By Philippe Vaillancourt
QUEBEC CITY (CNS) — Archbishop Maurice Couture, 89, embraces the Year of Mercy as a concrete sign of hope for both society and the church, especially on critical issues such as euthanasia, divorce and abortion.
As archbishop of Quebec from 1990 to 2002, he was among the most important church figures in Canada. The former Canadian primate had mercy tattooed all over his pastoral style, for which he is still fondly remembered today. However, every archbishop of Quebec since the end of the 19th century became cardinal, except him. Some say his openness was not quite in vogue back in those days.
In a large living room at the provincial house of his community — the Fathers of St. Vincent de Paul — he recalled when Quebec was still called a “priest-ridden province.”
“As a church, we occupied a lot of space — too much, in fact,” he says, thinking about how the province went from being one of the most Catholic places in the world to a deeply secularized society.
He has followed the passionate debates about the December implementation of an end-of-life law that now legalizes euthanasia and medically induced death.
“To me, dying with dignity means offering a thorough, warm and reassuring presence for those who agonize, so that they feel loved, catered, hugged. I think that people who wish to die and consider euthanasia feel they’ve become a burden. They’ve come to think that they’re no longer useful and worthy,” he said.
He said he understands that feeling in today’s society but said “if we, as a society, tell each other that everyone’s worthy, that everyone deserves to live until the very end; if we make sure that everyone’s surrounded by the love and care of their own family, then it’s different. A desperate fatally ill person, you hold his hand, and you usher a few soothing words to his ear, and a smile comes.”
The archbishop said spiritual leaders must stand firm and remain faithful to their beliefs, but they must be ready to listen and display a comprehensive attitude toward today’s problems.
“This world is ours, and we love it wholeheartedly. This world isn’t really mean or evil. But every day we’re overwhelmed by a rising tide of news. Every day we’re tossed around by new facts, fads and ideas. And we end up thinking that this is it, this is the way things should be. But [as a pastor], I must remain faithful to the Gospels and keep on proclaiming what I consider to be the truth. And live accordingly. And keep on loving our world, our people.”
Archbishop Couture praised the Year of Mercy initiatives set forth by Pope Francis and said they might lead to renewal by questioning some pastoral approaches. What’s truly essential, the archbishop said, is to remind everyone that they are loved and accepted; that they fit in and that they do have a place in the church.
Such is the case with the pastoral attitude toward the divorced and civilly remarried, a divisive issue that was hotly debated in last fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Family.
An event held with the divorced and civilly remarried is among his “dearest memories” as a pastor, the archbishop said. He once organized a day of recollection for them.
“We mustn’t just say that they have a place in the church. We must find ways for them to occupy this place,” he added.
He praised Pope Francis’ decision, on the eve of the Jubilee of Mercy, to grant all priests the power to absolve women who have undergone an abortion.
“It doesn’t mean we erase the sin, but we recognize that we’re dealing with human beings. I’ve never met a single person who [has] taken lightly such a decision. The vast majority of the people I’ve met were still coping with guilt and regrets [after an abortion]. . . . I’m, of course, pro-life. But, dear Lord, can we be pro-life without constantly displaying creepy pictures of blood-stroked fetuses?” said Archbishop Couture. “What’s truly disturbing is that we’ve come up to believe that having a child is an unbearable decision, unless we’re able to offer him everything he may need.”
“If we see the church as an institution that can defend its values and core beliefs while being able to show compassion, understanding and openness, well, the Year of Mercy is a golden opportunity to do just that. Pope Francis pushes us, forces us to adopt that perspective by telling us: Get out, go out. It’s not enough to hang around behind closed doors, with our like-minded, fellow churchgoers. Get out, set sail, go into all the world.”