Cardinal Marc Ouellet: ‘We Need Witnesses to the Divinity of Christ’

Cardinal discusses the gift of priestly celibacy in his new book.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, presents his new book during a news conference at Vatican Radio Oct. 2.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, presents his new book during a news conference at Vatican Radio Oct. 2. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

EWTN’s Bookmark With Doug Keck Oct. 13 program featured Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, who discussed his new book, Friends of the Bridegroom: For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy (EWTN Publishing).

Cardinal Ouellet, 75, who also serves as the president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, spoke of the importance of celibacy, the example of St. John Vianney, communion among the People of God and the link between Scripture and the Eucharist. Doug Keck, EWTN’s president and chief operating officer, interviewed the cardinal Oct. 1, the evening before the book was released. The Register has edited the interview for brevity.


This book, Your Eminence, that you published is titled Friends of the Bridegroom. Where did that title come from?
It comes from the Gospel of John, Chapter 3, when it is indicating John the Baptist — that is, the friend of the bridegroom; and the disciples are pointing to Jesus, to indicate that he is the one to whom humanity is going — and so John the Baptist is realizing that he has to decrease so that Jesus would come to the forefront and possess all humanity.


And the book’s subtitle is For a Renewed Vision of Priestly Celibacy. Why did you feel the need to write this book, at this time? Who is it directed to?
There are many, many reasons — so to speak. I’ve been working with priests all my life, and I’ve been in formation, so I’ve been teaching on priesthood, on theology. But in recent times I’ve seen also debate — in the Church, and several trends to renew the vision of priesthood and also celibacy, with all kinds of hypotheses. So I thought it was a good time to publish what I had accumulated — as knowledge, wisdom and experience of priestly celibacy. But the main reason is probably the Pope’s letter to the priests that was published on the 4th of August this year; and it was a very timely initiative from the Holy Father to bring to the priests encouragement and gratitude for their ministry and to recognize that they have been going through difficult times, with all the problems of abuse and the consequences for them. They needed to be encouraged and sustained in their ministry, in their spirituality. I wanted to build upon what the Pope himself has expressed in his letter, since he published it on the feast of St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney. I had several interventions [talks] in Ars, in France, so I could add to his consideration with my own meditations on this priestly figure.


You bring up St. John Vianney. You actually spent a reasonable part of the book talking about him in relation to the priesthood. Why did you focus on him?
Yes, precisely because St. Jean-Baptiste Vianney was a very humble man. He could barely finish his studies, and even his formators had doubts about him, if he could fit the ministry. But he was a man of prayer. He had an extraordinary devotion to the Virgin Mary and, also, he went to this parish — it was a very obscure and poor parish in the diocese — and he dedicated himself to pray and to do penance and to ask God to convert his parish. And he did it with an extraordinary passion. … In my view, his holiness, his success in converting his parish is not only his personal virtues, but it is what he did to transform his parish. So the priesthood is not a sort of path of holiness for itself. It is a path of holiness to sustain and foster the holiness of the People of God. You know, the fatherhood of the priest is to help the laypeople, religious, families to grow in knowledge of God and in love of brotherly love.


In beginning of the book you say: “Priests and bishops today live in a time of trial and evil crisis.” From your perspective, what is the root of the crisis, and, also, where does celibacy come into that discussion?
We can see that the culture has changed very much. We live in a world where we live as if God would not exist. There is a sort of invasion of secularism or laicism, where God does not belong anymore to the culture, and so the mediation of the priesthood, what for? If God does not play a big role in the life of people … the priesthood has no importance. It does not bring happiness to the people to forget the presence of God and [forget] to find the sense of one’s life, the meaning of one’s life. That’s why we really need to remember we need witnesses who will affirm the divinity of Christ, the presence of God in Christ; and I think that priestly celibacy, but also religious consecration, is a powerful witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ and to his call to follow him and to leave everything, to be with him and to do what he asks us to do. So, for me, that’s the very first significance of celibacy and priestly celibacy: to be a witness of the divinity of Christ. If he asks what he asks of us — to leave everything and follow him … we wonder, who is he? How can he be so demanding, in some way? And the secret is that he is what the New Testament is telling us that he is: He is the Son of God. He is the Bridegroom, God’s loving presence among us as human beings, asking us to respond in faith, in love at his gift of self by our own gift of self.


