Doing It Rite: Specialized Catholic Action and Liturgical Renewal in Quebec, 1930s-1960s

By Cuplinskas, Indre | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Doing It Rite: Specialized Catholic Action and Liturgical Renewal in Quebec, 1930s-1960s


Cuplinskas, Indre, The Catholic Historical Review


For five days in June, 1938 300,000 people gathered in Quebec City to participate in the first National Eucharistic Congress in Canada.1 One highlight of the event was the production of the French playwright Henri Ghéon's La Mystère de la Messe. A meditation on the relationship of parts of the Mass to aspects of salvation, the play did not try to hide its pedagogical intent: a choir of ignorant people clamored for a better understanding of the Mass. Spectators learned that the Eucharistic liturgy was part of a larger drama between God and humanity. A particular highlight was the section on the offertory, when representatives of various vocational groups such as traditional harvesters, grape-pickers, factory workers, sales clerks, and students offered up the fruits of their labors.

In conjunction with this pedagogical play on the theological meaning of the Mass, Congress participants attended Masses themselves. The event commenced with a pontifical Mass, men attended a midnight Mass, and a dialogue Mass for youth represented the most novel innovation. As in the play, the Mass highlighted the offertory, with youth offering their labors as a continuation of redemption.2

Capping off the Congress was a triumphant procession led by papal zouaves, followed by representatives of an array of youth organizations and pious lay associations such as the League of the Sacred Heart. Clergy came just ahead of the Blessed Sacrament, followed by prelates. Behind them were notables from secular institutions and the laity. Here was a dramatic performance of mid-twentieth-centuiy Catholic ecclesiological ideals: a hierarchical Church in orderly and united movement, unified around the Eucharist and a display of its faith in the public square and reinforced by the visible participation of secular authority.

Prominent throughout were youth from the various organizations in Specialized Catholic Action (SCA): Jeunesse ouvrière catholique (JOC, or Young Catholic Workers), Jeunesse étudiante catholique (JEC, or Young Catholic Students), Jeunesse agricole catholique (JAC, or Young Catholic Rural Workers), and Jeunesse indépendente catholique (JIC, or Young Catholic Independent Workers). All newcomers on the ecclesial scene in Quebec, they helped organize the Congress, marched in the procession, responded to the clergy in the dialogue Mass, and acted in the production of the Mystère de la Messe? These SCA members exemplify the issue at the center of this article: the intersection between SCA in Quebec and liturgical renewal, particularly the way in which theological sources informed the spirituality of young SCA laypeople from the 1930s to the early 1960s.

Historians of SCA in Quebec have underscored the influence of French personalism on these new youth organizations. E.-Martin Meunier has written about the role of personalism in Quebec and has argued that a personalist ethic shaped the changes in the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. This embodies a shift from a post-Tridentine focus on the sinful condition of humanity, an immutable natural order, and a representation of the clergy as mediators of the spiritual to a Catholicism that privileges the engaged and authentic person, emphasizes historical change, and acknowledges and even encourages the engagement of the laity.4 The centrality of this personalist ethic on Quebec SCA has been further investigated by Michael Gauvreau.5 Proponents of liturgical renewal could be found both espousing the post-Tridentine ethos and the personalist one. The influence of the liturgical movement on SCA, however, has only been mentioned in passing.6 Rather, scholars have studied these movements in Quebec from a sociological perspective: as organizations that facilitated the formation of youth as a social class active in the public sphere7 and as organizations that provided experience in leadership and organization to future political leaders of Quebec.8 Many young men and women active in SCA in the 1940s and 1950s became key figures in Quebec's political and cultural life during and after the Quiet Revolution. …

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