Cardinal Suenens (1903-1996)

L’homélie prononcée par le cardinal Danneels lors des funérailles du cardinal Suenens trace au mieux un portrait de sa vie :

The homily delivered by Cardinal Danneels at the funeral of Cardinal Suenens best portrays his life:

ʺI come to make my great ‘Passageʺ, the Cardinal had said as he entered the clinic the day before his death. He spoke of it often in the last two years, almost at every meeting: ʺI am going to heaven next weekʺ, he said, adding with a grave air, “and do not announce my death in the manner of an obituary read in a Catholic newspaper: ‘The risen Christ has just called Cardinal Suenens to enter fully into his peace and joy; we have the cruel duty and the immense sadness of announcing it to you.’ This lacks faith and even logic,” he said.

So, we promised him not to do it. And we kept our word. As he himself kept his word, for he chose to die in the blessed season of Easter joy and on that beautiful morning in May, the most joyful and youthful month of the year, which is also the month of Mary and Pentecost. As so often, he had a sense of the favorable moment, of the kairos.
Yes, he chose his moment well: for the Holy Spirit and Mary were the two stars that shone in the firmament of his long life.
Historians will undoubtedly draw with competence the external portrait of the Cardinal: they will enumerate his works. God alone knows his moral portrait, for he alone knows the love of hearts. But between the two, there is room for an inner portrait of the Cardinal. Who was he really?

Like a watchman waiting for the dawn

The Cardinal was a man of the early morning: he always got up early, until the end of his days. A watchman, scrutinizing all the sunrises in the Church, he remembered the text of the prophet: ʺBehold, says God, I will make the new that is already budding: do you not see it?ʺ (Is 43:19). Everything that was moving, everything that was sprouting, everything that was about to bloom in the Church and in the world, he had seen.

A man always on the alert, mobile, a true man of the Spirit, he felt the wind of God on his skin, that wind which, as Jesus said to Nicodemus, “blows where it wills, whose voice is heard, but where it comes from and where it goes is not known” (Jn 3:8). As a man of the Cenacle, throughout his life he was in prayer with Mary and the Twelve, waiting for the violent wind of the Spirit that was to blow over the city. For the Cardinal, every morning was a Pentecost morning.

He always found the Church surprisingly young. He looked at her face, like a father who wants to find in his daughter’s face the tender features of her early childhood.
Moreover, he was an excellent weatherman in the Church. At each new dawn, he predicted the weather for later in the day. So, it was with the Legion of Mary, the first of his discoveries. He knew that something new was being born there: the commitment of lay people, prayer in the Cenacle around Mary, faith in the power of the Holy Spirit, direct evangelization from man to man. For, he said: we must give the world ʺthe temptation to believeʺ. He knew what was promising and what was moving in the Church.

Contact with Dom Lambert Beauduin had made him aware of ecumenism at an early age. For at a time when God is in danger of disappearing from the scene, when the sense of transcendence is fading, when faith is becoming obscure and love seems to be entering a kind of winter, all those who believe in the God of Jesus Christ must unite to carry the idea of God and the love of Christ far above the fray. The Cardinal knew what was promising and what was moving in the Church.
Then came Vatican II. This was the great promise: to rejuvenate the Church, to give back to the Bride of Christ the face of her youth without wrinkles and without blemishes. Everything was being born or reborn in the Church at the beginning of the sixties: the co-responsibility of the people of God, the commitment of the laity, the renewal of religious life, ecumenism, freedom of conscience, a Church that shares the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of men.

 “Gaudium et Spes, luctus et angor” (The joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of men). He knew what was happening in the Church, this watchman on the ramparts in the early hours of the morning. Finally, there was the Charismatic Renewal. How could a Cardinal with a face without much visible emotion, with an upright and immobile stature, with a deep and steady voice, find himself at ease in the midst of a crowd that sang, danced, clapped, spoke in tongues?

