Suenens, Leon-Joseph

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Ecumenist and cardinal archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium; b. Brussels, July 16, 1904; d. Brussels, May 6, 1996; studied at the Gregorian University in Rome (19211929) and was ordained a priest for the Mechelen (Malines) archdiocese in 1927.

In 1930 Suenens was appointed professor of philosophy at the seminary of Mechelen and then vice-rector of the Catholic University of Louvain in 1940, and in 1945 he became auxiliary bishop to Cardinal Van Roey, whom he succeeded as archbishop of Mechelen and primate of Belgium (1961). Suenens was responsible for the division that resulted in the creation of the new diocese of Antwerp. Pope John XXIII named him a cardinal in 1962, and soon after a member of the Central Commission for Vatican II. Suenens then presented the pope an outline of the themes he felt had to be dealt with at the council. This outline was endorsed by Pope John and warmly supported by a number of influential cardinals, including G.B. Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. There is no doubt that it decisively influenced the further proceedings of Vatican II.

Vatican II. Pope Paul VI appointed Suenens as one of the four moderators who guided the proceedings of the Council. His three main interventions promoted the ideas of a permanent diaconate, proposed an age limit of 75 for bishops, and stressed the value of charisms conferred upon the laity. Friendly contacts with non-Catholic observers at the council resulted in Suenens' deep and personal involvement in ecumenical relationships. Year after year he was invited to the U.S. and to Britain by a wide diversity of ecclesiastical organizations as a leading figure of the post-conciliar Church. Meanwhile he pursued his efforts to defend the legacy of Vatican II, "keeping guard at the doors opened by the Council" (Methodist Bishop Corson). At the first Synod of Bishops (1967) Suenens recommended the creation of an International Theological Commission, which was established soon thereafter. This same concern prompted him to publish his book Co-Responsibility in the Church (1968), which made a considerable impact. He later raised the same issue in two interviews which appeared in the French press. There ensued a heated controversy, in which Suenens had to vindicate his loyalty to the Holy See in the face of public criticism from high-ranking prelates. His ideas on collegiality received, however, a wide support in the Second Synod of Bishops.

No less controversial was his proposal in the Third Synod (1971) that the ordination of married men be considered in regions where celibate priests were lacking. Throughout his episcopacy, Suenens had been acutely aware of contemporary social trends and seeds of spiritual renewal for the Church. Hence interest in and support of the legion of mary, marriage encounter, and from the early 1970s, the charismatic renewal. At the request of Pope Paul VI, he became the unofficial but very efficient shepherd of Catholic charismatic groups and communities throughout the world, a role that contributed in a decisive way both to their acceptance by the hierarchy and to the preservation of their Catholic identity. He also stressed the value of a spiritual renewal for ecumenical rapprochement. Suenens' wide range of interests and untiring pastoral zeal is best evidenced in the impressive series of books he authored: Theology of the Legion of Mary (1954); The Right View of Moral Rearmament (1954); The Gospel to Every Creature (1957); Mary, the Mother of God (1959); The Nun in the World (1962); Love and Self-Control (1962); Christian Life Day by Day (1964); Co-Responsibility in the Church (1968); (with Archbishop M. Ramsey) The Future of the Christian Church (1970); A New Pentecost? (1975); Ecumenism and Charismatic Renewal (1978; with D. H. Camara); Charismatic Renewal and Social Action (1979); and Renewal and the Powers of Darkness (1982).

When Cardinal Suenens reached the age of retirement in 1979, he resigned his see, but continued to promote charismatic renewal, always faithful to the motto on his coat of arms: In Spiritu Sancto. When he died at the age of 91, Pope John Paul II recalled the important role Suenens played at the Second Vatican Council.

Bibliography: l.-j. suenens, "Aux origines du Concile Vatican II," Nouvelle revue thé'ologique 107 (1985): 321, with first-publication of original documents. e. hamilton, Cardinal Suenens: A Portrait (London 1975). p. weber, "Le Cardinal Suenens," La foi et le temps 16 (19856): 400422.

[p. lebeau]