Cardinal Jan Schotte

Close Vatican ally of the Pope

On the papal flight to New York in October 1979, Fr Jan Schotte gained the favour of Pope John Paul II. Rashly challenging the veteran Vatican foreign minister Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Schotte - a mere junior official in the secretariat of state - told the new pope he should not cut criticism of the repression of human rights and religious freedom in the Communist world from the spoken text of his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Jan Pieter Schotte, priest: born Beveren-Leie, Belgium 29 April 1928; ordained priest 1952; Titular Bishop of Silli 1984, Titular Archbishop 1985-94; General Secretary, Synod of Bishops 1985-2004; named a Cardinal 1994; died Rome 10 January 2005.

On the papal flight to New York in October 1979, Fr Jan Schotte gained the favour of Pope John Paul II. Rashly challenging the veteran Vatican foreign minister Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Schotte - a mere junior official in the secretariat of state - told the new pope he should not cut criticism of the repression of human rights and religious freedom in the Communist world from the spoken text of his address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Schotte prevailed and, under John Paul's benevolent gaze, his Vatican career took off. His status was enhanced in January 1980, when Schotte's linguistic skills proved indispensable at the synod of bishops called to discuss the divided Dutch Church. "Sometimes your translation is clearer than what the man actually said," the Pope whispered to him at one point.

More crucial to Schotte's rise were the traditional views he shared with the Pope. Later in 1980, he was named Secretary of the Vatican's Justice and Peace Commission and was soon picking up myriad odd jobs on committees and agencies.

His skill as a rapporteur in moulding a final document to make it say what the Vatican intended led the Pope to name him in 1985 as General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, a forum that Pope Paul VI had established in the wake of the Second Vatican Council to allow bishops from around the world to come to Rome, often for several weeks, to discuss issues facing the Church. This would be Schotte's powerbase until his retirement in February 2004, despite expectations that he would be named to head a congregation.

Supposedly consultative bodies, which would not only receive advice from the Pope but also advise him, synods were tightly controlled under Schotte's watch. He proved a reliable overseer who would ensure that the Pope's wishes were reflected in final documents. Schotte believed synod deliberations should be held behind closed doors.

Synods tackled a variety of themes. In 1990, during a visit by Schotte to Britain, Cardinal Basil Hume suggested a pan-European synod to discuss how the Church should take up the challenge of the collapse of the Communist regimes. The synod had to wait until November 1991, after the Pope had named bishops to many long-vacant Eastern European dioceses.

Many of the synods covered sensitive subjects. In 1980 the theme was the family, but Schotte and the Pope ensured that birth control - which some bishops were burning to discuss - was kept off the agenda. At the 1990 synod on priestly formation, the pair saw that clerical celibacy was not discussed.

Schotte also became president of the Vatican's Labour Office, which deals with working conditions for employees. Despite the Church's teaching on workers' rights, he was unsympathetic when Vatican employees went on strike in 1988 and at first refused to accept a voluntary contribution from the striking workers to feed the hungry in Africa.

Born near the Belgian city of Bruges, after living through Nazi occupation and war Schotte entered the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (the Scheut Missionaries) in 1946 in Brussels. He was ordained priest in 1952, and studied canon law at Louvain University before becoming professor of canon law and vice-rector of the congregation's seminary in the town. In 1962 he continued his canon law studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, becoming rector of the Immaculate Heart mission seminary in the city the following year, serving there until 1966. In 1967 he came to Rome as General Secretary of his Congregation, a post he held for five years before joining the international organisations department of the Secretariat of State. Schotte was consecrated titular Bishop of Silli in 1984 and promoted to archbishop in 1985. He was named a Cardinal in November 1994.

Disliked by many outside the Vatican for his authoritarian style, to the Pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and others Schotte was more than just a safe pair of hands. In the very personalised world of the senior Vatican echelons, it was perhaps as friend and intimate that he had the greatest influence.

Felix Corley

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