This month marks the 50th anniversary of the day a prominent cardinal archbishop resigned, at the peak of his career, and left his diocese to spend the rest of his life working in a leprosy clinic in Africa.
Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, who made the dramatic announcement in November 1967, was Archbishop of Montreal. He had been appointed to lead that diocese by Pius XII in 1950 and created a cardinal three years later.
In the 1950s, Quebec was triumphally Catholic. As Archbishop of Montreal, Cardinal Léger was a public figure, treated with respect and even awe. He made a weekly broadcast reciting the rosary, with a million listeners tuning in. He was a popular public speaker and his photograph appeared so regularly in the press that he was nicknamed “Kid Kodak”. He exemplified a confident Catholicism with an unchallenged place in official life and public consciousness.
At some point, at the height of all of this, he seems to have had profound doubts. Not about his faith, which never wavered, or about his mission as a priest or the role of the Church, but about exactly how he should fulfil his calling, and how the Church should serve the spiritual needs of humanity.
Léger took part in the Second Vatican Council and supported the direction in which it was leading the Church. But meanwhile things were changing in Quebec. A culture that acknowledged Catholic traditions at every level was giving way to a questioning that resonated through television and pop culture, accompanied by new prosperity and increasing social mobility. How should a priest, a bishop, teach and guard the faith in these changing times?
Léger seems to have become profoundly depressed, echoing perhaps an earlier experience when he wanted to become a Jesuit but was considered to be emotionally unsuitable. At that time, he found a spiritual home in the Saint-Sulpice order, and his priestly career flourished. He worked in Japan, and taught in France, Italy and Canada. He was regarded as a rising star and an unsurprising choice as Archbishop of Montreal, the largest Catholic archdiocese in the British Commonwealth.
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