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Near the end of June, I pulled into our parish parking lot full of gumption at the resumption of Masses after four months of COVID-forced church closures.
A small circle of my fellow faithful had already gathered around Father Piotr Miodek as he stood outside the closed church doors delivering what I divined might not be bad news, per se, but wasn’t the Good News, either.
“Next week,” he said in an amiable yes-we-have-no-banana’s-today way. “We’re not quite ready yet.”
The scuff of shoes in the parking lot dust signalled the disappointment of those hoping to at last attend Mass. But Father Piotr’s words were also a localized marker of how prudently and lovingly the Church conducted itself during the COVID lockdown toward its flock and, equally, toward all citizens of Canada, including here in Quebec.
It was the quintessential good neighbour willing to sacrifice even the traditional way of celebrating Christ’s sacrifice at Easter, if that served the public good by getting ready right. It held steadfast even after emphatic, angry, sometimes bitter criticism from many Catholics.
Certainly, there was no equivalent anger or bitterness in Cardinal Gérald Cyprien Lacroix’s response at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré on the Feast of Sainte Anne, July 26. But his words delivered in the Basilica just outside Quebec City were every bit as emphatic as any of the thousands of critical messages the Church hierarchy heard loud and clear from March to June.
The Cardinal emphasized his understanding of the “very painful” deprivation from Eucharistic celebration and communion endured by the laity and pastors alike. But he confessed a diplomatically withering bafflement at how Quebec’s political and bureaucratic class utterly ignored both the Roman Catholic Primate of Canada and indeed leaders of faith communities in general during the COVID lockdown.
“At no time have we managed to establish a frank and direct dialogue with government and public health officials. On two occasions in press conferences with (Premier François Legault) and the director of public health, it took questions from reporters to find out what was happening with places of worship. Only then were we able to receive piecemeal, partial information concerning out situation. Spiritual needs are an integral part of human life (and) those who manifest that need…deserve to be treated with respect by their government,” he said.
That was his warmup. The whole of the statement is a relentlessly polite evisceration of the Quebec government’s ill-mannered and anti-democratic exclusion of the Church, yes, but also all faith communities in planning, executing and communicating around the COVID crisis. It bears careful reading, perhaps even placement under a heavy-duty fridge magnet, by anyone who cares a whit about regaining the rightful place of religious faith in the public square.
For Anne Leahy, Canada’s former Ambassador to the Holy See, it was Cardinal Lacroix’s focus on the civic rights of the faithful that gave particular reason to rise spontaneously, as she and other worshippers present at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré did that day, to applaud the Cardinal.
“It’s an educational moment for the government – and for ordinary citizens whether they’re believers or not,” Leahy said. “Not for nothing did he recall there remain hundreds of thousands of believers in Quebec and they deserve as much consideration as any other person.”
A diplomat for 40 years, including from 2008 to 2012 in Rome as ambassador and then again in 2013 as Papal Transition Coordinator when Pope Francis succeeded Pope Benedict, Leahy demurred at calling the Cardinal’s statement a “warning shot” as some have. Rather, she said, it was a “marker” meant to show now is the time to renew “respectful dialogue” between State and Church.
The reminder that the Christian Church has been in Quebec for 400 years and made a substantial contribution to building the province and Canada was no accident, she said. It was his way of emphasizing that Catholics and other communities of faith aren’t asking for any privileged treatment in seeking respectful treatment from civic authorities. In a historical sense, they’ve paid their dues. In a contemporary sense, they must be seen as fully-fledged citizens.
“I hope people in government will meditate on the Cardinal saying ‘no, no, you can’t confine the expression of faith to the inside of a house, something that goes on behind closed doors.’ As he said, ‘We have secular government, not a secular society.’ I think saying that has already proven useful.”
We might want to wait until next week to be sure. But unquestionably, a new source of gumption awaits us all.
Two long-time journalistic and personal friends, former CRTC commissioner Peter Menzies and Convivium's Peter Stockland, weigh the future of faith life in a Canada where churches have been shuttered by government order.
Milton Friesen, program director of Cardus Social Cities, will deliver a lecture this evening at McMaster University’s Divinity College on Religion And Science: Conspiring Together For God. As Milton tells Convivium’s Peter Stockland, he intends it as a catalyst to a much broader and deeper conversation about the institutional responsibilities of faith and science in Canada’s common life.
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