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Lessons from Gentle Eminence

November 20, 2005
From the Toronto Sun
This month we have been recalling the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second Vatican Council. I would like to remember a man who was deeply influenced by the Second Vatican Council and became one of its main champions in Canada.
George Bernard Cardinal Flahiff, born in Paris, Ont., would have been 100 years old on Oct. 26, 2005. After a brilliant career as Basilian priest, professor, Superior General, he was named Archbishop of Winnipeg in 1961 and then created cardinal by Pope Paul VI in 1969. Flahiff was one of the Council Fathers at Vatican II and played a key role in the writing of several Conciliar documents. He was part of a great moment of Church history and made us all so very proud!
Cardinal Flahiff invited the people of his time to proclaim God's truth of justice and charity in season and out of season. His interventions at the World Synods of Bishops in 1967 and 1971 reminded the Church of our Gospel commitment to compassion, justice, equality and integrity for all people.
The Cardinal retired and returned in 1982 to live with his Basilian confreres in community in Toronto, where he died in 1989. As a member of the same religious community, I had the privilege of knowing him well, being ordained deacon by him in 1985, and serving as his secretary at the Extraordinary Consistory of Cardinals and Synod of Bishops at the Vatican later that fall.
One lasting memory I have of this confrere and friend took place on a stormy evening in 1985 during my least year of theological studies for the priesthood. Both of us were invited by retired Anglican Bishop Henry Hill to attend the Solemn Vespers at the Anglican Monastery of St. John the Divine, north of Toronto.
Upon arrival at the monastery, we were met by the Bishop and the Prioress, both carrying lighted candles. An electrical power failure in that area meant that all would be by candlelight! We went on to the chapel to find the vaulted room aglow with hundreds of flickering candles whose shadows danced wildly all over the walls and ceiling. A delightful dinner followed in the monastic refectory, also ablaze with candlelight! At the end of dinner, Bishop Hill spoke to the assembled sisters of Cardinal Flahiff's key role at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the areas of Ecumenism and the Renewal of Religious Life.
His Eminence then shared some of the memories of the Council. He said that we so often prefer to dwell in the dark areas of our lives and our Church histories: "We are often afraid of the light because it will reveal us." He concluded, "May the unexpected beauty of these candles this evening remind us of God's light breaking through our shadows and darkness ... and of the promise that God shall never leave us Christians along our common journey toward the Kingdom."
Cardinal George Flahiff left us a legacy of intelligent leadership, pastoral care, and respectful discourse so badly needed in the Church and in society today. What the Council issued in important documents and decrees, George Flahiff lived quietly and authentically in his life: Witnessing daily to God's Word; bearing a message of joy and hope, and dialoguing with the people of our time.
Flahiff's biographer, Fr. P. Wallace Platt, C.S.B., rightly called him Gentle Eminence. When I think of the Second Vatican Council, I remember gratefully all the lessons Cardinal Flahiff taught me not only about "the Spirit of Vatican II" but about the rich meaning of the Council's documents and the new trajectory for the Church and the world that flowed from Vatican II and from the example of this gentle prince and great servant of the Church.