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Miracles on the mountain

Catholicism in Quebec is nowhere near as prevalent as it used to be, but the recent canonization of Brother André demonstrates the persistence of faith in this province

At 4 a.m. on October 15, one of the many underground chambers of St. Joseph’s Oratory – known as the “crypt church,” and in fact the first part of the complex to be completed – was packed out the door by a crowd of well over a thousand people. The occasion was the canonization of Saint André Bessette, a turn of the century Quebec monk and mystic, who is credited with the miraculous healings of thousands of people.

From around 1900 until his death in 1937, André was one of the most famous people in Quebec. His personal legend and his fanatical devotion to Saint Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus, inspired the wealthier Catholics of Montreal to finance the massive Oratory’s construction. And his following seems only to have grown since then.

More than two million pilgrims a year visit the Oratory, many in hopes of curing their medical problems. Part of the massive flight of stairs leading to the basilica is roped off for pilgrims who ascend them on their knees, saying a prayer at each step.

André is entombed in a chamber deep beneath the church, his heart on display in a nearby glass case filled with formaldehyde. Adjacent to the tomb is a chapel devoted to Saint Joseph, with stations for each of his different areas of patronage: the worker, the family, those beset by demons, and so on. In between the stations, enormous racks reach up to the ceiling, covered by hundreds and hundreds of crutches. They have been left there by pilgrims who came to the Oratory, and left with no more need for them. The most poignant are the crutches that are just three or four feet tall – the flung-away fetters of an injured or disabled child.

Since the actual ceremony for André was being held in Rome, a screen had been set up at the front of crypt church to live-broadcast the ceremony, but it kept collapsing. Each time it was re-erected, thunderous applause broke out, and some were even moved to tears. A young American nun sat on the lap of her elder sister, craning her neck for a better view; at the back of the room, a Radio-Canada camera crew pressed equipment in people’s faces, aggressively demanding comment.

I spoke to one man who had came from Ottawa to pay homage to André. “The fact that it’s Brother André’s canonization, I think it’s very important that I be here,” he said. “Quebec City was founded 400 years ago or something, and we have [only] one saint now. The church was mostly in Europe, before, and now it’s expanding.” Globally, maybe so, but not in North America. “Quebec has gone very far from being religious. Maybe [the canonization] will bring some back, I don’t know. The church needs to be realigned.”

Another man had travelled all the way from Connecticut. Coincidentially, he was also named André Bessette. “Over the past four or five years, I have been more deliberate, and mindful of my faith, and our heritage,” Bessette told me. He is now an Episcopalian, but comes from a traditional French-Canadian Catholic family (he even said he was a distant relation of his namesake). “What Brother André did, and continues to do through so many people, it’s amazing,” he said. “I was really honoured to be here.”

The path to sainthood

The process leading up to this honour is remarkably bureaucratic. First, a person must be beatified, for which one confirmed miracle in their name is required. They are then referred to as “The Blessed so-and-so,” as Brother André had been since 1982. After a second confirmed miracle, the person becomes a saint, but this can take many years. Brother André was actually one of the youngest of his class – two of this year’s new saints died in the 17th century.

In an interview with The Daily, Richard Bernier, a doctorate student at McGill specializing in the intersection of faith and culture, explained the technicalities of a “miracle.”

“A miracle is understood to be something that manifests the presence of God in the world,” Bernier said. Everyday, personal miracles are part of the Catholic faith, but in the context of canonization, he said, they need to be a little bolder. “In practice it’s always of a medical nature…something that happens in the case of a sick person that’s medically inexplicable.” Whether or not it is inexplicable is determined by a Vatican-appointed team of doctors. If they investigate the case and come up empty-handed, and the medical case is explicitly tied to Catholic devotion – say, if the afflicted had been praying for help to Brother André – a miracle has officially taken place.

Contrary to common conception, the Church doesn’t “make” anyone a saint; the word merely refers to someone who is in heaven. Those recognized as saints here on earth are those known to be in heaven, thanks to the evidence provided by miracles. Saints have no healing power of their own, but, being in heaven, can appeal to God on behalf of people here on Earth.

Most people in the crypt church that night believed André already was a saint, and had just been waiting for the Vatican to acknowledge it. “It’s like when you discover a band,” Bernier told me. Himself a practicing Catholic with a hero of his own – John Henry Newman – on the path to canonization, Bernier continued “If everyone understands how great that music is, maybe it doesn’t change your appreciation of it, but there’s a sense of confirmation, and also you’re sharing something wonderful with other people.”

Staying modest about miracles

The bureaucracy of the canonization system, and individuals’ own veneration of saintly people, can lead to some strange contradictions. It took a century for Brother André to be credited with two confirmed miracles, yet people have been experiencing miracles on the southwest slope of Mount Royal every day for all that time. The tiny chapel where André received the faithful before the crypt church was constructed has been preserved in the shadow of the Oratory. Its walls are covered with donated plaques, thanking Saint Joseph for curing everything from rheumatism to cancer.

