Liturgical Views of the Papabili: Cardinal Marc Ouellet

by Gilles Routhier

Marc Ouellet attaches great importance to the liturgy. Because of the influence of von Balthasar on his theological formation and the centrality of mystical marriage in his spirituality, he regards liturgy as more important than the social dimension of the faith. Being in God’s presence, contemplating and enjoying communion with the divine mystery, make liturgy possible and are more important than what one does.

The liturgy over which he presides is beautiful, classical in form, and respectful of the rite and its rubrics. He is in line with the understanding of the liturgy put forth by Pope Benedict: not the assembly celebrating itself, but the assembly celebrating God. That is a position one endorses, quite naturally and without difficulty, as long as it does not lead to the corollary that liturgy should not celebrate the salvific action of God in the present.

Ouellet’s emphasis on the centrality of what God has already accomplished in the past, preeminently in the ministry of Christ, leads him to downplay the personal characteristics he brings to his role as presider and to let the rite speak for itself. The particular circumstances in which a liturgy is celebrated, the assembly, the setting, the occasion—none of these are primary and should retreat and even disappear behind the theophany that envelopes the assembly. The only thing that should stand out is the ritual’s all-inclusive character, a quality that does not call for adaptation. In this perspective, inculturation is not a priority, since what is necessary, above all, is letting God act, the God who comes to us through the liturgy. Liturgy is first of all God’s work, rather than the activity of the people of God, who, at a particular time and place and with all that shapes its existence, actively unites itself to Christ and shares in his Paschal Mystery.

The role of the priest in liturgy of this kind is obviously very important. It falls to him to represent Christ and take his place. It is not people of God or the assembly that is the principal actor in the celebration, but Christ the Head celebrating in the person of the priest, whose most appropriate title is “sacerdos.” Moreover, the priest should be surrounded by a large “court”—if we can use such terminology. The Church, it is true, expresses the active and multifaceted ministry of all its members through various roles and ministries. However, ordered participation in liturgy can also resemble the way a court functions, with its rituals to commission the different classes of servants. The assembly’s participation is primarily spiritual, uniting itself with the liturgical action by its responses and hymns.

While we came to expect that Oeullet’s pastoral letters would be both eloquent and profound, the letter he wrote on the liturgy following the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec does not contain much serious reflection. It is mainly concerned with the rites and their observance, and its focus is on how to celebrate. He himself has emphasized liturgical form, devoting considerable resources to preparing celebrations that are beautiful and well executed. Nothing is improvised or left to spontaneity. The missal is always used, even for the opening Sign of the Cross. His concern that liturgy be beautiful and well done means that he can become quite meticulous and fussy.

The canons of beauty he follows are classical, whether it be with regard to instrumental music, singing, space, vestments (to which he attaches great importance), or the rite itself. Latin chants are used—but not all the time—as is the Roman Canon. The liturgy is, so to speak, that of the basilica—appropriate for cathedral celebrations, but less suitable for parochial liturgies, where resources are limited and the style not as formal.

Liturgy of this kind is totally programmed, leaving no room for improvisation, spontaneity, or a personal touch—unless it be the tears that well up in the eyes of this presider, who frequently allows himself to be moved.

His preaching, almost always closely linked to the Word of God that was proclaimed, is brief, and consists of a spiritual commentary on the Word.  His homilies are short, carefully—even painstakingly—worked out, and often notable for their deep and rich content. The only exception is when he ventures into the political arena. Then he can go into a skid and lose control; thankfully, that doesn’t happen very often.

Even though we can say that his piety is liturgical, that doesn’t mean that certain devotional practices are not highly appreciated: restoring the consecration of the diocese to the Holy Virgin at the Mass of the Immaculate Conception, for instance, or processing through the streets with the Blessed Sacrament. More than the liturgy, these acts of devotion offered him an occasion to express his political views, his critique of social norms, and his desire to restore a Christian society.

Unable to find a priest in the diocese who wanted to celebrate Mass according to the extraordinary rite, and without any real demand for it, he brought in a French priest of the Fraternity of Saint Peter to provide the people of Quebec not only eucharistic celebrations following the extraordinary rite, but also catechetical instruction that involved the use of the Catechism of the Council of Trent rather than the Vatican II-based Catechism of the Catholic Church. He entrusted a parish of the diocese to the Fraternity of Saint Peter, which strove to create a demand for the extraordinary rite and to interest other dioceses in it.

He also was also a strong supporter of the return to the celebration of penance with individual absolution, whereas his predecessor had authorized general absolution under certain circumstances.

Fr. Gilles Routhier is dean of the Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses at the Université Laval in Québec, Canada.

Translated by Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB, of Saint John’s Abbey.





21 responses to “Liturgical Views of the Papabili: Cardinal Marc Ouellet”

  1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    I suppose all of this would sound wonderful to some PrayTell readers but, truth be told, not to me. Emphasis on vestments, being surrounded by courtiers, political rants from the ambo – it doesn’t seem to me to get at what is life-giving.

