Fifty years after – The Church today

By P.A. Sévigny on June 10, 2010

As one of the city’s more successful antique dealers, the late Conrad Martin used to tell stories about how he started out as a ‘picker’ when he used to go up into the Gaspé and the Lac St. Jean districts to buy up whatever he could find once the province’s Catholic Church began to close up its empty churches and assorted convent properties. 

“I used to make sure I had big rolls of cash,” said Martin. “I would go up to see the Abbess of the convent, put the money on her desk and make the deal right then and there before calling in the boys to load up the truck.”

Years later, when he was old and sick, Martin would still laugh when he recalled how the old nuns would begin to cry once they saw everything being packed away and hauled out of the chapel-not to mention the rest of the building where they had spent most of their life. Fifty years after Martin and other dealers made their fortune by selling off large pieces of Québec’s religious heritage, the bills are still coming in and Québec’s Catholic Church is still being forced to piece off whatever’s left of their property only to sell it to whomever has the desire and the ready cash to pay for it.

As a working priest in Lasalle’s Jean De Brébeuf parish, Father John Walsh might not approve of Martin’s business, but after a lifetime of reflection on the fate of his church, he can understand how and why church properties were being sold off while their relics were reduced to nothing more than iconic objets d’art in a dealer’s shop.

“Previous to the Quiet Revolution,” wrote Walsh, “…faith, language and culture were nothing less than inter-changeable parts of a existential triangle that defined French Canada’s place in the world.” Following Québec’s so-called Quiet Revolution, which was part of a global movement caused by the planet’s tectonic shift from its industrial age to the new post-modern era known as the ‘Information age’, the faith upon which rested Québec’s one, true, holy and apostolic church could not withstand the sustained assault of a secular world where any kind of religion was considered to be, at best, a ridiculous superstition. Women’s rights, birth control and South America’s so-called ‘Liberation’ theology were just some of the issues that continued to rock church authority while Québec’s provincial government immediately began to take over the province’s schools and its hospitals where the church was in daily contact with the population. Soon there were few, if any, applicants for the priesthood just as there were few women who were willing to take a nun’s sacred vow. Within years, only a small fraction of people still bothered to go to Sunday mass and the Agnus Dei was reduced to little more than a lonely echo bouncing off the walls of an empty church. Before long, Conrad Martin and other dealers began to show up with fists full of cash when more than a few rural congregations were faced with hard choices and a February heating bill. Fifty years later, many believe ‘Je me souviens, Québec’s ubiquitous slogan, has become nothing more and nothing less than a sad,  joke in a province where the reverence for a mythic past has often sabotaged its capacity to deal with the present and a sustainable future.

While Father Walsh admits the Catholic tradition could not keep up with the speed of a secular civilization defined by an electronic media which takes no prisoners, he also said the church quickly managed to adapt its redemptive message without altering its faith in a loving and merciful God. After spending his life working within an institution in which people often spend a lifetime in the quiet contemplation of eternity, Walsh said historians will not miss how the rise of Poland’s solidarity movement was just as significant an event as was the election of John Paul II, the Polish Pope. While the church still has its problems, Walsh is confident it will somehow work its way through such issues as the white-hot pedophilia scandals, women’s rights and abortion because, following the epic reforms of Vatican II, the entire company of the faithful cannot, and will not err in faith. As such, Walsh believes the entire body of the church which includes everybody from the pope, his bishops and all the faithful, share a universal instinct of the faith , a sensus fidei, which gives rise to a common agreement about faith and morals in a new and evolving church which is open to the world. While the church in Québec is still being forced to re-define itself within a two-fold context defined by the church previous to the Quiet Revolution as opposed to the one left standing after the Quiet Revolution, Walsh said this new church is ready for the challenges it must face in this new century. 

“There is great hope for the Church is she can adapt to the new circumstances in which she find herself; otherwise, the Roman Catholic Church may have to hit bottom before a new Catholic culture will begin to take shape and a new forging of Christian Catholic faith will be empowered to express itself in a new Catholic culture.  Faith without a culture ends up as nothing but piety and piety is what the majority of French-speaking Quebeckers no longer tolerate as the raison d’etre of the Church.”


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