Was it a late conversion to more fantasy and imagination in a man who had been too reasonable and too responsible until then? No. He saw in this Renewal a return to the Church of the Acts of the Apostles, of which he had always dreamed: a taste for the Scriptures, spontaneous prayer, joy, a sense of community, the movement of the Spirit, the abundance of charisms, as in Corinth and in the first communities of St Paul. The Renewal gave back to the spiritual life of Christians the rightful part of the heart and body.

ʺIf we are unable to change the wind, we can adjust our sailsʺ

He knew what was moving in the Church. Still, others had to learn to perceive it too. Having ideas is one thing, convincing others of them is another. It is not enough to have the truth; you have to know how to communicate it. What a challenge!
He faced this challenge admirably at Vatican II. And he succeeded. Pope John Paul II himself alluded to this in his message on the occasion of his death. “Admirable moderator of debates”, he wrote.

So, was he a great strategist? We have to believe so. He possessed remarkable human talents: the art of formulating things with nuance, the gift of the reply, a sense of humor and good words, a taste for precise formulas, struck like a medal, with a profile as clear as that of his own face. An expert in ‘ecclesiastical politics’? No, but he practiced the art of the possible. ʺIf we are unable to change the direction of the wind, he liked to repeat, we can at least adjust our sailsʺ.

He had great spiritual gifts. His sense of strategy was not just a human skill, it was a real charism, a gift of the Spirit: great respect for others, tireless patience, deep love for the Church. He suffered when he was suspected of leading the slingshot in the Church. But his charism par excellence was faith. Or was it hope? In fact, it all boils down to the same thing. Is hope not a young faith that refuses to grow old? Because you have to be young to dare to hope for everything you believe. And this strategist had the soul of a child.

The wealth of paradoxes

I fear that Cardinal Suenens will only partially pass into history. For, like the moon, he had a hidden side. His personality was far too rich to be classified under a single entry in an encyclopedia or under a single keyword in a dictionary.

Was he a progressive? ʺIt was a journalistic term from the sixties, he said: you are always further to the left than the one who walks to your right and further to the right than the one who goes to your left; I think I am more of an extreme center, Jesus Christ!ʺ

Was he a reformer concerned to provide the Church with sound new structures? Yes. But what then of his taste for the Charismatic Renewal where the Spirit blows where everything is joy, exuberance, spontaneity

Was he a man of bronze, as he is depicted on one of the doors of Saint Peter’s in Rome with the other moderators of the Council, handsome, determined and cold? Distant in any case? But this Cardinal was a shy man, with a childlike soul, filled with a great tenderness for Mary. This tribune of the Council recited his rosary every day in the garden, as all the poor do. Unclassifiable? Yes, because he was too rich in intelligence and heart. Elusive from a single angle of approach.

Dear Cardinal, are not the readings of this liturgy, these readings that accompany you in your ascent to the Father, also a bit of your spiritual testament? I hear you say: ʺStay in the Upper Room, in prayer with Mary and the Twelve, and never doubt the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is eternal. Stand under the Cross of the Lord with Mary and St John. Take Mary as John into your home. She will take you for her sonsʺ.

You once told me that when Leon Bloy was dying and asked, ‘What are you feeling at this moment?’ he replied, ‘An immense curiosity.’ But that you would answer, when the time came, ‘An immense confidence and an immense love of God’. I want to believe you. But, knowing you a little, Mr Cardinal, I cannot help thinking that, now that you are face to face with the Father, you will have recovered all your curiosity. For if God is eternally young and new, what a lot to discover! You should not leave your role for all eternity.

When leaving Cardinal Mercier’s mortuary in 1926, a canon said: ‘No more such men of the Church will be made: the mold is broken’. Dear predecessor, seventy years later, I can tell you that this canon was wrong.

As for me, your successor, at this moment when, like Elijah, you are ascending to heaven, after having left me your mantle as Cardinal, I have no other words on my lips than Elisha’s prayer: ʺFather, may a double portion of your spiritʺ (2 Kings 2:9) be mine. And I would add: ʺLet me never break the moldʺ… Thank you, dear Cardinal.

+ Godfried Cardinal Danneels

Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels