MONTREAL (CCN) — Montreal’s cardinal of the people, Archbishop Emeritus Jean-Claude Turcotte, is dead.
The popular cardinal, who served as Montreal’s archbishop for 22 years, died April 8 in Montreal’s Marie-Clarac Hospital.
A diabetic, Cardinal Turcotte’s health had been in decline for several months and he was moved to palliative care on March 24. He was 78.
Turcotte is being remembered as a populist, a down-to-earth cleric with a common touch who once supported an ad campaign that urged Montrealers to pray for his beloved Canadiens to make the playoffs.
“He was like the John XXIII of Montreal, a kind of big man who never was far from his roots” said Gatineau Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Turcotte described himself as “an informal man, a man of the people.” He was a common sight at food drives, soup kitchens and at his annual blood donor clinic, typically held on Good Friday. He asked people to give blood for others as Jesus gave his blood for us.
He had a genuine concern for the poor.
“Nothing causes me more pain,” he once said, “than to see a human being treated with contempt and with disrespect.”
As archbishop of Montreal, he worked to expand the role of the laity in Canada’s second largest diocese, took a sympathetic interest in those on the margins of society and supported an expanded role for women in the church.
“Women can exercise a lot of responsibility that doesn’t require them to be priests,” he once said.
At the same time, Turcotte was a traditionalist who renounced his Order of Canada in 2008 rather than share the honour with abortion doctor Henry Morgentaler.
He was media savvy, wrote a column for Le Journal de Montreal and often appeared on French-language television.
“In his way of his expressing himself, you could say he was the Francis before his time of Montreal,” Durocher said. “He would find fresh expressions, sometimes surprising ways of addressing issues that could be very thorny and bring them down to ground.”
A storm of protest followed Turcotte’s remarks in 1997 when he waded into politics and told the Le Devoir newspaper that the people of Quebec themselves, not the Supreme Court of Canada, had the right to decide whether or not the province would remain in Canada.
He said he was convinced that through the media a bishop “can reach and teach the greatest number of people.”
“He was street smart, there was nothing highbrow about him,” said Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax-Yarmouth. “That reflects his upbringing and his blue-collar background. He was very practical, a very good administrator and good with finances.
“His strengths were his people strengths. He was a mentor and he was a good friend.”
Mancini added that Turcotte walked a fine line between English and French Montreal.
“There was always an underlying tension there, and it didn’t take much to set it off,” Mancini said. “He was once asked whether he was for Ottawa or Quebec and he defused the question by saying, ‘I am for Montreal.’ ”
One of six children, Turcotte was born June 26, 1936, in east-end Montreal and studied at College André Grasset. He was ordained in 1959 in Montreal’s Church of St. Vincent de Paul. A product of the Christian Workers Movement, he served in St. Mathias Parish until 1967 when he became a diocesan administrator.
He studied social ministry in France for a year and, upon his return, held various posts in Montreal’s Office of the Clergy and its Pastoral Care office. He was consecrated a bishop in 1982 and helped organize Pope Jean Paul II’s visit to Quebec in 1984.
In 1990 he was named Archbishop of Montreal by Pope John Paul II, succeeding Cardinal Paul Gregoire, and was elevated to the rank of cardinal three years later.
Reflecting in 2012 about receiving his red hat from John Paul II, Turcotte said he accepted the honour with humility.
“I come from a very humble family,” he said. “I think it is important to serve.”
Upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75 in 2011, he offered his letter of resignation and retired the following March.
An active member of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Turcotte served three years as CCCB president. He participated in the conclaves that elected Pope Benedict XVI (2008) and Pope Francis (2013).
His coat of arms depicted a pelican feeding its young, an ancient Christian symbol representing Christ nourishing his followers. Appropriately, he adopted as his motto Serving the Lord Cheerfully.
He had a sweet tooth and could not resist chocolate eclairs. He was a dedicated Montreal Canadiens fan who often used hockey parlance in his homilies. When Brother André was made a saint, for example, he described him as “the Rocket Richard of miracles.” In 2013 Turcotte approved a newspaper advertisement paid for by the diocese that urged fans to pray for a playoff berth for the Canadiens.
“He had to make some difficult choices in the diocese, such as the closing of some parishes and churches,” recalled auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd, who was ordained both a priest and a bishop by Turcotte. “The loss of the Catholic schools also required a solid leadership response. In the face of these changes, he supported the particular character and institutions of the English-speaking Catholic sector while also building bridges with the rest of the diocese.
“He was both a mentor and a pastor. His role required him to mix often with the elites of society, but he never lost his ordinary touch, and without ignoring anyone he was always most comfortable speaking with the humblest of people.”
Turcotte once said he never expected to be made a cardinal.
“To be a cardinal it is a lot of work,” he told one reporter. “My first reaction when the pope called me was that I am going to have more work than I did before.”
He is being remembered as cardinal who was always approachable, and never pretended to be an intellectual or a great theologian of the church.
“For me, humility is truth, the truth about who I am and accepting my limitations. I am good at some things, and not at all good at others,” he said.
Hustak is a Montreal writer at villemarieonline.com.