Why Catholicism Remains Strong in Canada

EDMONTON, Alberta — The centerpiece of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada this week was his historical apology message Monday ​to ​Indigenous...


EDMONTON, Alberta — The centerpiece of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada this week was his historical apology message Monday ​to ​Indigenous people​ across the country for the role of the Catholic Church in the infamous Indian residential school system that attempted to erase their culture and in which thousands of children were abused and died.

But as Francis continued his travels across the country – from Alberta, where he apologized, to Quebec and Nunavut in the Arctic – his stops also told the story of the unusually stable position of the church in Canada.

Large numbers of immigrants from South Sudan, India, the Philippines, South Korea and elsewhere were in the crowd at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, just as they are in Catholic churches across the country, a product of Canada’s generous immigration policy. , which welcomes immigrants and formally promotes multiculturalism.

Although the Roman Catholic Church is in serious decline in many Western countries, it remains the largest predominantly Christian denomination in Canada, representing approximately 38% of people who identify with a particular religion. And outside of Quebec, a French-speaking province it once ruled, the Church’s decline has been modest. In 1951, 41% of Canadians said they were Catholic.

The reason for the Church’s stability, most analysts agree, is Canada’s relatively open immigration policy, which means that immigrants make up a much larger share of the Canadian population than in the United States. and in other Western countries where Catholicism is in decline.

A study by the Canadian census agency released late last year revealed that Catholicism is the largest religion among newcomers to the country. More importantly, the survey also determined that most of these immigrants are active members of the church.

“Immigrants now make up a large proportion of the most faithful attendees of Sunday Mass,” said Gordon Davies, a former priest in the Archdiocese of Toronto for 20 years who taught at the Toronto School of Theology and served as dean of the largest seminary in Canada, Saint Augustine. “The question is whether or not the second generation will continue to be as active in their faith.”

Mr. Davies and others say the support that immigrants have provided to the Catholic Church in much of Canada does not mean that the Church is not vulnerable to the declines that have diminished long-established Protestant churches. date in the country.

“There is generally a kind of disillusionment with churches,” said Dr. Michel Andraos, dean of the Faculty of Theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa.

But immigrants from Canada have strengthened the church and given it vitality, Davies said, something he witnessed firsthand at his own church in Toronto. Today, he estimates that around 40% of his colleagues are from the Philippines and many more are Sri Lankan Tamils.

“It’s like going to Manila every weekend,” he said. “It’s a cultural experience that’s actually very healthy for me.”

Dr. Andraos is himself a Catholic immigrant to Canada, his family having fled civil war in Lebanon in the 1990s.

For many immigrants, he said, churches are as much a settlement service and cultural community as a spiritual center. And once they settle in Canada, he says, they often drift away from the church.

“My whole family immigrated and all of them are very active devotees for the first 10 years or so,” Dr. Andraos said. “Now no one in my family goes to church.”

Regardless of what the future holds, Dr. Andraos said the arrival of Catholic immigrants has had a profound effect on the Church in the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, where Pope Francis arrived on Wednesday.

For much of its history, the Roman Catholic Church dominated not only the spiritual life of the province, but also education and health care, and wielded considerable influence in business and politics. But in what was called the Quiet Revolution, a Liberal government was formed in 1960 and began to take back those powers starting with schools. Secularism has become a guiding principle.

The effects of this continue today and include a recently passed law that prohibits the wearing of religious symbols, including Christian ones, by public sector employees, including teachers. Over the decades churches and ecclesiastical institutions closed and were converted to other uses.

Secularism has replaced Catholicism in Quebec more than in any other province, and Dr. Andraos said the Catholic Church is now almost extinct in rural parts of the province. Yet even in Quebec, there has been a resurgence of large, vibrant congregations in Montreal made up of immigrants, often from Africa.

When he meets parishioners in these churches, he says, he finds that there is sometimes a disconnect between them and the long-established members of the church in Canada.

This is especially true on the issue that brought Francis to Canada: reconciliation with Indigenous peoples for the wrongs they suffered in church-run residential schools. After largely failing to settle a class action lawsuit with former students, the church is now trying to raise 30 million Canadian dollars of its members.

“They have no idea why they should contribute to this,” Dr Andraos said, referring to recent Catholic immigrants. “What did they do?”

But he found that once students’ suffering is exposed, most of them understand the obligation.

Similarly, Davies said he found that members of many immigrant congregations were much more conservative than many Canadian-born church members.

“They have nothing to do with the agitations of the Canadian Catholic Church to accept same-sex marriage and bring women in,” he said. “It’s not part of their sense of Catholicism and they would be strongly against it.”

Immigration has also filled another need of the Church in Canada. Dr. Andraos said few, if any, Canadians are willing to become priests and that situation is unlikely to change unless priests are allowed to marry. None of the 110 theology students at his university currently intends to become a priest.

Thus, most priests in Canada now come from abroad. Father Susai Jesu, who welcomed the pope to his native parish in Edmonton this week, was born in India.

Vibrant immigrant congregations have so far allowed some archdioceses, including that of Toronto, not to close churches, though Davies said closures are needed to shore up financial and office resources, which are limited because many immigrants do not have the wealth to support the great Canadians of the churches.

The only place where the church currently has churches and other large-scale buildings is Newfoundland and Labrador. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy after a court ruled it had to compensate around 100 people who were sexually abused in an orphanage between the 1940s and 1960s.

The boost brought by immigrants, Mr Davies said, helped prevent the church from disappearing. But that won’t stop it, in the long run, from shrinking into a more durable version of itself.

“It may not be in my lifetime,” he said. “But I could see the beginnings of that restructuring and healthy regrowth in my lifetime.”

As the crowd exited Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Tuesday, a sea of ​​diverse faces appeared. Among the throng of people looking for buses or queuing for trains was Israel Izzo Odongi, who moved to Canada 23 years ago from South Sudan and made the journey from Calgary, Alberta, to see the Pope with other members of a South Sudanese congregation.

Nearby was Jesu Bala, who moved to Edmonton, Alberta from Chennai, India 13 years ago. Mr. Bala, who was with four family members, said they were part of a South Asian congregation.

Even when the pope visited Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, a place of pilgrimage founded in the 19th century for native Catholics that is about an hour north of Edmonton, a large number of immigrants were there.

Reina Donaire, 36, of Edmonton, stood by the lake, just yards from where Francis would bless the water minutes later, with four other friends from the Philippines.

“Most people who go to church are Filipino,” she said, adding that she and other immigrants, including from Africa, have provided a lift for the Canadian church. “We are strong Catholics and maybe in this way we help them.”

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting for Lac Ste. Anne, Alta.

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