The Pope’s Visit to Canada
By “Awake!” correspondent in Canada
IN SEPTEMBER of 1984 Canada was added to a growing list of lands visited by John Paul II as head of the Catholic Church.* A 12-day tour with some 33 scheduled speeches took him to 16 cities and towns and a few shrines—a 13,500-kilometer (8,500-mi) journey. His visit was called “the longest one John Paul II has paid to any country in 24 foreign pilgrimages since he became Pope six years ago.”
“He started his tour in a province where the power and spiritual influence of the Catholic Church has waned dramatically over the past two decades and where a majority of people are reported to challenge church teachings on a number of issues,” reported Michael McAteer, the religion editor for The Toronto Star. That statement about Quebec helps explain one of the reasons for the papal visit. The average age for priests there is near 60, with few replacements. Montreal has 15 parishes without priests of their own. “In the vast and eminently Catholic diocese of Trois-Rivières,” says The Gazette of Montreal, “there was a single ordination [in 1984]. Last year  and the year before, there was none.” That parish has suffered a 90-percent drop in ordinations in the last 20 years.
Nor is that all. The Gazette reports: “Average attendance at mass is about 10 per cent to 16 per cent in urban areas and about 30 per cent in rural churches.” A representative of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is reported to have said: “Let’s face it, a lot of Catholics in this country have not seen the inside of a church in many years.” Maclean’s, a Canadian newsmagazine, says that a poll conducted by two Montreal newspapers shows that “68 per cent of those polled reject the church’s stand against birth control, 72 per cent say priests should be allowed to marry, 66 per cent disagree with the official ban on divorce, and 42 per cent oppose the ban on abortion.” These sizable percentages reflect a weakening influence on family and community life by the church in Quebec.
That there are problems elsewhere is seen in the pope’s Halifax, Nova Scotia, address where he spoke of “respect for life” (referring to abortion), “conjugal fidelity and of the dissolubility of marriage.” He acknowledged the dire shortage of clergy, according to Toronto’s Globe and Mail, and it added that church officials freely admit that in large dioceses “such as St. John’s and Halifax” there has been “an exodus of priests and nuns in critical numbers.”
Thus, John Paul II’s Canadian tour was that of a shepherd caring for an ailing flock. But what was the effect of the visitation? How did Canadians react? Will the Catholic Church experience a reviving of members so that it will reclaim its former status in Canada? How did churchmen and others evaluate the pope’s pastoral work?
Effects and Criticisms
There can be no doubt but that the pope’s “pilgrimage” had a great impact on many people in Canada. The media spoke often of his “charismatic charm” and of his “incredible talent to move and inspire people.” Unfortunately, some people allowed their reactions to go too far, one woman at the Toronto gathering exclaiming that “it is as close as we’re going to get to God for a long time.” One 14-year-old said: “I’m still shaking, it was like I could touch God or something.”
More balanced individuals were impressed with his frank call for improved family life, respect for the unborn, and agreed when he urged the young to resist the deceptions of drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex.
His call at Edmonton for a more equal distribution of the world’s wealth, one newspaper writer said, “reminded one most clearly of the very Liberation Theologians of Latin America whose allegedly ‘Marxist’ leanings he has so vigorously rebuked.”
The same writer was not reluctant to make some unfavorable comments about the investments, speculations, and assets of the Vatican Bank and the pomp of the pope’s own life-style. Others wondered about the more than $50 million of the papal tour costs, much of which will be paid by the Canadian taxpayer. That money will now not be available to help the world’s poor. The archbishop of Ottawa commented: “For my part, I regret that the head of the Church does not travel more simply.”
Pope John Paul II, in his travels through Catholic countries, is noted for his veneration of the Virgin Mary and his frequent visits to shrines dedicated to her. How did he handle that in mainly Protestant Canada? Maclean’s reported that in places where the Virgin is venerated, he praised her. “But in cities where the worship of Mary is largely considered an outdated practice, or even an affront to some feminists and an impediment to Catholic-Protestant communion, he was silent on the issue.”
It was the same with other topics discussed on his tour, whether priestly celibacy, the unity of religions, the role of women in the church, or the situation with native peoples. There was disagreement. For example, on the matter of uniting churches, a Toronto Star writer said: “In his six years in office he has yet to take one solid step toward making unity more real.” Maclean’s observed that the pope’s talks were adjusted to fit his audiences, and then added: “John Paul’s deliberate ambiguity is precisely the posture that the Canadian bishops wanted him to take, at least on the touchy issues of women and sexual morality. Conscious of the fact that their congregations routinely ignore Rome’s ban on divorce and birth control, the bishops do not want to risk further alienation.”
Obviously, there are mixed emotions about the first papal visit to Canada. There are those who feel it will give a fresh start to the church here. The president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops felt the tour constituted a “new moment of evangelization in Canadian history.” But will the Catholic people respond? Not all are optimistic. One headline declared: “Pope left many troubling questions.” True, a Catholic editor claimed the church was only “in the midst of a moral crisis,” but that the church itself was not “undergoing a Catholic crisis.” Yet, Catholic author Anne Roche said: “Many churches have slipped outside the realm of what used to be called the Catholic church.” Then she commented: “In my opinion, in Canada we have an open but undeclared schism.” Time will tell which is the correct view.
[Map/Picture of Canada on page 23]
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