You say in the book: “New paths of the future will bear evangelical fruits if they are consistent with a complete proclamation of the Gospel, which does not sacrifice anything of the permanent values of the Christian Tradition.” Why did you want to make that point?
Because when we evangelize we want to establish the Church, the plantatio ecclesia [establish a church], as we say in Latin, and so we have to bring the Gospel and to bring, also, the sacraments, the word of God and to bring the witness of people — to create a community where everybody is welcome, everybody is important; we are members of the Body of Christ, and all of us are important. But there is a service of communion which is entrusted to the bishops and to the priests, but it is not there to manifest power on others. It is a service; it is a service to help people to grow. I would say, from the point of view from the priesthood, the ministerial priesthood is there to help the baptismal priesthood to be fruitful, to be exercised in faith, hope and charity. And so between priests and lay faithful and religious, there is a communion that is giving to the world a sort of testimony of the presence of God, and what is the core of evangelization? The core of evangelization is the testimony of communion, which is embodying the presence of the Trinitarian communion in humanity through Jesus Christ. So my book is an effort to think and explain maybe better the sacramentality of the Church as a sign of the Trinitarian communion, which is participated in the relationships among the faithful and the believers.


You also talk about renewing the priesthood. What’s the connection, in your view, between renewal of the priesthood and celibacy?
Precisely. I think you will renew the celibacy if the priest has a better sense of his own priesthood. His own priesthood is a fatherly priesthood. The priesthood of the baptized, it is a filial priesthood, it is a participation in the unique priesthood of Christ, but it is a participation to his sonship. This is a priesthood of the baptized. But the ministerial priesthood is, by a gift of the Spirit, a participation in the fatherhood of God. … You see that there is a complementarity between the Father and the Son, and this … is given in different ways to the lay faithful and to the ministers so that the relationships among lay and ministers would be constructive, will build up the Body of Christ in communion and would be fruitful to the world.


We hear a lot of different talk out there sometimes, in mainstream media, sometimes from Church sources, about the different solutions that have been proposed for the shortage of priests: ordaining women, married priests, Eucharistic ministers celebrating liturgies on their own. In your opinion, are any of these considered a valuable option for the Latin Rite Catholic Church today?
I think that the future of ministry is based on the importance of the word of God — so if we become more aware of the importance of the word of God. Pope Francis now established the third Sunday in Ordinary [Time] for the special promotion of the word of God. The priest is in charge of preaching the word, and this word, it is not a small thing: It is the last word of God to humanity. Because the word of God, it is Jesus Christ risen, the Risen Christ. So when we proclaim the word of God, we give the loving confidence of God to his people, his revelation of love to his people — and so much so that this revelation goes to the gift of the body, because between the proclamation of the word and the realization of the sacrament in a special way, the sacrament of the Eucharist, there is a continuity. That is the Word that is still becoming flesh; a sacramental reality, which is bringing the presence of the Body of Christ in the midst of the community in a sort of nuptial mystery where the gift of the Body of Christ is welcomed by the faith of the community. And there is a communion that is established; and when we go out of the church on Sunday after the service, we are full of the Holy Spirit, receiving Communion — and so we bear witness to the Risen Lord which we have encountered in this celebration. I think if people would have this sense of the word of God, that is realized concretely, sacramentally, through the hands and the words of the priests, so they would pray much more for the vocations to the priesthood, and they would also pray for a better answer from laypeople, also from religious, to this gift of God.


You also a talk about Our Lady and the importance of our priests having a relationship with her … which “must color his whole life and activities.” Why is that relationship so important?

Thank you for the question. I think the presence of Our Lady is a very tender and motherly presence, which is so important — not only for the priests, but also for the whole Church, because she is the Mother of the Church. Mary is not just a model of faith; she is the mother of our faith. I mean that we believe — because we believe within her fiat, within her act of faith, we have a place; and because all the graces of faith in the Church go through the gift of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is full of the Holy Spirit in her immaculate conception, in her fullness of grace. When the priest has a special and personal relationship to Mary, his human relations are of a different quality. He can relate to all kinds of people, and also with more respect to women, to children and to the poor, to the sick, to those abandoned. He has a sense, a sort of tenderness, a sort of presence; he is accompanied by not only a merciful love, but also with tenderness. Pope Francis repeats often that we must not be fearful of tenderness, a very saintly tenderness. I think that the presence of Mary in the life of a priest is bringing him a different quality of relationships with others.


