By Paul Schratz, The B. C. Catholic
[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Bishop Remi J. De Roo, the last surviving Canadian, English-speaking bishop to take part in the Second Vatican Council more than 50 years ago, has died at the age of 97.
The former bishop of Victoria died Tuesday and is remembered as a longtime proponent of social justice issues and an outspoken advocate of subjects that could make popes and prime ministers uncomfortable, from the celibate priesthood to unbridled capitalism.
When he retired in 1999 at the age of 75, Bishop De Roo was Canada’s longest-serving bishop, having shepherded Victoria since 1962.
– Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said Bishop De Roo “will long be remembered as one of the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, an ecclesial event that was a great grace for the Church.”
– Victoria Bishop Gary Gordon likewise said the bishop emeritus “was able to bring the first-hand experience of Vatican II into the lived experience of our diocese, and continued in ministry up until well into his 90s.”
Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria said one of the enduring gifts the late bishop brought to the diocese and the Church in Canada was his passion for promoting “the council’s desire for the Church to grow into the fullness of the people of God in dialogue with the world, especially in the realm of the social teachings of the Church.”
Born in 1924 in the farming community of Swan Lake, Manitoba, Bishop De Roo was the second of eight children, with a sister who was an Ursuline nun and a younger brother who was a priest. He studied for the priesthood at St. Boniface seminary in Manitoba and was ordained June 8, 1950.
After ordination De Roo went to Rome for further studies and received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Angelicum University in 1952. He served as a pastor in Victoria, where he was a priest-consultor and secretary for the Manitoba Bishops Conference.
He was named bishop of Victoria by Pope John XXIII in October 1962, making him the 13th bishop of the diocese, succeeding Bishop James D. Hill, who died in March 1962. At the age of 38, Bishop De Roo was the world’s youngest bishop and the first western-born bishop of Victoria.
His consecration as bishop of Victoria took place Dec. 14, 1962, at St. Boniface Cathedral under Archbishop Maurice Baudoux. He was installed in Victoria’s St. Andrew Cathedral Dec. 20 by Vancouver Archbishop W. M. Duke.
Bishop De Roo had a dramatic arrival in the diocese with a solemn tribal ceremony re-enacting the arrival of Bishop Modeste Demers, the first bishop of Victoria, 117 years earlier.
A news article in The B.C. Catholic recounted how the new bishop arrived by canoe at the Tsalout Reserve near Victoria and was greeted by 11 war canoes that escorted him to the shore. He was made an honorary chief and bestowed with the name Siem Le Pleet Schoo-Kun, roughly translated as “High Priest Swan” and a reference to a Coast Indian tradition of launching canoes and heading out to sea in spring at the sight of the first swan seen flying overhead.
One of the early tasks De Roo set for himself was to visit as many of the Indigenous people of his diocese as possible, and he maintained a close relationship with them for the rest of his life.
He attended sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, where he and other Canadian bishops criticized a proposed document on the lay apostolate in the modern world, saying it failed to set forth the essential principles of the movement.
After returning from the council his enthusiasm for embracing progressive ideas quickly took root in Victoria, where he told a lay apostolate workshop that new pastoral patterns were needed in the Church, with the laity planning, organizing, and carrying out programs with the spiritual guidance of priests and in co-operation with the hierarchy.
He spoke of his frustration over what he saw as entrenched attitudes among the laity that blocked efforts to breathe life into Vatican II’s documents. He cited for example the faithful’s tendency to look to clergy for answers to all moral and religious questions. He also complained of bishops who were “far too engrossed in administration” and too little concerned with pastoral problems. He was also a promoter of the permanent diaconate and the role of the laity as being “more than a secondary one of assistance to the clergy.”
A strong advocate for social justice, De Roo served as chair of the Canadian bishops’ social justice committee and frequently called for economic justice in public policy making.
In 1968 he made a presentation to a federal committee considering abortion law reforms and called on the committee to show “respect for life. We are much concerned that a too-open health clause may result in widespread disrespect for and assault on the life of the unborn child.”
But he continually drew the ire of traditional and conservative Catholics with his support for married and female priests. He was a frequent guest at conferences sponsored by Call to Action, an organization that advocated for contraception and for married and female priests.
In 1992 he co-authored a controversial book In the Eye of the Catholic Storm with former nun Mary Jo Leddy. The refusal by The B.C. Catholic and The Catholic Register to publish ads for the book became a national news story highlighting tensions between conservative and liberal Catholics.
In 1999, months after his retirement, the Vatican instructed De Roo not to speak at a conference of married Catholic priests.
At the time of his retirement at the age of 75, De Roo was Canada’s longest-serving bishop, having shepherded Victoria since 1962.
He was replaced as bishop by Raymond Roussin, SM, who quickly discovered that a number of poor investments made under De Roo’s administration had left the diocese $17 million in debt. The diocesan financial crisis resulted in the sale of millions of dollars in diocesan assets and the launch of a bond drive to borrow money from parishioners.
De Roo issued a public apology, taking full responsibility for the series of poor investment decisions made over a period of years during the 1980s and ’90s. A three-person inquiry appointed by Bishop Roussin found De Roo had broken canon law in the handling of funds.
After some initial reluctance, Vancouver Island Catholics enthusiastically bought up all the bonds and contributed an additional million dollars in donations. Three years later when the debentures expired and it came time for more than 2,000 debenture holders to renew them, they did so eagerly, with some even donating their bonds or interest to the diocese.
In 2010, a decade after De Roo’s retirement, The Vancouver Sun named him B.C.’s fourth most influential spiritual leader of the century. It cited his provoking a national debate in 1984 “when he accused Pierre Trudeau of exacerbating the “moral crisis” of unemployment” and for “encouraging his diocese’s 70,000 Catholics to experiment in worship styles and enhance the role of women.”
Bishop De Roo and the Winnipeg Statement
The late Bishop Remi De Roo entered the international spotlight in 1968 following the release of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, which had declared the unacceptability of contraception. When the Canadian bishops issued their pastoral response to the encyclical with a document that became known as the Winnipeg Statement, it fell to Bishop De Roo to become its chief advocate.
Drafted at Winnipeg’s Fort Gary Hotel, the Canadian bishops’ statement acknowledged Humane Vitae’s teaching on contraception but included several paragraphs in which the bishops addressed a pastoral response appropriate to couples who might find it “either extremely difficult or even impossible to make their own all elements of this doctrine.”
The statement quoted Vatican II documents on the need for Catholics to follow their conscience faithfully and noted “this does not exempt a man from the responsibility of forming his conscience according to truly Christian values and principles.”
However, the statement said, “We must appreciate the difficulty experienced by contemporary man in understanding and appropriating some of the points of this encyclical.”
The bishops added that since the faithful “are not denying any point of divine and Catholic faith nor rejecting the teaching authority of the Church, these Catholics should not be considered, or consider themselves, shut off from the body of the faithful.”
In a sentence that came to define the Winnipeg Statement, the Canadian bishops wrote, “In accord with accepted principles of moral theology, if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with given directives, they may be safely assured that whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”
De Roo became the leading voice for the statement and the promotion of conscience of the individual over the letter of the law.
In response, Vancouver Bishop James Carney, then auxiliary bishop to Archbishop Martin Johnson, cautioned against any attempt to construe the statement as “watering down” either the doctrines contained in Pope Paul’s encyclical “or our obligation to assent to them.”