Reminding us what religion is all about


On October 17, the humble doorkeeper of Montreal, Brother André Bessette, was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.

Brother André Bessette, C.S.C.

A simple, untutored lay brother in the Holy Cross order, Brother André achieved great fame during his life for his intense prayer, spiritual advice and the thousands of miracles that he worked. Day after day, the queue of pilgrims waiting to see him would be long, and when he died in the winter of 1937 all of Montreal lined the streets for his funeral.

Brother André promoted devotion to Joseph, the husband of Mary and foster father to Jesus. He built a shrine on Mont Royal in honour of St. Joseph – the Oratory – which attracted pilgrims in such great numbers that it eventually became one of the largest shrines in the world. The Oratory was finally completed in 1967, by which time the fervour had cooled. Forty years on and Quebec has given itself over to a narrow and extreme secular fundamentalism.

The canonization of Brother André marks, then, a moment for the Church in Quebec to celebrate, which they will do this weekend at the Oratory and later this month at the Olympic Stadium.

For a Church long accustomed to being on the margins of Quebec’s public life – often by its own choice – the very fact of a large public occasion is important.

Brother André is a needed reminder of what religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, is principally about.

Many of the other saints of Quebec have been domesticated, as it were, reduced to their work in social services, education and health care, with all the supernatural motives ignored.

It is not possible to domesticate Brother André. He was not without good works of charity, but he did not found hospitals or schools or orphanages. His sole purpose was to draw people closer to God and he employed all the richness of Catholic devotion and ritual to that end – intercessory prayer, devotion to the saints beginning with Mary and Joseph, holy medals, blessed oil, candles, statues, pilgrimages and miracles. To this day the glory of the Oratory is not the immense green dome, but the banks of coloured votive candles in the crypt, which pilgrims light as they ask St. Joseph to bring their joys and hopes to the throne of heaven.

Therein lies the meaning of Brother André’s canonization for the Church in Quebec today. Amidst the bare ruined choirs of the past generations, the Oratory has remained a light upon the hill because it offered nothing other than what the Church alone could offer. The Oratory – which means a place of prayer – exists for no other purpose. It has no secular benefits to offer. The pilgrims who visit Saint André’s tomb will find nothing other than a humble man who points them to God.

It is not possible to domesticate Brother André.

The saints are guideposts along the path of Christian discipleship, pointing us toward their own company in heaven. Brother André is a saint from a time not too distant from our own, but from a world almost entirely unrecognizable to us. That world, alive to the presence of God, is still accessible at the Oratory on the hill, where Saint André still shows us the way.




Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Reminding us what religion is all about." National Post, (Canada) October 16, 2010.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 National Post

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