POLITICS

New archbishop, new attitude atop Montreal Catholic diocese

03/21/2012 02:50 EDT | Updated 05/21/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - As Montreal's populist archbishop calls it a career, his cerebral successor enters at a time of dwindling numbers at the pews and a shortage of priests.

Archbishop Christian Lepine was named to the post this week by Pope Benedict XVI and says he's ready to be open and listen, and to be proactive and spread the gospel to families and youth where they live.

Lepine, 60, takes over from Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, who held the post for 22 years at Canada's second-largest Catholic diocese before announcing his intention to retire last year after he turned 75, the mandatory age of retirement according to church rules.

Lepine treaded carefully in his first media appearance, saying he's humbled to have been chosen for the job.

"It's a great task, but it's not something I can do alone," Lepine said Wednesday. "With God, with prayer, and with other bishops, with priests, with other laypeople, we can do it."

Turcotte's resignation was accepted on Tuesday, at the same time as Lepine's promotion.

Lepine was ordained in 1983, was a pastor at various Montreal-area churches and spent two years at the Vatican. He was named auxiliary bishop last year.

Lepine said his goal is to reach out and unite people. He explained that on controversial issues, his approach will be based on respect for the person and focus on dialogue and listening rather than on confrontation.

"We live in a society where there is often opposition, contradiction and it makes it difficult for people to come together and discover as human beings, we share the same values," Lepine said.

"I think the church has a role to learn to bring people together."

Asked about the place of the church in a secular society, Lepine said he hopes the church has "the freedom to speak and give its message." He said the separation of church and state is "good" in the sense that it accepts freedom of religion.

Turcotte said he is glad to let Lepine, a Montrealer, take over the job in a community he knows well. He says Lepine brings an infusion of youth despite his 60 years.

The outgoing archbishop says he had plenty of advice for his successor.

Turcotte noted that he's a bit of a joker; he's known for his affable disposition and media savvy, such as using hockey examples to illustrate points about religion. But his successor is apparently a more intellectual, serious individual.

The elder cardinal says that difference in character is welcome.

"He doesn't have the same personality as me and that's a good thing," said Turcotte, noting that he was also different than his predecessors.

"I am myself and he's going to be himself. He's more calm than I am. I like to make jokes and he'll have to learn to make jokes," Turcotte said with a laugh.

"But he's going to be Christian Lepine, and that's a good thing."

In addition to his personal disposition, Turcotte is also known for having taken a public stand against abortion, famously returning his Order of Canada after pro-choice activist Henry Morgentaler was named to the order in 2008.

A Quiet Revolution-era priest, Turcotte remembers a time when the Catholic faith was a way of life in Quebec. Today, with church attendance paltry and this society staunchly secular, the priestly vocation requires a lot more faith.

"It's important to have a church that convinces people — it's the most difficult thing to do. We have to get away from the past and live with the future," Turcotte said.

"I'm not a prophet, I don't have a crystal ball. But I have faith, and I'm sure that things are going to change."

Turcotte said he was happy to be shedding the pressure of being archbishop and to be getting out of the limelight.

He said he leaves with some regrets. He admitted to making errors, without being specific about any of them. He said he did his best.

"For me it's important to live in the present; the past is finished," Turcotte said.

Turcotte says he will be focusing on his health and personal time. He also wants to have time to pray and to get caught up on his television-watching. But Turcotte says he will continue to work for the church, which is facing a shortage of priests in Montreal.

"Many of my priests are pastors of two, three, four parishes," Turcotte said, "so I'm going to help if I'm able to do so."

Turcotte said Montreal has a very generous clergy with priests who rarely take their retirement before 75. Others work into their 80s, Turcotte said.

While announcing that he was accepting Turcotte's resignation, the Pope also announced that Turcotte will remain administrator of the diocese until Lepine formally takes over.