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Ten important papal moments in the Catholic Church in Canada

Elder Fred Kelly, a spiritual adviser to the First Nations' delegation, prays for Pope Francis during a meeting with Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers, abuse survivors and youth from Canada and representatives of Canada's Catholic bishops at the Vatican in this April 1, 2022, file photo. The pope plans to read his speeches in Spanish during his July 24-29 trip to Canada. While the Indigenous will be the focus of the trip, concern for the environment and prayers for Ukraine also are expected. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Canada begins tomorrow and concludes next Friday, with the Pontiff returning to Rome on July 30th. Here in chronological order are 10 significant moments in which the papacy influenced the life and history of the Church in Canada.

10. Of the foster-father’s love begotten: Declared patron saint of the universal Church in the late 1800s, St. Joseph had long before then occupied a privileged place among the Canadian faithful. In 1624, Franciscan missionaries chose Christ’s foster father as the spiritual benefactor for the fledgling colony in New France. Thirteen years later, Pope Urban VIII formalized this selection. Perhaps the greatest tribute to this patronage is the national shrine at Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, whose grounds overlooking the city welcome 2 million visitors every year.

9. A missionary’s digital transformation: Few figures in the Canadian Church rival the celebrity of the Jesuit missionaries who endured severe hardships while seeking to evangelize Canada’s native peoples. One of these priests, St. Isaac Jogues, was captured during a raid by a rival tribe. Jogues was tortured and his hands mutilated. He managed to escape to France and, in 1644, received permission from Urban VIII to continue celebrating Mass, despite his inability to hold the Blessed Sacrament with thumb and forefinger, as Church law then required. Jogues returned to the New World in 1646, only to die a martyr a few months later.

8. A devotion to domestic virtue takes root: Amidst the adversity of colonial life, the settlers of New France fostered a special devotion to the Holy Family. By 1663, a formal Association of the Holy Family – the first of its kind anywhere – was established in Montreal (then known as Ville-Marie or “City of Mary”). Fast forward two and a quarter centuries, and Canada secured approval from Pope Leo XIII for a feast day in celebration of the Holy Family. In 1921, Pope Benedict XV added it to the general calendar for the Church world-wide.

7. A new (and massive) diocese comes of age: After decades of growth, setbacks and conflicts with everyone from Indigenous tribes to British forces to Protestant rivals, New France was granted its own bishop by Pope Clement X in 1674 – François de Laval. The Diocese of Québec was the first diocese in modern-day Canada and the U.S., encompassing French territory all the way to Louisiana. Laval presided over a flourishing of the diocese and died in 1708, the centennial of New France’s founding. He was canonized in 2014.

6. This land is your land, this land is Jesuit land: The British, already the victor in the Seven Years War, confiscated Jesuit lands in Québec in the 1770s after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus. Following restoration of their Order 40 years later, the Jesuits sought a payout, but the Québec hierarchy wanted funding for Catholic schools. Things escalated to the point where Pope Leo XIII helped facilitate a settlement in 1888. A motion to nullify the settlement, seen by detractors as a papal intrusion, was defeated in Parliament. In the aftermath, Protestant-Catholic relations became intensely strained (more on that below).

5. “Hey, teacher! Leave those Catholic kids alone!” Notwithstanding their collaboration in bringing the Canadian federation to fruition in 1867, British Protestants and French Catholics had their share of differences. In 1912, Ontario banned the use of French in schools. This not only exacerbated denominational rifts, but divided Franco and Anglo Catholics, with Irish immigrants voicing support. Pope Benedict XV weighed in, urging Canada’s bishops to seek peace and signaling sympathy for the Francophone cause. The law was eventually revoked, but issues around religion and language in Canadian schools remain as fraught today as ever.

4. A band of bishop brothers: By the mid-1900s, formation of national episcopal conferences was a growing trend. Aimed at facilitating action and fostering fraternity among the apostolic successors in a given territory, the Conference’s role was formalized by Vatican II in 1965. Spurred by factors like a large geographic footprint and regional disparities, Canada’s confreres were slightly ahead of the curve, having secured recognition from Pope Pius XII in 1948. Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in the context of residential schools, the impetus for Pope Francis’ current visit, has been a collective focus for Canada’s bishops for 30 years.

3. Canonization of home-grown holiness: A joyful milestone for the Church in any country is the recognition of its first native-born saint. Consider the rich legacies of Elizabeth Ann Seton in America, Friar Galvao in Brazil, or Andrew Dung-Lac and the martyrs of Vietnam. For Canada, the honour belongs to Marguerite D’Youville. Born in Québec in 1701, she founded a religious order, the Sisters of Charity, who ministered to poor women and were eventually entrusted with the oversight of Montreal’s main hospital. She was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 1990.

2. A prairie harvest planted by Eastern seeds: A key figure in Canada’s large Ukrainian diaspora (second only to Russia’s in number) was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in 2001. Nykyta Budka was the first Ukrainian Catholic bishop in Canada and the first outside Eurasia. From 1912 to 1928, he tirelessly shepherded communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, multiplying the number of parishes from 25 to 170. After returning home, he was arrested by the Soviets in 1945 and died in a Kazakhstan prison four years later. The many Ukrainian steeples dotting the prairie landscape serve as a lasting tribute to his legacy.

1. Once, twice, three times the “Pilgrim Pope”: During his 26-year pontificate, Pope St. John Paul II made 100 trips to 130 countries (more than all prior popes combined), visiting Canada on three occasions: a 12-day tour in 1984; a trip in 1987 to the Northwest Territories, which was bumped from the prior visit due to fog; and World Youth Day (WYD) in Toronto in 2002. Each voyage validated the claim of the papal biographer, George Weigel, that JPII “reinvigorated the Church, restoring a sense of the adventure of discipleship.” (The author of this article fondly recalls WYD’s graces for his hometown and considers himself part of the JPII generation).

May the current visit of His Holiness yield fruit for the Church in Canada and around the world!

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About Patrick Owen Brown 1 Article
Patrick Owen Brown is the host of the “Crown and Crozier” podcast. He lives outside Ottawa, Ontario with his wife, children, and livestock.


  1. If Francis truly cared about the environment and global warming, he’d cancel his trip and spare the ozone of tens of thousands of gallons of gasoline emissions and depletion of the ozone layer. What with the travels of the papal entourage and accompanying press and the endless motorcades, you’d think he’d be a more responsible steward of God’s creation. He could just as easily videocast his messages of apologies to every offended group in Canada. Stay home, Papa.

  2. Let us hope and pray that the visits fulfills God’s Intent and Purpose….the lost souls in Canada are too precious to lose at the alters of this Pope’s musings and eccentricities.

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