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Biography of Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, p.s.s.

P. É. Léger

© 2010 Les Prêtres de Saint- Sulpice de Montréal

Born on April 25, 1904 (and baptized on April 26), in Valleyfield, son of a general merchant, he studied at the elementary school at Saint Anicet, he did his college studies at the Seminary of Sainte Thérèse (1916-1925, with 4 years of interruption because of illness during which he held jobs of mechanic, railway man and butcher), stayed only a few months at the Jesuit novitiate in Sault au Récollet which judged him to be too emotional, and did his theology at the Major Seminary of Montreal (License in Theology, 1929). Ordained as a priest on May 25, 1929 by H. Exc. Gauthier, Titular Archbishop of Taron and Coadjutor of Montréal, he joined the Sulpicians, did his novitiate in Issy-les-Moulineaux near Paris (1929-1930), then studied Canon Law at the Institut Catholique de Paris (License in Canon Law, 1931). Appointed professor of Canon Law at the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris, then in 1932 assistant master of novices, he was sent in September 1933, shortly after his return to Canada, to fund the Sulpician seminary of Fukuoka, Japan, in order to ensure the formation of a native clergy. With its rapid mastery of the Japanese language, he could teach philosophy and do ministry in the parish of Omuta. Back in Canada because of the war of 1939, he taught sociology at the Seminary of Philosophy and apologetics at the Pius XI Institute; then, temporarily leaving the Sulpicians, went to the Diocese of Valleyfield as vicar general (1940) while becoming the pastor of the cathedral and being a member of the chapter (1941-1947). He was appointed domestic prelate on September 29, 1942 and, having returned to the Society, became president of the Canadian College in Rome in 1947.

Elected Archbishop of Montréal on March 25, 1950, he was ordained bishop on April 26 in the Roman basilica of St. Mary of the Angels by Cardinal Piazza, Secretary of the Sacred Consistorial Congregation, assisted by Most Rev. Roy, Archbishop of Québec, and H. Exc. Weber, Bishop of Strasbourg, taking possession of his see on May 17. He received the pallium on May 2, 1951. Created cardinal priest in the secret consistory of November 29, 1952, he received the hat on January 12, 1953 with the title of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and took an active part in Vatican Council II. In 1961, member of the Central Preparatory Commission, in 1962 of the Doctrinal Commission, and in 1963 of the Commission on Canon Law, he did several remarkable interventions during the various sessions on religious freedom, the liturgical reform, the lay apostolate, revelation, the bishops' pastoral care, marriage, consecrated life, relations with Judaism and non-Christian religions. His resignation, announced on November 9, 1967, was formally accepted on April 20, 1968.

He had left Montreal on December 11, 1967 to travel to Dakar (Senegal) and Cotonou (Dahomey) in order to visit the antileprosy centers assisted by “Fame Pereo”, and finally devoted himself to the care of lepers, then of handicapped children at Étang Ébé in the diocese of Yaounde in Cameroon, where he established some fourty projects. He returned to Canada from October 1969 to January 1970 to raise funds. His often improvised management and his uncontrolled generosity led to serious financial problems. He returned to Canada in 1973, depressed, a little sick, sometimes doubting the merits of his new orientations and deprived of the administration of his works because of his lack of rigor, disappointed in his hopes to work in Rome, he retired in the convent of the Sisters of Saint Anne de Lachine. Pastor of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat (Ahuntsic) in Montréal in December 1974, he resigned after a few months, was briefly vicar at the Cathedral Marie-Reine-du-Monde, and returned in 1976 to Africa, where he was chaplain of a women's religious community. Ill, he retired in August 1979 and returned to Montréal while not ceasing during these years to continue his charity in favour of the Third World: a visit to the refugee camps of Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese in Thailand in 1980-81, the foundation of a hospital for lepers in India in 1982 and in Haiti in 1985. He lived in the Seminary of Saint Sulpice at Place d'Armes from July 1984 and spent the last 2 years of his life in a wheelchair. He died of pneumonia at the Hotel-Dieu of Montréal on November 13, 1991. His funeral was celebrated on November 16 by Most Rev. Turcotte, Archbishop of Montréal, in Notre Dame of Montréal Basilica, and was he buried in the crypt of the Mary Queen of the World Basilica.

