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On June 22 1947, upwards of 100,000 people gathered in Ottawa for a public demonstration. Was it a form of protest? No, rather a joyful celebration, a religious assembly commemorating the closing of the Marian Congress, with the Blessed Sacrament carried in procession from the Cathedral to Landsdowne Park.
Throughout the Congress, thousands of pilgrims pressed into the Peace Chapel at Landsdowne, where the miraculous statue of Mary from Cap-de-la-Madeleine was installed, 35,000 votive candles burned, and prayers were offered without interruption, day and night, for six days.
A contemporary witness observed that "crowds which, under any other circumstances, would have been uncontrollable, were immobilized by a spiritual and supernatural atmosphere which prompted each individual to say: 'We cannot tear ourselves away. We came in to attend a Mass, say the beads, through curiosity, and here we have been one hour, two hours, three hours, all night long and have not even noticed the time slip by.' Other amazed pilgrims testified, ‘Yes, it was good to be there,’ and ‘Nowhere else, has anything similar been seen.’”
Such a remarkable and unprecedented public display of faith offers an occasion for reflection on the role of religion in Canada on this year of anniversaries.
Western culture witnessed a resurgence of faith in the post-war era. The Marian Congress marked the 100th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Ottawa, and was also convened with the express purpose of praying for lasting peace in the world. A return to faith, God and Church was a natural response to the horror and carnage of the Second World War.
Watching videos of the Congress, one is impressed by the pageantry of the processions, the faith and fervour of the participants. No one would have predicted the coming storm -- the sudden, tragic and widespread apostasy of the following decades. At the Congress, the flame of faith burned bright, in part because it attracted the most ardent of Catholics from far and wide. But in parish life, outward observance may have hidden a deeper lethargy and lukewarmness that later became apparent, and understandably failed to generate much effective public witness.
Consider the contrast with a country like Poland, whose Christian and Catholic faith, purified in the crucible of Nazi oppression, seemed to thrive under Communist persecution. Authorities in Poland had banned the public exhibition of religious images. What then would happen to their public celebration in honour of their patronness, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in which it was customary to carry an image of her through the streets?
In Krakow, Cardinal Wojtyla (later St. John Paul II) conceived of a solution both ingenious and mischievous. On May 3rd, 1975, with approximately 200,000 people lining the streets, the procession commenced. Communist officials were on alert only to discover at the heart of the procession an empty frame of Our Lady of Czestochowa, which to all participants served as a poignant sign of the endurance of their faith under persecution.
In Canada, we enjoy religious freedom. It is relatively easy to obtain a permit for a procession through the streets, to publicly celebrate our faith. Yet even on Corpus Christi, the most common day for Catholics throughout the world to celebrate with a public procession, the streets outside parishes are quiet. The reason, I would suggest, is internal.
We are not forced to hide behind locked doors for fear of the Communist authorities. We have been hollowed out from inside by the acid spirit of secularism, as if the icon of the Risen Christ, inscribed in every soul through baptism has somehow been reduced to an empty frame.
And yet at the same time, there are signs of a new springtime of faith, albeit one that is more essential and universal, a belief capable of uniting members of every religion and people from all walks of life. It is an instinctive faith in the goodness of life and the dignity of the human person, which for most people is inseparable from a sense of the goodness of the Creator.
Such faith animates the annual March for Life in Ottawa, which will again take place on Parliament Hill this Thursday. The March has been gaining momentum and growing in numbers every year since its inception in 1998. Last year, an estimated 25,000 people gathered for it. In a surprisingly festive and buoyant atmosphere, many participants sport pro-life signs, while others carry banners advertising their parish or school. The solemn displaying of empty frames has also been proposed by a few as a way of representing the lives of children lost through abortion.
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Devout Christians might lament that it is no longer possible to assemble 100,000 people for a religious celebration, but can we not discern a spiritual dimension to the March for Life? In 1947, Catholics celebrated the living Presence of Jesus among His people with a public Eucharistic procession, while the presence of Mary was symbolized by the statue of Our Lady of the Cape. I like to think that in the March for Life, Mary is present in some mysterious way in every expectant mother who cherishes the first stirrings of the miracle of life in her womb. And Christ Himself assures us that He is present in every child, for "whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me."
I love our country, but it is difficult, at times, to resist a cynical posture. Picture Parliament Hill on July 1 2018 in a haze of marijuana smoke when Canadians can celebrate our freedom to abort our children and euthanize ourselves while simultaneously coping with our self-induced depression by getting high. But then I remind myself that it is still God's country -- God's world -- as nothing can even exist apart from the life-giving Spirit that He lavishes on all flesh. And no one is beyond the redemptive reach of Christ, risen from the dead, especially those souls indelibly marked by Him in baptism, even if they are no longer practicing or believing. And I remember that we Christians are people of hope -- even for those without hope, those who no longer believe in God or humanity.
Those thousands of souls who will gather on Parliament Hill on May 11th for the March for Life should know that they belong there, and they are a sign of hope for the world. St. Peter wrote to the first Christians in Asia Minor who were suffering persecution, to "always be ready to give a reason for your hope." The source of hope may be as invisible as a child in the womb or the risen Christ in our hearts, but the expression of this faith is clearly manifested -- in our words, deeds and public processions.
I would suggest that "today is the day of salvation," that now is the time to break the conspiracy of silence that can reduce the faith to whispers in the sanctuary, to emerge once again from the catacombs and let our light shine. Now is the time to share in fellowship in our living rooms, to discuss in coffee shops, offices and Parliament, to proclaim from the rooftops what we have heard in secret, and to celebrate in our streets our processions of faith.
Father Tim McCauley is a priest at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa.
For information on anniversary celebrations commemorating the 1947 Congress, visit www.catholicincanada.com
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