We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council. I was a young priest when the council began, and my heart was with the reform movement within the hierarchy of the church.
Cardinal Leo Jozef Suenens was the single most influential church leader in that momentous Catholic Church assembly. He was also an idol of mine throughout my life.
Cardinal Suenens found favor with Pope John XXIII long before the council began. Pope John met him when he was an auxiliary bishop in the Mechelen-Brussels Archdiocese in Belgium, and later asked him for his help in planning the council agenda.
It was known that during World War II, Cardinal Suenens had defied the Nazis while teaching at the Catholic University of Louvain; later his name was found on a death list. Pope John not only made him one of the four moderators of the council, but followed his recommendation that the traditionalist papers presented by the Vatican Curia cardinals be replaced by a more reform-minded agenda.
After the cardinal’s death on May 6, 1996, Pope John Paul II, who was also present at the council, said that his Belgian friend had guided the church with care so that it would be faithful to its Lord and present to the modern world.
In 1970, Cardinal Suenens gave an interview to what was then called National Catholic News Service, saying: “The church will never be a welfare association, a sort of spiritual Red Cross. Christ founded her as an institution and a community. Conservatives are confusing tradition and traditions. Progressives are confusing liberty and anarchy.” He continued: “Between these extremes, we have to try to keep the middle of the road, the extreme center.”
In later years, Cardinal Suenens, describing his active retirement, told us about his devotion to Mary. With Pope John Paul II’s permission, he promoted a shorter form of the rosary, called the Fiat Rosary, designed to combine devotion to Mary and reliance on the Holy Spirit.
Mary’s words, “Be it done unto me according to the word.” Her intimacy with the Holy Spirit defines her role in salvation history.
It was during his retirement years that he recruited me to help him spread his message. I was then director of the Christophers in the 1980s, and the cardinal loved our “News Notes,” which were brief, bright brochures ideal for ideas and inspiration. They were published 10 times a year. He saw them as tools for evangelization.
He even brought me to Europe to teach charismatics there to write and publish their version of the “News Notes,” all for the purpose of evangelizing the world. That same year, he introduced me to Pope John Paul II and the three of us offered Mass together in the papal chapel.
Cardinal Suenens said that after thousands of hours spent looking for answers to life’s questions in philosophy and theology books, he set them all aside and locked them up. What mattered to him, he said, was the sense of mystery, which goes beyond rational thought. Mary asked only one question: “How can that be?” She received only one answer: The Holy Spirit will come upon you and cover you with his shadow.
That was enough for her, Cardinal Suenens said. He concluded that what matters today, too, is that the luminous shadow of the Holy Spirit is over us.
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