TORONTO - Cardinal Marc Ouellet would make history if he were to become the first pope who hails from Canada, but experts suggest his appointment to the highest office in the Catholic Church would not have a significant impact on his homeland.
Ouellet's election would lack the political significance that marked former Pope John Paul II`s promotion to pontiff, while religious divisions at home would prevent him from having a widespread influence on the country's Catholic community, they said.
Ouellet's effect on Canada, they suggested, would more closely resemble the muted impact former Pope Benedict XVI had on his home country of Germany.
Mark McGowan, religious studies professor at the University of Toronto, said Ouellet's elevation to the papacy would likely result in a surge of general patriotism, but would not do much to rekindle religious fervour in an increasingly secular country.
"We'd feel all the pride of Canadians seeing one of our own in a position of prominence internationally, but I don't think it's going to make much difference in terms of the way in which Canadian Catholics behave," he said in a telephone interview.
McGowan predicted the lack of influence would be most strikingly demonstrated, paradoxically, in Ouellet's home province of Quebec.
Despite the fact that most residents still identify as Catholic, McGowan said the number of those actively practicing the religion in the province has plummeted from nearly 90 per cent in the early 1960s to less than 10 per cent today.
It would take more than a single person to reverse such a tide, he said, even if that person would be among the most powerful religious leaders in the world.
"It's going to take an attitude. It's going to take a complete rethinking of the way in which religion is part of Quebec culture," he said. "Right now, it's essentially a historic artifact."
The cultural significance of Catholicism was a key part of why John Paul became a revered figure in his homeland of Poland, experts said, adding that his popularity had little to do with his status as the first non-Italian pontiff in modern times.
Peter Meehan, Catholic historian at Toronto's Seneca College, said John Paul`s election in 1978 represented nothing less than a triumph over communism, since the Church had come to be a dissenting voice in the country's political landscape.
John Paul's tenure as pontiff revitalized religious activity throughout the country and helped put Poland on the global map, he said, adding a similar but more subtle phenomenon may be possible for Canada if Ouellet is chosen in the current papal conclave.
Canadians have a long, if unsung, tradition of holding sway in Vatican affairs, he said. Naming a Canadian to the highest post could be a way of recognizing those contributions while signalling a spirit of co-operation from an institution known for its fractious international relations, he said.
"We're not seen as aggressive, we're seen as bridge-builders," Meehan said of Canadians. "I think this would go a long way to encouraging that sense of Canadians being well-received internationally."
Benedict's papacy was originally heralded with enthusiasm in Germany, but experts suggested he had little lasting influence on religious life in that country.
McGowan said his time as leader coincided with a sharp decline in the number of Germans identifying as Catholic, adding that the events are not necessarily connected.
McGowan does not believe devotees of the faith would flee the fold under an Ouellet papacy, adding the cardinal has a reputation for being able to engage with younger believers.
His traditional take on tenets of the religion may also endear Ouellet to English Catholics who often hold less progressive attitudes than their French counterparts, he added.
But Canada's diversity nearly ensures that Ouellet would become a polarizing figure, McGowan said, adding such a person has little opportunity to gain universal influence.
"There will be half the world swearing by him and half the world swearing at him," he said.
Black smoke billowed Tuesday from a special chimney installed on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, indicating the 115 cardinals tasked with choosing the next pope had not yet reached a decision.
The election of the new pontiff will be signalled by a puff of white smoke.
For a while, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet was considered one of the front-runners to replace Pope Benedict XVI after the pontiff announced his surprise resignation. While his odds have fallen, Ouellet is still in the running. Here are 13 things you may not know about Canada's papal contender.
