After Italy, Canada is the most overrepresented nation in the College of Cardinals in terms of its Catholic population. It boasts four cardinals, two of whom hold very important positions in the Curia. Just a few days before Pope Francis’ grand tour of the Maple Leaf country (July 24-30, 2022), I.MEDIA profiles the six leading Canadian figures in the Church today.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet
Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops
Cardinal Ouellet is often described as an influential prelate in the Roman Curia despite his discretion. He was considered “papabile” leading up to the 2013 conclave. He is seen as a defender of dogma. As Archbishop of Quebec from 2003 to 2010, he provoked various controversies with local political authorities and within his own clergy because of his strong stances on abortion and euthanasia.
The third of eight children from Quebec’s Abitibi region, he remained close to his family, although his brother Paul’s reputation was tarnished by his conviction on sexual charges involving two teenage girls.
After his ordination to the priesthood, Marc Ouellet taught at the seminary in Bogotà, Colombia, where he entered the Society of Saint Sulpice. He taught in Rome, then at the seminary of Manizales in Colombia (where he was rector), and at the seminary of Montreal in Canada.
He was a close friend of Joseph Ratzinger, with whom he founded the review Communio in 1972 in order to bring the reception of the Second Vatican Council out of the sterile duel between conservatism and progressivism.
Consecrated a bishop by John Paul II in 2001 as secretary of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity and created a cardinal by the Polish pope in 2003, the Canadian prelate also worked at the John Paul II Institute for the Family (Lateran University).
He was a close collaborator of Benedict XVI, who appointed him to head the Congregation for Bishops – a powerful dicastery responsible for the selection of bishops – and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America in 2010.
Francis kept him in that position, despite his name regularly coming up in two cases of abuse management, notably in the United States with the McCarrick report, or the tumultuous case of the Dominican Sisters of the Holy Spirit of Pontcallec in France.
In 2022, he organized a symposium to revive the theology of the priesthood, with the synod of the Church in Germany in full swing on debated issues such as the ordination of women, homosexual marriage and priestly celibacy. Priestly celibacy cannot be understood without faith, he said.
Cardinal Michael Czerny
Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development
Born in Czechoslovakia, the Canadian prelate is one of the Jesuits in the Roman Curia who have become influential in Pope Francis’ pontificate. He was the Pontiff’s linchpin on the issue of refugees and for five years headed the section dedicated to them within the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development, before being propelled in 2022 to the head of this super-dicastery, which represents one of the nerve centers of the Pope’s reform.
The prelate is of Jewish origin, his mother having survived the concentration camps. A polyglot, he describes himself as a “migrant” — his parents fled the Soviet regime — and has worked in the field of social justice, especially human rights, health (AIDS), peace and ecology, in Canada, Central America and Africa.
Influenced by Liberation Theology, he founded the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto in 1979. After the murder of six of his fellow Jesuits in 1989 in El Salvador, Father Czerny went to continue their struggle for human rights there, where he supported peace negotiations between the government and guerrillas.
He has been working at the Vatican since 2010, after a miraculous episode: he suffered a heart attack on a plane in America and was saved in extremis thanks to the intervention of cardiologists on board and the emergency landing of the pilot.
After this narrow escape, the cardinal considers any more years of his life a “bonus.” In Rome, he was one of the drafters of the encyclical Laudato Si’ and was involved in the implementation of the encyclical Fratelli tutti on human brotherhood.
Though he was not a bishop, the Argentine pope named him a cardinal in 2019, an act that was something of a surprise to Vatican watchers. Less than two weeks after the invasion of the Russian army in Ukraine, he was sent there and to the neighboring countries by the pontiff, to support war refugees.
Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix
Archbishop of Quebec
Gérald Cyprien Lacroix was born into a family of Catholic farmers in the Beauce region of Quebec. When he was a child, his father was forced to leave his farm with his family to find work on the American east coast. He was the only one of his family to return to his country after an exile that awakened in him a special sensitivity for migrants and the importance of their integration. Devout from his youth, Gérald Lacroix says he always knew that he wanted to “give his life to evangelize.”
At the age of 25, having become a graphic designer, he decided to take a six-month unpaid leave of absence to go on a mission in Colombia with the Pius X Secular Institute, a movement close to the Catholic Youth Workers, which is very committed to evangelization, especially by lay people. It was there, in contact with a sick child, that his vocation was born: The local priest being absent, he was forced to baptize the baby, a gesture that shook him. He says that he then understood that “God needs fathers for his children.”
Back in Canada, he returned to the seminary. After becoming a priest, he left for Colombia where he remained as a missionary until 1998. “I am the bishop I am today thanks in part to my time in Colombia,” he confided years later. He was finally called back to Colombia to head the Pius X Secular Institute from 2001 to 2009.
In 2009, Benedict XVI decided to make him an auxiliary bishop of Quebec City, under then Archbishop Marc Ouellet, whom he succeeded two years later when Ouellet was called to Rome to head the Congregation for Bishops. Unlike the current prefect, for whom the transition to the archdiocese of Quebec had, by his own admission, gone badly, Bishop Lacroix integrated very well into the Canadian primatial see.
