Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens: Obituary

Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens, former Archbishop of Brussels-Malines, the primatial diocese of Belgium, was arguably the single most effective promoter of change within the Roman Catholic Church during the 1960s after the two Popes of that era, John XXIII and Paul VI.

His influence permeated the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) despite the suspicion and even antagonism of the more conservative elements in the Roman Curia. His strength lay in three factors: his manifest understanding of the modern world, his ability to convey this understanding in lucid language and, above all, the trust which Pope John and, for a time, Pope Paul, placed in his judgement.

Suenens came from a relatively impoverished background as his father, a Brussels restaurateur, died when he was a small child. When he entered the seminary to become a priest, after showing notable ability at school, he came to the notice of the then Archbishop of Brussels, Cardinal Desire Mercier, who sent him to Rome, where he took his doctorates in theology and philosophy at the Gregorian University. Ordained priest in 1927, he spent some years in teaching posts and was briefly an army chaplain before his appointment to the prestigious University of Louvain in 1940 as Vice- Rector. In 1945 he was made an auxiliary bishop and in 1961 Archbishop of Brussels-Malines.

The evolution of his attitudes can be traced in this career. The Gregorian and Louvain were formidable forcing-grounds for his intellectual formation, the pastoral experience of 16 years as an auxiliary bishop made for a realistic assessment of the state of post-war society in Western Europe, and the patronage of Cardinal Mercier put him in touch with the first stirrings of ecumenism - the movement towards Christian unity which Mercier had initiated in the 1920s through the abortive "Malines Conversations" with Lord Halifax. Mercier's dealings with the Church of England, incidentally, may well have been the origin of Suenens's own easy affinity with the Anglican communion both at the high level of Canterbury and York, but also in simpler circumstances such as a lecture and book launch at St Bride's in Fleet Street, which I remember with pleasure - the kind of occasion where the Cardinal liked to explain that he was neither of the right nor the left in the Church but of "the extreme centre".

An ecumenical vision typified the modernising perceptions which caused Pope John to invite Suenens to advise him early in 1962 on how the up-coming Vatican Council might best be structured. Suenens replied with proposals that not only the role of bishops and relations with other churches should be on the agenda but also the then major questions of nuclear armaments, war and peace, population and birth control. When the first session of the Council floundered under the weight of too much documentation and controversial curial propositions, John called on Suenens and the Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Montini, to take a major role in re- organising the Council's agenda and methodology. By the opening of the second session in the autumn of 1963, John was dead and Montini was reigning as Pope Paul VI.

Since the new Pope had a sensitivity to the problems of the age very similar to that of Suenens, the Council reflected their concerns accurately. It decreed the updating of Church liturgy (involving the progressive introduction of vernacular languages in place of Latin) and the understanding of the Church itself as the People of God - involving greater recognition of the role of the local churches and the laity as well as the rights of bishops acting in collaboration with the Pope. It also spoke of the need to acknowledge the good achievements of the modern world as well as the dangers inherent in material values, the oppression of the poor and the nuclear arms race. Ecumenism, involving the truth to be perceived in other churches and the duty to work towards the unity of all Christians, was accepted as a centrepiece of Roman Catholic thinking.

Optimism began to cloud over with the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, most memorable and immediately controversial for its repetition of existing papal condemnations of artificial methods of birth control. While many within the Roman Church and outside it were distressed by the renewed condemnation, the document - which he had tried to dissuade the Pope from issuing - saddened Suenens for other reasons.

A commission appointed by the Pope himself had recommended that the birth- control rule be changed : this advice was rejected, and in arriving at his decision the Pope had not consulted the bishops generally throughout the Church as the Council's doctrine of "collegiality" had seemed to imply would be the norm on matters of special importance. For Suenens this represented the dead hand of the curia at work. He thought he saw it in other aspects of papal policy at the same time and felt that the tendency undermined all authority within the Church. He made his criticisms known through an interview which he gave to the French journal Informations Catholiques in 1970 - and carried in English, at his request, in The Tablet.

While arguments continued, the role of Suenens as a progressive flagbearer within the Church diminished thereafter. Curial influence proved the stronger, the pace of conciliar reform slowed down and, in the view of some, has actually been reversed in the reign of Paul's eventual successor, the present Pope John Paul II.

Suenens himself turned to promotion of the charismatic renewal movement virtually to exclusion of comments on Church policy: as he told a journalist, "I used to be concerned with the motor of the car, now I'm concerned with the petrol". It was the kind of remark he could so often phrase cogently in his excellent English. It was also the kind of analogy drawn from the modern western society which was his pastorate. It explained both his extraordinary influence in the world he understood so well and the discomfiture which his stance in the past had caused in those of older traditions and different perspectives. For the society from which he came, for which he spoke and to whom he addressed his many books, he was a prophet who did as his friend, John XXIII, so often advised: he read the signs of the times.

Leo Jozef Suenens, priest: born Brussels 16 July 1904; ordained priest 1927; Auxiliary Bishop and Vicar-General of the Archdiocese of Malines 1945-61; Archbishop of Malines-Brussels and Primate of Belgium 1961-79 (Emeritus); created Cardinal 1962; Moderator of the Vatican Council 1962- 65; died 6 May 1996.

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