Saint François de Laval and the Conversion of Canada

‘Tis difficult to believe that Quebec was once a a bastion of the Faith, incarnating in an almost unique way the harmony between Church and State, offering the early pioneers of this nation – New France – the elan vital to conquer a wild and savage land, to raise large families, and build a prosperous and virtuous society. But la belle province is now a sclerotic, socialist mess, moribund, and its culture, or what’s left of it, held up by governmental largesse, as is most of its economy. Under the Trudeau pere et fils, the rest of Canada has followed suit. As the Faith recedes, so does everything else, true, good and beautiful,

But what Quebec was, Canada once was, and might be again. We are free to choose which path to follow, and how to live – the present is not the past, and it definitely need not be the future.

The glory of Vieux Quebec was the work of saints, one of the greatest of them François -Xavier de Montmorency-Laval (+1708), her first bishop, two centuries before ‘Canada’ even existed. Born in France, a descendant from nobility on both sides, Francois was destined for the priesthood, demonstrating a high degree not only of intelligence, holiness, piety and devotion, but also a shrewd practical sense, with the capacity to administrate, to organize funds and to deal with men amicably in all their foibles and fractiousness. He was, in the truly Pauline sense, all things to all men. He lived a life of deep prayer, discipline and recollection, the source of his immense apostolic activity and fruitfulness.

With the death of his father, along with two older brothers in battle, François became the eldest son, and had to discern whether to inherit and take over his family fortune and affairs – which his mother and his own bishop advised, but which would have meant abandoning his ecclesiastical path.

Fortunately for history and for Canada, François set his face like flint for the priesthood. Ordained on May 1st, 1647, Pere François gave his all to his supernatural vocation, and whatever task he was given, he accomplished admirably. His deepest desire was to become a missionary, after his famous Jesuit namesake; originally, he applied to be sent to Asia, but this plan was blocked, and the young, dynamic priest spent years in more quiet and hidden ministry – one of the virtues he strove to especially cultivate was patience, which bore fruit. Still only 36, the decision was made to ordain him the first bishop, the ‘Vicar Apostolic’, of New France, on the propitious day of December 8th, 1658, the future universal feast of the Immaculate Conception.

François set sail in April, arriving in Quebec on June 16, 1659, and immediately set to work for the next half-century establishing the Church in New France, his vast diocese extending from the eastern seacoast to Lake Michigan, north to the nether regions of the Arctic, and south to Louisiana, even if almost all the Catholics lived in Quebec City, whose population, in 1665 consisted of 550 souls, living in 70 houses, one-quarter of them members of religious orders.

Bishop Laval built upon the foundation laid by the heroic work of the Recollets and the Jesuits; Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant had been martyred in Huronia a scant ten years before the new bishop’s arrival, with many members of the Order still toiling away in the hinterlands.

François gave his life to his work, paving the way for bringing over many new settlers – the hardy and hard-working habitants – as well as a parochial system and priests to serve them. He founded la Grand Seminaire in Quebec City – still operational – on March 26, 1663, which he saw as the intellectual and spiritual centre of the diocese. The new bishop strove to balance the authority of the Church and State – dealing with such contentious issues as selling liquor to the ‘Natives’, and his conflict with the secular arm, the Governors, was never-ending. Following the Apostles, it was not his way to kowtow to the State.

On that note, this first bishop of Canada is also the patron saint of the bishops of Canada, who could use his powerful intercession, labouring as they are under the enervating echo of the Winnipeg Statement, the Church in Canada languishing and, from a worldly perspective, moribund.

Of course, the Church cannot die, even in our deranged Dominion. God is always working, and there will be refuges of fidelity, of strong faith – humble and hidden, perhaps, but all the more powerful for it.

Bishop Laval makes a cameo appearance in the Willa Cather novel, Shadows on the Rock, going into the unheated cathedral very early in the morning to take in the frozen holy water stoops to thaw before his fire, so that the parishioners might bless themselves on their way to prayer.

The good bishop realized, as we all must do, that much of the ‘fruit’ of our lives is borne of such small sacrifices, and much of that fruit will only be seen by others after us. By the time of Saint Laval’s death on this day in 1708, the population of New France had risen to thousands, and the Church in Quebec, for nearly three centuries, right up until its near-collapse in the revolution tranquil of the 1960’s, witnessed a vibrant and full Catholicism, with large families, a strong devotional life, music, literature, culture, heritage, the best of what it meant and should mean to be ‘Canadian’, all built on the solid Faith that Saint Francois de Laval, along with many other heroic men and women hidden to history, brought to this untamed land.

We all owe him, and them, a great deal of gratitude, and Saint François de Laval provides a model for what a bishop should be. The Church in Canada needs to hear a clear affirmation of the Church’s moral teaching; a re-appropriation and handing on of the rich intellectual tradition of the Church; and, perhaps most of all, a renewed fidelity to the liturgy. What we need far less of is a muted, milquetoast, laissez-faire, happy-clappy Catholicism – witness the tragic state of our school system, and the disorder of so many Masses across this land, which this crisis may help to alleviate – whose message is intellectually and morally flaccid, and is leading consciences and souls at best to mediocrity, and at worst to nowhere good. We may hope such a renewal is one of the lights at the end of this dark tunnel.

François de Laval was beatified by Pope Saint John Paul II on June 22, 1980 (along with fellow ‘Canadians’ Marie of the Incarnation and Kateri Tekakwitha), and canonized by Pope Francis on April 3, 2014. His tomb is in his own cathedral, Notre Dame, in the heart of the vieux ville of Quebec City – well worth a pilgrimage, if you ever get the chance.

As Saint Paul exhorted the new bishop Timothy, which Saint Francois lived to the full:

You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ.

And as we pray in today’s Collect:

O God, eternal shepherd of the faithful,
  who sent Blessed François de Laval as bishop
  to extend the dominion of Christ to the people of Canada,
grant, through his intercession,
  that we may strive always to keep and to put into practice
  the faith which, with unquenchable zeal, he strove to proclaim.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.