A complex and mixed personality (“both fragile and spectacular”, as described by Father Benoît Lacroix, o.p.), a bishop with a surprising itinerary, more humble and less confident in himself than it has been said, a leader with a charisma but not always resistant to the temptations of stardom, with a phenomenal memory, impulsive, finding it difficult to work as part of a team, an excellent speaker (although sometimes bombastic) and moreover, man of the word (he preached the Lenten retreats in Notre Dame since 1941 and he estimated having delivered some 5,000 speeches during his episcopate), he was very conscious of his role of doctor. He took an interest in moral reform. He fought the laxity of cinema, tabloids and cabarets, began the radio crusade of praying the Rosary as a family in 1950, created the diocesan service courses on the Bible in 1951, the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism in 1962, convoked the diocesan synod  in 1954 (salary of the clergy, reorganization of the diocesan curia), and launched the Great Commission of 1960. As cardinal, he was a member of the Congregations of the Consistory (1963), the Sacraments, the Rites and the Saint Peter’s Fabrique (1966), for the Evangelization of Peoples (1972), the Pontifical Commission for the Pastoral Care of Tourism (1972), and represented the Canadian episcopate at the Synod of 1967. He made himself the defender of human dignity by having always demonstrated a genuine concern for the marginalized (the foundation of the Foyer of Charity in 1951, of the Hospital St. Charles Borromeo in 1955, of the Institute “Fame Pereo” in 1962, of the Aid to the Elderly in 1986), and in 1969 he received the Royal Bank Award in recognition of humanitarian services, and in 1980 the Pearson Award for peace. He was president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1951 to 1953. He was the brother of Jules Léger, Governor General of Canada from 1974 to 1979, and created, on December 18, 1981 the Jules and Paul-Émile Léger Foundation devoted to charities, to which he bequeathed all his goods.

The profound changes in his episcopate under the combined effect of John XXIII and the Council have been rightly pointed out: at first a pastor of the Roman style, authoritarian, traditional, clerical, suspicious of novelty, then a more listening bishop, less attached to old formulas, certainly more understanding of men and of society, recognizing that the Church could no longer perform the role of substitute, and more and more confident in the responsibilities of the laity. Exploiting the cult of personality and opportunistic according to some ("he has always placed himself on the side of power, reaction and clericalism" wrote Daniel Latouche in Le Devoir on November 23, 1991), pioneer and one of the fathers of the Quiet Revolution according to others, it must be recognized that if he has never played the role of locomotive in the evolution of institutions and if he was not the creator of a new society by systematically going at the forefront of change, he played a conciliatory role. We must do him justice saying that his flexibility at that time has spared sterile confrontations with the State, that he refused to turn the Church into a force for social blockage and to lock Her in reactionary attitudes, and that he has thus contributed to the declericalization of society, as well as to the passage from a Church of Christianity to a Church of service. His attitude in the matter of the secularization of the Université de Montréal, of the Christian pavilion at Expo 67 and of the book Insolences du Frère Untel proves that he was more open than many of his other colleagues in episcopate. His resignation and his departure for Africa were without doubt as much the result of discouragement, depression and fatigue as a very sincere concern for the Third World. This missionary expedition earned him anyway as much pain as consolation, because he was seen in many African settings as another agent of white colonialism. He received numerous honorific doctorates (Laval, McGill, Ottawa, Toronto, Alberta, Montréal, Sherbrook, Memorial, etc.) and distinctions (Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, Sovereign Order of Malta, Legion of Honour, Order of Canada, National Order of Québec, etc.). He was also papal legate on three occasions (Lourdes, 1954; St. Joseph's Oratory, 1955; Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, 1958).

Motto:             Ipsa duce non fatigaris. Apostolus Jesu Christi
Coat of Arms:  AR2; HCC 368
Iconography:   EDM 113
Pastoral writings:    
  • Mandements, lettres pastorales, circulaires et autres documents publiés dans le diocèse de Montréal depuis son érection. v. 21-30, Montréal, 1952-1962.
  • Votre dignité, jeunesse: conférence.... Montréal, 1943.
  • Sur les pas de Jeanne Mance: l’infirmière catholique et ses attitudes essentielles. Montréal, 195- ?
  • Son Excellence Mgr P.-É. Léger parle aux guides catholiques... Trois-Rivières, 1951.
  • À la gloire de saint Joseph... Montréal, 1954.
  • Les ligues du Sacré-Coeur: leur histoire, leur rôle. Montréal, 1958.
  • Les origines de l’homme: conférence... Montréal, 1961.
  • Responsabilités actuelles du laïcat: conférence... Montréal, 1961.
  • Réflexions pastorales sur notre enseignement. Montréal, 1961.
  • L’évêque et l’unité: sermon... Montréal, 1962.
  • Commentaires sur l’encyclique Mater et Magistra. Montréal, 1962.
  • Remplissez la terre et soumettez-la : familles et nations face aux problèmes de la natalité. Montréal, 1962.
  • La religieuse enseignante aujourd’hui. Montréal, 1962.
  • Chrétiens désunis: lettre pastorale. Montréal, 1962.
  • Au service de l’éducation: responsabilités et problèmes des commissaires d’écoles. Montréal, 1962.
  • Détresse des enfants sans famille: allocution... Montréal, 1962.
  • Dieu est amour: le Foyer de charité. Montréal, 1963.
  • Les portes de la vie au pays du Québec. St-Cloud, France, 1967.
  • Paroles de vie pour le peuple de Dieu. Montréal, 1967.
  • Trente textes du cardinal Léger qui ont marqué l’Église au Concile et au Québec. Montréal, 1968.
  • Je suis un homme, seulement un homme, une parcelle de l’humanité... Montréal, 1971. – 4X20. Montréal, 1984.
  • Un jour à la fois. La mort d’un fils. Homélie...Montréal, 1987 (audio recording).
  • Le cardinal Léger et l’Oratoire: textes choisis. Montréal, 1997.
Sources :     AP (1967), (1991); APC (1993) 629; BCF (1963), (1965), (1973), (1981), (1986); CE (1953) 33, (1967); CHA 46; COR (1991) 113-114; CWW (1991); EDM 113-121; EEC 74; ECF 208-210; EGC (1968) 15, (1971) 163; (1975) 22; (1991) 423, 457-461; PSS 364-369; pweb page of the Archdiocesis of Montreal; La Presse, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 21 Nov., 8, 10 Dec. 1991; Le Devoir, 29 April, 14, 15, 18, 19, 23 Nov. 1991

