As papal conclave begins, friends reflect on Canadian's rise through church ranks

LA MOTTE, Que. – A Canadian man who could become the next pontiff has frequently told friends he was surprised about his own rapid rise within the Roman Catholic Church.

A “totally euphoric” Cardinal Marc Ouellet, now considered among the contenders for the papacy, phoned longtime friend Claudette Boucher in 2001, shortly after he learned that Pope John Paul II would soon ordain him a bishop.

She says Ouellet asked her and her husband, Yvan, to pray for him because he didn’t think he was worthy enough for the new role.

“He told us that he needed us,” Boucher said in an interview at her home in the northwestern Quebec community of Val d’Or, near Ouellet’s hometown of La Motte.

“For sure, it was a big moment of emotion… He’s a man who’s always surprised.”

Ouellet told them his legs felt numb during the ceremony, she recalled.

An even bigger assignment could be on the horizon, as cardinals gather Tuesday at 11:45 a.m. ET in Rome’s fabled Sistine Chapel to begin choosing the next pontiff. Some reports have Ouellet among the favourites to become leader of the 2,000-year-old church, although other analysts don’t mention him at all.

If he succeeds, the hockey-loving outdoorsman would become the first non-European since the 8th century to inherit St. Peter’s throne.

During his rise through the church ranks, Ouellet was stunned simply to be named archbishop of Quebec City and Primate of Canada in 2002, Boucher said. He had spent decades abroad when his new position brought him back to Quebec.

It proved to be a bumpy transition for man whose home province had undergone a significant transformation during the years he was away.

Starting in the 1960s, Quebec’s once-full churches emptied out, a change that gradually loosened religion’s influence on society and politics in the province.

After his arrival in Quebec as archbishop, Ouellet’s more traditional stance on subjects like abortion and same-sex marriage often clashed with the views held in the significantly secularized Quebec.

Ouellet, who had spent years working as a missionary in Colombia, lacked experience in Quebec and wasn’t around to watch the evolution of the relationship between the church and state.

“Let’s say, he was not in the ideal situation, and when we’re not prepared, it’s riskier and the challenge is greater,” said Gilles Routhier, dean of the theology department at Quebec City’s Universite Laval.

“It didn’t make things easy.”

In one example of how his mindset conflicted with popular opinion, Ouellet told media during a May 2010 pro-life rally in Quebec City that abortion was unjustifiable, even in cases of rape.

His remarks triggered outrage among politicians, commentators and women’s rights activists.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, the province’s official Opposition leader at the time, was among those who publicly condemned Ouellet for his comments.

Speaking to journalists Monday, Marois said she would be proud to see a Quebecer lead the church. She noted, however, she doesn’t agree with many of Ouellet’s beliefs.

“I’m not inventing anything when I tell you that he holds conservative positions,” she said in La Malbaie. “I won’t hesitate to say it if I disagree with certain positions, as I have in the past.”

Ouellet returned to the Vatican later in 2010 when Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to head the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishops’ nominations worldwide.

Robert Dennis, a Queen’s University teaching fellow who specializes in the modern Vatican, thinks Ouellet learned from his stint in Quebec.

Dennis said it likely taught him a lot about being a minister of the gospel in a secular society, an experience that could be useful if he ever became pope.

“In one sense the time in Quebec is a very important dry run, as he may have that opportunity on a much bigger stage,” said Dennis, who said Ouellet was simply trying to stay true to his theologically and socially conservative beliefs rather than adapt to the province.

“Maybe he was not fully aware of the way the province was when he returned, but I don’t really buy that.”

Ouellet himself has expressed concern that Quebecers never replaced their devotion to the church, a once-defining cultural attribute, with anything substantive.

“I’m watching Quebec society evolve and I ask myself: Are we not watching some sort of implosion?” Ouellet told interviewer Pierre Maisonneuve in the 2006 book “Le journaliste et le cardinal.”

“It’s not a violent explosion, but an implosion: something is broken inside, and there is an emptiness in our society, a deep malaise.”

Back in northwestern Quebec, his friend Claudette Boucher says Ouellet is far from a pessimist when it comes to the future of the church in Quebec.

“He remains optimistic about all this — that it’s just, as they say, that their spirits have been put to rest, that it will come back,” she said.

But Ouellet, who she says was also surprised when John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003, does not like to discuss the possibility that he could one day be chosen to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

When asked by Quebec Le Soleil in 2011 whether he could become pope, Ouellet said it would be a “nightmare.”

“I see the work the pope has to do,” he told the newspaper.

“It’s maybe not so enviable. It’s a crushing responsibility… There’s the help of the holy spirit, for sure, but it’s a very big responsibility. Nobody campaigns for that.”

The Bouchers, friends of Ouellet’s for 44 years, have a long-running joke with him that the next time they see him they might have to call him, “His Holiness.”

“He said while laughing, ‘Oh no, no, no,’ ” Boucher said of Ouellet, who usually stays at their home for a night when he’s in the region visiting loved ones.

“‘It’s the world on your shoulders,’ he said.’ “