The Loss of the Heart of a Human Community

Every closing of a church is a knife to the heart of a real human community. In Canada the people feel it more keenly perhaps than in America. You did more than meet your neighbors at Mass; you met fellow travelers on the way to the four last things.

When I am sick of thinking about the American Church, my mind often turns to Canada. It’s not that the Church is healthier there, but sometimes it’s good to clear your head of the prominent American personalities and their protégés, in both the Church and the State. Canada has its buffoon in Justin Trudeau, as we have had our buffoons for several decades now, but he’s not my buffoon, so I can look at his vacantly pretty face and not have to think about my retirement account, the public school in my town, the blundering of my nation into war, babies butchered in my state, and the degeneration of America’s politics into an entity remarkable for its ineptitude and intellectual vacuity.

And the odd thing is that my Canadian neighbors have almost the same view. Whatever party they vote for, they consider that Ottawa is far away, that they in Nova Scotia will get ignored as always, and that one bunch of jobbers is about as worthless as the next. It’s not that they are cynical. They are quite a cheerful lot. It’s that they put no trust in politicians. Sometimes the swindler-in-chief tosses a bag of coins your way. Sometimes he doesn’t. It hardly matters. He’s still what he is, and you still have to get along in life by your wits and your will, and, where we live, usually by your hands and back and shoulders too.

You might think that the Church would seize upon the opportunity and take up the vacancy, so to speak; but you’d be wrong about that. In Quebec, the father and mother of the said Justin made their Sherman-like march from the Ottawa River to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, burning every tradition in their path, and leaving twisted railroad ties and smoking ruins behind, so that Quebec has gone from a land defined by the names of saints to a pale shadow of secular France, without the cuisine. Je me souviens, read their license plates. The motto is now a lie, for the Québécois have forgotten the Faith that made them what they were. Yet the Church mostly keeps her head low.

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It isn’t any better in our part of Nova Scotia. The sex abuse scandal impoverished all the parishes in the diocese, for it was the parishes that had to pay up for the diocese, regardless of whether there were any abusers or victims in them. That meant that the bishop had to cut expenses. Nothing is being built; churches are shut, torn down, or sold off. Because steeples here attract seagulls and other large birds, and birds do what they do, the structures are expensive to clean, and that is why the previous bishop wanted them down. Not the people, but the bishop. So, there is no love lost between my Catholic neighbors here and their titular leader.

If you are driving into Arichat, on the island where my family and I live in the summer, the first things you’ll see are the twin steeples of Notre Dame de l’Assomption, the grand old church, built in 1835, the original cathedral for the diocese. (Now the cathedral is fifty miles away, on the mainland.) The bishop didn’t want those steeples to stand, and if he’d had his way, the result would have been an absurdly squat tunnel-like box with an A-frame on top. 

Fortunately, the church was placed on the province’s list of historical sites, so the steeples have survived. The bishop also didn’t want to heat the place during the winter; he wanted to let the church lapse into disuse. But the people painted the exterior while he wasn’t paying attention, and they did other maintenance work within, so as to forestall his arguments. The Holy Mass continues.

You may say, “But the people could have gone to Mass elsewhere and received the same sacraments.” Sure; but that misses the point. The church is the village. All the Catholics are buried in the cemetery nearby, on one side of the main thoroughfare or the other, all overlooking the harbor a hundred feet below, where fishing ships and merchant ships once thronged in the days before the automobile, and where John Paul Jones once laid siege to the town, a “notorious privateer,” as he is called in a bill of damages addressed to the British crown, now framed on the walls of a museum on the mainland.  

Every closing of a church is a knife to the heart of a real human community. Here the people feel it more keenly perhaps than in America. There was no school till the Church made one. There were no groups for social welfare till the Church organized them, formally or informally. You did more than meet your neighbors at Mass. The Mass made you more than neighbors: fellow travelers on the way to the four last things. That was an especially powerful thing, perhaps, for people who lived always on a strand hung between life and death—who made their living on the bountiful but cold and perilous north Atlantic.

It will pass, perhaps. It’s been many years since the pastor, appointed by Bishop Raymond Lahey—himself a notorious homosexual, caught at the Ottawa airport with a laptop full of child pornography—refused to go out to bless the ships at the onset of the fishing season, as pastors had done as part of a big, boisterous celebration for a hundred years. I don’t believe the celebration itself has survived the withholding of the blessing. 

The young people don’t often go to Mass, just as they don’t often do a lot of the other human and social things. The current pastor is a fine fellow from Haiti, and that’s good for the French speakers, but not so good for the English. He has no personal connection to our island. I would be much surprised to find that he was not lonely here.

Still, with bold leadership, with good cheer, with a desire to impart the treasures of Catholic literature and art and music, you might accomplish something here. There is no ill will, no angry secularism, as in Montreal and most places in the States. Politics is not much of a distraction. The schools aren’t good, but they’re closer to the people here than they are in Toronto, where the Catholic school board appears to be energized mainly by hatred of the Church, and so you are not likely to suffer here what is utterly insane.

If I say to my neighbor in the states, “I’m a Roman Catholic, and I believe what the Church teaches,” I have no idea what the reaction will be. It could be warm approval. It could be a shrug. It is likely to be quite hostile. If I say the same thing here, even those who do not go to Mass will approve. They might laugh and admit that they haven’t darkened the church door in thirty years. They might remind me of this or that bad priest. But they are more likely to remind me of this or that good priest, especially the longtime pastor whose books I have come into possession of and whom I knew as a dear friend for fifteen years.  

What could we accomplish, with American daring and rural Canadian good will! My countrymen—forget the politics, drown out the noise for a while, and ask whether there may yet be an Arichat in your midst, even in the States; a place where there are more people waiting for your invitation, agreeable to what you may build, and even ready to be persuaded to clear their throats and join you, sheepishly at first, in a song of praise to God. For human beings do not want always to live in exile from God and neighbor and even from their own past.   

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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