Pope Francis visits a Quebec that is rapidly ridding itself of Catholicism

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QUEBEC CITY — For more than 140 years, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church, its conical spire rising high in the sky, has been a commanding presence here in the provincial capital.

It was a rallying point for the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, an organization dedicated to defending the interests of the French-speaking population of Quebec. It appeared in travel guides. In 1991, the church, whose facade recalls that of the Sainte-Trinité church in Paris, was classified as a historic monument for its architectural and artistic value.

But today, in a context of growing secularization, low Mass attendance, declining incomes and rising costs to maintain centuries-old places of worship, its doors are closed. The church celebrated its last mass in 2015. Its future is uncertain; officials are considering how the building could be redesigned.

The fate of St. John the Baptist parallels the Church’s declining role in Canada’s most Catholic province, where for centuries it dominated public and private life — and where steeples and spiers still dominate small villages and urban centers — but which is now spreading the faith at a breakneck pace.

Pope Francis arrived in Quebec City on Wednesday for the second leg of his “penitential pilgrimage,” where he drew criticism — yet again — for what critics say was his inadequate apology for the role of the Church in Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools often hundreds of miles from their communities, where they were prohibited from speaking their native language, practicing their cultural traditions and in many cases have been physically and sexually abused. Most schools were run by Catholic entities.

Francis apologized on Monday for the “evil committed by so many Christians” in the system, but not for the complicity of the Church as an institution.

The 85-year-old pontiff celebrated a mass on Thursday at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica, a popular place of pilgrimage outside Quebec City. Before it began, two people approached the pulpit and unfurled a banner calling on Francis to rescind the 15th century papal bulls that enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery, which served as justification to colonize and convert indigenous peoples in the new world.

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The Quebec that Francis encountered has changed radically since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984. John Paul was serenaded by 16-year-old Celine Dion in a crowded Olympic Stadium in Montreal and celebrated mass with some 350,000 people in what was then the largest religious gathering in Canada.

The share of Catholics aged 15 and over in Quebec fell from 87% in 1985 to 62% from 2017 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada. In 1985, more than half of people who identified as Catholic participated in a religious activity at least once a month. From 2017 to 2019, this figure was 14%.

The proportion of people with a religious affiliation other than Catholic doubled from 9% in 1985 to 18% from 2017 to 2019.

“We have moved from a situation where there was a kind of moral authority of Catholicism decades ago,” said Jean-Francois Roussel, professor of theology at the University of Montreal. “For many Quebecers…Catholicism is not part of their life, or even their family life.

Between 2000 and 2020, the number of parishes in the province has increased from 1,780 to 983, according to the government body that manages the library and archives of Quebec.

Catholic baptisms and marriages have also fallen, researchers reported last year in the journal Secular Studies.

“We have been entering, for the past ten years, a strong phase of decline of a certain Catholicism in Quebec”, declared the sociologist of the University of Ottawa E.-Martin Meunier, co-author of the report. “If there is a collapse of Catholicism, it is first of all about institutional Catholicism.”

Residential schools prohibited Aboriginal languages. The Cree want theirs back.

Quebec has a long and complex relationship with the faith.

For centuries, the Church had a stranglehold on Quebec’s public institutions, including health care, education and social services, before the province began to dissociate itself in favor of a more secular approach. – the so-called Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.

The passage away from Catholicism has accelerated in recent decades.

The result is that more than 600 churches in Quebec have closed, many of which have been razed or deconsecrated so other uses can be found for the historic buildings.

In Sherbrooke, 100 miles east of Montreal, the former Sainte-Thérèse church is now the OMG restaurant, a “party venue” where cocktails are topped with cotton candy and “even the wisest will be tempted to listen to the devil that sleeps within them.”

(The O in OMG has devil horns. The same goes for some burgers.)

In Montreal, where Mark Twain once said “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window,” places of worship have also been transformed into condominiums and community centers.

In 2014, the former Our Lady of Perpetual Help was reborn as the Paradox Theater, where this month Justin Turnbull, who goes by the name ‘The Suicide Jesus’, beat Brian Pillman to become the first-ever champion of the world of Apex Championship Wrestling. .

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Saint-Jean-Baptiste, meanwhile, is in limbo.

The first church on this site was inaugurated in 1849. It is dedicated to Jean-Baptiste, cousin of Jesus, who would become the patron saint of French Canadians. When it was destroyed by fire in 1881, it was immediately rebuilt.

The priest who gave the final homily in 2015 hailed it as “a church of stone, built with genius, with grandeur, with pride, which allows everyone – without distinction – to rub shoulders with beauty, silence, elevation, contemplation”.

The church is owned by the archdiocese, local government spokesman David O’Brien said. He said the city is analyzing how it could be repurposed.

Eva Dubuc-April waited Thursday at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica for Francis to celebrate mass.

Dubuc-April, 31, says he had his children baptized and attends mass periodically. But she is convinced that the church must modernize itself by reconsidering its teachings on sexuality and the priesthood reserved for men.

She likes Francis personally and sees him as a reformer, but he faced resistance from a conservative Vatican bureaucracy.

“In Quebec, people who practice Catholicism don’t agree with these old teachings,” she says. “If they don’t make progress, there won’t be anyone left.”

Chico Harlan of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec, contributed to this report.

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