Pope Francis visits a Quebec that is rapidly shedding Catholicism

Pope Francis visits a Quebec that is rapidly shedding Catholicism

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QUEBEC CITY — For more than 140 years, the Church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, its conical spire soaring high into the sky, has been an imposing presence here in the provincial capital.

It was a focal point for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, an organization devoted to protecting the interests of Quebec’s French-speaking population. It has appeared in travel guides. In 1991, the church, with a facade designed to mirror that of Paris Sainte-Trinité Church, was classified as a heritage building for its architectural and artistic value.

But today, amid increasing secularization, poor Mass attendance, declining revenues and the rising costs of maintaining centuries-old places of worship, the doors are closed. The church celebrated its last mass in 2015. The future is uncertain; Officials are considering how the building could be repurposed.

The situation of Saint-Jean-Baptiste parallels the church’s declining role in Canada’s most Catholic province, where for centuries it dominated public and private life – and where towers and spires still tower over small villages and town centers – but which now throw out faith at a steep pace.

Pope Francis arrived in Quebec on Wednesday for the second leg of his “penance pilgrimage”, drawing criticism – again – for what critics say has been his inadequate apology for the Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children.

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be placed in boarding schools, often hundreds of kilometers from their communities, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages ​​and practice their cultural traditions, and in many cases were physically and sexually abused. Most of the 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 involvement of the Church as an institution.

The 85-year-old pontiff celebrated a Mass Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a popular pilgrimage destination outside Quebec City. Before it began, two people approached the pulpit and unfurled a banner asking Francis to rescind the 15th-century papal bulls that enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery, which was used as justification for colonizing and converting indigenous peoples in the New World.

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The Quebec that Francis met has changed dramatically since Pope John Paul II visited in 1984. John Paul was serenaded by a 16-year-old Céline Dion in a packed Olympic Stadium in Montreal and celebrated Mass with some 350,000 people in what was then Canada’s largest religious gathering.

The proportion of Catholics aged 15 and over in Quebec fell from 87 per cent in 1985 to 62 per cent from 2017 to 2019, according to Statistics Canada. In 1985, more than half of those who identified themselves as Catholic participated in a religious activity at least once a month. From 2017 to 2019, that figure was 14 percent.

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

“We’ve gone from a situation where there was a kind of moral authority for Catholicism decades ago,” said Jean-François Roussel, a theology professor at the University of Montreal. “For many Quebecers … Catholicism is not part of their lives, not even part of their family life.”

Between 2000 and 2020, the number of parishes in the province fell from 1,780 to 983, according to the public agency that manages Quebec’s libraries and archives.

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

“We have entered, in the last 10 years or so, into a strong phase of decline of a certain Catholicism in Quebec,” said sociologist E.-Martin Meunier of the University of Ottawa, a co-author of the report. “If there is a collapse of Catholicism, it is primarily institutional Catholicism.”

Residential schools forbade mother tongue. The Cree want theirs back.

Quebec has had a long, complex relationship with the faith.

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

The shift away from Catholicism has accelerated in recent decades.

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

In Sherbrooke, 160 miles east of Montreal, the former Sainte-Thérèse church is now the OMG restaurant, a “celebratory place” 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. So do some of the hamburgers.)

In Montreal, where Mark Twain once observed “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 Notre-Dame du Perpétuel Secours was reborn as the Théâtre Paradoxe, where this month Justin Turnbull, who goes by the name “The Suicide Jesus,” beat Brian Pillman to become the world’s first world champion in Apex Championship Wrestling. .

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

The first church on the site was dedicated in 1849. It was dedicated to John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, 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 last sermon in 2015 praised it as “a stone church, built with genius, with grandeur, with pride, which allows everyone – without distinction – to rub shoulders with beauty, silence, exaltation, contemplation.”

The church is the property of the archdiocese, said David O’Brien, a spokesman for the local government. He said the city is analyzing how it can be reused.

Eva Dubuc-April waited at the Basilica of St. Anne-de-Beaupré on Thursday for Francis to celebrate mass.

Dubuc-April, 31, said she had her children baptized and attends mass periodically. But she strongly feels that the church needs to modernize by re-evaluating its teaching on sexuality and the priesthood for men only.

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

“In Quebec, people who practice Catholicism don’t agree with these old teachings,” she said. “If they don’t move on, there won’t be any left.”

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

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