Possibly the strangest element in my balcony panorama is St. Joseph's Oratory. It's what might be called an ostentatious religious symbol sitting on the north slope of Mont Royal. It's within walking distance of that other ostentatious religious symbol, the Cross, the story of which can be found here.
According to the Tourism Montreal website, "[t]he shrine includes a majestic building whose dome reaches 97 metres (second only in height to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome), the small original chapel, a votive chapel, a crypt, gardens of the way of the cross, a basilica that can accommodate 2,200 worshippers, and a shrine." Yes, a shrine within a shrine. From my balcony, especially at night, the Oratory looks positively spooky.
Montreal's peculiar religiosity
When I moved to Montreal in 1970, St. Joseph's Oratory was just a stop on my getting-to-know-the-city itinerary. Frankly, I was underwhelmed by the Basilica. The most interesting thing about it, in a macabre sort of way, was the display of Brother André's heart. Roman Catholicism is unique among the major religions in having a strange obsession with the body parts of dead people it deems "holy." A number of "miraculous" healings and other interventions (accepted by the Church as matters of faith, but not scientifically authenticated) have been attributed to Brother André—although he always gave the credit to St. Joseph. "Ite ad Joseph" (Go to Joseph) is inscribed on the base of the statue of St. Joseph holding the baby Jesus in front of the Oratory. A detailed online hagiography, Saint André Bessette: Montreal’s Miracle Worker, told me everything I ever might have wanted to know about the life of the saint and about the realisation of his dream of building an Oratory for St. Joseph.
The Quiet Revolution (la Révolution tranquille) was well underway when I arrived in Montreal. This Globe and Mail article sums it up quite well. I'll only say that my earliest Montreal experiences were steeped in the strange, murky brew of Church-and-State as they wrestled for control of the public mind while fending off the plethora of cults (including the one I got involved in) that were vying for a share of the religious pie.
Not knowing what else to do, in 1970 I could only stare in wonder at the surreal social-scape I'd found myself in. The French spoken here sounded very different from the French I had studied in high school (not very successfully, I must admit). In those textbook conversations, French-speaking characters might exclaim, "Zut, alors!" People in Montreal were more likely to say, "tabarnak" (tabernacle), "hostie" (host), or câlisse (chalice). An article "The Delightful Perversity of Québec's Catholic Swears" explores this phenomenon. But in those days, expressions of anti-Catholic sentiment were less interesting to me than the political turmoil that would culminate in the October Crisis a few months after I arrived.
My Catholic experience had been mitigated by the "melting pot" world I was exposed to growing up in New York State, so Catholics insulting the symbols of Catholicism would not have made any more sense to me than Jews ridiculing the symbols of Judaism. In Quebec, however, the Catholic Church had exerted almost total control over every aspect of people's lives. The Church, in effect, was a part of the State apparatus, and thus, was the target of righteous rebellion.
Take another little piece of my heart
St. Joseph's Oratory caught my attention again in 1973, when Brother André's heart was stolen and a $50,000 ransom demanded (which the Church refused to pay). In the secularised milieu of Montreal, the event seemed to spawn more derision than sympathy, inspiring an art exhibition, a Toronto Fringe Festival play, and a song by Blue Rodeo.
It would be almost two years before Brother André's heart would resurface. As the story goes, the late Montreal lawyer Frank Shoofey received an anonymous telephone call offering up the heart's whereabouts. He tells the story in this December 26, 1974 CBC broadcast. And so, the tale of the heart of Brother André had a happy ending. The heart was returned to its place in the Oratory and Brother André was canonised in 2010. In recent years, someone even confessed to taking part in the heart-napping, but nothing seems to have come of it. It was, at the time, though, a wonderful drama, totally worthy of Montreal.
The Catholic Church in Quebec—too big to fail?
In a city noted for its secularism, tolerance, and ethnic diversity, that our governments (municipal and provincial) would dare assert that a still-existing religious institution is an important part of "our" heritage is disturbing. When coupled with the previous Quebec government's attempt to impose a Charte des valeurs on the residents of Quebec, it becomes even more suspect. A Wikipedia article about the Charter explains that "items such as a kippah, turban, hijab, niqāb and larger crosses and religious pendants" would be proscribed, while "certain items and customs with an ostensibly religious nature, such as the large crucifix on display in the Quebec National Assembly, and observing Christmas" would be exempted, and that this "has led to the widespread belief that this measure is motivated by an act of ethnocentric hypocrisy." Fortunately, the Charter and the government that proposed it were rejected by a majority of Quebec voters,
Over the years, Quebec and Canada have welcomed immigrants and refugees from many parts of the world, and this has led inevitably to the fact that a significant number of us cannot relate to the Oratory (or the religion it promotes) and do not share the ethnic background of the historically "typical" Québécois/e. Even the view of the "typical" historical inhabitant of this land is being challenged by the original peoples, who have experienced terrible abuse and attempts to erase their culture by the Church-State forces. Having survived, they refuse to be relegated to the margins of history.
And so, here we all are, together. Where will we go from here? What gives me hope that it will be in a good direction is the level of intellectual discourse surrounding issues of identity and inclusion in Quebec. La charte des distractions is an example of the kinds of discussions thinking people are having here. The video is in French with English subtitles. It has lessons for everyone who sees an opportunity in times of social change to create "a world where many worlds fit."