His life spanned nearly a century (1904–1996), and his leadership at the Second Vatican Council made him a major architect of 20th century Roman Catholicism.
When Pope John XXIII called the world’s bishops to Rome for a council that lasted four years (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 its weight of documents, it was Suenens who, at the invitation of the pope, rescued it from deadlock and essentially set the agenda for the Council. If Pope John opened the window, it was Suenens who pulled back the curtains so that fresh air could circulate. Dialogue with other Christian denominations as well as other religions, the expanded role of the laity, the education and formation of priests, modernization of canonical religious life for women, religious liberty, collaboration and co-responsibility in the Church were among the causes he advocated.
Pope Paul VI, who succeeded Pope John in June, 1963, made Cardinal Suenens one of the four moderators of the Council and in the opinion of many Church historians he was the animateur and the star among them.
Modest by temperament, Suenens would have deflected such an appraisal with an engaging sense of humor. Still, it was he who influenced two main documents of the Council: Lumen Gentium,the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
His successor, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, describes him as “an excellent weather-forecaster who know 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 he could set the sails to suit it.”
After the Council, Suenens committed himself to implementing its spirit, and not without controversy. In May 1969, an interview he gave to the French press offering a critique of the Roman Curia became a cause célèbre worldwide. 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.”
Suenens was above all a man of great faith and profound trust in the working of the Holy Spirit in history. Those who knew him best speak of his formidable intellect, dauntless courage and unswerving loyalty to the Church, maintained in balance by nothing less than the grace of God.