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Charismatic Cardinal


When I was an Army officer and 22, and still two years short of joining the Jesuits, I watched a local bishop parading in all his splendid finery and I felt relieved that if I did enter the Jesuits -- who had a rule against becoming a bishop -- I would be free of the temptation of at least that particular ambition.

From what I had heard and read, the priesthood, like the military, business and legal worlds, had its own form of career track -- the bishop who takes a liking to you, training in Rome, making connections there, a spot of the bishop’s staff, the wealthy parish with a successful building program that earns the rank of monsignor, then bishop, promotion to a bigger diocese, cardinal, and finally -- why not? -- pope.

Indeed, recently even conservative cardinals have spelled out the alleged dangers in that scenario. In 30 Days (May 1999), a collection of articles and an interview with Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, until recently prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, argue that in the old days (fourth century) a bishop was considered “married" to his diocese and was expected to stay there for life. Perhaps we should return to that rule, they suggest, to cut down on the jockeying for power, which the powerful Gantin finds objectionable.

Today, however, now that the danger has passed, I think it might be fun to become a bishop -- at least for a few weeks. It’s a unique opportunity to teach. And I can feel for those many wonderful monsignors and bishops out there whom I have heard about, who, given the opportunity, could raise their voices on a list of issues that jump off the newspaper pages and TV screens every day. Some quickly come to mind:

  • American culture’s growing dedication to violence in both its political policies and entertainment industries;
  • George W. Bush’s apparent satisfaction in signing 100 death warrants and executing one person every two weeks since his inauguration;
  • continuing resistance of the gun lobby to any controls (how many Catholics in the NRA?);
  • increasingly unjust distribution of wealth;
  • unresolved issues of celibacy and the ordination of women;
  • continued bombing of Iraq;
  • and need for a new renaissance in Catholic intellectual life.

What a bishop can say

A bishop can say things that editorial writers and political leaders are already saying but bring to the issues some spiritual dimension and authority. Most, however, don’t. Maybe they’re still wary that saying what one thinks -- on contraception or women’s ordination -- won’t help a career.

These thoughts are prompted by a new documentary film that should appear on PBS this fall, “Author of Reform: The Cardinal Suenens Story,” produced by Journey Films and John Carroll University. Also available are Suenens’ autobiography, Memories and Hopes (1991) and his biography of his friend and collaborator of 50 years, Veronica O’Brien, The Hidden Hand of God (1993).

Ironically, Leo Suenens’ career for a while smoothly followed the standard formula. Born in Belgium near Brussels in 1904, he had always wanted to be a priest. His mentor-sponsor, the brilliant Cardinal Désiré Mercier, sent Suenens to Rome to study and brought him back to teach in the seminary. Vice-rector at the University of Louvain during World War II, he stood up to a Nazi commandant who demanded a list of student names for conscription.

Bishop and cardinal of Malines, confidant of John XXIII, he shaped the agenda of Vatican II with the concept of first examining the church’s renewal of itself and then its approach to the world. When John XXIII died in 1963, eyes turned to Suenens as a possible successor; but the ballots went to Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, Paul VI, who then, as he addressed the throngs in St. Peter’s Square, brought Suenens to his side at the window -- a gesture widely interpreted as a sign that Suenens was to become successor to Paul VI.

But that’s not how it all worked out. Suenens liked to talk. Not in the sense of gossip or small talk or listening to himself rattle on to captive audiences, but talk in the theological sense of dialogue. He really believed that the Spirit worked from the bottom up, that all baptized persons are equal in that they must all be heard if the truth is to emerge. He acted on this by traveling around the world, most often in the United States where he was particularly welcomed by ecumenical groups. He said what he thought and he wrote books on collegiality, on reforming religious orders of women, urging them to abandon the traditional habits, which he saw as obstacles to their interaction with the world.

A general unease

At the council he argued for bishops’ mandatory retirement at 75 and helped establish the post of permanent deacon, so that people could become accustomed to seeing a married man at the altar, preparing them for a married priesthood. On March 19, 1968, following a private discussion with Paul VI, in which the nervous pontiff told Suenens he feared his emphasis on collegiality might “democratize” the church, Suenens wrote Paul a long letter that anyone who would lead men and women in today’s church might put on the wall.

Taking the two “burning issues” of birth control and optional celibacy as examples, he warned the Holy Father that the feeling of “general unease” in the church comes not from the issues per se but from “the fact that Your Holiness has reserved for yourself the right to choose the appropriate solution, whatever it may be -- thus foregoing the possibility of any collegial input or analysis by the bishops.” In short, without open debate, “it will be impossible to create the receptive climate essential to any authority.”

Suenens soon came to believe that the goals of the council were being compromised as the curia regained control. So he did what he felt he should; he went public, in interviews in Catholic International and Le Monde (1973) with his criticisms of the Roman curia, which, he said, held the pope prisoner. He openly discussed the possibility of a married priesthood. Paul VI said he was “grieved” and astonished, and some called for Suenens’ resignation. He had lost what anyone in Suenens’ position seems to need, his patron’s ear.

Then comes a period of Suenens’ life that, for me at least, the documentary does not adequately explain. Under the influence of Virginia O’Brien, an Irish woman who had left the convent as a young woman to become an organizer for the Legion of Mary, Suenens threw himself into the Charismatic Renewal movement. Jesuit Fr. John Haughey, himself active in Charismatic Renewal, says the attraction was the “prayer”; but it is still not clear how one of Suenens’ rational, scholarly disposition could, late in his life, throw himself into a phenomenon characterized by ecstatic enthusiasm and emotion.

The presence of the Spirit

Perhaps it was a logical development of his devotion to the Virgin Mary and his confidence in the active presence of the Spirit. Perhaps it was natural for his love of talk to lead to talking in tongues. Perhaps, too, the love and enthusiasm of the charismatic crowds helped heal a man rejected by a hierarchical system, which he also loved but which would not allow him, in love, to speak the truth.

In 1975 he and Paul VI achieved a moment of reconciliation when Suenens celebrated the liturgy for a Charismatic Congress at St. Peter’s, and Paul VI came in and embraced him.

There are many reasons for TV audiences and theology classes to study this video, especially for its history of Vatican II and comments by Monika Hellwig, Joseph Komonchak, Michael Novak and others. Among the viewers will be priests and bishops who themselves may hold opinions accepted by many theologians but unwelcome in Rome. They will take Suenens’ life as a warning or as an inspiration.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is on sabbatical at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999