At ease with the media — especially social networks — and combative on issues related to the place of the Church in society, he says he wants to “put an end to the archaic and outdated image of the Church.” And he urges his flock to be not only “connected to God through prayer” but also “connected to reality.” This style pleases Pope Francis, who elevated him to the cardinal’s red in 2014. Another sign of the trust between the two men is that the Pope has made him his special envoy to deal with the residential school crisis that has hit the Catholic Church in Canada hard from 2021. On this issue, the Pontiff’s strongman in the Belle Province was quick to acknowledge the Church’s responsibility.
Cardinal Thomas Christopher Collins
Archbishop of Toronto
Cardinal Thomas Christopher Collins has been the Archbishop of Toronto, Canada, and its two million faithful since 2006. Although he is past retirement age (75), Pope Francis has not yet accepted his resignation. He is known as a scholar and theologian, having had a long and fruitful academic life, studying and teaching all things related to scripture, English literature, and biblical studies. However, this has not prevented him from being close to his faithful and their needs, for example by renovating places of worship, closely assisting refugees, or serving on the organizing committee for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002 when he was Archbishop of Edmonton.
A disciple of Cardinal Martini, he is considered rather conservative in his social and moral positions, and has not hesitated to speak out on these issues. He has campaigned against euthanasia laws in Canada and has called for medical personnel and facilities to have the option of refusing the practice for reasons of conscience.
Cardinal Collins also wrote a letter directly to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau opposing his proposal to fund abortion services abroad. The Canadian high religious figure has also been outspoken in his opposition to divorced couples receiving Communion.
In 2015, he was among 13 cardinals who signed a letter to Pope Francis expressing their concerns and objections to the way the Pontiff had decided to organize the Synod on the Family. The Canadian cardinal defended his involvement, saying that sharing his concerns with the pope is part of a cardinal’s responsibility, and applauded the final document Amoris Laetitia and the results of the synod.
The Canadian cardinal has also been assigned to several trusted missions by the Vatican. He was among the apostolic visitors sent to Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, after the release of reports detailing the extent of sexual abuse in the country’s Catholic Church. Since 2014, Cardinal Collins has also served on the oversight commission of cardinals at the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR). He has appeared to be more in the background since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate.
Bishop Raymond Poisson
Bishop of Saint-Jérôme-Mont-Laurier
Born near Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Rouville in 1958, Raymond Poisson comes from one of the old families of the former “Nouvelle France.” His ancestor, Jean Poisson, was a Norman from Mortagne-au-Perche who arrived in the middle of the 17th century. Raised in a Catholic family, Raymond entered the minor seminary in Saint-Bruno at an early age, then pursued studies in administration before going to Montreal to obtain a master’s degree in theology. Sent to Rome, he obtained his doctorate in fundamental theology, with a specialization in ecclesiology, at the Gregorian University. In 1983, he was ordained for the diocese of Saint-Jean Longueuil, just outside of Montreal, and became secretary to its bishop, Bishop Bernard Hubert.
He then served as pastor of two parishes before being named auxiliary bishop of Saint-Jérôme by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. During these years, he has dealt with the thorny issue of Canada’s religious heritage, which is at risk due to the country’s strong secularization.
He also became chaplain of the Order of Malta in Canada, a commitment that is particularly close to his heart, as evidenced by the presence of a Maltese cross in his episcopal arms. In 2015, Pope Francis appointed him bishop of the diocese of Joliette, north of Montreal, and then coadjutor bishop of Saint-Jérôme in 2018. He became bishop of this diocese north-east of Montreal in 2019 before the Argentine Pontiff expanded his diocesan territory by uniting it with that of the Diocese of Mont-Laurier in 2022. A man of the field, close to his territory and its inhabitants, he does not hesitate to promote it to the Vatican, offering Pope Francis a bottle of maple syrup that he believed the Pontiff would particularly appreciate.
From 2019 to 2021, Bishop Poisson served as vice-president of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference; at the end of his term, he was elected president of the bishops’ conference until 2023. A fine diplomat and a man of consensus, he was particularly involved in managing the residential school cemetery crisis -= even though he admits that he had little to do with this issue in his diocese. It is thanks in part to his work as vice-president and then president of the bishops that Pope Francis agreed to receive a large delegation in Rome and then to visit Canada in 2022. He was also at the helm when the Canadian bishops decided to apologize to the Indigenous peoples in 2021 and to set up a new financial contribution to help the First Nations in their country.
One of the other major issues of his presidency has been the secularization of his country: On this point, he has distinguished himself by refusing any confrontation with the movement to secularize Quebec institutions, which, for example, put an end to the inaugural prayer in the House of Commons in Ottawa. To the surprise of many, he proposed instead a silent moment of spiritual reflection.
Bishop Richard Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
The Archbishop of Edmonton, Richard William Smith, is a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he spent his youth before joining the seminary in his city and being ordained in 1987. After studying at the Gregorian University in Rome, where he obtained a doctorate in sacred theology, he returned to his diocese where he served as vicar general and was responsible for the pastoral care of French-speaking people. At the same time, he was a professor of theology and pastor of three parishes.
In 2002, John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Pembroke, Ontario. Benedict XVI appointed him Archbishop of Edmonton in 2007, the archdiocese with the largest Indigenous presence in the country. He served as President of the Canadian Conference of Bishops from 2011 to 2013.