On Becoming One Province – Again.
As I contemplate the union of our two Jesuit provinces, Canada Français and English Canada, I feel a certain sadness. The diminishment of our French Canada Province, a result of the complex history of the Catholic Church in Québec, is a loss for the Society of Jesus and for the universal Church, which at one time had French Canadian missionaries in China and Ethiopia, not to discount the establishment of French-language colleges in other parts of Canada.
One might well ask, adapting a line from the once popular monologuiste, Yvon Deschamps, “L’union, qu’ossa donne?” What’s it good for, this union?
The answer to this question lies in the future, but it’s interesting to go back to the past, to 1924, when the original Jesuit Province of Canada was divided in two, taking the old geographical divisions of Upper and Lower Canada as their new designations.
John Milway Filion (1878-1962) had the (then) unique distinction of being the Provincial Superior of two provinces: first of the Province of Canada in 1918, and, six years later, of the new English language province.
The first volume of the Dictionary of Jesuit Biography: Ministry to English Canada, points out some of the challenges Filion faced after the First World War, when there were conflicts raging over language and religion, not just in Québec, but also in Ontario, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.
There Jesuits were administering and teaching in both French and English at Collège Sacré-Coeur, Sudbury, Collège St-Boniface, in Manitoba, and Collège St-François-Xavier, Edmonton. The Dictionary points out that he was too young to have been involved in any disputes, and had been out of the country from 1912 to 1917, studying in Wales and in England.
As a thoroughly bilingual Jesuit of French and English parentage, his mandate from General Superior Wlodomir Ledochowski was to use “the utmost care and solicitude … to try to enter into the feelings of each side.” This seems like good advice for Erik Oland as well. (1)
When the Province of Canada was divided, there were about 350 Jesuits in the Lower Canada Province and about 100 in Upper Canada. Today the French Canada Province has, at last count, 108 members, while English Canada has 133, and many in both provinces are aging, so there has been diminishment in both.
There are other significant differences, of course, especially the number of scholastics in English Canada, which has a total of 46, and in the number of institutions still under our control. As has already happened in French Canada, some of these institutions will pass to lay leadership.
As second year novices we went to Midland, Ontario, to help open up Martyrs’ Shrine for the summer season, and there we were privileged to get to know Father Filion, who had worked to establish and build the Shrine, and where he spent most of his summers, dying there of a heart attack at the age of 84.
He gave us several talks on the martyrs, for whose beatification he had struggled. I remember him telling us that the Pope (Pius XI) had not been in favour of promoting more French saints, and Filion had insisted, “Non sono Francese, sono Canadese!”
Two other Jesuits from French Canada touched my life, and I am grateful for both of them. One is Irénée Beaubien, who died in 2017 at the age of 101. He was my confessor when I was a high school student considering a vocation to the priesthood.
My school, the Catholic High School of Montreal, run by the Brothers of the Presentation (I returned there to teach for a year before I joined the Jesuits), was on Rue Durocher, not far from Bleury and the church of the Gesù, with its the bi-lingual Catholic Inquiry Forum which Beaubien had established.
I would drop in regularly to see him there and browse through the Catholic books on display (I remember borrowing and reading Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter). Beaubien went on to do other important work, including the establishment of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, and he received many honours, including Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.
The other French Canada Jesuit I am grateful for is Gilles Cusson, with whom I made an eight-day retreat many years ago, while he was Director of Tertians. At the time he was leading them through les Exercices dans la vie courante, the Exercises in daily life, which he believed was the only way to make them.
The growth of this way of doing the Exercises (according to Annotation 19, as we sometimes say) owes much to Cusson, his practice and his writings.
Despite the concerted effort to integrate our two provinces (with a common novitiate, common archives, a joint catalogue, and many inter-provincial meetings), we remain to a great extent two solitudes. The cultural and historical divide is deep and not easily bridged.
Many of us do not speak both languages, and most of us live and work in our old separateness. This naming of our solitudes comes not just from the title of the well-known novel (1945) by Hugh MacLennan, but from a line by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, which reads, in translation: “Love consists in this–that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.”
These are beautiful words. They reveal a truth about the reality of all human love, and they point to what alone can make us one. We Jesuits share a common patrimony in our founder’s Spiritual Exercises, and the love of Jesus, whose companions we are, is what in the end truly unites us.
(1): Erik Oland, SJ will be the first provincial of the Canada Province.