A tribute to Canada’s Bishop Remi De Roo: The Pilgrim and the Prophet
Jack Madigan writes:
Retired Canadian Bishop Remi De Roo died Feb 2 in Victoria BC (Canada’s west coast) at the age of 97. He was one of the great bishops in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada. The Bishop of Victoria for 37 years, he attended and spoke at the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, and was the last remaining Council Father in Canada. He was a courageous advocate for social justice, a champion of women’s rights, and an ecumenical pioneer. He became a driving figure for change in the Church. In fact, he was a prophetic figure, who advocated the outreach of the Church into the modern world. He leaves a lasting legacy of understanding the Church as the People of God.
At his funeral last week a eulogy (below) was offered by his friend Doug Roche, an author, former member of Parliament, a diplomat, and peace activist.
Bishop Remi De Roo: The Pilgrim and the Prophet
Address by Hon. Douglas Roche, O.C.
Funeral Mass February 12, 2022
St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Victoria, B.C.
Distinguished Ecumenical Representatives,
Reverend Fathers and Sisters,
Members of the De Roo Family,
Friends of Bishop Remi De Roo
It is with trepidation that I address you and I do so because, some time ago, Bishop De Roo asked me to give the Eulogy at his funeral. I tried to demur this honour on the grounds that others were more capable, but he insisted. And thus I come before you, humbly and in a mixture of sadness and joy, to pay tribute to my friend of some sixty years’ standing, the Bishop of Victoria for thirty-seven years, a Council Father at the Second Vatican Council, a courageous advocate for social justice, a champion of women’s rights, an ecumenical pioneer, and most of all a servant of God.
Remi De Roo was one of the great bishops in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada. Only history will reveal his true greatness.
Good books have been written about him and he himself wrote his memoirs, the inspiring story of the farm boy from Swan Lake, Manitoba, who became a driving figure for change in the Church, in order to meet the historical outreach of Vatican II. But the definitive historical record of this great man has yet to be set down. I hope a historian or scholar will, at some point, perhaps in the not too distant future, write the full life story of this spiritual leader who was visionary, controversial, and a beacon of light for all those who experience “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”
What that story will reveal is the life of a pilgrim and a prophet.
His whole life seems to me to have been a journey, a pilgrimage through the Church he was born into, passing through its classical forms, and moving towards a Church centring around the People of God bearing witness to “Christ the light of all nations.” This was by no means a simple journey, as if one could move from the rigidities of many centuries to the open embrace of service to a globalized world without upheavals, pain and fear of change.
The Second Vatican Council, held from 1962 to 1965, was a transformational moment in the long history of the Church. It set us on a journey to rediscover who we are as baptized Christians and what our responsibilities are to a suffering world. This is the pilgrimage that Bishop De Roo led, primarily in the Diocese of Victoria, but also throughout Canada and, indeed, in other regions of the world. He brought me, as he did so many others, on that pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was not finished in Bishop Remi’s life, nor will it be finished in ours. We need sturdiness to equal our vision. He supplied plenty of sturdiness.
To this challenge, Bishop De Roo brought another quality that is rare in our society. He was a prophet. A prophet is a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God. Bishop De Roo proclaimed the teaching of Vatican II. He proclaimed who we are as Church. He proclaimed the Church in the modern world. He proclaimed revelation. He proclaimed liturgy. He proclaimed ecumenism. He proclaimed laity. He proclaimed religious liberty. Bishop De Roo lived and breathed the entire body of Vatican II teaching, reaching out to all humanity. He testified, in his memoirs, Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop, “I personally underwent a profound conversion of heart and mind.”
He gave four interventions to the assembled Council, a remarkable achievement for so young a bishop. His intervention on the values of conjugal love in marriage was supported by thirty-three Canadian bishops who appended their signatures to his words. He had prepared for this topic by calling a meeting of married people on Vancouver Island. Another two oral interventions were on the role of the laity. He said: “Christians achieve their total vocation when in the spirit of Christ they engage themselves in the structures of the world, share in its struggles and commune with the inner dynamism of humanity.” He also made a written intervention, arguing for a fuller role of women in the Church. He said, “We find it necessary that this Council open doors for a deeper collaboration of women in the Church’s apostolic mission.”