Bibliography:     please see the bibliography by D. Robillard, op. cit. infra, 287 – 292, to be completed by:
  • Légation pontificale de Son Éminence Révérendissime le cardinal PaulÉmile Léger, archevêque de Montréal, aux cérémonies qui ont eu lieu à Lourdes lors de la clôture de l’année mariale, les 6-10 décembre 1954. Montréal?, 1954.
  • Lamoureux, A. Le dernier courrier du Cardinal Léger... Montréal, 1968.
  • Bell, G.K. A man and his mission: Cardinal Léger in Africa. Scarborough, Ont., 1976.
  • Duggan, J. Paul-Émile Léger. Don Mills, Ont., 1981.
  • Lachance, M. Le prince de l’Église: le cardinal Léger. Montréal, 1982.
  • Johnson, A.D. The value of charity: the story of Paul-Emile Léger. San Diego, Ca., 1983.
  • Un bon exemple de charité: Paul-Émile Léger raconté aux enfants. St-Laurent, Qc, 1983.
  • Lachance, M. Dans la tempête: le cardinal Léger et la Révolution tranquille. Montréal, 1986. – « Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, 1904-1991 », Église de Montréal (1991): tout le numéro du 21 novembre (no 43) lui est consacré.
  • Naud, A, Desbiens, J.-P. « Le cardinal Léger au Concile », L’Analyste (1991-92) 38-46.
  • Robillard, D. Paul-Émile Léger; évolution de sa pensée, 1950-1967. Montréal, 1992.
  • Théorêt, C. En souvenir... Cardinal Paul-Émile Léger, 1904-1991. Outremont, 1992.
  • Thompson, D. Le cardinal Léger, c’est un saint: un aperçu de la vie et de l’oeuvre du cardinal Paul-Émile Léger. Montréal, 1992.
  • Routhier,G. « Les réactions du Cardinal Léger à la préparation deVatican II », Revue d’histoire de l’Église de France (1994) 281-302.
  • Lafontaine, P. Inventaire des archives conciliaires du Fonds Paul-Émile Léger. Outremont, Qc, 1995 ?
  • Naud, A. « Le cardinal Léger au concile et la conduite de l’intelligence chrétienne », dans : L’Église canadienne et Vatican II. Montréal, 1997, 237-263.
  • Hamel-Michaud, S. Histoire d’une retraite prêchée par le père P.-É. Léger... Ancienne-Lorette, Qc, 1998.
  • Routhier, G. « L’évolution d’un Père conciliaire|: le cardinal Léger », Cristianesimo nella storia (1998) 89-147.
  • Lachance, M. Paul-Émile Léger; le prince de l’Église. Montréal, 2000 (édition condensée des deux volumes parus en 1982 et 1986).
  • Lachance, M. Paul-Émile Léger; le dernier voyage. Montréal, 2000.
  • Burigana, R., Routhier, G. «|La conversion oecuménique d’un évêque et d’une Église: le parcours oecuménique du cardinal Léger et de l’Église de Montréal au moment de Vatican II. 1. Les premiers ébranlements. 2. L’engagement résolu », Science et Esprit (2000), 171-191, 293-319.
This English translation by the Workgroup "Communications" of the Province of Canada of the Priests of Saint Sulpice is published with the kind authorization of the Wilson & Lafleur Publishing House, of November 25, 2010. It is taken from: Jean LeBlanc, Dictionnaire biographique des évêques catholiques du Canada : les diocèses catholiques canadiens des Églises latine et orientales et leurs évêques : repères chronologiques et biographiques 1658-2002,  Montréal, Wilson & Lafleur, 2002, 881 p.

ed @ Peter Krasuski Source http://www.sulpc.org/ed/evsulpc_leger_en.html
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