As a Catholic Christian, I never fail to be stunned and saddened by the decline of the faith in French Canada. Every village boasts a magnificent, barely-attended cathedral, testifying to its former central role. A chat with my 76 year old father-in-law last night, shed some light on why. Simply put, a deep cynicism has taken root, caused by certain contrasts I never experienced as a Catholic boy in English Canada.
Raymond has expressive eyes and is quick to laugh. His French is distinctly Acadian, his words blurred and authentic. He is a man at peace with himself, a man who has disavowed religion as unnecessary. He is a loving, giving man whose sharp mind tells a story with wit and passion.
As a child growing up in northeastern New Brunswick, Raymond recalls his Catholic upbringing. The time is the 1940s. Mom is a strong believer but surprisingly not distressed if she misses mass on occasion. He recalls going by horse and buggy to midnight mass at Christmas, the horses’ hooves clip-clopping along the frozen waters of the Waugh and Pokemouche rivers. His face lights up as he vividly describes the jingling horse bells and the whole community arriving to celebrate together under a starry night. “We crawled under what we called ‘buffalo blankets’ to keep warm in the buggy!” He is the second of eight children, an average-sized French Catholic Acadian family.
People were poor with a strong sense of community rooted in nearly 300 years of life in “L’Acadie,” also known as ‘Cajun’ in the former French colony of Louisiana in the southern USA. Their presence there was accelerated by the Great Deportation of 1755 by les Anglais. France and Britain were rapidly approaching war in Europe. England controlled the Maritime region and the American colonies while France controlled Quebec and the entire Mississippi valley, west of what is now Pittsburgh.
England wanted re-assurance that the Acadians would be loyal to the Crown by swearing allegiance. The Acadians made a conditional oath in 1730, one that guaranteed their Catholic freedom and neutrality in times of war. They simply wanted to live in peace, not unlike the Mennonites in later times. In 1751, France demanded allegiance to Louis XV. In 1755, England demanded the same to George II. Neutrality was not an option. When the Acadians refused, England deported them all, immediately following a battle victory at Fort Beausejour. 10,000 Acadians were abruptly uprooted and sent to the American colonies, England and France.
Surprisingly, these hardy people had grown deep roots and enough returned after the war that Acadia came back to life. Their Catholic faith was a major factor in what was now a protestant English colony. Today, about half a million Acadians live in vibrant French language communities all over Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
With them, came their devout Catholic practices. Raymond’s family said the Rosary every night after supper, the children kneeling with their backs straight and not allowed to lean on anything. If you leaned on something, you were sent to the corner where there was nothing to lean on. If you visited another family after supper and they were saying the Rosary, the visitors quietly and quickly joined in with them. One father, he recalled, spent an hour each night praying to the saints. “St. Simon, pray for us. Ste Anne, pray for us. St. Jean, pray for us.” Strict adherence to rituals not well understood, later became a major cause of cynicism for the faith.
Another cause of cynicism was the hypocritical failings of priests and even nuns. Raymond learned at a young age that if you had a mortal sin and died, you would burn in the fires of hell. To have spoken a swear word such as ‘tabernacle” would constitute eternal damnation. Pre-marital sex was equally condemned. As an adult, this held no credibility for him. Indeed, it became a burden of stereotypical Catholic guilt that he was eager to shed, resentful of feeling frightened as a child by the terrifying image of being consumed by flames.
In contrast to these demanding standards of proper behaviour stood the secret stories of what happened behind closed doors. Raymond’s mother worked as a housekeeper for seven years in the manse where three priests lived along with others from time to time. Common residents included single teachers at the local school, usually young women. She spotted a priest and teacher being quite affectionate. Later, she could tell by the sheets what happened next and on a regular basis. With the later revelations of gay priests committing acts of pedophilia with young boys, Raymond lost all faith in the church.
For me, he has dumped out the baby with the bath water, seemingly unaware of Jesus himself. Instead, the stark betrayal of a faith so idyllic in youth has shut his mind and hardened his heart. He tells of an 83 year old priest he knows who says he doesn’t believe there are gay people. They don’t exist for him. This same priest shuts off the television when stories of pedophilia surface. This priest spent his life in service to young people, coaching baseball and hockey along with building community play facilities. His pain must be unbearable.
Another priest he knows of cheated on his car repair in order to pocket an extra $1000 for himself. This same man has three freezers crammed with frozen food, like a hoarder. His parish attendance has fallen in half, caused in part by his boring delivery of written homilies. A third priest is obviously gay and has acquired many boy-toys such as cars and ATV four wheelers, apparently received as ‘gifts.’ Two priests he knows have fathered children.
As Shakespeare said so aptly, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” I see two sweeping problems plus a deeper issue. One is leadership and the lack of accountability. Most bishops have over 100 priests who report to them over a wide geographic area. This is a span of authority that would be intolerable in a secular institution. Second is the problem of celibacy. Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that this issue is open to discussion. Few men or women are capable of celibacy. I believe priests should be allowed to marry (and some are already, in rare circumstances.)
The deeper issue for the Catholic church in general is the shocking absence of teaching core Christianity. I believe that Catholicism is advanced Christianity. The mass is designed for people who already “get it.” If you don’t get it, you won’t learn it by attending mass. I think of it like a top golfer or talented writer. Everyone at the top of their game knows that it’s the little things that make the difference. An amateur golfer could care less about checking the grain of the green before a putt. An average writer makes no effort to expand her vocabulary or study the art. These are little things that lift a person from good to great.
Catholic rituals are the little things that primarily promote humility and piety. When taught by rote, they mean nothing and are offensive to the ego. Certainly, I felt the same sense of cynicism about Christianity as a teen, caused by boring homilies and a mass service to which I could not relate. It was beyond me. If Catholicism is going to thrive, paradoxically, it will need converts from other denominations where teaching is typically more central to their calling.
Can the Catholic church, once the beacon of evangelism around the world, rebuild trust with people like Raymond’s descendants in French Canada? Perhaps. It was the Order of Jesus, known as the Jesuits who led much Catholic-based Christian teaching since the 1600s and the time of Ignatius of Loyola. Today, a Jesuit is the pope for the first time ever. Perhaps God has a plan. If so, it will unfold over decades and not months.
I pray and I trust that God’s desire to reconcile the whole world to him, as he promised through his son Jesus, will unfold according to his will and his timing. Amen.