Speaking of Pope Francis, you mentioned in the book that Pope Francis shows us a way to a missionary conversion that relaunches evangelization by attraction. What is missionary conversion? How do you view that?

We are members of the Body of Christ by baptism. Christ is the one that was sent by the Father to the world to bring the divine life to the world. His body, everything in him is missionary. Everything is the gift of God; and so, when he asks us to follow him in faith and through sacrament, we become one body with him. We enter into his mission, and we receive at the same time the Spirit of God to really achieve our personal mission. So, the Church, the missionary conversion is to take seriously our identity as disciples of Christ. You know, sometimes we have lost that. Pope Francis, since the document of “Aparecida,” and which is broadened in Evangelii Gaudium, his program of pontificate, he is bringing to the whole Church this mentality and explaining maybe in more simple words the fact that, as disciples, we are missionaries because we belong to the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ is a missionary body.


Well, in fact, you pick up on the letter that Pope Francis wrote, where you mention that he strongly emphasizes in his letter to the undersigned concerning the mission of the laity in Latin America. In this letter the Pope condemns clericalism, which ignores baptism and consequently gives right to an erroneous, that is, a dominant exercise of the ordained ministry.

Yes, so that is what we call clericalism — you know, when the priests are practicing their ministry to impose themselves on others. [With this attitude] they are not really in the sense of their ministry: They are servants; they are servants of the word of God, to help people grow, to help people be responsible. I repeat: The fatherly presence of priests is to help Christians to grow and also be more responsible and to take their own initiatives, and to really commit themselves in the world for justice and commit themselves for helping the poor to go out of their nightmares, and so the priest is there for that, for the freedom of the people, for the growth of the people.


On page 77 of the book, under “Ecclesial Celibacy: A Call for Today,” you say: “The Church never linked priesthood and celibacy on the level of dogma, but She always maintained Her Judgment on the pastoral value of the bond between the two, which expresses in the minister the exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ.”

Yes, and so I comment in this way. Even if this link is not absolutely, is not a dogma, but it is an indissoluble link for the bishop. The bishop is the fullness of the priesthood; and for the bishops, for East and West, also for the Orthodox and the Orientals, there is an indissoluble link between the fullness of the priesthood and celibacy. And so from there we see better that we must not downplay — also for the second level of the priesthood — the importance of celibacy, because there is sort of, let’s say, familiarity — not only familiarity, you know — because it comes from the ministry, the sense of our ministry. I said it before: The priest is committed by ministry to preach the eschatological word of God. That means the Risen Christ. And so we know that the life future we will not take — marriage is overcome in the kingdom of heaven. So when the priest is bringing the Kingdom to earth through the sacrament, through the preaching of the fullness of the word, it is a sort of, it’s natural that his way of life, his lifestyle, his state of life would fit exactly — I mean to the one of Christ. So that’s the meaning of what I’ve been explaining in my book, the foundation of this very close link between celibacy and the priesthood is the fact that the priest is in charge of an eschatological ministry, that means of proclaiming and giving the definitive and ultimate word of God to the world.


You also mentioned, as we get closer to the end here — you talk about issues having to do with celibacy: Should we not confront these challenges with a vast New Evangelization that would revitalize the faith rather than demand married priests and women priests to fill the vacant post in affected communities? Then you go on to make the point that: “The Church’s ecumenical experience is instructive in this regard and invites us to prudence rather than to questionable imitations.” What did you mean by that?

I mean the Latin tradition must be faithful to its own routes and to its own style, and so the link between celibacy and priesthood in the Latin Church comes from the apostles, and it has been kept all the time through the centuries, in spite of times of decadence, of difficulties, of refusal … but it’s been always difficult — but it remains an extraordinary witness to the divinity of Christ and to the presence of the Risen Lord among us so that we give him an answer because he is there. He is there with us, calling us to communion; and so the Church has a very sacramental sense that is concrete, and real, prese+nce of God in the sacraments. And so this helps us to see how celibacy is a very living reality and — obviously — we are requested to be coherent with our commitments and to be faithful to our vows. But I think with prayer, with fraternity and with the sense of the word of God, we can achieve that.