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Obituary: Remi De Roo, former Catholic Bishop of Victoria who was 'driving figure for change' in church

Social-justice advocate dies at age 97. In 1962, he became the world’s youngest Catholic bishop.

Bishop Remi De Roo, the former Catholic Bishop of Victoria who was known as a social-justice advocate, died Tuesday at the age of 97.

Former senator Douglas Roche, a close friend, called De Roo 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.”

Roche said De Roo was “first and foremost” someone who cared about other people. “Remi De Roo was a figure who embraced much of the world in the sense of communicating a love of God and love your neighbour as yourself. He was the embodiment of that. He was highly motivated to express a loving concern with everybody that he dealt with.”

De Roo was born in Swan Lake, Man., on Feb. 24, 1924, the second of nine children. He grew up in a deeply religious family on a farm during the Depression. His first language was Flemish, his second French, his third English.

At the age of 15, he began studying for the priesthood at the St. Boniface seminary in Winnipeg. In his first year, his mother visited him on his birthday, but she became ill and died on her journey home.

“That was very formative in his whole experience,” said Patrick Jamieson, founding editor of the Island Catholic News, who has written three books on De Roo. “My sense is that he took that as a sign to keep going with his studies. He stayed and became a priest and was ordained in 1950.”

De Roo served as a priest for 12 years. In 1962, he became the world’s youngest Catholic bishop when he was appointed at the age of 38 by Pope John XXIII. De Roo spoke at the Second Vatican Council, 1962 to 1965, and was the last surviving bishop to have participated in all four sessions.

An advocate for married male Catholic priests and the ordination of women into the priesthood, he was instrumental in making contraception an issue at Vatican II and was seen as being in favour of birth control, said Jamieson.

For centuries, the church had been looked at as a pyramid with the Pope at the top. The Second Vatican Council deliberately changed that, with the church viewed as a circle with everybody equal, Roche said. “One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council specifically defined the church as the people of God. And he took that very seriously and was able to establish a rapport with the people of the Diocese of Victoria. That rapport enabled him to communicate effectively. And his definition of communicating was two-way. It was listening as well as speaking.”

De Roo was critical of government policies that made it hard for the poor to break out of poverty. In the 1980s, he criticized then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau for Canada’s high rate of unemployment. “He spoke up for economic justice in public policy making, which made him somewhat controversial. But he was courageous,” said Roche.

For a period of time, De Roo chaired the social justice committee of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

De Roo retired in 1999 at the mandatory retirement age of 75.

His 37 years as Bishop of Victoria was marred by a complex financial situation involving a land investment in Lacey, Washington. Months after De Roo retired in 1999, his successor, Bishop Raymond Roussin, accused him of financial mismanagement.

De Roo apologized publicly. The diocese eventually raised $13 million Cdn from parishioners to pay the debt. The case dragged on and in 2005, De Roo was vindicated by a Washington state jury, said Jamieson.

Roche said that if you asked De Roo what he was like, he would say: “I’m a listener.”

“In a bishop, it’s a remarkable characteristic. He was able to put himself into the shoes of the people he was with. He was very sensitive to the human condition.”

The two men were friends for 60 years, close professionally and personally. They published two books — Man to Man: A Frank Talk Between Layman and a Bishop in 1962 and In the Eye of the Catholic Storm with Sister Mary Jo Leddy in 1992.

Roche, who is preparing to give the eulogy at De Roo’s funeral, said goodbye to his old friend at Mount St. Mary’s nursing home in early December.

“I said I’ll probably not see him again. He’d been declining for some time.”

The former senator regards De Roo as one of the great bishops in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada.

“He will be regarded by future historians as a towering figure who held up the Second Vatican Council’s vision of outreach to the world. He was reaching out to all those most vulnerable.”

De Roo was a great ecumenical leader with many friends in the Anglican and the United churches. He was also honoured by Indigenous people, said Roche.

Arrangements are being made for his funeral at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Victoria.

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