Remi De Roo, the former Catholic Bishop of Victoria, was remembered Saturday as a “prophet and pilgrim” of the church, a trailblazer on reforms and a social-justice advocate who could bring groups of people with diverse convictions together in thoughtful dialogue.
De Roo became the youngest Catholic bishop in the world at age 38 and spoke at all four sessions of Vatican II during the early 1960s which would produce a series of documents to direct the life of the Catholic Church into the modern age — among them, the church’s hierarchical structure, responsibilities in a suffering world, its place in relation to other religions and for increasing roles for women.
Pope John XXIII, who appointed De Roo a bishop, called the Vatican II council to “open the window” of the Catholic Church.
De Roo was an advocate for married male catholic priests and the ordination of of women into the priesthood. He also made contraception an issue at Vatican II and was seen as being in favour of birth control, said Patrick Jamieson, who has written three books on De Roo.
De Roo died Feb. 4 at age 97.
His funeral Saturday at St. Andrew’s Cathedral drew about 350 people — limited due to pandemic protocols. They watched a casket draped in white linen with a simple wood cross brought into the cathedral and placed before the altar. Friends, family members and parishioners joined for a celebration of De Roo’s life along with members of the Anglican clergy and Jewish leadership, members of the Catholic clergy, two bishops, an archbishop and a cardinal from Rome.
Cardinal Michael Czerny told the gathering that he was bringing the “warm greetings” of Pope Francis, “who joins us in mourning and thanksgiving, and who sends his blessing.”
Czerny, the Pope’s social justice leader, said he was “inspired and challenged” by De Roo over the decades that they knew each other.
“Remi came across as decisive, frank and even abrasive at times,” said Czerny. “He was also complex, controversial, and faithful to his convictions until the end. Above all he was a Council Father who dedicated the subsequent 55 years to continually rediscovering what it means to live as a Council Christian and as a Council Church … and now indeed as a Synodal Church.”
Czerny said De Roo called himself “a pilgrim of the Second Vatican Council. … It decisively shaped both his unwavering vision and his lifelong mission.
“He believed that the Church in Canada should divest itself of its instinctual suspicion of the modern world, and instead always seek to dialogue with contemporary culture, to accompany the path of ongoing cultural and social transformation, and to enlighten society with the living substance of the Gospel.”
Czerny gave several examples of De Roo’s leadership, including his decision to visit the Indigenous communities of his diocese, “with whom he maintained a sincere bond of friendship throughout his life.”
That was the case during Friday evening prayers, said De Roo’s niece, Teresa Vincent, who said a First Nations leader referred to her uncle as “the White Swan.”
Czerny noted De Roo’s commitment to the promotion of social justice, which led him — as chairman of the Canadian bishops’ social justice committee — “to question the political world about its social policies and the business community about its responsibilities.”
De Roo also promoted the role of women, “rejecting the patriarchal models that confine them to subordinate positions and offend their human and baptismal dignity.”
The cardinal said De Roo’s progressive stances “were greatly appreciated by some and greatly disparaged by others, [but] he remained constant in spite of a degree of marginalization and hostility, even within the Church.”
Czerny said Pope Francis encouraged people two weeks ago to be the artisans of open communities that know how to value the talents of every person; that missionaries “walk the paths of people of our time,” give hope to the disheartened and approach those wounded by life, to bound their wounds with compassion.
“The Holy Father could easily have had our beloved Bishop Remi in mind when, with a certain tough love, he spelled out these challenges,” said Czerny. “With the intercession of our beloved ancestor, let us – even with the risk of being, once in a while, just a little bit irritating – embrace them with firm resolve and inextinguishable hope.”
Douglas Roche, a former senator and a friend of De Roo for 60 years, called him one of the great bishops in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada.
“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,’ said Roche.
“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.”
De Roo’s journey wasn’t easy in that regard because he devoted his life to showing the way forward in a renewed and revitalized Church, said Roche.
“Prophets meet resistance, and seldom are they revered in their own lifetime, for their restless energy is always prodding us, challenging us, urging us onward. 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.
Family members recalled De Roo, the second of nine children who grew up on a Manitoba farm, as kind and gracious, a constant reader who taught himself several languages, with a soft spot for baking pies and chocolate cakes, “and delegating family to get the ingredients.”
“To me he was just a wonderful friend,” said Telford Nault, a friend for 62 years. “He was always there, always with a smile. His last words to me were a blessing.”
— with files from Louise Dickson