Originally Published in the National Post: Thursday, January 04, 2007
QUEBEC CITY â€“ Last week, the National Post ran a special series on the state of Christianity in Canada, noting that while religious observance on the whole had declined over the past few generations, that decline was not entirely uniform.
The series reported that those churches that were more traditional or conservative appeared more vibrant, while churches that modified their doctrines with the changing times were less so. The way forward is backward â€“ that’s how our series put it.
This reminded me of a comment made by our Rector in the seminary: “Yes, it is true that I want to go back â€“ but not to the 1950s. I want to go back much further than that, all the way to the first century, back to Galilee!” The way forward for the Church always includes going back to the authentic tradition of the faith.
I contributed a comment to the series on the international scene, noting that more traditional churches in the southern hemisphere are coming to the aid of their more progressive brothers in the north, where both clergy and congregations are declining. While the series was conceived several months ago, I had the experience of living precisely what it documented this past week, here in the cradle of the Christian faith in North America: Quebec City.
I came here with some 400 university students who chose to spend their New Year’s weekend in days of spiritual talks, intense prayer and good fun. They are affiliated with a new Canadian lay movement called Catholic Christian Outreach (http://www.cco.ca/), a “university student movement dedicated to evangelization,” which challenges “students to live the fullness of the Catholic faith.” That’s “fullness” as in the whole package. No trimming on the Gospel here, no dissent from counter-cultural teachings, no abandoning of the Catholic heritage.
These students enthusiastically respond to all that previous generations of Catholic leaders de-emphasized â€“ their annual conference has Mass daily, they pray, they go to confession. In fact, on New Year’s Eve they held a Eucharistic procession through the streets of the old city to the Cathedral. They also stay up late and do all the things normal college students do, in a rather more wholesome way, because that is what they are â€“ both normal and wholesome.
CCO and similar movements are thought to be “conservative,” and they are insofar as they seek to conserve the tradition. But they aren’t conservative if that means 19th-century Victorian hymns, for example. Those are my kind of hymns, but you won’t hear them here â€“ CCO is more charismatic in inspiration, and their style of worship reflects that. But as Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out, the Christian alternative to being “conservative” is not to be “progressive” but to be “evangelical.” And evangelical CCO is, with 40 full-time missionaries operating on campuses across Canada, reaching thousands of students. Impressive, for a group less than 20 years old and operating in what is the most exotic mission territory in the world today â€“ the secular university campus.
The annual CCO conference moves from city to city around the country (next New Year’s in Calgary), but it was something of a departure to come here to Quebec City. CCO has been to date anglophone (it began in Saskatchewan) and as yet does not operate in Quebec. But the leadership of CCO is young enough and bold enough to come here anyway, with the enthusiastic support of the local archbishop, Marc Cardinal Ouellet.
Quebec City is the oldest Catholic diocese in North America, and the faith was well-established here centuries ago; the silvery spires of countless churches line the streets. It was from here that the faith was carried to the rest of the continent. That was then; now Quebec is perhaps the most secular place in North America. Just as Christians from the global south are returning to northern countries in a reversal of the traditional missionary direction, so too students from places in Ontario and the West originally evangelized by French-Canadians are now carrying their faith back to Quebec.
Speaking of that heritage of Quebec, Cardinal Ouellet told the students that the spirit that moved their ancestors is not dead, but their “flame seems hidden underground and without doubt it flickers under the ashes.” The task for today is to “revive the flame in view of the new things which mark a time of renewal.”
It’s easy â€“ too easy â€“ to see only the ashes, whether in Quebec or on campuses across the country. Yet it is important also to see the new things.
The torch of faith is being handed on to a new generation, and they are finding their own ways of holding it high.
Â© National Post 2006