I’ve had the privilege of visiting Montreal a few times this past year. I felt quite blessed to work at an office in Old Montreal located right next to the Basilica of Notre Dame, a gothic masterpiece. Montreal is an amazing place for tourists full of wondrous signs of vibrant Catholic life – many great churches – the Vatican designated four churches in Montreal alone as basilicas, including its Cathedral. The streets are all named after great saints, blesseds and other popular objects of piety. Signs of the faith are visible throughout the fabric of the city.
Unfortunately these signs reflect a time of a bygone past. Montreal appears to be experiencing a dark night of the soul with a faith that appears more fossilized than living. The many churches continue to operate but half as a museum, charging admission to all who seek beauty behind the heavy doors. Inviting strangers inside a church is what should be free-access evangelization but here it comes at a price. Presenting a church as an exhibition makes the faith look like a primitive relic of the past with which the mostly secular guests have very little interest in nourishing their souls. Montreal’s oldest chapel was my latest discovery – it is a 17th century church dedicated to Our Lady of Good Counsel with a huge statue of Mary overlooking the sea, arms raised to calm the waters. Model ships hang from the ceilings above the nave, a gift from sailors to Our Lady for surviving rough weather. Buried underneath the St. Joseph chapel is Ste. Marguerite-Bourgeoys, a popular Quebecois saint. Adjoining the church is a museum – if you actually want to learn about this Saint you need to pay up.
The Basilica of Notre-Dame charges admission if you want to pray outside of appointed mass times. Organ concerts and a daily evening film and light show featuring poorly produced video to pack the pews is a sad necessity to keep the building in good repair when attendance is in decline. Sunday mass is comprised mostly of tourists – the great Catholic Quebec society is barely a shadow of its former glory. Brother Andre must be weeping from above as his Holy Cross brethren at the St. Joseph Oratory have dispensed with their clericals and prefer to wear a suit and tie when hearing confessions in the crypt church.
The soul of Quebec is indeed in crisis. Perhaps it got too powerful and God has willed its fall from grace to make penance, who is to say. The province is experiencing its lowest birthrate only illustrating that when the source of life for society is stifled, life itself fails to bear much fruit. From this we can hope of course knowing that at the end of the day, God has the final word.
The few young Catholic Quebecois are enthusiastic and renewal can be seen at any youth rally. Montreal itself is in line for a new bishop who could breathe new life in the same way that newly appointed bishops have found new ways to rejuvenate the faithful across the country. Quebec needs prayers from across the country and across the Church. Its bishops, priests and lay ministers need the encouragement of the faithful to be men of strong faith and integrity. Like the huge statue of Mary guiding sailors safely back to shore at the Montreal Port, may the signs of faith, a symbol of the historical Catholic roots of Quebec, stir the hearts who have turned their backs on the church of their childhood and make them feel invited back home. May Quebec once again be the source of much grace and continue the long legacy of of French Canadian saints.
Sainte Marie, Notre-Dame de Montreal, priez pour nous!