What Canadian religious history can teach us about U.S. church attendance

Parishioners from St.-Charles-Borromee gather inside their 19th-century church March 25 in Quebec (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence).

Pilgrims to the Oratory of Saint Joseph on Mount Royal, the highest point in Montreal, must ascend 283 steep steps to reach the church. I spent most of the climb on our visit last month trying to distract my wife from just how out of breath I was, and got lucky when she stopped to read the French sign on the 99 wooden steps located between the two sets of concrete stairs: Réservé aux pèlerins qui montent à genoux: “Reserved for pilgrims climbing on their knees.”

It was a reminder that Quebec Catholicism is (or was) of a different flavor than ours; most of us don’t even genuflect in church anymore. I have encountered a similar shrine in the United States once: a replica of the Lourdes grotto in Lowell, Mass., made famous by Jack Kerouac’s description of it as a medieval horror. But Kerouac’s own parents were from Quebec, and the Catholics who built the shrine were Québécois, French-Canadian in language and culture.

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On display inside the oratory was the heart of St. André Bessette, C.S.C., the miracle healer of Montreal and the inspiration for the basilica (he credited St. Joseph for the thousands of miracles attributed to him)—but not in an alabaster jar, or in a discreet urn atop a distant altar. No. His heart, preserved in formalin, was floating right there in front of us in a glass reliquary, looking for all the world as if it had a beat or two still left in it. This was a Catholicism from another age, I thought, one more fervent, devotional and sacramental than our own.

But André Bessette died in 1937. And the Oratory of Saint Joseph was finished in 1966, hardly another age at all; I’d bet it’s newer than your parish church.

What happened?

Once grouped with the Irish and the Polish as a signally devout Catholic population, the citizens of Quebec are now quite the opposite. Weekly church attendance, supposedly an astounding 90 percent in 1960, was pegged in a recent article in The Economist at 2 to 4 percent, the lowest of any Western country. And it is worth noting that on our visit to St. Joseph, the steps for pilgrims to climb on their knees were empty, and the only person venerating St. André’s heart was a Haitian woman praying aloud in Creole. And Montreal’s astonishing Notre-Dame Basilica charges visitors an entry fee, a tacit confession that it is more a museum than a place of worship.

It’s easy to blame the Second Vatican Council, which some do. It’s also easy to blame baby boomers for ruining everything, which they did. But the facts in Quebec hint at something else. A study in 2009 claimed that only 9 percent of high schoolers in the province identified as Catholic, suggesting that guitar masses and boomer narcissism are not the only obstacles to renewal.

The most alarming explanation is the one that many Québécois will tell you themselves. Frankly, they were tired of the church: sick of it running every aspect of their lives and weary of the collusion with politicians that allowed the church to remain forever unaccountable. When the time came, during the turbulent days of the 1960s (remember that for Quebec, the cultural touchstone may have been less Woodstock or Vietnam than the Paris riots of 1968, which André Malraux, the French minister of cultural affairs, associated with the “death of God”) to renew their allegiance to a suddenly unsure institution or walk away, they gave a Gallic shrug and left. The same seems to be happening in Ireland today, where sexual abuse is the last straw for another population weary of the all-encompassing reach of the church.

Will it happen here? Is it happening here? Ironically, the church’s weakness in the United States may prove its strength. Prevented by the culture and the state from exerting too much control, it probably has never achieved enough power to inspire that kind of backlash. And, thanks to Pope Francis (may he live forever), the American episcopacy is undergoing a renewal that includes bishops who seem to understand the wounds left by the scandals of sexual abuse and corruption.

Even so, Quebec’s religious history should still provide a powerful memento mori to the American church. There is a point when the people in the pews turn their gaze from the altar to the exit.

