Brother André’s canonization has Quebec talking about the faith

  • October 4, 2010
St. Joseph’s OratoryBrother André will be canonized in the province that has the lowest church attendance of any place in North America. While 85 per cent of Quebeckers identify themselves as Roman Catholic, only 20 per cent attend church once a month, according to a 2007 study by sociologist Reginald Bibby.

Quebec society is distinct in its relationship with the Church, and the difference has a lot to do with Quebec’s unique history.

The society that turned its back on an authoritarian Church during the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s might now be ready to rediscover a different side of its Catholic roots, said Fr. Claude Grou, director of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal.

“Now people are talking more about Brother André because of the canonization. There is a fascination with the person of Brother André,” Grou said. “Maybe because we have now taken a distance from the Quiet Revolution. If this had happened in 1970, I think maybe the reaction against everything that had been the Church in the past would have been stronger. But now we have started to sort out some of the things that were part of our heritage and our tradition.”

It helps that Brother André was never a powerful churchman, said the Holy Cross Father.

“He was a simple man, like everybody else. He was a better person than somebody who would be linked to a lot of ecclesiastical power,” Grou said.

Pilgrims who book bus tours to the Oratory aren’t going there to recapture a golden era of the powerful Church which tried for generations to keep Quebec as an agrarian society cut off from the English, Protestant and democratic sea surrounding it.

“The simplicity of his life was something special,” said Anne Godbout, director of Spiritours. “He was a loving person, there to help others, caring and very down to earth.”

Though the Oratory itself may be a grand, impressive monument, people come to the Oratory to encounter a humble man, born into poverty, who had to struggle for literacy and struggle for acceptance. Older Quebeckers recognize Brother André’s  experience as part of the origins of Quebec society.

“People who come from that era have been through very rough and difficult times, and they might relate to that,” said Godbout. “My grandparents on my mother’s side, they had to go to the United States.”

A younger generation of Quebeckers has a more open attitude to Brother André than those whose political consciousness and cultural attitudes were formed by the Quiet Revolution, said Grou.

“Starting with people in the media — outside the Catholic media — many of the younger people I talk to are a little more sensitive,” said Grou. “They have not known the revolution of 1960, the Quiet Revolution. Their parents have known that. They have a fascination with some of the things that have been pushed aside in the past. They show a new interest.”

Just because they’re interested in Brother André or willing to think about the spiritual component of their identity, it doesn’t necessarily mean young Quebeckers are all going to start showing up for Sunday morning Mass, said Grou.

“Will they make the link between their search for meaning and the Church structures?” asked Grou. He doubts it.

Open all day, every day, the Oratory presents itself to the unchurched, the immigrants and the poor with no strings attached. The big domed church that once stood as an emblem of Quebecois identity in Montreal now stands as an open invitation from the Church.

“We welcome people and we start walking with them wherever they start walking,” Grou said. “We can start walking from a place where they are very angry with the Church or where they are completely ignorant of what the Church is. It can be walking with somebody who is a Sikh or a Hindu or a Muslim who finds fascination with a saint like Brother André or St. Joseph.”

The new Montreal of poor immigrants struggling to establish themselves in Canada most closely identifies with Brother André’s own early struggles to find work and a place in society, said Grou.

“In Montreal we have thousands and thousands of young people who have come to Montreal and try to find a living. Brother André had somewhat this experience when he was a young man, and he relates to this experience.”

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