When I asked Bernier about the discrepancy between the popular understanding of Brother André and the Vatican’s recognition of only two of his miracles, he emphasized the need for skepticism within the faith. “That’s kind of the hierarchy’s job, they’re like the airbrakes on a truck,” Bernier told me. “They’re meant to slow things down, and that’s frustrating if you’re trying to go faster, or it’s frustrating if you don’t want to encounter that resistance.” Across the globe, average Catholics venerate people and places that the church refuses to recognize. Bernier cited the shrine at Lourdes, France, a widely-revered site that in the past met with severe resistance from church authorities.

Here in Quebec, though, there may be other reasons for the church to play down André’s mass healing powers. André was a big part of pre-Quiet Revolution Catholicism, when the Church was the most powerful cultural institution in the province, bar none. At that time, people weren’t terribly subtle about their faith in André’s miracles. In one of my favourite documents from the period, a comic book entitled The Wonder Man of Montreal, a bulked-up André doles out healing at every flip of the page. When a man comes to him with a paralyzed right arm, André reminds him to go to confession, then says, “PICK UP YOUR HAT…WITH YOUR RIGHT HAND.” And he does. Later in the book, he even brings a woman back from the dead, Lazarus-style. (She wakes up hungry, prompting him to say, “GET ME AN ORANGE. I WANT HER TO EAT IT.”)

But times have changed. We now live in an era of high-tech hospitals and Catholic child and sex abuse scandals. If the church went around touting “the miracle-man of Montreal,” it might garner some pretty sharp criticism. Consequently, André has gone through something of a public-image revision, from which he has emerged as a faithful naïf, prone less to raising the dead than saying pithy things like “It is with the smallest brushes that the artist paints the most exquisitely beautiful pictures!”

A Globe and Mail article about the canonization spoke sternly about the “creepy” side of André’s legacy, meaning, essentially, miracles, which always have been, and always will be a central part of the Catholic faith. Church officials were quoted in the article emphasizing that the modern-day Oratory only encourages “healthy spirituality.” “The context in which we live today is different,” one priest told the Gazette, “there are a lot more social services and medical services, but there are still a lot of people who need a friend, who need a brother to whom they can talk. Brother André reminds us that we can be this brother, this friend, for people around us.”

For many of the faithful, this tamer church may provide an avenue to reconcile their belief with their modern sensibilities. Besette explained his idea of miracles to me in a manner that perfectly synthesized traditionalism and modern skepticism. Though he “believes” in miracles, less institutionalized, more interpretative miracles appealed to Bessette. “I believe in miracles, I can’t say I see them every day, but I’ve seen them. I’ve got three kids, and they’re all pretty good kids, that’s miraculous.”

Crutches in the basement

Yet things have not changed as much as it could seem to an outsider. Church officials may insist to the sneering anglophone press that they endorse “healthy” kinds of devotion, but the crutches in the basement more than speak for themselves. Little testaments of private faith are scattered throughout the Oratory, suggesting that in the minds of the faithful, André is still the same miraculous, humble man. There are more crutches in the original chapel, and notes slipped under the glass of André’s preserved living quarters beg for his help with all kinds of medical problems.

The Oratory has become a true sanctuary for ill and disabled Catholics. On one of my visits, a young woman who was over-dressed for the weather reached the top of the steps, leaned against a railing, and coughed heavily into a white handkerchief. If critics of the church wish to deride its endorsement of miracles, then they must contend with the other elements of André’s healing legacy. One of these is the Congregation for the Sick and the Suffering, a weekly prayer service for disabled and ill people, held every Wednesday without fail.

Bernier stressed the need to place healing miracles in perspective. “As much as I, or anyone else might say, you know, miracles are a thing of a past – and I’m not saying that is the case – at the same time there are ordinary folks who went to the Oratory one day and experienced something that allowed them to leave their crutches behind. And for them, that might have been life-changing.”

Do we really want to relegate miracles to the past? Miracles are one part of faith that can never be dominated by institutional hierarchy or dogma. Even if they can be co-opted, the actual experience of a miracle remains entirely and intimately personal. Likewise, saints must become folk-heroes before they can merit that institutional stamp of approval. The question of whether or not miracles do, in fact, occur, has almost nothing to do with the fact that people experience them. Try to imagine that the maker of the universe has singled you out and cured your bad leg, and you can begin to understand why the Oratory remains such an attraction. It is this sense of wonder that drew people to the Oratory the night of October 15, including monks, priests, lay-people, and even casually agnostic, Presbyterian-raised student journalists like myself.

On the night of the ceremony, I met a man named Pierre standing on the terrace, smoking a cigarette. His eyes were red with tears. He looked to be in his mid to late thirties and he had long, brown scraggly hair. Despite the awkwardness of the language barrier, he seemed eager to talk to me, and I told him I could record him in French. I asked him why he was there. “Oh,” he said, at a loss, “Brother André is my friend. I don’t know how to explain it…He is someone who has helped me a lot…I wanted to be here to thank him.” I asked what “helped” meant. “I have foot problems,” he explained. I nodded.

As Bernier said, “You’ll meet lots of faithful who are encouraged by the fact that there was a man who walked our streets, who knew Côte-des-Neiges, and took the streetcar ­– all these ordinary parts of urban life. They derive encouragement from the thought that he also seems to have done extraordinary things.”