Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
My Friends the Papal ContendersMy Friends the Papal Contenders

My Friends the Papal Contenders

John Zucchi reflects on his personal friendships with two of the cardinals who might have become pope

John Zucchi
10 minute read

In 1989 and 1990 I had the good fortune to meet two truly extraordinary individuals. One was a 44-year-old Sulpician priest who had just returned from a long period of teaching and directing seminarians in Colombia. The other was an Italian priest 47, with a reputation for brilliance. Although it was clear then that these two men might be going places in the Church in future, it never entered my mind that they would be front-runners on many pundits’ lists for the 2013 conclave to elect a new pope. I have been rather discreet about these friendships except with people I felt would understand what I am talking about: for me, these friendships were less about small talk and more about being introduced to something deep and mysterious. On his last day on the Chair of Saint Peter, Benedict XVI said that the Church is not something that we decide around the table, but a living reality that comes alive in the soul of the individual. It was seeing the Church come alive in the souls of Marc Ouellet and Angelo Scola that drew me to them and allowed me to enter these friendships, which have lasted as a great gift even though I rarely get the chance to see them now.

In any true friendship, there is always a sense of gratitude because we cannot choose our true friends: they are given to us. The Mystery chose a special way to introduce me to these two men. The go-between was Father Luigi Giussani, now Servant of God, the most extraordinary human being I have ever come across. I met him in 1984 in Cambridge, just after I encountered the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation (CL), which he had founded in 1954. When I returned to Montreal from Britain, my wife, Cecilia, and I had the fortune to meet other friends, and CL was thus born in Canada. When Père Marc, as we would call him, returned to Montreal from Latin America, he initiated a conversation with a priest in the archdiocesan offices by asking him if CL existed in the city. He then showed up unannounced at our next meeting, which is known as School of Community. Something resonated immediately and a new friendship was born.

A few months later, I had a brief conversation with Father Giussani in Italy in which I asked him if it was possible that a priest from CL meet the 20-odd people from the movement in Montreal and Toronto to preach our first spiritual exercises. We hoped this would become an annual event. Giussani became very serious. In those moments, it was as if nothing mattered in the world but the question before him. He then blurted out, “Angelo Scola! Get in touch with Angelo Scola!” I did, and in June 1990, he showed up in Montreal and delivered the exercises at the Cistercian Abbey of Rougement. The abbot there must have sensed that he was dealing with a very significant person because he allowed, for the first time, a non-Cistercian to celebrate Mass in the abbey church.

In the few weeks before Scola’s arrival, our eldest son, Giacomo, then almost three, had learned to say the Glory Be prayer, with one little problem. He would continue to repeat the last words, “forever and ever and ever and ever and ever....” Cecilia and I thought this was cute at first; but the ever and evers began to irritate us after a while, so when he persisted we would shout, “Stop it, that’s enough!” When I brought home Don Angelo, as we called him, I was nervous about meeting this distinguished individual and was hoping that a baby and a toddler in the home might not be too disruptive for him. He had a surprise when we stood for grace before our first meal together. He led us in the Glory Be, and as we reached the end, Giacomo, who was across the table from the future cardinal, raised his hand and commanded him, “Stop it, that’s enough!” Don Angelo, taken aback and looking askance, responded, “Why?” Giacomo sat down and so did Scola, laughing heartily.

Scola and Ouellet had briefly met in the early 1980s at a Communio conference in Rome, where, incidentally, the theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Father Giussani and Cardinal Ratzinger were also present. The international theological journal had been spearheaded by Ratzinger and given its name by Scola.

Cecilia and I reacquainted Scola with Ouellet in 1990. The two seemed to be on the same wave-length, with a deep concern for the well-being of the Church, a sense of its dramatic passage out of the Cold War years, and a keen understanding that a new self-awareness within the Church was the only response to the many attacks from the outside. It was exciting for us to watch the two priests greet each other. Cecilia and I walked away to allow them to converse freely on their own. We had the sense that their encounter was something significant for them, and for the Church. It is mysterious how we have these intuitions from time to time.

These two men, who were accomplished theologians and rising stars in the Church—I think rumours kept coming around to Scola in the early 1990s that he was being considered for the episcopal office—had an uncanny ability to live the instant, the concrete realities before them. Father Scola had a gruelling schedule, as he was teaching, writing and doing a great deal of work in the Vatican. Yet here he was, meeting a tiny group of individuals he had never seen before, in Canada, for only a weekend. We were a motley crew of students, the unemployed, professionals, young and old. He had just been to Lima to do the same thing a couple of weeks earlier. This clearly taxed his energies. He began one of his lessons in Spanish and wondered why I was watching him with an odd expression. “Why are you looking at me that way?” he asked. To which I responded, “En français, Don Angelo.”

Like Scola, Père Marc was also gracious in relating to those people he found before him in the instant, including children. I remember on one occasion we asked if he could meet with a half dozen youngsters to speak about Jesus. It was beautiful to watch this leading theologian tell these three- to six-year-olds about his relationship with Christ. He wanted to be as simple as possible, and he had the same intensity that I saw in him 10 years later when he spoke to a crowd of 3,000 adults at the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples in Rimini. At one point, my son Maximilian, who was three at the time and was sitting beside Ouellet, looked up at him and said in French, “I know one thing.” Ouellet paused and asked him what it was, and he responded, “Le paradis.” Père Marc, uncertain of the child’s train of thought, and already nervous at the prospect of condensing his theology to a simple account for the children, looked at Max and simply offered, “ah, oui?” He then moved on with his conversation.