1. Born In Quebec
Cardinal Marc Ouellet was born on <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Ouellet">June 8, 1944, in the Quebec town of La Motte</a>. He was the third of eight children (six boys and two girls) and ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Amos on May 25, 1968. (<em>Photo: Graziella Ouellet, 90 year old mother of Cardinal Marc Ouellet at her home in La Motte, Quebec on Feb 13, 2013.</em>)
2. Playing With Fire
As a child, Ouellet nearly <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/03/10/well-take-a-pope-but-would-prefer-a-brother-cardinal-marc-ouellets-family/">burned down a barn</a> while playing with matches. <em>(Photo: Marc Ouellet, right, is seen fishing with his younger brother Gilles in this 1956 family photo.)</em>
3. Hockey Is Not His Religion
At 17, after injuring his leg while playing hockey, <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Ouellet">Ouellet found inspiration in the story</a> of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. She was a French Carmelite nun known as "<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Th%C3%A9r%C3%A8se_of_Lisieux">The Little Flower of Jesus</a>" who died in 1897, at the age of 24, of tuberculosis. <em>(Photo: Marc Ouellet, left, is seen next to his brother Louis, an unidentified cousin, and his father Pierre, left to right in this 1958 family photo.)</em>
4. The Family
Most of his siblings <a href="http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2013/02/23/a-canadian-pope-part-1-the-word-on-marc-ouellet/">aren’t practising Catholics</a> and two of his sisters are divorced.
5. His Colombia Mission
Ouellet spent <a href="http://www.cccb.ca/site/eng/bishops/list-of-cardinals/1644-biography-marc-cardinal-ouellet">11 years in Colombia as a missionary and teacher</a> at seminaries in Bogota, Manizales and Cali.
6. He's Fluent In Six Languages
Ouellet speaks<a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/03/10/cardinal-marc-ouellet/1976903/"> six languages</a>: French, English, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. <em>(Photo: In this Oct. 21, 2003 file photo, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, Archbishop of Quebec, wearing the three-cornered biretta hat, kisses the hand of Pope John Paul II, during the consistory in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.)</em>
7. He Apologized
In 2007, in a letter published in Quebec newspapers, Ouellet <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Ouellet">apologized for past errors</a> of the Church in Quebec, including "anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals."
8. His Brother Was Convicted
Ouellet’s brother, Paul, was convicted in 2009 of sexual assault involving two underage girls in the 1980s and early 1990s. Paul Ouellet took out newspaper <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/03/10/well-take-a-pope-but-would-prefer-a-brother-cardinal-marc-ouellets-family/">ads to explain the assaults</a>, The National Post reports.
9. He Was Lambasted For Abortion Comments
In May 2010, at a pro-life rally, Cardinal Ouellet called abortion a moral crime, even after rape. He was lambasted by critics who complained that he was out of touch with Quebec society. Quebec’s association of bishops distanced itself from him and issued a statement <a href="http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebeckers-cool-to-cardinal-ouellets-papal-candidacy/article9563750/?service=mobile">calling for a rational discussion</a>, The Globe and Mail reports. Photo: Cardinal Marc Ouellet responds to media questions over comments he made on abortion, May 26, 2010 in Quebec City. Archbishop of Ottawa Terrence Prendergast, left, looks on.
10. He Was Quebec's Top Catholic
From 2002 to 2010, Ouellet was the <a href="http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/03/05/cardinal_marc_ouellet_prelate_prepares_for_possibility_of_becoming_pope.html">Archbishop of Quebec City</a> and Primate of Canada. <em>(Photo: Cardinal Marc Ouellet blesses a young male during his farewell Mass in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre Basilica, 45 minutes east of Quebec City, on Sunday, August 15, 2010, after he was named Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.)</em>
11. His Views On The Papacy
In 2011, Ouellet said that being Pope "<a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Ouellet">would be a nightmare</a>," citing the "crushing responsibility" of the office and the workload of Pope Benedict XVI.
12. His Work Behind The Scenes
The Times of London reports that Ouellet brokered the recent <a href="http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/03/01/canadian-cardinal-marc-ouellet-reportedly-helped-broker-resignation-of-scandal-plagued-u-k-cardinal/">resignation of U.K. Cardinal Keith O’Brien</a> after priests reportedly came forward to him with allegations the senior cleric had made sexual advances. <em>(Photo: Former Cardinal Keith O'Brien stands in his office at his official residence on February 27, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland.)</em>
13: He's Too Canadian?
Stephen Colbert recently <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/02/13/stephen-colbert-pope_n_2680222.html">dismissed the idea of Ouellet as the next pope</a> on his hit comedy show The Colbert Report, suggesting that the cardinal’s fatal flaw was that he’s Canadian. “The pope cannot be polite,” Colbert quipped. “ 'Sorry, but I think God might not want you to use a condom, eh.' ”