  2. Joshua Vas Avatar
    Joshua Vas

    For what it’s worth, I always read these reviews with a grain of salt, since I think they reveal as much about the preferences of the author as the cardinal reviewed. I assume that Fr. Routhier is clearly in favour of things such as general absolution which is why the cardinal’s exhortation to return to the practice of individual absolution is deemed a “return”. Ditto for interpreting adherence to the rubrics as “meticulous and fussy” and the whole interpretation of the “court”. I am a bit skeptical about the claim made about the Extraordinary Form (or whatever you want to call it) given that the author clearly is unfavourable to it and I would guess views it as retrogressive. This is not to say that I think people were, as some adherents seem to think, bowling over each other in their demand for it but I don’t feel so inclined to take the author’s dismissal of “no real demand”. I’m also inclined to think that Ouellet might have just opted for an easier way out to fulfill a request made to him by inviting the FSSP.

    1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
      M. Jackson Osborn

      @Joshua Vas – comment #2:
      ‘Court’, ‘meticulous’, ‘fussy’, yes, you are right in seeing these as specially chosen signifers of a highly subjective and denigrating judgmentalism which concludes that the mass exhibiting these marks is one step away from kabuki liturgy. The writer has slipped up, though: he (or she) forgot the de rigeur tag ‘eurocentric’. All the same, the message is, again, that liturgy that doesn’t have the flavour of the Ed Sullivan show replete with combos, pop groups, or rock bands, or a battery of guitars and electronic keyboards is not liturgy fit for that pinnacle of human civilisation as characterised by all that is ‘contemporary’ (as opposed to that which is truly ‘modern’) in this very XXI. century.

      It was noted in the presentation here of one of the other cardinals how that, in his very vibrant church, marked by an undoubted enthusiasmos, there was much dancing and other cultural manifestations which apparently made of the mass a unique interaction between community and divinity, while God remained the object of attention, devotion, and praise. There were no negative words about this, no observation as to the Afro-centricity of it. Just an honest and appropriate appreciation of it.

      Not so when mass is ‘fussily’ celebrated as if it were an event at ‘court’ and is thoughtlessly dismissed as Eurocentric carefullness: we are expected to disown our own heritage and denounce it in favour of street music (no Britten or Whitacre, please), artless vestments from the local Catholic church goods store, anything at all that does not reflect that we are of European heritage and have nothing to apologise for in our liturgy.

      I think of people who characterise a reverent mass with the best of old and new sacred music as ‘meticulous’ and ‘fussy'(!) that we are being addressed by those who are aesthetically and culturally challenged, and have a problem with reverence.

      1. Cameron Neal Avatar
        Cameron Neal

        @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #3:
        It is quite funny, isn’t it, that European-esque liturgy–celebrated by Europeans or their descendents!–is denigrated, yet anything and everything goes when the church in question is conveniently located in Southeast Asia or somewhere in Africa?

      2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        You’re really misstating everything, do you realize that? No one is denigrating things European here. There is critique of some tendencies or approaches by Europeans, but that’s somethng different. No one is saying that anything goes when it’s outside of Europe. Please don’t push the discussion off the rails by such defensive and tendentious exaggerations.

      3. Cameron Neal Avatar
        Cameron Neal

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #13:
        Father, I wasn’t actually suggesting that anything goes outside of Europe, either. My point there is that it often seems that people will nag European-esque liturgies to no end for the littlest things, but when something peculiar happens at, say, a Mass celebrated in Ghana, it is nearly automatically lauded and attributed to the “certainly wonderful strives they’ve made towards Vatican II’s prophetic, sacred call for inculturation,” or something like that.

      4. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        OK. But there are probably reasons for both reactions – and values behind them that you don’t share. I value, for example, that the liturgy be done in a credible way, and not be overly precious or fussy or meticulous or legalistic, and so I can see why some people are critical of liturgies tending toward that in Europe or by those of European descent.

      5. Francine Smith Avatar
        Francine Smith

        @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #15:

        So the liturgy is not “credible” if the celebrant, musicians, and other liturgical ministers are careful to closely follow the rubrics laid out by the Church?

        I believe it is laudable to be “meticulous” when it comes to celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass–laudable to treat it as if it is something which is of utmost importance.

      6. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB


        Just to get the question on the right grounds: credibility isn’t about my preferences or yours, it’s about how the public sees our liturgy. You may prefer “meticulous,” and that’s fine. But how do others view that?? That’s a different question.

        I’m a “by the book” guy when I celebrate or plan liturgy. So that’s my preference. But I’ve noticed over the years that there is a way to follow the rubrics where it all looks effortless and natural (not claiming that I succeed at that), and another way of following the rubrics which looks like it’s hung up on rubrics. The latter is a distraction for me, and not credible – and perhaps others feel the way I do. I hope you can see that this is why others are critical of being “meticulous,” and that it doesn’t necessarily mean those people are careless or violating rubrics.


