My Canada, 35/150: In the cradle of Catholicism

The white dress and veil for First Communion. Two strokes of black ash drawn as a cross on your forehead on Ash Wednesday. Fish patties or tuna casserole on Fridays. Mommy praying to St. Anthony when she couldn’t find her car keys.

Being raised Roman Catholic means you have experiences, images, and a healthy exposure to guilt in common with others raised in this tribe. Most of the Western world has its calendar framed by Christian holidays celebrating the birth of Jesus (Christmas fixed at Dec. 25) and his death and resurrection  (Easter, held the first Sunday after the first full moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox. Got that?)

Catholics also devote quite some attention to Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas), Epiphany (the coming of the Kings to visit Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the stable) and Lent – the nearly six-week period leading up to Easter that is meant to be a time of penance, sacrifice, and reflection. For a kid, that often meant giving up candy and donating to charity whatever bit of money you might have spent on treats during those weeks.

And then there are the saints. Canada, with only 400 years of Catholicism, has a healthy handful of people officially recognized as saints, elevated to such recognition through a process called canonization. These include eight Jesuit missionaries collectively known as the Canadian Martyrs, whose story is honoured at Martyrs’ Shrine near Midland, Ontario as well as three Quebec women who founded three orders of nuns that built education and health care: the Ursuline Sisters, the Grey Nuns, and Congrégation de Notre-Dame.  Kateri Tekakwitha, a 17th-century aboriginal woman, is one of Canada’s newest saints, being brought into that fold in 2012 to recognize her miraculous healing powers.

The province of Québec, with its French population, has been predominantly Catholic since European settlement and the dominant role of the church in public life was challenged in the 1960s by what was dubbed “The Quiet Revolution”.

In recent days, I’ve read fascinating analysis making the argument that while the overt influence of the Catholic church has waned in Quebec, its presence is woven into the visual fabric of society. Debates over whether overt signs of religious affiliation – Muslim women wearing hijab, as an example – should be banned must be understood as prejudiced against non-Christian religions because there is no way on earth Quebec cities and towns would be scrubbed clean of all Catholic crosses, saint statues, and steeples. Those visual markers, whether or not they inspire religious faith any longer, are historical.

Ten of Canada’s 23 prime ministers have been Catholic, starting in 1892 with John Thompson through to the country’s current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It’s an affiliation that goes largely unremarked, unlike in the U.S. when John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 as president caused much consternation that somehow he was going to be a puppet for the papacy. Other than the fictional Jed Bartlet from the TV Series West Wing, Kennedy is the only Catholic leader the Oval Office has ever known.

Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination in the country, with Statistics Canada reporting in 2011 that 38 per cent of Canadians, 12.7 million, have been baptized in the Catholic church. Thirty years earlier, nearly half of Canadians identified as Catholic.

The decline in the number of Catholics is likely to continue, driven by the facts that more-recent immigrants are coming increasingly from non-Christian religious traditions and that fewer people born Catholic remain with the church, or may have given up religious belief entirely. In 2013 the U.S.-based Pew Research Center published a report on Canada’s changing religious landscape, based on analysis of Statistics Canada data, that goes into absorbing detail about these trends.

I was very active in the church for many years; even after I was increasingly troubled about the church’s doctrine around women, equality, reproductive rights and the acceptance of differing sexualities, I thought I’d fight for reform from within. At a certain point, the conflict between what I believe to be just and the church’s rules became too much.

But when you are a cradle Catholic, some things are bred in the bone. I can still recite all the Catholic mass parts by heart, laugh every time I hear Tom Lehrer’s satirical Vatican Rag, and mutter, “C’mon, St. Anthony!” when I can’t find my keys.

Photo: Mary or Ted Teahen

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