In the same January week that the Quebec government announced it would cancel the last substantial religious element of provincial school curriculum, Concordia University’s Catholic Student Association was busily reaching out to those starting the winter term.
“We need more missionaries,” Talitha Lemoine summarized succinctly at the end of three days helping staff a CSA table in the second-floor lounge area of Concordia’s main city centre campus building. “Once people encounter Jesus, they want to go to Mass. They want to go to church.”
Lemoine, who was assisting the Catholic Student Association as part of her role leading Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) in Montreal, had some good news numbers to support her enthusiasm. On the first day alone 159 students had stopped by the table. Over the course of the outreach, 245 had left follow-up information indicating a wish to be contacted. The male-female split was almost exactly 50-50. Interest ranged from those with absolutely no clue about Christianity to those raised Catholic who had slipped through even the loose net of Quebec cultural Catholicism.
“People are ready to respond. They just have to hear the message,” Lemoine says. “If people aren’t living the faith, it’s because people aren’t sharing the good news.”
If that sounds like evangelical naivete with a cherry on top, it isn’t. A franco-Manitoban from Winnipeg, Lemoine worked with CCO for four years in Quebec City before coming to Montreal. She knows firsthand the hard shell of secularism that seeks to separate, isolate and ultimately minimize faith in social, cultural, and political life.
The process has exerted itself most visibly in the recent dark tribalism of the province’s so-called Bill 21, which extends 60 years of anti-Catholic animus to other faiths by banning public employees from wearing religious symbols in workplaces up to and including teachers in public schools. It was also at work in the announcement earlier this month that the Ethics and Religious Culture program of the school curriculum would be dropped in favour of increased classroom hours for environmentalism, sexuality, and what the minister responsible called other “21st century” topics.
The Ethics and Religious Culture program itself was a thin gruel substitute for authentic religious teaching introduced after the demolition of Quebec’s religiously based school system in favour of language-based educational partition. Even that was too much for the province’s hard-core secularists. They yelped for years that the teaching of ethics should be uncontaminated by pedagogy that treated religious belief as at least a cultural phenomenon.
Such closed-mindedness seemed rebuffed when Montreal’s Loyola High School successfully fought all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada for the upholding of its right to teach the Ethics and Religious Culture program from a robustly Catholic perspective in a private institution. In the resulting SCOC decision, Madam Justice Abella famously declared that the duty of a secular State is to foster religious diversity, not extinguish it.
If the great and the good of Quebec secularism failed to read that memo – hence abominations such as Bill 21 – the experience of Lemoine and the Catholic Student Association at Concordia suggests that might not be so earth-and-Heaven shattering after all. Lemoine recounts an encounter with a young man who approached the group as a committed atheist utterly ignorant of the basic rudiments of Christian faith and Catholic teaching. He’s now an enthusiastic member, a convert, living an active life of faith. Similarly, she had the opportunity to speak with a young woman raised in the Hindu tradition who, after conversing for a while, said: “You really do believe in a God who loves you.”
“It was my chance to say to her ‘yes, I do.’ That’s what we are really asking for: the chance to talk about God’s love and mercy in order to give others the same relationship with Jesus that we’ve been given. We just invite them to share that joy.”
Invitation is the operative word, of course. Care and respect are essential to ensuring that those who stop by are open to follow up conversations. Lemoine estimates the “further contact” rate at about 50 per cent over the four years since the Catholic Student Association established at Concordia. Of those, she says, two-thirds who ask for more information actually get involved. The key, however, is that a very high percentage of those who do begin become committed to the study groups and other activities.
Now isn’t that good news in a seeming secular winter?
This article first appeared in The Catholic Register.