Canadian cardinal spent 9 years in a Colombian war zone. Now he serves a new periphery.

Cardinal Gerald C. Lacroix of Quebec walks with his crosier following a Dec. 12 Mass for the opening of the Holy Door in Notre-Dame Cathedral. (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence)

Pope Francis is a prophet,” said Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec, in this exclusive interview with America in Rome last month. “He is bringing the church to where it needs to be. He is purifying the church.”

The Second Vatican Council “did a lot of work, changed a lot of things, and now Francis is bringing us to another level,” the cardinal said. “He continues the work of the council, not by changing structures and documents but by bringing you and me to a deeper relationship with the Lord.”

Cardinal Lacroix: “Pope Francis is a prophet. He is bringing the church to where it needs to be.”

Cardinal Lacroix, 59, came to Rome with the bishops of Quebec for their ad limina visit on May 11. Many of them had made such visits before but they confided this “was very different” from previous Vatican meetings. It was Cardinal Lacroix’s first, and he felt energized by it. “The ad limina is already proving to us that the reform of the church under Francis is advancing,” he said. He recalled that their visits to different Vatican offices almost always began with officials telling Quebec’s bishops: “The Holy Father wants us to listen to you and your experiences. So why don’t we start with that?” The cardinal said these encounters were “beautiful; we felt a family is welcoming us.”

The bishops had two meetings with Francis. The first was a three-hour session with the pope and the heads of eight Vatican dicasteries. Twenty of Quebec’s 29 bishops spoke, as did all the Vatican officials. Francis spoke at the end for 15 minutes. Cardinal Lacroix hailed this as “synodality” or “walking together.”

“It’s not just words,” he explained. “We’re discerning together. We’re listening to each other, to discover what the other one is living. Francis is making that happen.”

“It’s not just words. We’re listening to each other, to discover what the other one is living. Francis is making that happen.” 

The cardinal had a similar experience at the Synod of Bishops on the Family in 2015. “I saw the switch, the huge move he has made us do. It’s difficult for some, but I was exposed before to the Jesuit spirituality, and I love that way of discerning. I’m very happy to see this happening today. This is really going to change the church forever. It’s a new world.”

At their second meeting, Francis encouraged the bishops from Quebec to be a missionary church, “a church that goes out, reaches out to people.”

Cardinal Lacroix came to Rome as archbishop of Quebec when Francis was elected pope. He recalled watching his first appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s and “when I saw the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church, come out on that balcony in his white cassock and ask people to pray for him and then bow down before the people, I said ‘this is my man.’ I was profoundly touched by his simplicity.”

Pope Francis encouraged the bishops from Quebec to be a missionary church, “a church that goes out, reaches out to people.”

He feels “very much in communion” with the Jesuit pope. At the same time, he said: “I’m very different to him. I mean, he’s a scholar. I’m a son of a lumberjack. I’m not a scholar. But on a pastoral level, I am with him. As pastors, we are called to love the world as Jesus did, and that is what Francis is doing.”

Cardinal Lacroix, then an archbishop, came to Rome for the inauguration of Francis’ papacy, but he did not have an opportunity to talk with the new pope until early December when he returned for a meeting at the Vatican.

“I was staying at Santa Marta. I was having breakfast, and he came to my table and said, ‘I know you have meetings and other things, but when would you be available to come to meet with me?’ I responded, ‘Holy Father, any time you say.’ And Francis said, ‘Would tomorrow afternoon at 5 p.m. work?’ and I said, ‘Sure!’”

They met next day in the pope’s small apartment at Santa Marta. “We just sat and talked for about half an hour. I had time to think of a few things to say, he had some things to say, too. We spoke in Spanish. We only speak in Spanish. That was early December. One month later, Jan. 12, 2014, he named me cardinal. I couldn’t believe it. Just being appointed bishop was a huge step, and then being made archbishop, but now this.”

“I’m very different to him. I mean, he’s a scholar. I’m a son of a lumberjack. I’m not a scholar. But on a pastoral level, I am with him.”

He recalled that when Archbishop Luigi Ventura, the nuncio to Canada, phoned in 2009 to tell him that Benedict XVI had nominated him auxiliary bishop in Quebec, he responded: “I’ve been a priest for 21 years; I’m a very happy priest. I love it. I’m at ground zero with people, just working there. You can tell the pope that I don’t have to become a bishop. I’m not aspiring for this. He can leave me there where I am. I belong to a small institute; I can continue my work. I’ll be very happy.” The nuncio remarked, “Oh, so you’re a happy priest? Then you’ll be a happy bishop!”

