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.