Journalists are not supposed to be changed by the stories or people they cover, but we are often changed, sometimes for the worse.
Five and half years of writing about Cardinal Marc Ouellet, however, has been among the most meaningful and transformative experiences of my life.
My first encounter with him took place in February 2005, on the eve of the historic "same-sex marriage" debate in the House of Commons.
When he telephoned me in the Parliamentary press gallery's "hot room," I remember my excitement and nervousness about speaking to a cardinal for the first time. Though I had more than two decades of journalism experience and much familiarity with powerful and famous people, I was new to covering the Catholic Church. He immediately put me at ease.
What an interview he gave me! Accustomed to mealy-mouthed political talking points, I found him astonishingly forthright. Five and a half years later, as I reread that first story, his words still leap off the page with prophetic force.
He warned if the state could redefine marriage contrary to the natural order, every definition could become arbitrary, jeopardizing the foundation for civil rights such as religious freedom.
The interview was like a menu for the most important stories I would cover for the next five and a half years.
In July 2005, after he testified before a Senate committee on the "same-sex marriage" bill, I waited with the journalists gathering in the hallway to scrum him. The derision towards him I witnessed from some of my colleagues gave me a foretaste of the vitriol and contempt he would frequently face from the mainstream media, leading to feeding frenzies that reached a crescendo last spring. Through it all, Cardinal Ouellet remained courteous and patient.
In August 2007 I covered his keynote address to the annual Catholic Women's League convention in Montreal. During a break, I told him I was a member of the Traditional Anglican Communion that was seeking communion with the Catholic Church. After that, he showed an interest in our Anglican journey, still in progress, towards unity with the Holy See and we began to develop a friendship of sorts that we would pick up the few times a year we met at various events.
Later that day, he offered the Mass in the Montreal hotel's ballroom. At Communion I went forward for a blessing. As he laid his hand on my forehead, holy love poured through him, anointing me like warm, living oil, releasing me from the discouragement and mild depression that had plagued me for the previous year in the wake of some chronic health problems and personal disappointments. The effects have lasted to this day.
I interviewed him frequently over the years, especially as the 2008 International Eucharistic Congress began to take shape. I travelled to Quebec in March of that year to do some advance stories and to write a profile that examined his spiritual journey from humble origins as one of eight children growing up in the province's western Abitibi region to Cardinal-Archbishop of Quebec and the host of such a significant event for the Universal Church.
At the end of the interview I asked him how he was able to close the gap that often exists between our "old man" and the "new creation" we are in Christ. "It's not so close," he answered with a laugh. "I am a poor sinner, after all."
He welcomed transparency, and I felt free to be my authentic, albeit imperfect, opinionated self. Even though I gave him opportunities, he never said an unkind word about anyone.
As I gradually got to know him better and observe him over time in a variety of circumstances, I witnessed how beautifully he models what St. Paul described as being a love letter from Christ to the world. Yet the cardinal's humility and transparency did not invite anyone to put him on a pedestal.
Over the years, he did not hide the fact that he found some circumstances challenging and painful. He admitted he depended on prayer, his own and that of the faithful, to sustain him. He seemed to often experience a sense of grief over how so many of his fellow citizens, especially in Quebec, had lost all sense of God.
Despite his many natural gifts and keen intelligence, he waited for the Holy Spirit. I never found him taking credit for any accomplishments or exhibiting pride in his own resources. His response was more often awe at God's grace.
In my Anglican tradition we have married clergy, and the priest's family is at the heart of the parish. There is beauty in this. But Cardinal Ouellet's living out his priestly celibacy opened my eyes to the gift of self all Catholic priests make when they give up the good of a happy marriage, children, and grandchildren to allow themselves to devote their lives wholly to Christ's spouse, the Church.
He modelled celibacy in a way that evoked Chesterton's description of chastity like a flame, a flame of love, that does not come from killing off one's passions but from offering them up to God, rising above them, and through God's grace mastering them without sacrificing their vitality.
In a society where fathers are often absent either emotionally or physically and so many young people crave a father's love, he embodies it, revealing what manly tenderness, firmness, and courage looks like. In a sacramental way, he imparts the Father's love like that of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, an extravagant, lavish, forgiving love that rushes to greet the wayward son with skirts flying.
After I have seen him celebrate the Eucharist Cardinal Ouellet has struck me as ecstatic, not with the ecstasy of trance or stupor, but of an unselfconscious abandonment to divine love, so that it is indeed Christ Who was living through him, freely imparting grace and a holy love that transforms lives.
What a beautiful thing it has been to see and experience this up close. But more than that, he awakens in everyone I know who loves him a desire for heaven, a hunger for more Jesus in their lives. At the same time, he has filled us with Christ's living water and shown us how to continue being filled so we can replenish the thirst of others.
I am not the only one who will be forever thankful.
Deborah Gyapong, a former CBC TV producer and veteran journalist, has been working for Canadian Catholic News, writing news and feature articles on national politics and the Catholic Church, for almost six years