03/10/2013 01:00 EST | Updated 05/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Mixed feelings in Ouellet family: We'd 'prefer to have a brother' than a pope

LA MOTTE, Que. - A Canadian cardinal seen as a papal front-runner is also known for fancying family moose-steak dinners, eating dessert off a sibling's plate, and gunning his uncle's tractor until it broke.

If he becomes pope, however, Cardinal Marc Ouellet's family fears such intimate moments will be lost forever.

"We know that it would be over," his younger brother, Roch, said in an interview in their hometown of La Motte, in Quebec's northwest.

"We're quite frank about it as a family — we would prefer to have a brother."

It's been decades since the cardinal has lived in this rural region, some 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal. But he has made regular visits to the area, usually twice a year, to see his siblings and their 90-year-old mother, Graziella.

The 68-year-old cardinal, third-eldest in a family of six boys and two girls, now holds one of the most powerful jobs in the Roman Catholic Church. He's in charge of the international process to name bishops and consults regularly the pope.

Since the cardinal's name was floated in 2005 as a long-shot contender for the papacy, his family has long understood he could be asked to don the silk, red slippers.

"This is one of the risks — that maybe one day he will be called upon to lead this church," said Roch, 63, as he sat in La Motte's old church, which was built with the help of their father and grandfathers.

"But his path... belongs to him. We totally respect it."

That road to Rome began at the family farm in La Motte.

Roch remembers his older brother in a number of ways: as an excellent student, a gifted angler, and a partridge hunter who never turned down moose meat from those who bagged the big catches.

He also had a great appetite, says Roch, adding that his brother would eat dessert off others' plates when they didn't get to it quickly enough.

When it came to work, Marc was known for being impatient at times, a teen who tried to do more than he was asked to do — and faster. Roch says his brother frequently broke things on Uncle Wilfrid's tractor while pushing the machine to its limit on the hay field.

Marc's also the sibling who almost burned the barn to the ground.

The building ignited while a young Marc was playing with matches nearby, Roch says. The fire was extinguished, and the barn saved, thanks to a quick response from an alert neighbour.

"That was a bit of an innocent gesture by a young person who didn't think about the consequences," says Roch.

"He wasn't an angel."

Marc, however, was something of a guardian angel at times to his younger brother, Roch recalls.

He remembers fishing with Marc at nearby Lac La Motte when a violent thunderstorm rolled in over their heads. Roch was around seven years old at the time and Marc was about 13.

After one particularly loud clap of thunder, the terrified boys dropped a fishing rod and fell to the ground. Roch remembers that Marc quickly rose back to his feet and led them home.

"He stayed in control," Roch says.

"He was probably as scared as I was, but I felt like I had a protector."

In recent weeks, from thousands of kilometres away in Rome, Marc has become the protector of another loved one: their mother.

He sent a message home to his family in La Motte last month shortly after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation.

Marc instructed them to think of their elderly mother's well-being before anything else during what he predicted would be an inevitable media storm.

"He told us: 'Be polite, be vigilant and the most essential thing is to protect our mother. Don't open up the house to everyone,' " Roch said of Marc, who has become misty-eyed and emotional in the past when talking to journalists about his mother.

The cardinal's love for his family has also been put to the test in recent years.

His brother Paul Ouellet was convicted a few years ago of sexual assault involving two minors, stemming from incidents in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Marc, who was archbishop of Quebec City at the time, had refused to comment on the case of his younger brother, who took out newspaper ads to explain the assaults.

Roch says Marc and Paul still speak regularly.

"These are two brothers who speak a lot. They have always talked, they have never lost touch," he says, adding the family has the same amount of affection toward every member.

"Their brotherly love was quite a bit stronger than all the stories swirling around, more than people know."