You are a different person. And all they say is 'all the victims need is faith' - not therapy, not compensation - faith. It's antique."

But I put it to him, Cardinal Ouellet has apologised. He went to Ireland as the Pope's representative, for that very purpose.

"Marc Ouellet, when at the top of the Canadian church never apologised," he says. "He went to Ireland for the Pope, but he never apologised here.

"He said 'pray, you have pray, you have to forgive'. He didn't want to talk to the victims. Is this the man who'd be able to do a good job as Pope? He would be the same as when he did nothing."

Archbishop Lacroix denies that Cardinal Ouellet turned a blind eye.

"No he did not ignore the problem," says the archbishop. "Didn't do enough? We will never do enough in front of such a tragedy.

"For over 20 years now in the Church all through Canada, we have a policy of zero tolerance. And we have procedures: immediately someone complains, it is taken care of. We meet that person. I think [Cardinal Ouellet] would continue doing that."

Sexual abuse is but one problem facing the Church. Being Pope is indeed a nightmare of a job, for whoever does it.

For some, Cardinal Ouellet would be too much like Benedict, a man who lacks superstar charisma, with a taste for obscure academic theology.

But he seems like a man who would seek to define a clear message, tackling problems with a stern glee, a missionary zeal to challenge a world he feels has gone badly, sadly wrong, and that needs to be re-made in God's image, with the authority of Rome.