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 rises to the sky, has been an imposing presence here in the provincial capital.

It was a meeting point for the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, an organization dedicated 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 reflect that of Sainte-Trinité Church in Paris, was classified as a heritage building for its architectural and artistic value.

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

Saint-Jean-Baptiste’s plight parallels the declining role of the church in Canada’s most Catholic province, where for centuries it dominated public and private life—and where bell towers and spiers still rise above small towns and urban centers—but which is now running away from faith at a hasty pace.

Pope Francis arrived in Quebec on Wednesday for the second leg of his “penitential pilgrimage,” where he came under fire, again, for what critics say was his insufficient 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 language mother and practice their cultural traditions, and in many cases they were physically and sexually abused. Most of the schools were run by Catholic entities.

Francis on Monday apologized for the “evil committed by so many Christians” in the system, but not for the complicity of the Church as an institution.

The 85-year-old pontiff celebrated mass on Thursday at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica, a popular pilgrimage site outside Quebec City. Before it began, two people approached the pulpit and unfurled a banner asking Francis to rescind the 15th-century papal bulls enshrining the Doctrine of Discovery, which were used as justification for colonizing and converting indigenous peoples to the new world

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The Quebec that Francis found has changed dramatically since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984. 16-year-old Céline Dion serenaded John Paul in a packed Olympic stadium in Montreal and celebrated Mass with some 350,000 people in what was then the largest religious gathering big canada

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

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

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

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

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

“We have been entering, for the last 10 years or so, a strong phase of decline of a certain Catholicism in Quebec,” said University of Ottawa sociologist E.-Martin Meunier, co-author of the report. “If there is a collapse of Catholicism, it refers first and foremost to institutional Catholicism.”

Residential centers banned native languages. The Cree want theirs back.

Quebec has had a long and complex relationship the faith

For centuries, the Church held sway over public institutions in Quebec, including health care, education and social services, before the province began to disengage in favor of a more secular approach: l ‘so-called quiet revolution of the sixties.

The change away from Catholicism has accelerated in recent decades.

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

In Sherbrooke, 100 miles east of Montreal, the former Sainte-Thérèse church is now the restaurant OMG, a “festive place” where cocktails are covered in cotton candy and “Even the wisest will be tempted to listen to the demon that sleeps within them.”

(The O in OMG has devil horns. So do some hamburgers.)

In Montreal, where Mark Twain once observed that “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 calls himself “The Suicide Jesus”, beat Brian Pillman to become the first champion of World Apex Championship Wrestling. .

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

The first church in that place was inaugurated 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 delivered the final homily in 2015 praised it as “a stone church, built with genius, with greatness, with pride, which allows everyone, without distinction, to rub shoulders with the beauty, the silence , the elevation, the contemplation”.

The church is owned by the archdiocese, said David O’Brien, a spokesman for the local government. He said the city is looking at how it could be reused.

Eva Dubuc-April waited Thursday in the basilica of Santa Anna-de-Beaupré for Francis to celebrate mass.

Dubuc-April, 31, said she had her children baptized and attends mass periodically But she strongly believes the church needs to modernize by reconsidering its teachings on sexuality and the male-only priesthood.

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

“In Quebec, people who practice Catholicism do not agree with these ancient teachings,” he said. “If they don’t move forward, there will be no one left.”

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

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