By: Charles Davis, November 1988
Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Paul-Emile Cardinal Léger, who has been described as one of the most eminent Québécois of his generation. An outstanding church leader, he guided the Catholic Church in Québec through the changes of the Quiet Revolution and the upheaval consequent upon the Second Vatican Council. Chosen to be a Prince of the Church, he remained a humble missionary and pastor at heart, and demonstrated that by resigning his diocese to work among lepers in Africa.
Born in Valleyfield in 1904, Paul-Emile Léger spent his childhood at Saint-Anicet. At the age of twelve he went to the Séminaire de Sainte Thérèse, north of Montréal, for classical studies. As throughout his life, his health was poor, and for a period his future was uncertain. But he received what he took as a clear call from God to the priesthood. He did theological studies in the Grand Séminaire in Montréal and was ordained priest in 1929.
Paul-Emile n'a pas suivi le cheminement traditionnel. Après son ordination il n'est pas retourné travailler, comme ses compagnons, dans le diocèse auquel il appartenait, mais il a demandé la permission de se joindre aux Sulpiciens, une société de prêtres dont la vocation est d'enseigner et de fonder des séminaires. Il a donc été envoyé en France à la Solitude, à Issy les Moulineaux, ou les Sulpiciens font leur novitiat. Après cette préparation spirituelle il a étudié à l'Institut catholique de Paris, et ensuite a enseigné à Issy les Moulineaux.
Son désir le plus cher était de devenir un missionaire. Il en eut finalement la possibilité quand il fut envoyé au Japon pour fonder un séminaire à Fukuoka. Son mission s'est avérée très difficile par manque d'argent, et il est retourné au Canada en avril 1939, juste avant le début de la guerre, et il a travaillé comme prêtre à Valleyfield.
After the war he was appointed Rector of the Canadian College in Rome, a position that opened the way to greater responsibilities and the highest honours. He was consecrated archbishop of Montréal in 1950, created a cardinal in 1953, and served as papal legate on three occasions.
He fulfilled these functions with zeal, distinction and political acumen, but it was his part in the Second Vatican Council that brought a world wide recognition of his greatness as church leader. During the sessions of the Council from 1962 to '65 he won acclaim by his speeches and by his work behind the scenes in various committees. As one of a small group of higher ecclesiastics, he earned a place in history by the imaginative boldness with which he promoted reform. "The inspired trio" said one commentator, referring to Bea, Léger and Suenens.
Two years after the close of the Council came the shock of his unprecedented action in resigning his position as Cardinal Archbishop of Montréal to become, as he himself said, a simple priest who will offer his services to an African bishop. For twelve years he laboured as a missionary, especially devoted to helping lepers and the handicapped. Back in Montréal, he celebrated his eightieth birthday in 1984. Un grand chef, un éducateur, un prêtre dévoué, un serviteur infatigable de l'humanité et en particulier de ses membres les moins privilégiés. Dans sa première communication en tant que Cardinal aux fidèles de Montréal il a dit: "La bombe atomique ne pourra jamais produire un atome d'amour. On doit apprendre à aimer en étant près du coeur de Dieu."
Mr. Chancellor, it is a distinct honour and privilege for me to present to you, on behalf of the Senate and by the authority of the Board of Governors, Paul-Emile Cardinal Léger, that you may confer on him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.
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