A Church on the Ebb
PART I: The Current Crisis
I have, in my life, had the privilege of travelling much. I have been from coast to coast in Canada, from the sub-Arctic to the tropics, and from Ireland to Ukraine. Over the course of those travels, meanwhile, I have visited many of the world’s great cities, from Mexico City to New York to Toronto, from Dublin to Paris to Rome and Berlin. Yet for all I have enjoyed these wonderful places and basked in the wealth of other people’s cultures, one place I have continually returned to is my former home of Montréal. I didn’t grow up there of course—Winnipeg, in the very centre of Canada, was the setting for my happy childhood—but I moved to Montréal after marriage, and came to identify it as the place where I grew into adulthood.
One of the reasons for this is the incredibly rich historical, cultural, and religious texture of the city, informed as it is by so many people from all over the world, beginning with the French. Jacques Cartier, who claimed the land that would become Montréal pour Dieu et le roi de France, inexorably linked the development of la Nouvelle France, and Montréal in particular, to the most venerable project of the Church: the pursuit of God in community, devoid of the religious ‘baggage’ Europe had become burdened with in the form of her religious wars and conflicts.
Of course, this project could not be sustained, and in spite of the development of Catholic nationalism such as that espoused by Père Lionel Groulx, by the 1960s the subscription of the Québecois to their ancestral Church had effectively imploded.
The reality in Québec since is that the people are no longer favourably disposed toward the Church, although I would argue that a strong memory remains. As wonderfully multicultural as Montréal is, for example, there are few places on the planet where such Catholic, Christian roots are so clearly manifest: from the splendid churches that dominate the landscape, to the bells that continue to toll on Sunday mornings, to the mighty cruciform Place Ville Marie, to the fact that the cross on Mont Royal, lit up at night, still dominates the skyline however much the foreground might play host to manifold skyscrapers. In fact, this sense of residual faith is everywhere, and invigorating to those with the sympathies to perceive it. Indeed, in a post-Christian society, it is somewhat satisfying to know that the people can leave the Church but that the Church does not leave the people.
Except when it does.
I have just returned home from Montréal, having gone there for a brief stay after delivering a series of lectures in London, Ontario. In three days of exploring the city’s vibrant streets, saturated as they are with reminders of the Christian past, I did not see a single human testament to the Christian present. Not one. In a city, among a people that would have once known the presence of the Church in all areas of life—not least of which would have been on the streets in the form of habited religious and priests in soutanes—there was no one to testify to the Church’s continued relevance and its presence in people’s lives. I left utterly impressed, as always, with the very essence of Montréal—its stunning aesthetic, and its vibrant cultural life—but utterly disheartened by the apparent lack of dynamism on the part of the Church there. There are exceptions, of course, not least on the part of some Orthodox parishes, and the rather wonderful Roman Catholic Communauté de Jérusalem; but otherwise what I witnessed was a testament to the Church in retreat.
Having said all that, I am not interested in any illusory ‘golden age’ for religion in the Western world, nor do I think there is some model or formula by which to chart a resurgence for the Church in Québec; I am no sort of advocate for a Québecois theocracy. What I do think, however, is that there are ways to share the Good News in cities like Montréal, and fleeing from the streets is not one of them.
By contrast, my experience in Ukraine is of a dynamic and engaged Church. When I have been to L’viv, for example (and I am well aware that L’viv is not the whole of Ukraine!), I have been overwhelmed with a sense that the Church is alive and active among the people, whether by means of the Ukrainian Catholic University and its impressive array of courses, the open church doors across the city, the presence of clergy and religious on the streets, or the heightened sense of awareness people share due to the fact that their history means they do not take opportunities for granted. And of course, who could ever forget the clergy and people—those heroes—who gave everything so selflessly during Euromaidan?
I am sure that there are other places across the globe where the Church is as vigorous, but it would seem prudent for the Church in the Western world—Catholic or Orthodox—to reflect on the nature of its principal vocation, the degree to which it is living up to that vocation, and what it can do to improve.
PART II: The Remedy
In the wake of everything I have just said, Pope Francis’ recent expression of disappointment with certain young Catholics for having returned to more traditional liturgy cannot be allowed to pass without comment. In the report on the episode, the Pope is described as incredulous that young people not raised on the Extraordinary Form of the Mass should prefer it, before accusing them of being ‘rigid’. This, from a bishop whose generation has presided over the single greatest mass alienation of youth (and people in general) from the Church in history. While I agree with the Pope’s comments regarding the danger of rigidity in pastoral practice, and appreciate his aversion to the categorical moral and ‘theological’ declarations of self-styled apologists and radical conservatives, the language he uses reflects a failure to understand the very Tradition he represents.
And I most strongly assert that there is a direct correlation between such a failure to understand the Church’s Tradition, and the Montréal streets devoid of a living Catholic presence.
In preparation for a talk on Christian conceptions of the afterlife, I have been listening to a number of lectures by the New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, wherein he states that heaven does not matter nearly so much to Christians as they might think, for Christians are actually meant to look forward to a new creation. Wright contends that a consequence of this is that we must care about the here and now, for the Kingdom of God is not some future and ethereal state, but a material reality having been made over in the image of the Resurrection. This being the case, he says, it is an absolute necessity that Christians work to manifest the Kingdom in our present estate, lest we fail to care for the very canvas on which we can look forward to the new creation.
If Wright is correct—and I think he is—then the Church simply has no right to withdraw from the streets of the world, nor to abandon its liturgical patrimony. It is not good enough to think or say that ‘the people don’t come to Mass anymore’, or to despair that our liturgical language is no longer a dialect recognised by the world. People are starving for the Church’s ministry, and her language is music to the ears.
As I suggested above, before heading to Montréal, I had the privilege of delivering a series of lectures: above all, the Annual George Goth Lectures at Metropolitan United Church in London—the largest mainstream Protestant church in Canada. As the community there played host to me, I was exposed to one of the most remarkable communities of Christians I have ever encountered. For the United Church of Canada is a body often derided for being so liberal as to be post-Christian, yet Metropolitan in London—as big as it is—must represent one of the most caring, active, engaged groups of believers to be found anywhere. Its senior minister, the Rev. Dr Jeffrey Crittenden, with whom I studied many years ago at McGill, is nothing if not an astoundingly rigorous preacher and genuinely caring pastor. The people that work with him in bearing the Gospel to their neighbours, meanwhile, are generous, warm, and willing. Not only did I have the chance to speak with them; I also got to serve food with them to those in need on a Friday evening, and see up close how much they care about the Gospel.
Like the situation I have found in Ukraine each time I have visited, what I take from Metropolitan United Church is both a reminder and an inspiration that there is much to be done, a desire to receive it, and people still working away to do it.
Alas, I wish I could say that the situation in Montréal was anomalous, and that what is happening in London, Ontario is just one example among many of a dynamic ministry, but I fear it is not. I am in no doubt whatsoever that there are many churches, and many individuals representing many different Christian traditions that are getting on with the Gospel imperative in their various locales, but it seems to me that we could all stand to be much bolder.
As a priest in a Church with ancient rituals and language, situated in a young and dynamic city built on an ancient foundation, I am in the fortunate position of having the chance to figure out just how best to put my money where my mouth is. To this end, I will happily draw on the well of experience embodied by the community of Metropolitan United. I will also take inspiration from the devotion and action of my brother priests and the people of the Church in Ukraine. But then I know I must turn it into something, and make sure that when someone comes searching they may find what they are looking for, and when someone is lost they may be found. And if I have learnt anything over the last few weeks, it is that a Church in retreat can do none of these things.