By Peter E. Baltutis
Remi De Roo was one of the most high-profile Canadian bishops of the last fifty years. Appointed bishop of Victoria at the start of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, and actively participating in all four sessions, this transformative experience forever shaped De Roo and his episcopal ministry. Until his mandatory retirement in 1999 at age 75, and well beyond, De Roo dedicated his life to promoting the teachings of Vatican II – especially the social teachings – in his home diocese, across Canada, and internationally. Historians of Canadian Catholicism are indebted to Bishop De Roo for not only chronicling his experiences at this influential ecumenical council, but also for providing a historical record of the post-Vatican II Church in Canada.
Born in 1924 to a large family in the farming community of Swan Lake, Manitoba, Remi’s native language was Flemish and French was his second. He attended seminary at Collège St. Boniface and was ordained in 1950. Shortly afterwards he was sent for further studies to the Angelicum University in Rome, where he earned his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1952. Upon his return to Canada, Father De Roo served in several English-speaking parishes in St. Boniface and was a priest-consultor and secretary for the Manitoba Bishops Conference.
In October 1962, Remi De Roo was appointed Bishop of Victoria. At age 38, he was the youngest bishop in the world. As the Second Vatican Council had just opened, De Roo quickly left for Rome to join the council. As the most junior bishop in the Canadian delegation and the fact that he was bilingual, De Roo was given the secretarial responsibility of arranging guest speakers to give lectures to the Canadian bishops every Sunday. Formed by new ideas emerging in the fields of early church history/patristics, biblical studies, ecclesiology, systematic theology, liturgy, and ecumenism, De Roo later referred to his experiences at Vatican II as “the most intense and meaningful period of education in my entire life.” Bishop De Roo was active at all four sessions of Vatican II. He addressed the council on four occasions and submitted or co-signed a number of written interventions on a range of topics.
Returning back to Canada after the council, Bishop De Roo brought a progressive agenda to Vancouver Island. One of his early priorities was to visit as many of the Indigenous people of his diocese as possible. He worked with many First Nations peoples on human rights and social justice issues, particularly as chair of the British Columbia Human Rights Commission from 1973-1977. He maintained a close relationship with them for the rest of his life. He also implemented a more collaborative relationship between the priests and the laity. From 1986-1991, Bishop De Roo oversaw a comprehensive Diocesan Synod for the people of Victoria that implemented a new pastoral process. In his autobiography, Remi De Roo: Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop (Novalis, 2012), De Roo reflected on this experience as “the culmination of my episcopacy and represents my happiest moments as a bishop” (107).
Bishop De Roo entered the national, and international, spotlight for his strong advocacy on social justice issues. It was during his time as Chair of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that it released “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis” in 1983. Speaking to the economic downturn of the early 1980s that saw high rates of unemployment coupled with high rates of inflation, “Ethical Reflections” argued that the struggling economy reflected a “moral disorder” in Canadian society. While previous CCCB statements only received minor media attention, “Ethical Reflections” became the front-page news items of Canadian newspapers and also received international coverage. Making numerous media appearances to defend the document, Bishop De Roo became one of the leading voices for Catholic social justice in the world. Bishop De Roo later expanded upon this vision for justice in his book Cries of Victims, Voices of God (Novalis, 1986).
De Roo’s progressive position on social and moral issues drew the ire of traditional and conservative Catholics. In 1968, he publicly supported the Canadian Bishops’ Conference “Statement on the Encyclical Humanae Vitae”, better known as the “Winnipeg Statement.” This controversial statement acknowledged Pope Paul VI’s ban on artificial contraception in the encyclical Humane Vitae, but also included several paragraphs that emphasized the need for Catholics to follow their conscience rather than the letter of the law. He also supported married and female priests. The book that he co-authored with Mary Jo Leddy and Douglas Roche, In the Eye of the Catholic Storm: The Church Since Vatican II (Harper Collins, 1992) was deemed so controversial that The B.C. Catholic and The Catholic Register would not publish ads for it. De Roo would discuss these tensions between conservative and liberal Catholics in the Canadian Church in the book he co-authored with Bernard Daly and Mae Daly, Even Greater Things: Hope and Challenge after Vatican II (Novalis, 1999).
When he retired in 1999 at the age of 75, Remi De Roo was Canada’s longest serving bishop having spent 37 years as the shepherd of the Diocese of Victoria. After he left public ministry, his successor, Bishop Raymond Roussin, SM, 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 diocesan assets and a bond drive. Bishop De Roo issued a public apology, taking full responsibility for the poor investment decisions made during the 1980s and 1990s. A three-person inquiry appointed by Bishop Roussin found Bishop De Roo had broken canon law in the handling of funds. In 2005, a Washington state jury (where the land transactions took place) exonerated De Roo. This complex situation is covered in great depth in Patrick Jamieson’s The “Vindication” of Remi De Roo: The Lacey Land Saga, Political Sea-change in the Catholic Church (Samarhanor Press, 2010).
In his retirement years, Bishop Emeritus Remi De Roo continued to promote the legacy of Vatican II. In 2008, he gave the keynote address to the CCHA Annual Meeting at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His remarks, “Proclaiming a Prophetic Vision: Blessed John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council,” are published in Historical Studies, Volume 75 (2009), 7-20.
He died on Tuesday, February 1, 2022 at the age of 97.
The only full-length biography about Remi De Roo is Patrick Jamieson’s In The Avant Garde: The Prophetic Catholicism of Remi De Roo, and Politics Within the Catholic Church (republished by Island Catholic News, 2021). A shorter biography is also found in Michael W. Higgins and Douglas R. Leston, “Remi de Roo: Churchman, Theologian, Human Rights Activist,” in Portraits of Canadian Catholicism (Griffin House, 1986). Remi De Roo’s archives were recently given to St. Mark’s-Corpus Christi Colleges in Vancouver, BC.