Against the background of ongoing rumours why George Cardinal Pell did not accept an appointment as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops – health issues or opposition from certain bishops? – Andrea Tornielli (usually a very reliable source for such things) brings the news that Marc Cardinal Ouellet has been appointed in his stead. Currently the archbishop of Québec, Cardinal Ouellet has been attacked in Canadian media recently for explaining the Catholic teachings on abortion and other issues. If anything, that shows that the cardinal is a steadfast man who knows his business.
As prefect he will be the head of the office which oversees the selection of new bishops. While it is the pope who appoints bishops, the Congregation does the preparatory work: enquiring at the dioceses in question, investigation the background and behaviour of the proposed candidates and advising the pope as to the men best suited to the job. The prefect of the Congregation for Bishops has therefore a fairly important role: his work will affect many Catholics across the world. It is he who decides who will be the local shepherd of many thousands of people.
Cardinal Ouellet, who has been secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (ecumenical experience!) before taking the see of Québec, was elevated to the cardinalate in 2003. The 66-year-old native of Canada will be the sixth prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which has existed in its current form since 1965. He will succeed Giovanni Cardinal Re.
Traditionally the nine congregations of the Catholic Church, which are comparable to government ministries, have mostly been headed by Italians. With the appointment of Cardinal Ouellet, only the Congregation for the Causes of Saints still has an Italian prefect (Archbishop Angelo Amato). Pope Benedict XVI, and before him Pope John Paul II too, have been gradually working to prioritise certain parts of the world, not least the English-speaking part, in the upper echelons of the Church. With the vast majority of Catholics living in areas outside Europe, this seems not only logical, but also necessary. Whoever is appointed to a post in the Vatican, takes his background with him, as well as knowledge about the Church in the place where he is from. Although the Catholic Church is a world church, it is not a uniform behemoth. The variety and differences within her need to be known and taken into account in the day-to-day running of the various congregations and departments.
With Cardinal Ouellet at the helm, the current new harvest of bishops in North America, the American midwest especially, may turn out to be a herald of things to come in the wider world.