The Second Vatican Council, which produced sixteen documents, was, without a doubt, the most important religious event of the twentieth century. In the words of Pope St. John XXIII, who called the Council, it “opened the window” of the Church. What followed was not just fresh air but a veritable storm. In a ferocious storm, sometimes familiar landmarks become obscured. Some become uncertain of their direction and fearful. But the prophet knows the way forward, and Bishop De Roo devoted his life to showing us the way forward in a renewed and revitalized Church.
Of course, prophets meet resistance, and seldom are they revered in their own lifetime, for their restless energy is always prodding us, challenging us, urging us onwards. It takes a special calling from God to be a prophet, and Remi De Roo had that calling.
The calling to be a prophet gave Remi De Roo the courage to stand up for women’s rights in the Church. It gave him the courage to tell the Government of Canada it was wrong in its economic policies disadvantaging the poor. It gave him the courage to affirm the supremacy of informed conscience by married couples. It gave him the courage to hold a lengthy synod in his own diocese, in which his major role was simply to “listen to the people.”
He would listen for hours, but he also spoke. Here are the final words of his memoirs: “There is a vast world out there, desperately in need of an infusion of Gospel values, with multitudes of people waiting to be loved into wholeness. Let us not remain focused on our internal structures and concerns. Let us not wait for others to stretch our own horizons. Today’s world desperately needs our vision and our talents. Trusting in the Spirit, let each one of us reach out to our neighbour in a creative dialogue with all who care about truth and justice. Then we, too, will be beacons of light and hope for all of humankind to see.”
The pilgrim and the prophet had a long life. In fact, his “retirement” years — if one could use that term — lasted twenty-two years, almost a career in itself. In most of those years, he and his colleague and friend Pearl Gervais collaborated on team teaching, giving seminars and workshops throughout North America and Europe. Here indeed was the “people of God” in action as they discussed Scripture, spirituality, justice, peace, the role of women in the Church, and the other subjects of Vatican II.
It wasn’t enough just to celebrate his 90th birthday with a party among friends. He launched an immense project to bring the magnificently illuminated St. John’s Bible to the University of Victoria Centre for Studies on Religion and Society, which he himself had founded.
Indefatigable is much too soft a word to describe Remi De Roo.
Did Bishop De Roo suffer pain in his life? He did. And he faced it stoically. But he faced it with faith, perseverance, gentleness, and forgiveness. For he not only taught the wide canvas of Vatican II, he absorbed its very spirit. And that is the spirit of love — a love that never dies.
Bishop Remi is gone from us. I have lost my dearest friend. But I know that I will see him soon. And I’m sure that in our next conversation, he will tell me something new about the Second Vatican Council.
Meanwhile, the prophet lives on. Bishop Remi has left us his legacy, which is a call to action. He is still calling us to faith in Our Lord to guide us. He is calling for hope to strengthen our resolve. He is calling for love in our hearts as we reach into a hurting world. He is calling all in the Church to apologize for our mistakes and move on. He is calling us to raise up women in the Church. He is calling us to heed the needs of the poor. He is calling us to help the refugees and migrants. He is calling us to protect the climate. He is calling us to oppose war in all its forms. He is calling us to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons. He is calling for world cooperation to assure peace and security for everyone. He is calling us to Vatican II, which will never die.
I close by recounting a remarkable scene that epitomizes the De Roo effect. The event occurred in this very cathedral in 1987, and it commemorated Bishop De Roo’s twenty-fifth anniversary as a bishop. Bishops came from across Canada, filling the sanctuary. The pews were overflowing with proud laity. The homilist was Bishop Alex Carter, then president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. He looked out at the congregation and raised his arms. “Here,” he said, “we have the Bishops of Canada who have come to tell the people how much they respect their brother, Remi De Roo. And here we have the laity who have come to tell the bishops how much they love their own bishop!” Everyone jumped to their feet and the applause and cheers lasted for ten minutes. When quiet returned, Bishop Carter, to his everlasting credit, said, “I know when to stop speaking.”
A tribute to Canada’s Bishop Remi De Roo.
No doubt he is still keeping up the pressure for the ordination of women.