Why Catholicism Remains Strong in Canada

EDMONTON, Alberta. The centerpiece of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada this week was his historical message or apology on Monday to the country’s indigenous peoples for the role of the Catholic Church in the infamous boarding school system that tried to erase their culture and in which thousands of children were abused and died.

But as Francis continued his journey across the country—from Alberta, where he issued an apology, to Quebec and Nunavut in the Arctic—his stops also highlighted the unusually stable position of the church in Canada.

A large number of immigrants from South Sudan, India, the Philippines, South Korea and other countries were visible in the crowd at the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta on Tuesday, as well as in the country’s Catholic churches, as a result of Canada’s generous immigration policy. , which embraces immigrants and formally promotes multiculturalism.

While the Roman Catholic Church is in serious decline in many Western countries, it remains the largest denomination in predominantly Christian Canada, accounting for about 38 percent of people identifying with a particular faith. And outside of Quebec, the French-speaking province it once dominated, the church’s decline has been modest. In 1951, 41 percent of Canadians said they were Catholic.

Most analysts agree that the reason for the church’s stability is Canada’s relatively open immigration policy, meaning that immigrants make up a much larger proportion of Canada’s population than in the United States and other Western countries where Catholicism is on the decline.

Census Canada survey published late last year found that Catholicism represented the largest faith among newcomers to the country. More importantly, the study also showed that most of these immigrants are active church members.

“Immigrants now make up the majority of Sunday Mass’ most faithful attendees,” said Gordon Davis, a former clergyman in the Archdiocese of Toronto for 20 years who taught at the Toronto Divinity School and was dean of Canada’s largest seminary. Saint Augustine. “The question is whether the second generation will remain as active in their faith.”

mr. Davis and others say the support that immigrants have given to the Catholic Church in much of Canada does not mean the church is not vulnerable to the decline that has led to the decline of the country’s long-standing Protestant churches.

“In general, there is some disappointment in the churches,” said Dr. Michel Andraos, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa.

But immigrants from Canada strengthened the church and gave it vitality. Davis said what he witnessed firsthand in his own church in Toronto. Today, he estimates that about 40 percent of his congregation is from the Philippines and a large number of others are Tamils ​​from Sri Lanka.

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

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

According to him, for many immigrants, churches are not only a spiritual center, but also a means of settlement and a cultural community. And once they’ve settled in Canada, he said, they often drift away from the church.

“My whole family immigrated, and they were all very active parishioners for the first 10 years or so,” says the doctor. Andraos said. “Now no one in my family goes to church.”

No matter what the future holds, Dr. Andraos said the arrival of Catholic immigrants had a profound effect on the church in the French-speaking province of Quebec, where Pope Francis arrived on Wednesday.

For most of its history, the Roman Catholic Church has dominated not only the spiritual life of the province, but also education and health care, and has had significant influence in business and politics. But in the so-called quiet revolution, a liberal government was formed in 1960. began to return these forces starting from schools. Secularism became the guiding principle.

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

Secularism has replaced Catholicism in Quebec more than in any other province. Andraos said that the Catholic Church is now almost extinct in the province’s rural areas. However, even in Quebec, Montreal has seen a resurgence of large and vibrant congregations made up of immigrants, often from Africa.

When he meets with members of these churches, he says he finds that sometimes there is a gap between them and longtime members of the church in Canada.

This is especially true of the issue that brought Francis to Canada: reconciliation with indigenous peoples for the harm they suffered in church boarding schools. After failing to settle a class action lawsuit with former students, the church is now trying to raise 30 million Canadian dollars from its members.

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

But he found that after the suffering of the students was laid out, most of them understood the obligation.

Similarly, Mr. Davis said he found that members of many immigrant communities are much more conservative than many members of the Canadian-born church.

“They have nothing to do with the movement in the Catholic Church of Canada to accept same-sex marriage and bring in women,” he said. “It’s not part of their idea of ​​Catholicism and they will be vehemently against it.”

Immigration also met another need for the church in Canada. Dr. Andraos said few, if any, Canadians were willing to become priests, and that situation was unlikely to change unless priests were allowed to marry. None of the 110 theology students at his university currently intend to become a priest.

So most of the priests in Canada now come from overseas. Father Susai Hesu, who hosted the pope at his First Nations ward in Edmonton this week, was born in India.

Vibrant immigrant communities have so far allowed some dioceses, including Toronto, to keep churches open, though Mr. Davis said the closures are necessary to consolidate financial and office resources, which are limited because many immigrants lack the wealth needed to support large Canadian churches.

The only place where the church currently manages churches and other buildings on a large scale is in Newfoundland and Labrador. The archdiocese filed for bankruptcy after a court ruled that it must pay compensation to about 100 people who were sexually abused at the orphanage between the 1940s and 1960s.

A boost provided by immigrants, Mr. Davis said he helped stop the disappearance of the church. But in the long run, that won’t keep him from shrinking down to a more sustainable version of himself.

“Perhaps this will not happen in my lifetime,” he said. “But I could see the beginning of this restructuring and this healthy growth in my life.”

As the crowd left Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton on Tuesday, a sea of ​​faces emerged. Among the crowds looking for buses or lining up for trains was Israel Izzo Odongi, who moved to Canada 23 years ago from South Sudan and traveled from Calgary, Alberta to see the Pope with other members of the South Sudanese community.

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 members of the South Asian congregation.

Even when the Pope snuck into Lac Sainte. Ann, Alberta, a native Catholic pilgrimage site founded in the 19th century and located about an hour north of Edmonton, had a large immigrant population.

Reyna Donaire, 36, from Edmonton, was standing on the edge of the lake, just a few feet away from where, minutes later, Francis would bless the water along with four other friends from the Philippines.

“Churches are mostly Filipinos,” she said, adding that she and other immigrants, including those from Africa, gave rides to the Canadian church. “We are strong Catholics and maybe this is how we help them.”

Jason Horowitz provided a report from Lac Ste. Ann, Alberta.