He was well into his second term as head of the St. Pius X Secular Institute when Pope Benedict XVI named him bishop. Before that he had worked for nine years as a priest in Colombia, in an area controlled by the FARC. He was sent there in 1990, two years after his ordination, to expand his institute’s missionary work.

On arrival in Colombia, he along with two young men and a woman who joined him went to talk with the bishop of the Diocese of Popayán, 350 miles southwest of Bogotà. He opened a huge map of the diocese on the table and pointed to 12 parishes that did not have a priest, some in nice zones, others on the outskirts and one “very, very poor parish in a war zone, where there were a lot of guerrillas, that had not had a priest in five years.” Father Lacroix said they would go wherever he thought best. The bishop assigned them to the war zone.

Father Lacroix said they would go wherever he thought best. The bishop assigned them to the war zone.

He recalled that the priest who drove them in a jeep to that parish told them: “I don’t know how you’re going to do it. You’re going to starve here. These people do not participate in anything.”

When they arrived at the parish there was the equivalent of five dollars in savings, but they were not discouraged; they had come to serve these people and were confident things would work out. They spent the first six months improving their Spanish and learning the local customs.

“Every night we’d celebrate Mass at 7 p.m.,” the cardinal recalled. “There was no electricity. We used candles and the like. The church was packed with kids, young people, adults, old people; every day they’d come to Mass. They were so thirsty to hear the word of God and so happy to be together to celebrate.”

There were 85 villages in the parish. The furthest away were 18 hours on the back of a mule—and there was no other transportation.

“They were so thirsty to hear the word of God and so happy to be together to celebrate.” 

“It was just amazing,” Cardinal Lacroix said. “Those people welcomed us. They were so patient with our Spanish. We became good friends. After three years, we had 100 ‘delegates of the word,’ lay people who’d come to the parish center three times a year for three days of formation, and then return to their villages. They’d bring people together on Sundays, they’d bury the dead, prepare people for the sacraments, and we’d visit the villages to celebrate Mass and so on. It was just awesome. We had a loving relationship.”

Father Lacroix and his team worked in an area where the guerrillas would attack the army or the police. “There were a lot of raids, a lot of shootings, a lot of deaths either related to the guerrillas or drug dealings,” he said. “A lot of cocaine was being produced in our region because it was so isolated. It was a very difficult region.”

His team suffered attacks and at times his life was in danger, but these close calls always happened outside the parish. “In our parish they wouldn’t touch us; the guerrillas had a lot of respect for us,” he said.

After serving there for nine years, he was called back to Canada and soon elected as head of his institute, a position he retained for almost two terms, until Benedict XVI appointed him as bishop in Quebec in 2009 and archbishop in February 2011, as successor to Cardinal Marc Ouellet whom the pope called to Rome to head the Congregation for Bishops.

“Periphery is not only people who sleep out on the street. People who do not know God or who reject him are peripheries, and we need to be there for them, too.”

The eldest of seven children, Cardinal Lacroix was born into a “humble, not very rich” French-speaking family and was 8 years old when they migrated from Quebec to Manchester, N.H., in search of a better life. There he experienced what it means to be an immigrant: not speaking the language, being in a different culture. But he said his family was blessed to live in parishes that were “true families,” which welcomed and helped them.

As a young man, Lacroix joined the St. Pius X Secular Institute, which is also “a family,” composed of priests, married couples, families and lay people. He joined as a lay member and returned to Canada where he worked for five years in restaurants and for six years as a graphic artist and later a designer. At the age of 25, desiring to have missionary experience, he took time off work to go to Colombia for six months with a mission run by the institute. It was there that he felt the call to the priesthood.

Ordained a priest in 1988 at the age of 31, he was sent back to Colombia two years later and spent the next nine years working in the war zone parish.

“I am still in a zone called the periphery,” the cardinal said, “because Quebec is a secularized society; we’re less and less Christian. This is a periphery. Periphery is not only people who sleep out on the street. People who do not know God or who reject him are peripheries, and we need to be there for them, too.”

Cardinal Lacroix hopes Francis will visit Canada; the bishops have invited him, and “the people love him. And the further you go away from the church, the more they love him.”

“We need him, the people need to see this man,” he said. “He’s filled with the joy of the gospel. He’s close to the people. Some say people would come to see John Paul II because he was a good communicator, they would come to listen to Benedict because what he said was so deep, and now they come to touch Francis. He touches people’s hearts; he goes to the peripheries of life. I have met Baptist ministers who have told me, ‘He is also our pope because he lives the Gospel.’”

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