My friends and I had the grace of having Père Marc in Montreal for five years as he taught at the Grand Séminaire for a year and then became its rector until 1994 before taking up the same responsibility in Edmonton. He wished to have seminarians meet lay people engaged with the Church, so he invited us and other young people to attend Sunday Mass regularly in the historic chapel of the seminary. We also joined him annually for the Easter Triduum; and he would meet with the CL community right after each liturgy to meditate the Passion Mysteries. I recall one particularly moving Good Friday evening when Père Marc had to interrupt his meditations a few times because he would choke up with tears at the thought of Christ harrowing hell for our salvation.

In the early 1990s, while Marc Ouellet was rector of the Grand Séminaire, a feminist troupe brought a production of Paul Claudel’s L’Annonce faite à Marie to the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde festival in Montreal. Ouellet, knowing the religious significance of this play, agreed to have it staged in the historic chapel of the seminary. This meant that for a couple of weeks, the chapel was off limits for liturgical services because its entire corridor had become one long stage. He met with some strong opposition in the seminary for this decision, but he stuck to his guns. The production was deeply moving, and after one of the performances, Père Marc and a few friends from CL met the director and the actors to have a dialogue on the significance of the work. The next day, he wrote an oped piece in Le Devoir that argued that L’Annonce faite à Marie still had something significant to say to us at the end of the 20th century.

Ouellet’s five years in Montreal were a great consolation to me for one special reason: I used to receive many criticisms about CL from priests and some laity. They would tell me there was no need to follow an ecclesial movement or Father Giussani. “What is he, some kind of guru?” I would be asked. Frustrated, I once turned to Père Marc for an explanation of why people could not understand the significance of Father Giussani for me, not only for my adhesion to the Church but for my relationship to reality itself. The future prelate told me that people are unable to understand this unless they have lived the same experience. He said that he knew what I was talking about because of what Balthasar meant to him: “I couldn’t live a single day without reading a page of Balthasar!” he exclaimed. There was also the consolation of having our daughter, Maddalena, baptized by him and, when he became Cardinal Archbishop of Quebec, of having our youngest child, Thomas, confirmed by him.

In 1997, Bishop Scola, as Magnificent Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, hired M. Ouellet (Sulpicians are formally called “Monsieur”). I told Don Angelo that he was taking our country’s best priest and that we desperately needed him in Canada. Scola replied that he understood this but that I had to understand that the need for Ouellet’s presence in Rome was even greater. As Pope John Paul II declined in health, external pressures were mounting on the Vatican from different quarters, with the aim of influencing the next conclave. Scola said that faithful, intelligent priests with a love of the Church were necessary in Rome to build up its self-awareness.

The last time I saw Cardinal Scola was in June 2008, when he was the keynote speaker at the conference preceding the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City. He asked me if I would drive him up and, essentially, be his assistant for those days. He was exhausted, and his secretary in Milan insisted that I take him away for one day of complete leisure. Cecilia and I took him whale-watching at Tadoussac. He was as gleeful as a two-year-old would be upon seeing snow for the first time. He kept jumping up excitedly in the boat, pointing out a humpback to starboard or a beluga to port. It reminded me of an earlier visit in the 1990s, when he and I had travelled to Quebec City and beyond, and walked up beneath the Montmorency Falls near Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré—and sprinted back to the parking lot excitedly as we had gotten completely drenched. Cardinal Scola told us that he loved rivers. The Venetian canals, though beautiful, gave him the feeling of being hemmed in, he said, whereas the Saint Lawrence River gave him a sense of the infinite. In Quebec City, he kept turning around so he would have a view of the great river.

(Funnily enough, Père Marc also has a love for water and waterways. Once, on a vacation with a few friends, he left his room early to head for the lake across the street. When the rest of us got to the beach a short while later, we couldn’t find him. Finally someone spotted him swimming in the water a long way off, close to the other shore. Another time, the same group of people went with him to the Cistercian Abbey in Oka for the day. At one point we went for a walk on the extensive property, but we got caught in a terrible rainstorm. Fortunately, there was a shelter in the field where the five or six of us could sit down. Ouellet waited out the storm by teaching us a Quebec folk song, Une Boîte à Chanson.

Scola’s last visit in 2008, his fifth to Montreal, was a joyful one for Cecilia and me because, in those many hours in the car, we had the opportunity to ask him one question after another about his life and that of the Church, and to seek his advice for our own lives. I remember how concerned he was about young people. He told us that in Venice, he had begun to meet groups of adolescents on a regular basis. He felt that it was necessary to reach out to them when they were 11 or 12, whereas a generation earlier he would have said 14. He felt that burning questions were emerging in them at a younger age. The Patriarch also spoke with great affection about John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He had collaborated with the latter for close to 40 years; and while he saw John Paul II as a father figure, Pope Benedict was like a big brother to him.

It was fascinating to hear about his web of friendships. Here was a man of humble birth—his father was a communist truck driver—whose friends extended to members of the intelligentsia in a number of countries, to financiers, all the way to the highest echelons of the Church. That web includes a few Canadians he met almost 25 years ago. And this says a great deal about the Church.

We often think of the Church in terms of power, intrigue, interests or bureaucracy, left or right, liberal or orthodox. But there is another way of perceiving the Church: as friendship—an understanding that emerges from an awareness of its very nature. This friendship draws us deeper into the mystery of our own lives, of being itself, opens our horizons and makes us see the Incarnation as a fact that can be encountered. I have had the great blessing to have a glimpse of that vision of the Church in my friendship with these two cardinals.

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