Cardinal Suenens

Cardinal Suenens (1904 – 1996) 

It is perhaps the homily by Cardinal Danneels delivered at the funeral of Cardinal Suenens that places him the best. Here are a few excerpts:

“Historians will no doubt trace with competence the ‘external portrait’ of the Cardinal; they will list his accomplishments. God alone will know his ‘moral portrait’. Only God knows his moral profile, for He alone knows the love that is in the heart of people. But between the two extremes, there is room for an ‘a portrait’ of the Cardinal’s inner nature. Who really was he ?

As a watchman waits for daybreak

kardinaalThe cardinal was a man of the dawn. Besides, he was an early riser all his life, even up to his last days. Like a watchman, examining every daybreak in the Church, he recalled the words of the prophet: “See I am doing something new! Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?” (Is.43.19)

Wherever something was stirring, sprouting, about to blossom, in the Church and in the world, he had already seen it. He was a man who was always alert and on the move, truly a man of the Spirit, one who could feel the wind of God on his skin, that wind which, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes (Jn.3,8). Throughout his life, too, he was a man of the Upper Room, at prayer with Mary and the Twelve, waiting for the violent wind of the Spirit that was about to blow on the city. For him every morning was a Pentecostal morning.

To the Cardinal the Church was always astonishingly young. He scanned its face like a father gazing at his daughter’s face, seeking tender traces of her earliest years.

He was in addition, an excellent meteorologist in the Church. At each new dawn, he could predict the weather for later in the day. The Legion of Mary, the first of his discoveries, was a case in point. He knew that something new was being bourn there: involvement of the laity, prayer around Mary in the Upper Room, faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, direct evangelization of one lay person by another. “One is not fully christianized until one has, in turn, become a christianiser”. The world must be exposed to the ‘temptation to believe’. He knew what was promising and what was stirring in the Church.

From very early on in his life, his contact with Dom Lambert Beauduin had awakened him to ecumenism. For, at a time when God is in danger of disappearing from the scene, when the sense of the transcendent is on the wane, when faith is becoming dim and love seems to be entering upon a kind of winter, all those who believe in the God of Jesus Christ must band together and bear the notion of God aloft above the confusion. Yes, the Cardinal knew what was promising and what was stirring in the Church.

Then came Vatican II. With his great promise to rejuvenate the Church, to restore the Bride of Christ to her youthful appearance without spot or wrinkle. In those early days of the ‘60s, everything in the Church was in the process of being born or reborn: collegiality of the bishops around Peter, co-responsibility of the People of God, involvement of the laity, renewal of religious life, ecumenism, freedom of conscience, a Church in touch with the joys and hopes, the sorrows and pain of all people. Gaudium et spes, luctus et angor. This watchman on the ramparts at dawn knew what was stirring in the Church.

Finally there came the Charismatic Renewal. How was it that a Cardinal, whose countenance betrayed few emotions, a man of upright, calm bearing, of solemn, well modulated tones, could find himself at ease in the midst of a crowd singing, dancing, clapping hands, and speaking in tongues? Was it a late-life conversion to greater fantasy and imagination on the part of one who, up till then, had been all too sensible and responsible?

Not at all. It was rather, that he perceived in this revival a return to the Church of the Acts of the Apostles which had always been his dream: the taste for Scripture, spontaneous prayer, the sense of community, the movement of the Spirit, the abundance of charismas, as was seen at Corinth and in the first Pauline communities The Charismatic Renewal once more legitimated the role of the heart and of the body of the spiritual life of Christians.


“If we are powerless to change the wind, we can at least adjust our sails .”

Yes, he knew what was stirring in the Church. But others still had to learn to recognize it. It is one thing to have ideas, but to convince others of them is quite another. It is not enough to have the truth: one must also know how to communicate it. Therein lies the challenge!

It was a challenge which he faced admirably during Vatican II. And he succeeded. Pope John Paul II himself, in his message of condolence on the Cardinal’s death, made reference to this, saying he was an admirable moderator of the debates in the Council.

Was he a reformer, concerned with endowing the Church with solid new structures? Yes, but how is one to equate that with his affection for the Charismatic Renewal, where the Spirit blows where it wills, and where all is joy, exuberance, spontaneity?

Was he a man of bronze, as he is depicted on one of the portals of St. Peter’s in Rome along with the other moderators of the Council: handsome, determined and cold – or at least remote? But this cardinal was a shy man, with the soul of a child, and imbued with a great tenderness for Mary. This Council moderator said his rosary every day in the garden, as the simple ordinary people do.

Did he defy classification then? Yes, because he was too gifted with riches of intellect and heart to be grasped by only one line of approach…

… Leaving the mortuary chamber where Cardinal Mercier was laid out, in 1926, a Canon remarked: ‘They don’t make Churchmen like that anymore. The mould is broken.’ Dear predecessor, seventy years later I can tell you that this Canon was mistaken.

As for me, your successor, at this moment when like Elijah you are ascending into heaven, having left to me your Cardinal’s robe, I can find no better words to pray than those of Elisa: ‘Father, I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2 Kings 2.9). And I would add: ‘May I never break the mould’… “Thank you, dear Cardinal.” (11.05.1996)

Since 1984, when the FIAT rosary was created, Cardinal Suenens took great pains to promote it. He wrote the “FIAT prayer” and brochures to develop different spiritual aspects of the FIAT rosary.

Together with Veronica O’Brien, he elaborated the principal lines of the spirituality which still guides the FIAT Association today.

His involvement was very concrete: through personal contacts and in his talks, he never ceased to expose with verve the essence of the FIAT spirituality: “Jesus continues today to be born in Mary and through the power of the Holy Spirit”.

The commemorative medal which Cardinal Danneels offered him on the occasion of his 90th birthday sums up his life admirably: his Episcopal motto “In Spiritu Santo”, the Second Vatican Council, ecumenism, and “FIAT”.

Cardinal Suenens