23 February 2011

Conclusion of the Conclusion of the Brief History of the Archdiocese of Toronto


Everything I have written, I could have written otherwise. The history of the Toronto diocese could begin with, say, the activities of the Jesuit Missionaries in this area in the 1600’s. I could have told how the sparse European population of the area was predominantly Catholic until a flood of refugees- this time from the American Revolutionary War- came and made this area overwhelmingly protestant. Or I could have begun with St. Paul’s church, or with the founding of the diocese and Michael Power as Bishop. When speaking of riots I could have spoken of the frequent Hibernian-Orange clashes rather than Fireman, Clown, and Jubilee. There is a lot of history from which to choose, and a completely different set of choices could have been made. And yet for all that, I believe I have made fair choices.

For instance, I could have spoken of Charbonnel as he is frequently spoken of by historians- as a political failure. There are some grounds for this. He was often a divisive figure for his flock. He spoke English with difficulty, and with a thick accent. When he went to Europe to find help and bring back new orders for his Irish flock, he went to France, not Ireland. When he built new churches, he named them St Basil, St Mary and St Joseph, with no St Patrick in sight. The separate school system, for which he fought so hard, was finally legislated in 1863, three years after his resignation. If some of his flock did not warm up to him, he also did not warm to his flock. He wrote a short quatrain for his friends in France describing his flock in a far off land. In part it reads in translation: “I return to Toronto, on the shores of Lake Ontario, to a barbarous people.”

In spite of this I think I have been fair. The Irish famine provided the new diocese with its first crisis, arguably the greatest crisis it has ever faced. Though Power died a heroic death at the height of the crisis, he cannot be said to have steered the diocese through the crisis. That was Charbonnel, and his tenure amounts to a refounding of the diocese. The new diocese was characterized by constant struggle simply to be Catholic in a hostile world.

One of the points of this little history is to show some signposts of how far the Catholics had come, and how far they had to go. I spoke at length of the prejudices against the Irish Catholics of 1847.  The prejudice against the Irish Catholics only really came to an end when other minorities began to arrive in the city and those inclined to ethnic prejudice, including the Irish, turned against them. The Ukrainians, the Italians, or the Polish- take your pick. Thanks to the efforts of Charbonnel and the Irish Catholics, there was a church structure in Toronto when the new waves of Catholic immigrants began to arrive, and they did not arrive in a vacuum. They could find help and a spiritual home at the churches already built in Toronto. They began to fill the churches built by the Irish, and add a few of their own as they in their turn fanned out of the city and into the suburbs, to be replaced by another group of immigrants who came in their turn, made their contribution to the diocese, and moved on.

The other side of our story, the adversary of the Irish Catholics, the Orange Lodge, was very powerful for many years. As recently as the 1970’s they still had their “glorious twelfth” marches wherein they preserved their quaint habit of insisting on marching through Catholic sections of town, only in the 70’s that meant the Orangemen marched in celebration of how they (meaning the now thoroughly Canadian protestants) beat them (in this case meaning recent Italian immigrants) at the Battle of the Boyne. History is not without its non sequitors.

The Lodge is mostly gone now. Unlike Catholics who are bolstered by immigration from Catholic countries, British Protestant immigration dried up after the 1950’s. With dwindling birth rates and loss of congregations due to apostasy, they are little more than a memory in our history. Their marches, once made up of thousands of members, consist now of dozens. Their time has passed, and their return unlikely. The Lodge could be a cautionary tale for Catholics.

I could have written about the influence of Vatican II in the archdiocese, and perhaps have said something about the confusion caused by the rush to implement the council, or the council's 'spirit', at a moment when the old identity was unravelling and a new one had not yet taken shape, and its effect on the diocese, but much has already been written about that. Many bloggers and writers seem to be of the belief that the council was the sole motivator behind the changes which have taken place in recent years, and do not seem to acknowledge that the council was in part in response to changes already occurring.

The Toronto Diocese was born in crisis and struggle. Every achievement of the early Toronto Catholics was the result of many hard fights, first to gain, then to retain what they had won. Their identity as Catholics separated them and left them as outsiders to the majority of society, but at the same time it bound them each other and made them strong. History tells us that what is won with struggle may be lost in quiet and comfort. This is possible for the Catholics of Toronto. But History also tells us that the True Faith can sustain us through any crisis, even the crises of peace. I wish to retell the story of a man at War, this time the Second World War, the war after the war that created the new Canadian identity, who remembered that being Catholic is something worth any risk. The story begins with the man, my father, going to a Mass while at war.

Dad was at or near the front lines in Italy one day when an officer came down the line. "Any Catholics here," he began. "There's a priest about to say Mass in the next field." Dad took his helmet and rifle and headed over to the next field, as did several other Catholics.

He was appalled when he arrived. The field was wide open, easily visible from the Germans, and exposed to any kind of enemy fire. The men immediately looked for a hill, a shell hole, a rock, a furrow- anything that might give them any sort of cover. Meanwhile, in the middle of the field stood the priest, carefully setting up his Mass kit on a big rock, taking his time and doing it properly, appearing as if he had no concern in the world other than this, and going about it as if he were in a parish back home, and there was no war to trouble anyone or anything.

If there was ever a time for a Tridentine speed Mass, this would have been it. But, to Dad's horror, (and he knew, because he used to be an altar boy at a Cathedral) the priest said the Mass slowly and carefully, doing every movement as prescribed, omitting no prayer while gunfire raged around them. At last the priest turned, holding the consecrated host. "Come to Communion!" he shouted out to the men hiding in the field. "I grant you all full absolution. Come!"

Dad's reaction was: "He's got to be kidding." But then he saw it: the soldiers making their way forward to receive communion. Granted, they approached the priest at a dead run, and left at a dead run as soon as it was received. But still they came. Dad, emboldened by the other men, came forward himself, received, thanked God, and raced away.

He stayed in his furrow watching as the priest put away his Mass kit as properly as he set it out, and, when finished and having said his final prayers, the priest snapped his case shut and walked away.

As long as Catholics remember that our faith, our spiritual home and source of our spiritual food is worth taking risks over, worth sacrificing for, worth struggling for, there will be an Archdiocese of Toronto.

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