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Robert Harrison
1 year 9 months ago
An interesting article, and so true. The sex scandal in the Church is still on the front burner. The complete lack on the part of the hierarchy to address it directly is still on the minds of most Catholics. In the minds of the laity the hierarchy is elitist, sly, unfelling and not to be trusted. The young people feel this. As regards to the medieval practice of exposing the organs, heads, hands, or wax covered corpses of saints doesn't set well with today's laity. It is a macabre practice that no longer appeals to most Catholics.
KATHY MARTIN
1 year 9 months ago
As a Canadian I am disturbed that in this article Mr. Keene implies that Quebec is a country. It is not, and to imply that it is one, is not a minor error in light of a sometimes violent history of separatism in Quebec. If the Economist's 2-4% church attendance figure is for all of Canada, Mr. Keane should make that clear. If it is only for Quebec, then he should reword "the lowest of any Western country" to read "lower than any Western country."
Robert O'Connell
1 year 9 months ago
Wow!! Thank you: we really need to be more precise in what we say or see as truth. I hope Mr. Keane will clarify what he intended to tell us.
Lisa Weber
1 year 9 months ago
Interesting that the baby boomers are blamed for ruining everything. The baby boomers blamed old people for "the Establishment" and now the baby boomers are being blamed. What goes around, comes around, but I would say that I am puzzled by the idea that I have spent decades getting stupider.
Nicholas Clifford
1 year 8 months ago
This article is simply common sense. Quebec's "quiet revolution" of the 1960s and its aftermath can't be blamed on other people (like baby boomers, Vatican II, etc.) Nor for that matter can it be blamed on the sex scandal, since by and large it came before the terrible extent of that was popularly known. It is high time (well past high time, in fact) for Church leaders to make a genuine examination of conscience and ask themselves how far they are responsible through their actions and attitudes for the loss of so many members in so many countries. Some years back, if you went to a Montreal Expos baseball game, you rode the splendid new subway to a station named Pie IX. Perhaps the legacy of Pius IX, particularly his views of Church and State, lived on a bit too long in Quebec and other parts of the world. The question now is how to repair the damage that he and others like him did, and not only in La Belle Province. Try nearby Boston, for instance.
Joe Mcmahon
1 year 8 months ago
My experiences as an outsider are superficial, but here goes. A teenager traveling on a family rail trip in the summer of 1953, we left cold, too clean, Protestant Toronto for Montreal. I was delighted to see teaching Brothers wearing habits, mantles, and tricornes in the city streets, as I felt I was in friendly country. At the Brothers' bookstore, we were invited to an Investiture at Laval-des-Rapides. There, in a festive throng and communicating in school French, it was difficult to find a Brother who spoke English. Found, he explained that English simply was not taught in the French Catholic schools! And this was in a bi-lingual city! --- In the late 1960's, Quebec teaching Brothers studied in New York for advanced degrees as the provincial salaries were climbing, and laymen were vying for the school jobs held by the religious. I heard of the book, "Les insolences d'un Frere Untel," and read it, thinking that it would be predictive of changes in the U.S. schools. The author complained of the iron grip of the insulating leadership of Archbishop Roy, "Notre pere que reside au Quebec." In education, the author complained of weak, limited "our tribe only" education. The U.S. Catholic environment is different, but there are similarities, and Mr. Keane's observations repeat the warning.
Anne Chapman
1 year 8 months ago
It’s also easy to blame baby boomers for ruining everything, which they didIt seems to have become SOP for some of the Gen X and Gen Y crowd to take gratuituous swipes at the boomers. I'm not sure what is at the bottom of this resentment - maybe just old fashioned jealousy. They missed a lot - the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, maybe the enjoyment of being young - some among these generations are so grim, so focused on careers, mostly in soul-less professions. Perhaps the the younger generations can be forgiven for their unthinking resentment of their elders, because they were not around when the boomers were changing America - for the better. They grew up taking it for granted. The WWII generation fought a godless, despicable tyrant in Europe and won. ALL of us owe them an incalulable debt of gratitude. But we boomers, their children, also fought oppression - at home - and still are although the major battles are behind us now, and taken for granted by the younger generations. The "flower children" and "hippies" of the 60s stopped a war through unrelenting protests..Boomers in the US and Europe may have stopped another world war by forging economic and other alliances, especially via the EU, ushering in the longest period of peace in western European history. Let us pray that the younger generations don't undo all the good that was done there after the war. Younger generations in America don't remember when African Americans did not have civil rights - when black citizens could not even eat at certain lunch counters, or use the same water fountains as whites, or when school girls were blown up in churches, when the police tried to stop blacks from going to "white" colleges and schools. Housing and job discrimination was widespread and taken for granted. It was boomers who rallied around Martin Luther King to work for civil rights for African Americans. There is a movie out now, called Loving - it is the story of the fight an interracial couple had to fight to stay out of prison for the crime of getting married. One of my white children is in an interracial marriage - a marriage that would have been illegal without the fight for civil rights waged by the boomer generaiton. The younger generations also never saw newspaper help wanted ads that were not only classified by race, but by gender - jobs for whites, jobs for blacks, jobs for men, jobs for women. Guess who had the pick of jobs? The women of Gen X, Gen Y and later were never told at a job interview, as I was, that "married women should not apply for these jobs. They are taking them away from men". The women of younger generations are not asked at employment interviews the date their last menstrual period started - why was this asked? Because they wouldn't hire anyone who was pregnant. And a woman who got pregnant could be fired. Until the late 60s or so, women were forced to stay in abusive marriages - first because the law required proof of abuse or infideilty for a divorce to be granted (emotional abuse wasn't even on the radar). Secondly, because few women qualified for decent enough jobs to be able to support themselves and any children they might have - most were economically dependent on their husbands, and few employers were willing to hire divorced women with children anyway. No fault divorce caused a temporary spike in divorces - because of the unfulfilled demand by millions of women. It spiked, then settled down. Women had gained greater access to college in unprecedented numbers, as well as to other vocations that paid a decent wage. They were no longer forced to stay in marriages where they were miserable. Younger adults also grew up in an America that is often cleaner than it was when we older adults grew up. I often visit my hometown, Los Angeles, and reflect on the fact that even though there are about 3 or 4 times as many people living there than during my childhood, the air is usually cleaner, with far fewer severe smog days. When I moved east after college for grad school, the water in the Potomac River was so filthy that people were warned not to fish in it, or eat fish caught in it. Being in the water for a short time could bring on illness. Now I see people fishing in the river regularly, and an unexpected swim while boating no longer requires a visit to the doctor and some shots. Technology advanced at an unprecedented pace - bringing safer cars, more fuel efficient cars, less polluting cars. Other safety hazards were addressed, and many workers gained protection from on the job injuries that had never existed. Then, of course, there was the advance of computing, the introduction of the internet. I could go on, but think I have made my point. Is my generation without flaw? Of course not, no generation is "perfect". Unfortunately the boomer who was just elected to the presidency could undo a lot of the good done by the rest of his generation. Who will fight? The boomers are already organizing to resist a roll-back of hard fought for rights. Will the younger adults do so also. It would be better for the generations who followed the boomers to worry more about fighting the reversals of the gains made, ironically by a member of the boomer generation, than to spend all their time blaming their elders for their problems. We fought to make this country better for our children, for all children of all races. Now it's time for Gen X, Gen Y and the Millenials to look forward, stop casting blame, and figure out how to make America better for their children as well - for ALL of America's children, regardless of race, cultural heritage, or religion. Blaming others for all of America's problems gets you nowhere. The boomers tackled some huge problems and injustices in our country. Now it's getting close to the time to pass the torch to the next generations. Will you be up for it? http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/17/AR2006021702491.html https://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/27_amazing_things_baby_boomers_have_done_for_humanity/11044

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