Leo Joseph Suenens

Leo Jozef Suenens (/ˈsnɛns/ SOO-nens) (16 July 1904 – 6 May 1996) was a Belgian prelate of the Roman Catholic Church. He served as Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel from 1961 to 1979, and was elevated to the cardinalate in 1962.

Leo Jozef Suenens
Cardinal, Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel
Primate of Belgium
Installed24 November 1961
Term ended4 October 1979
PredecessorJozef-Ernest van Roey
SuccessorGodfried Danneels
Other postsAuxiliary Bishop of Mechelen (1945–61)
Ordination4 September 1927
Consecration16 December 1945
by Jozef-Ernest van Roey
Created cardinal19 March 1962
Personal details
Born(1904-07-16)16 July 1904
Ixelles, Kingdom of Belgium
Died6 May 1996(1996-05-06) (aged 91)
Brussels, Kingdom of Belgium

Suenens was a leading voice at the Second Vatican Council advocating for reform in the Church.


Early life and educationEdit

Leo Suenens was born at Ixelles, the only child of Jean-Baptiste and Jeanne (née Jannsens) Suenens. He was baptised by his uncle, who was also a priest. Losing his father (who had owned a restaurant)[1] at age four, Leo lived with his mother in the rectory of his priest-uncle from 1911 to 1912. Wealthy relatives wanted him to study economics and manage their fortune, but he chose the priesthood. He studied at Saint Mary's Institute in Schaerbeek and then entered the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1920. From the Gregorian he obtained a doctorate in theology and in philosophy (1927), and a master's degree in canon law (1929). Suenens had taken as his mentor Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, who had also sent him to Rome.


Ordained to the priesthood on 4 September 1927 by Cardinal Jozef-Ernest van Roey, Suenens initially served as a professor at Saint Mary's Institute and then taught moral philosophy and pedagogy at the Minor Seminary of Mechelen from 1930 to 1940. He worked as a chaplain to the 9th artillery regiment of the Belgian Army in Southern France for three months, and in August 1940 he became vice-rector of the famed Catholic University of Louvain. When the Louvain's rector was arrested by Nazi forces in 1943, Suenens took over as acting rector, where he sometimes circumvented and sometimes openly defied the directives of the Nazi occupiers.[2] Raised to the rank of Monsignor in October 1941, he was included on a list of thirty hostages who were to be executed by the Nazis, but the Allied liberation of Belgium occurred shortly before these orders could be carried out.

Episcopal careerEdit

Ordination history of
Leo-Joseph Suenens
Priestly ordination
Date4 September 1927
Episcopal consecration
Consecrated byCardinal van Roey
Date16 December 1945
Elevated byPope John XXIII
Date19 March 1962
Episcopal succession
Bishops consecrated by Leo-Joseph Suenens as principal consecrator
André Creemers1955
Jules Victor Daem1962
Léonce-Albert Van Peteghem1964
Cardinal Cardijn1965
Gabriel Ukec1965
Jean Jadot1968
Henri Lemaître1969
Jean Huard1977
Cardinal Danneels1977
Styles of
Leo Jozef Suenens
Reference styleHis Eminence
Spoken styleYour Eminence
Informal styleCardinal

On 12 November 1945, he was appointed by Pope Pius XII as Auxiliary Bishop of Mechelen and Titular Bishop of Isinda. Suenens received his episcopal consecration on the following 16 December from Cardinal van Roey, with Bishops Étienne Joseph Carton de Wiart and Jan van Cauwenbergh serving as co-consecrators. He was named Archbishop of Mechelen on 24 November 1961; the primatial Belgian see was renamed Mechelen-Brussel on 8 December of the same year. Suenens was created Cardinal Priest of S. Pietro in Vincoli by Pope John XXIII in the consistory of 19 March 1962.[2]

Suenens was one of the cardinal electors who participated in the 1963 papal conclave which selected Pope Paul VI.

He also voted in the conclaves of August and October 1978, and finally resigned from his post in Mechelen-Brussel on 4 October 1979 after seventeen years of service.

Second Vatican CouncilEdit

When Pope John called the world's bishops to Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), he found in Suenens a man who shared his views on the need for renewal in the Church. When the first session fell into organizational chaos under the weight of its documents, it was Suenens who, at the invitation of the Pope, rescued it from deadlock and essentially set the agenda for the entire Council.

Paul VI made him one of the four moderators of the Council, along with Cardinals Gregorio Pietro Agagianian, Julius Döpfner, and Giacomo Lercaro. Suenens was also believed to be a decisive force behind the Conciliar documents Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes.


