When a city of churches goes silent
There may be fewer believers in Montreal now, but we should respect those with ties to their faith, Michael St. B. Harrison writes
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At my age we refer to funerals as our new cocktail parties. Recently, I attended one that must have mustered up 500 people at the church in downtown Montreal. It was a lovely service; we sang the hymns we had learned at the side of our parents 70 years ago and bowed our heads during the prayers we all had memorized long ago. There were sandwiches and coffee in the church hall after. All attendees were churchgoers at some point in their lifetimes. But not as much now.
While sitting in the church, I looked at the wonderful windows that portray scenes of a Christian life and I observed the worn and ancient banners of the militia attached to this stately house of worship.
I first went to church with my mother and sisters during the Second World War. God was on our side and we prayed for our servicemen and women and hoped peace would be restored. Wars are fought for many reasons but God was always on our side, I was told. The large cathedrals in Germany seemed to pose a question of loyalty, but I didn't challenge the logic at the time.
Montreal is a city of churches, as is all of the province of Quebec. An early memory are all the mighty church bells ringing in the New Year at midnight. We'd stand on the top of Mont Royal and hear the peals roll up the hill to the chalet. It was a cacophony of celebration, the proud exclamation of hundreds of churches spilling out their worshippers and tolling the arrival of the nouveau année: a statement of faith and a tradition of community.
Now the bells are almost silent. The few that ring in the night are not enough to make the sound travel to the top of Montreal's largest mountain. The cross on the mountain is alight but the chiming is almost gone. The voices of the churches are disappearing.
After the funeral, we gave hugs to the family and headed back into the blowing snow and wondered who was next. The church, in this case, was the focus of the idea of need. The need to have a place to gather, the need for solemnity and tradition, the need for some sort of community of spirit and the need for spoken words that carried the story of life and death. Church is where one often goes for those needs.
But do we gather now only on special occasions? Is the notion of God being on our side just so quaint we can't be bothered to check in every week and find out? Are we content with our understanding of our place in the universe and where we fit in?
The closing of churches and the decline in participation in traditional Quebec religions is well documented. A secular society is the choice of the population. But the anxiety of this choice is hurting the community. I grew up in a Christian family that looked down their noses at other non-conforming religions. The golf course did not allow Jews. The people across the street were Catholics and had far too many children. It came with the territory, I guess.
Much later in life I was given advice to follow the three steps for success in business in Montreal: Speak French. Dress English. Think Jewish. We all seemed to get along.
So why are so many worried about the Muslim faith? Is it because we don't have a strong enough faith ourselves? Is our own identity so obscure that we feel threatened by a group of people who clearly have a strong religious belief that overshadows our own casual attitudes? Do we feel God is not really on our side after all, and has left us for another family who pays more attention? Do we care enough to go back to being a community with stronger ties to our historical roots?
Will we return to our churches? Probably not. But we should respect the people who do have a strong tie to their houses of worship and live amongst us, while we reflect on our diminished spiritual life.
Fear of another religion is a historical reality, from the Crusades to the Islamic State, and we have seen what can happen when one side or the other decides that they are in the right. Is that our worry in Montreal and Quebec? Do we fear the rise of a religion to replace the history of our forefathers? Is it our past we worry about or our future?
Maybe if we were more secure in our own beliefs we would not have doubts about devout practitioners of religions we know little about. Maybe we have grown far enough away from the embrace of our own religions to forget how important they were in guiding us to our comfortable pew. We are not a nation of churchgoers any more. We are happy with that and are content enough to enjoy the special events that bring us together under the roof of the church.
So why are we suspicious of pious worshippers from different faiths? Maybe we should join the parade and troop our colours before we forget the hymns and prayers we learned from our parents. I think I will start on Sunday.
Michael St.B. Harrison lives in Westmount, Que.