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Election of new pope

Profile of papal candidate Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada

AP

vatican City

03/07/2013

Cardinal Marc Ouellet once said that being pope "would be a nightmare." He would know, having enjoyed the confidence of two pontiffs as a top-ranked Vatican insider.

  • Marc Ouellet is a favourite to become the first pontiff from the Americas. Photo: EFE

    Marc Ouellet is a favourite to become the first pontiff from the Americas. Photo: EFE

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Cardinal Marc Ouellet once said that being pope "would be a nightmare." He would know, having enjoyed the confidence of two pontiffs as a top-ranked Vatican insider.

Addressing the speculation that he could one day be pope, the Canadian told an interviewer in 2011 that it would be "a nightmare" because it is a "crushing responsibility" and the "kind of the thing you don't campaign for."

Asked to explain that statement in an interview with the Salt and Light television in February last year, Ouellet said: "Obviously I don't see myself at this level, not at all. So, because I see how much it entails, you know, as responsibility. "

"On the other hand," Cardinal Ouellet said, "I believe that the holy spirit will help the cardinals do a good choice for the leadership of the church, the Catholic church in the future."

His high-profile position as head of the Vatican's office for bishops, his conservative leanings, his years in Latin America and his work in Rome as president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America make him a favourite to become the first pontiff from the Americas following Pope Benedict XVI's resignation.

But the same qualities that make him popular in Latin America, a crucial Catholic constituency, and among the cardinals who elect the pope have contributed to his poor image at home, where he was perceived as an outsider parachuted in from Rome to realign his liberal province.

His comments condemning abortion even in the case of rape were attacked by politicians and commentators, sometimes viciously.

Some worry that the election of another conservative, intellectual pope known for his impenetrable speeches would further damage a church that is fighting continued losses in membership in Europe and the North America due to growing secularism and sex abuse scandals.

But the number of believers is growing in Africa, as well as Latin America. Bookies give weight to Ouellet's accomplished resume when listing him among the top three likely future leaders of the world's 1.2 (b) billion Catholics.

The 68-year-old Ouellet knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him, and many in that circle have a say in the question of who will be the next leader of the Catholic church.

"He has spent several years in Rome, at a very important position, the Congregation of Bishops, and he has seen bishops from around the world come through his office," said John Thavis, a Vatican analyst.

"From all reports he has made a very good impression on these bishops, and among these Bishops, I remind you, there are Cardinals," Thavis added.

Ouellet is particularly well-regarded among the cardinals from Latin America, a part of the world that is home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics. His extensive experience in Latin America - including more than 11 years in Colombia - could work in his favour once the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pope.

Speculation that Ouellet could one day be pontiff started as early as 2003 when Pope John Paul II named him cardinal.

His name came up after John Paul died in 2005, but he was considered a long shot because of his young age. Born in the small town of La Motte, Quebec, Ouellet got his vocation to enter the church during a time he was confined at home.

"As a matter of fact, he broke his leg playing hockey one time and he had to stay out of and that brought him in to a recueillement (contemplation)"

"He broke his leg playing hockey one time and he had to stay out," his brother Louis said in a recent interview, "and that brought him into a recueillement (French for contemplation, period of reflection)."

Ouellet was ordained in 1968 and taught in seminaries in Canada, Rome and Colombia.

His many accomplishments include a license in Philosophy from the St. Thomas Aquinas Pontifical University and a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Friends said his career stalled in 1994, when he went from being the rector of the prestigious Grand Seminaire de Montreal to the head of a seminary in Edmonton, Alberta.

After returning to Rome in 1996 Ouellet rapidly gained prominence and respect as a teacher and Chair of Dogmatic Theology of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Lateran Pontifical University.

He rose from teaching priest to cardinal in less than three years. Ouellet's doctoral thesis on dogmatic theology included a discussion on the thoughts of his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss, 20th Century theologian who was highly regarded by late Pope John Paul II and by Benedict,  and may have contributed to Ouellet's quick rise in the ranks.

Von Balthasar, John Paul and Benedict were at the forefront of a conservative movement to re-evaluate the liberalising reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s. And Ouellet clearly supports that view.

Ouellet also spoke out against gay marriage when Canada was in the process of legalising it. Quebec, Canada's most liberal province, was very much in favour of it.

Ouellet has also been criticised for remaining silent on the issue of sexual abuse by priests in Quebec. Canada has about 14 (m) million Catholics, about 41 percent of the population, and nearly half of them live in Quebec.

But the church, particularly in Quebec, has lost much of its power and influence. Attendance at Mass has dwindled and numerous churches have been put up for sale in recent years.

In La Motte, a town of 450 people about 650 kilometres northwest of Montreal, the church was turned into a community centre. Mass continues to be held there but the building functions primarily a community centre.

Louis Ouellet, Marc's older brother, said he returns home twice a year to see his family including his 90 year-old mother, Graziella. Louis expressed his confidence in his brother's credentials for the position saying that thanks to his extensive travel around the world he has a good understanding of "how the catholic faith is developing."

"He's well aware of where the church is at right now and he's ready, he's able. He's able. He has capacities." But, he said the family is worried he will not be able to return home again if he does become pope.

At the family home, Ouellet's mother pointed proudly at Marc's photographs as a young man and Marc with Pope Benedict hanging on the wall. "I remember very much how much she was impressed after, you know being present at my ordination by Pope John Paul here in St. Peter's Basilica," Ouellet said in an interview last year.

"Afterwards she told me so: 'you belong to the church. I will not insist any more for you to come home and visit.'" If chosen, Ouellet would bring the papacy to the Americas for the first time.

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