Suenens died from thrombosis in Brussels at age 91,[3] and was buried at St. Rumbolds Cathedral. At the time of his death he was one of the four living Cardinals elevated by Pope John XXIII.

After his death, Belgian police drilled into his tomb and that of Cardinal Jozef-Ernest Van Roey, searching for documents connected to the sex abuse scandal, which had supposedly been buried with the cardinals.[4]



After the Council, Suenens committed himself to implementing its reforms, although not without controversy.

Dialogue with the modern worldEdit

Dialogue with other Christian denominations as well as with other religions, the proper role of the laity, modernization of religious life for women,[5] collegiality,[6][7] religious liberty, collaboration and corresponsibility in the Church were among the causes he advocated at the Council.

His successor, Godfried Danneels, described him as an excellent weather-forecaster who knew from which direction the wind was blowing in the Church, and an experienced strategist who realized that he could not change the wind's direction but could set the sails to suit it. Pope John Paul II himself later attested that "Cardinal Suenens had played a decisive part in the Council".[8]

Relations with the CuriaEdit

In May 1969, an interview he gave to the French Catholic magazine Informations Catholiques Internationales in which he offered a passionate critique of the Roman Curia.[1] Eugène-Gabriel-Gervais-Laurent Tisserant subsequently demanded a retraction, but Suenens refused and declared that Tisserant's reaction as unacceptable and unfounded.[1] Ten years later, he reflected on the event and said, "There are times when loyalty demands more than keeping in step with an old piece of music. As far as I am concerned loyalty is a different kind of love. And this demands that we accept responsibility for the whole and serve the Church with as much courage and candor as possible."


Committed to ecumenism, he and Archbishop Michael Ramsey of Canterbury were close friends.[9]


During the Council's debates on marriage, Suenens accused the Church of holding procreation above conjugal love;[10] Pope Paul was greatly distressed by this and the Cardinal later denied "that he had questioned the authentic Church teaching on marriage".[11]

Humanae VitaeEdit

According to Time Magazine, Suenens counseled the Pope against the releasing of his Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae.[12]

Orthodoxy and heterodoxyEdit

Suenens once remarked, "If you don't believe in the Holy Spirit or Resurrection or life after death, you should leave the Church."[1]

Charismatic RenewalEdit

He endorsed the Catholic Charismatic Renewal;[13][14] his episcopal motto was In Spiritu Sancto ("In the Holy Spirit").


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d "Roman Catholics: The Cardinal as Critic". TIME. 1 August 1969. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  2. ^ a b Steinfels, Peter. "Leo Joseph Cardinal Suenens, A Vatican II Leader, Dies at 91", The New York Times, 7 May 1996
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 13 April 2007.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ "Police 'Sex Abuse Cover Up' Raid on Belgian Cardinals' Tombs Slammed by Vatican". MedIndia. 7 June 2010. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  5. ^ "The Vatican Council: A Mind of Its Own". TIME. 20 November 1964. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  6. ^ "Roman Catholics: Council on the Move". TIME. 8 November 1963. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  7. ^ "Roman Catholics: The Prelates Speak Out". TIME. 24 October 1969. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  8. ^ [1] Archived 14 December 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ "Compass Vol. 14 #3, Schaper and Catoir Articles". Gvanv.com. Archived from the original on 17 January 2016. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  10. ^ "Roman Catholics: No More Galileos". TIME. 6 November 1964. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  11. ^ http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/MARRIAGE.TXT
  12. ^ "Religion: Birth Control: Pronouncement Withdrawn". TIME. 21 June 1968. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  13. ^ "Religion: The Pentecostal Tide". TIME. 18 June 1973. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  14. ^ "What is the Nature of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal?". Ccr.org.uk. 19 September 2003. Archived from the original on 4 October 2012. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  15. ^ "Leo Jozef Cardinal Suenens - 1904-1996". ICCRS Newsletter. 1996. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007.
  16. ^ "The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church - Biographies - S". Fiu.edu. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  17. ^ "Religion: How Pope John Paul I Won". TIME. 11 September 1978. Retrieved 21 July 2014.

External linksEdit

Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Jozef-Ernest van Roey
1st Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussel
Succeeded by
Godfried Danneels
Preceded by
Teodósio de Gouveia
Cardinal-Priest of the San Pietro in Vincoli
Succeeded by
Jean Marie Balland