Obituary: Cardinal Albert Decourtray

Peter Hebblethwaite
Friday 16 September 1994 23:02

Albert Decourtray, priest: born Wattignies, France 9 April 1923; ordained priest 1947; Director, Grand Seminaire de Lille 1952-62; Vicar- General of Lille 1966-71; Auxiliary Bishop of Dijon 1971-74, Bishop of Dijon 1974-81; Archbishop of Lyons 1981-94; created Cardinal 1985; died Lyons 16 September 1994.

THE ANCIENT see of Lyons dates back to Roman times, and its archbishop has the title of Primate of the Gauls. Albert Decourtray was Primate of the Gauls from 1981 and was made a cardinal in 1985. His death reduces the number of cardinals aged under 80, the electoral body for the next Pope, to 113 (120 is the maximum).

In July last year Decourtray joined the ranks of the immortels of the Academie Francaise. He won the second round in the electoral contest gaining 19 votes out of 35 (Jean Raspail came next with 9). What made the election surprising was that Decourtray had no literary pretensions. He confessed:

You know perfectly well that I have not written a single book in my life. Two books of conversations with journalists have been put out in my name. But they are not real books. If I am elected, it is not because of my literary talents, but because of my service to the Church. It is the Church that is honoured, and for her that I accept this invitation.

In 1980 Decourtray, already Bishop of Dijon, suffered from a painful cancer of the vocal cords which silenced him for several months and left his voice permanently weakened. This partly accounted for his gentle manners and preference for one-to-one contact. It also made him more effective on television than the dazzlingly brilliant Jean-Marie Lustiger, Cardinal Archbishop of Paris. But Decourtray was no pushover. He said that he preferred 'the clumsiness of the word to the ambiguities of silence' - which is Frenchspeak for saying that he could grasp nettles.

He was everywhere in Lyons. The archdiocesan Synod which he planned in the last few years was preceded by 'pre-synod hearings' in every parish of the archdiocese. He was always first on the scene whenever disasters struck. He was accused by the right wing of being 'soft on Muslims' because he went to visit the immigrants during a hunger strike. He was the first bishop unequivocally to denounce Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the Neo-Nazi National Front. It was a veritable declaration of war.

He visited Auschwitz in 1983 and worked hard for the removal of the Carmelite Convent there to its new site. He confessed his 'disarray' when Kurt Waldheim, the Austrian President who was suspected of war crimes, was granted a state visit to the Vatican.

In 1989 Decourtray made available the archdiocesan papers and set up the historical commission headed by Rene Remond to look into the case of Paul Touvier, the ex-collaborator of the Gestapo who had been sheltered by Mgr Charles Ducaire, secretary to one of his predecessors. 'I'm quite sure,' he wrote to Remond, 'that the Archbishop of Lyons must do everything he can to contribute to clearing up this dossier. 'The truth come what may' is infinitely preferable to rumour.'

Le Monde remarked that Decourtray's actions were 'unique in contemporary French history'. No other institution, no political party for example, had been so open. This probably swayed a few votes in the French Academy. A sense of humour may have played its part. Cardinal Lustiger, a much more literary figure and the author of best-sellers like Le Choix de Dieu, would have loved to have been elected.

But it was as a 'grand spirituel' that Decourtray will be remembered by those who came close to him. Two decisive events shaped his spiritual outlook. In 1955 he spent six months at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem where he experienced 'the strongest emotions of my life'. A genuine biblical scholar, he found in scripture the inspiration for his mission of reconciliation. The Jewishness of Jesus was a favourite theme.

The second shaping event was his cancer in 1981 when, condemned to silence and passivity, it looked as though he would have to resign. During this period of enforced retreat, he plunged into the writings of the mystical nun Sister Elisabeth of the Trinity. He admired her 'fiery temperament, and quality of utter dedication'. He tried, without success, to get Pope John Paul II to beatify her.

Decourtray was a man of the north, born in Wattignies, near Lille, in 1923. Ordained priest in 1947, he was director of the Lille major seminary 1952-62 and Vicar- General of the diocese 1966-71. Along the way he acquired a doctorate in theology and a licence in scripture. In 1971 he became auxiliary bishop of Dijon and, in 1974 bishop. He became Archbishop of Lyons in 1981.

The late Cardinal Francois Marty said of Decourtray: 'If you really believe in Christ, that is visible, tangible.' What Decourtray himself said of Elisabeth of the Trinity can stand as his own epitaph: 'The more she let herself be invaded by the love of God, the more she became her true self. Grace does not mutilate nature, it perfects it.'

(Photograph omitted)

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