      7. Rita Ferrone Avatar
        Rita Ferrone

        @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #3:
        M. Jackson, let me return to your comment, which does seem to me to be an unfair reaction to this post. I read this post as a detailed, mostly laudatory description, at pains to be accurate. There’s praise here for carefulness, not dismissal of such care. The theological underpinnings of the liturgical style are studiously and respectfully described. The tears of the Cardinal are marked as signs of his genuine engagement and humanity. Your own dismissive conclusion is far beyond anything that could possibly be justified by this text.

  3. Gerry Davila Avatar
    Gerry Davila

    +1, MJO. Love your comments on MusicaSacra, too. I’m ClemensRomanus over there.

  4. Rita Ferrone Avatar
    Rita Ferrone

    The resentment of the past three commenters seems to me to be out of place. “Fussy” is a descriptor, and so is “court.” There is no need to be so defensive.

    What worried me is that insertion of the Catechism of the Council of Trent in place of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is a grave problem, it seems to me, and steps over the line — into a total side-lining of Vatican II.

    They had, I believe, a very good Eucharistic Congress. I heard some of the talks on line, and observed Pope Benedict’s message, urging the people to study Vatican II. That the Cardinal’s comments afterward were preoccupied with form is a sad response.

    1. M. Jackson Osborn Avatar
      M. Jackson Osborn

      @Rita Ferrone – comment #6:
      With all due respect to you and with considered appreciation of your assessment of what I wrote, I cannot accept your carefully chosen ‘descriptor’ of my remarks: ‘resentment’ was not at all the emotional ground from which they sprang, but, rather, an appreciation of the cultural expressions of other parts of the world, and an equal love and respect for those of the true heritage of (probably) most of us here on Pray Tell. It is a little tortured, I think, to make of respect for the cultural treasury of my own heritage and, as well, that of others as ‘resentment’. Any resentment I observe is had by those who seem to enjoy applying denigrances to our own cultural roots.

      1. Jim McKay Avatar
        Jim McKay

        @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #17:

        Comments like “those who are aesthetically and culturally challenged, and have a problem with reverence” are not just “specially chosen signifers of a highly subjective and denigrating judgmentalism,” they reflect resentment of those with different aesthetics and manners of reverence. As you yourself observe, the way you enjoy applying denigrances to our cultural roots is a sign of resentment.

  5. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    Rita Ferrone : “Fussy” is a descriptor, and so is “court.”

    While I can see instances of “court” that might be a neutral descriptor (e.g. “After the Edict of Toleration Christian liturgy took on aspects of Roman court ceremonial”) I’m having a harder time with “fussy” (would anyone say, “I aspire to fussiness in liturgy”?). As my wife has noted, “When said of women, ‘thin lips’ is never a compliment.”

    That said, my own reaction to the description (neutral or otherwise) echoes somewhat the sentiments of Jim.

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #7:
      Hi Fritz,

      The way I read it was that fussiness was not considered by the author to be intrinsic to the careful celebration of rites, or to the rites themselves, but did describe the personal style of this individual. Thus, the rites were not called fussy. The celebrant was.

  6. Joshua Vas Avatar
    Joshua Vas

    Rita, I was not trying to be defensive but just pointing out that even descriptors are indicative as much of the commenter as what/who is being commented on. For example, someone used to a more exuberant liturgical expression might describe a more formal expression as “formal”, “staid”, “over-the-top” – and each of them give a different feel. That was my basic point: that it might not be good to immediately form an opinion on the cardinal’s liturgical style based on a review by someone who clearly has a different preference, and my personal instinct is the things are not as dire as he puts it.Fr. R is of course entitled to reflect his opinion and preferences in the descriptors he uses.

    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      @Joshua Vas – comment #8:
      Fair enough. Thanks for clarifying, Joshua.

  7. Peter Rehwaldt Avatar
    Peter Rehwaldt

    It is not people of God or the assembly that is the principal actor in the celebration, but Christ the Head celebrating in the person of the priest, whose most appropriate title is “sacerdos.” Moreover, the priest should be surrounded by a large “court”—if we can use such terminology. The Church, it is true, expresses the active and multifaceted ministry of all its members through various roles and ministries. However, ordered participation in liturgy can also resemble the way a court functions, with its rituals to commission the different classes of servants. The assembly’s participation is primarily spiritual, uniting itself with the liturgical action by its responses and hymns.

    I’d be very interested in hearing how Ouellet would describe this from SC 14:

    14. Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

    In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

    “Full and active participation,” while subject to many varying understandings, seems much larger than “primarily spiritual” as Ouellet’s understanding is presented here. As Jeffrey Pinyan noted on the SC 14 discussion post, SC generally describes this as both internal and external, and not primarily one.

  8. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    Maybe the cardinal is indeed just that, just “meticulous and fussy”….

    Doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, some people are just “meticulous and fussy” and they can be annoying, so can those who are opposite and show blithe disregard….

    In any event, I’ve seen interviews with cardinal Ouellet, not impressive IMO.

  9. Dale Rodrigue Avatar
    Dale Rodrigue

    Fine line between meticulous and scrupulous.

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