‘The figure of a father’: Cardinal Ouellet on 10 years with Pope Francis
Pope Francis arrives with Cardinal Marc Ouellet (R) of Canada for the opening of three-day Symposium on priesthood in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican on Feb. 17, 2022. | Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who has led the Vatican’s office that advises the pope on the appointment of bishops for over a dozen years, has had an up-close look at Pope Francis’ first 10 years as pope.
The 78-year-old cardinal spoke to CNA about the pope’s legacy, the Latin American influence on his pastoral style, and his approach to choosing bishops ahead of the March 13 anniversary of Francis’ papacy.
“The world needs a spiritual leader, a father in some way. And he has the figure of a father: close to the people, merciful, compassionate,” Ouellet said in a sit-down interview at the Dicastery for Bishops on Feb. 23.
On March 13, 2013, the second day of the conclave, the cardinal electors chose Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to be the 266th pope of the Catholic Church and the bishop of Rome.
“After a great doctor of the Church like Benedict and a great evangelizer — John Paul II — you needed a man that is close to the people and helps people to walk the way of following Christ, to be accompanied, and to be understood with a merciful heart. That’s what the Church needed at the time,” Ouellet said.
One of the pope’s responsibilities is choosing the men who will lead the world’s dioceses as bishops.
Ouellet, who is from Québec, Canada, has met weekly with Pope Francis throughout his pontificate to help with this process.
“The style of the pope has had an impact on the way we choose bishops,” the cardinal affirmed.
According to Ouellet, Pope Francis, 86, looks for men “who are witnesses of the Risen One, and not just people that would be good administrators.”
Francis wants bishops, he said, who are “full of life, able to evangelize, and also men of communion — not only of discipline, but of communion — able to listen to the people, to their priests, to their confreres in the episcopal conference.”
The Dicastery for Bishops, formerly called the Congregation for Bishops, has the task of collecting information on potential candidates for the episcopacy around the world.
Ouellet has led that office as prefect since June 2010. He will conclude his term in April, when Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, 67, will take up the role after his appointment at the end of January.
The Quebecois cardinal said his dicastery mostly has been choosing “pastoral bishops,” but depending on the needs of the local Church, they also look for men with “good canonical preparation, with a good theology.”
“It is a discernment that is done very precisely, after the study of the place,” Ouellet said.
It is the cardinal’s responsibility to bring the “terna,” a report of three candidates for archbishop, bishop, or auxiliary bishop of a diocese, to the pope for selection.
Ouellet will present the opinions of the dicastery to Pope Francis, who makes the final selection.
“Every week, an hour with him, we’ve been addressing so many questions,” the cardinal said. “I’ve seen him react as a man of God that is listening to the Spirit, having his signs to discern exactly the motion of the Spirit.”
Another important quality Ouellet has noticed in Pope Francis is his ability “to withdraw when he thinks ‘I went too far. I had a sort of impulsive move.’”
“He is able to correct himself. I’ve had some examples I will not give you,” the cardinal said with a chuckle. “But [he is] really a man of God, a man that follows the Spirit. That’s my experience of him.”
According to Ouellet, Pope Francis’ pastoral style has also had an impact on his papacy in other ways — including his communication style.
“He has been giving interviews to journalists — you had never seen that before ... and in a very spontaneous way,” he said. “He has been doing interviews for books, and looking for all the occasions to speak to the people, and so to be present among the people. That’s his pastoral style.”
The cardinal also pointed to Pope Francis’ initiatives for interreligious dialogue, including the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, which he signed with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, in Abu Dhabi in 2019.
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The Abu Dhabi declaration “is so important for the peace in the world,” Ouellet said. “It is not easy to deal with the Muslim, the Islamic community. It is difficult, and there is a real need for encounter, for better understanding of dialogue, in a word. He has been [making] many efforts in that direction.”
Cardinal Ouellet has also been president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America since 2010.
He said South America is the continent “where the divide between rich and poor is greatest.”
“The pope has come to the See of Peter with the poor in his heart. And he has put the poor at the center of the Church,” he explained.
“I think this is the main contribution of Pope Francis from Latin America, this sensitivity to the poor,” Ouellet explained. “It is a lesson for the whole world: If you put the [poor at the center] you put everybody on mission, because mission begins with love, with charity, otherwise, your word has no impact, if it is not accompanied by your gesture. And that’s a characteristic of Pope Francis.”
Cardinal Ouellet also noted the Catholic Church’s clerical culture and emphasis on the ordained ministry. He believes the Church needs to increase awareness of the priesthood of the baptized, which every Catholic belongs to.
“This is, for me, a contribution that has to be added to the process of synodality,” he underlined.
“I think in the legacy of Pope Francis, synodality will probably remain as the most important of his contributions.”