Opposite Christmas

Today is the Summer Christmas, or rather, was treated as such in the High Middle Ages, from what I understand. The account of Saint John Baptist in Luke’s Gospel places his conception about six months before the Annunciation to Mary. In symmetry, three Masses were offered, as for Christmas Day. It was this rich mediaeval heritage that came with the settlers to New France.

When I was young and stupid (before I was old and stupid), I was under the impression that Sainte-Jean-Baptiste was the Patron of Canada. My reasoning accorded with the scale at which his Feast was apparently celebrated in Quebec; it also made poetic sense to me in light of his legend. Catholic Christianity came only recently to these parts (less than half a millennium ago), but arrived fully formed from the Old Country (France in our case). I associated this patron with the advanced age of his mother, Elizabeth, and strangely also with the “forerunning” coureurs de bois. I pictured John Baptist as a kind of Elijah, from darkly prognostic passages in Isaiah.

Only when I eventually looked it up, did I realize that, no, Saint Joseph is our principal Patron; and about five hundred more were established, long ago, in various Canadian locations. Sainte-Jean is however patron to the Canadiens or Habitants of Quebec, eventually recognized as such by Pius X, although the devotion arose from the people. It was, like every other holiday in Quebec, originally religious, perhaps entirely so for the first two centuries.

Some hint of a nationalist association was clinched in the approach of the Lower Canada Rebellion (towards 1837). The lamentable Sainte-Jean-Baptiste Society took hold of it to this end, inspired by the model of American Saint Patrick’s Day parading; and since, it has followed the trajectory of society in French Canada, down the dark hole, so that now it is called officially, La fête nationale, and is associated with unpleasant public behaviour.

Moan, moan: a month ago the Archdiocese of Quebec closed the huge Saint John Baptist Church, built to rival Saint Patrick’s in New York. This first and oldest of Canadian dioceses is in course of reducing the city’s two hundred churches to perhaps thirty, to keep up with the flight of Catholics. They can no longer afford to maintain these high-cost, publicly-neglected properties, and this latest closing signals that their policy of supporting at least the most visible monuments to their country’s Catholic past, has itself been abandoned.

Alas, the only alternative would have been to revive Catholicism in Quebec, a task beyond the hierarchical imagination.

The church in question (seating 2,400) still had a congregation of a few dozen, now transferred to a cosier place. The last Mass, for Pentecost, was celebrated in a peculiar way. The priest gave two devoted old ladies permission to join him by the altar in the Sanctuary; he returned to find the whole congregation in tears pressed therein.

Christ is not dead; the Church is not dead; though we might say that Quebec is dead.

A bitter person might observe that what remains of Quebec’s identity is worthless. Her Catholic religion has been systematically replaced with the moral and aesthetic filth of “agnosticism,” which characteristically expresses itself in hooligan mobs and jingo. The worst fascist undercurrents in the old Quebec — anti-English, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant; the old peasant bigotries — are all that survives from the heritage; with the French language now imposed, by jackboot. Surely such a view would be overstated.

My own instinct would have been to keep the church open; to continue singing until the last priest or deacon, the last parishioner has died; until the roof fell in. Then let it stand as an eloquent ruin, for any passing Christian.

But of course this is not “practical”; the modern state’s hygiene police (buildings division) would move in at some point. In that case, let them; let them take possession by force, as the Da’ish took possession of the ruins at Palmyra, without the slightest resistance from any of the many generations of its ancient ghosts.

The Archdiocese of Quebec instructs its few remaining laity not to be bitter, as it re-finances itself from the real estate holdings. (Churches in the province are being closed currently at the rate of about six a month.) Nor is this necessary: the facts speak for themselves.

Saint John Baptist pray for us; gather our heritage from the summer dust.

Breathe life again, O Holy Spirit: sprinkle with hyssop and restore, that the bones that are crushed shall rejoice.