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June 24, 2012
Saint-Jean-BaptisteThere was a time when Canada was smaller, not only in population but in area, corresponding to the St. Lawrence River valley, or what is now southernmost Quebec. We were also, of course, entirely French-speaking; and as I recall, quite Catholic.
Those were the days of the Ancien Régime in France, to which, not only as a Canadian, but as a connoisseur of lost causes, I still owe some residual loyalty. Our throne has ever been "over the water" and far away. We wandered at the periphery of Christendom, with a "national mission" to harvest souls, while also harvesting fish and fur.
Jean-Baptiste was not the patron saint of this Canada. Joseph, the foster father of Our Lord, became that. There is a peculiar national history behind his "appointment," that goes very deep, and to which I shall return in a moment.
But for now I invite gentle reader to hold in mind the image of this modest, almost hidden man who, at the bidding of an angel, went "outside the box" of the Deuteronomic Code, in marrying a maiden pregnant with a child certainly not his own. This symbol (as Joseph's name itself, from Greek) of honour, justice, righteousness, is embodied in an earthly fatherhood that goes consistently beyond earthly requirements; that embraces duty as the ultimate freedom. He was a builder, a carpenter; a man of patience and industry.
(Already I can hear the teeth grinding in my less Catholic readers.)
And our "secondary patron" - our founding prince, perhaps, on the analogy of St. Patrick of Ireland, or St. David of Wales - would be Saint-Jean-de-Brébeuf. In him, and through the Jesuit Relations, is a frank acknowledgment that this country was inhabited before the Europeans came; was here before the French, just as Ireland and Wales were there before the missions, in their savage state.
"Apostle of the Hurons" as he came to be known outside, "Healing Tree" within that Huron nation - this huge, strong, very gentle man embodied in several dimensions what would become the best of Canada.
By Sainte-Marie-au-pays-des-Hurons is Canada's holiest shrine, where the skull of that martyr came to rest, along with the bones of Lalemant and the others who laid down their lives, like good shepherds.
Now oddly, centuries before his "cult" was revived in the universal Church, St. Joseph had been selected as patron by almost all the leading religious figures in the young Canada. Madeleine de la Peltrie, and Marie de l'Incarnation, were among those who dedicated chapels to St. Joseph, along with Barthelemy Vimont and a succession of Jesuit superiors. And indeed, the martyrs at Saint Marie among the Hurons had dedicated their chapel to St. Joseph.
(I mention these things, because our true history has been forgotten.)
There are many patrons, of Canadian peoples, towns, dioceses, provinces, trades. Saint-Jean-Baptiste is specifically patron of French Canadians (but not of Quebec). He is a figure around whom nationalist aspirations began to congregate, more than a century ago. Yet until the Quiet Revolution, the religious dimension - of devotion to this ascetic precursor of Christ (and prophet alike to Christians, Mandaeans, Muslims, Baha'is) - was always on display.
In our own age of apostasy, especially in Quebec, the devotion has now degenerated into a "Fête nationale." The religious trimmings were cut then scraped away, and we have now a purely political demonstration, "transgressive" in our contemporary, fashionable sense.
National and ethnic chauvinism, as the Church long taught, is always marked with aggression, coercion, and simmering violence. And as ever in revolutionary apostasy, ancient festivals when not entirely banned, are transformed into something opposite, and ugly.
Take religion away, knock it over, and invariably you get the "spilled religion" that comes to poison all political life. For all the passions in human nature that were turned in action and contemplation beyond this world, now turn instead to worldly aspirations. You get fascism in its many forms, Left and Right. The Race, the Nation, the Party, Progress, take the place of God.
And with the loss of spiritual grace, comes the loss of mental repose. The revolutionists can seldom remember, from year to year, even minute to minute, what they are fighting for; only what they are fighting against. Their factions war with one another, and the goals of their coercion change constantly. What cutting-edge "progressives" now demand does not resemble what they were demanding a scant generation ago. Their very slogans betray self contradiction.
Knowledge is founded in love; hatred in ignorance. That is why people who define themselves by what they hate - the essence of "ideology" - gradually lose their minds as well as their charity.
All of which needs saying before we can begin to remember what the parade of Saint-Jean-Baptiste once represented, and try to celebrate that. It degenerated from an expression of "patriot love," into an expression of malice towards "the other."
When, in 1834, the partakers of the founding banquet of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society first sang, "Canada! mon pays, mes amours," it was in celebration of everything associated with that smaller Canada, that beacon of Catholic Christian light in the American wilderness.
Read the words of that old French hymn, and remember.
© Ottawa Citizen