VATICAN CITY — One of Canada's leading Catholic theologians was ordained a bishop March 19th by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Basilica.

Bishop Marc Ouellet, 56, a prominent professor who has long worked in seminaries both in Canada and abroad, was ordained in conjunction with his recent appointment as Secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

The council also handles Catholic and Jewish relations, and has become, in recent years, one of the most high-profile Vatican departments as relations with Jews, Orthodox Christians, Anglicans and Lutherans have been marked by both breakthroughs and setbacks.

While he was given the news of his impending ordination less than three weeks before the date, the possibility of being ordained by the Holy Father himself led him to “forget all the other details, and get ready,” he told the Register.

Bishop Ouellet was ordained along with eight other bishops, for the most part destined for service in the diplomatic corps of the Holy See or in the Roman Curia.

“Bishop Ouellet will be, in a certain sense, Canada's unofficial representative in the Roman Curia,” said Father Emilius Goulet, the Rector of the Pontifical Canadian College, a residence for Canadian priests doing graduate studies in the Rome. “It is important to have bishops and priests who are excellent theologians.”

The appointment took many by surprise — including Bishop Ouellet himself, who received the unexpected news only four days before it was announced. Yet for many years, Bishop Ouellet has attracted attention for his theological sophistication and down-to-earth manner.

Mo Fung, former head of the Cardinal Newman Society, is now a lay student at the John Paul II Insitutute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, where Bishop Ouellet has served for the past five years as the Chair of Dogmatic Theology. He recalls hearing Bishop Ouellet give a lecture some years ago in Washington, D.C., which impressed him so much that he began to consider coming to Rome to study under him.

“His erudition and humility were so evident,” said Fung, who was on hand in St. Peter's for the colorful ceremony, which was attended by many of Bishop Ouellet's current and former students.

In fact, during the ordination ritual itself, Bishop Ouellet was attended by two deacons who are amongst his current students, Felipe de Jesus Rosales, a Mexican, and Gaetan Ceccato, a Frenchman — a testament to the international scope of the John Paul II Institute.

“Clearly he teaches from the heart, and definitely from a life of prayer,” said Luke Sweeney, a New Yorker who is taking two of Bishop Ouellet's classes this term. “He makes a connection with you in class and he cares not only about the material, which he takes very seriously, but also about you as a student.”

Recently, Bishop Ouellet had been appointed to prestigious international theological bodies, including the Pontifical Theological Academy. He also was on the editorial board of the influential theological journal Communio, a publication launched after Vatican II to promote the vision of the Council. He is one of the world's leading authorities on the work of the late Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

“I enjoy teaching theology and communicating the faith — it is the joy of my life,” he said. “To the extent that this ministry will be reduced in my new tasks, it will be a real sacrifice and I will feel it. But on the other hand, much of my theological work has ecumenical aspects, and this will be fruitful in the field of Christian unity.”

Bishop Ouellet chose as his bishop's motto the phrase Ut unum sint, which Pope John Paul II chose as the title of his 1995 encyclical on Christian unity.

He says that “the Pope chose his motto for him,” in the sense that his new position is in Christian unity, and that the encyclical was dated May 25, Bishop Ouellet's own anniversary of priestly ordination. Ut unum sint means “that all may be one,” which is taken from John 17:21.

“The future of the Church is linked to ecumenism,” said Bishop Ouellet. “Jesus prays that his followers may all be one, so that the world might believe. Unity is a key for the credibility of the Gospel in today's world.”