Brother André


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Millions of Roman Catholic pilgrims climb the 283 steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory – praying on their knees.

In the early days of my AIDS diagnosis I used to go to a “healing mass” at Our Lady of Lourdes on Sherbourne Street here in Toronto.  I can’t say I wholeheartedly believed there was much hope for a cure but as long as continued life accompanies my skepticism, and I’m still sucking air, I’ll remain interested in all manner of healing.

St. Joseph’s Oratory, spiritual home of Brother André, is like Montréal’s Our L of L, only much, much bigger and a great deal more famous.  It is where thousands of Montrealers will gather this weekend to watch as the Pope declares Brother André a saint.

Regardless of your mode of travel to Montréal, approaching the city from the west affords a view of the large dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory on the Côtes-des-Neiges slope of Mont-Royal.  It’s across the road from Collège Notre-Dame where, for many years, a man born Alfred Bessette in 1845 (he was later given the name Brother André) worked as a porter – a not-so-glorified doorman – for the student priests.

Brother André claimed a strong devotion to St. Joseph and eventually he was given permission to fund-raise for a shrine to St. Joseph.  The first structure was built in 1904.  Church authorities permitted a room to be added to the chapel and Brother André was instructed to live there so as to be able to receive pilgrims seeking prayer.  He received the ambulatory sick during the day, while evenings were devoted to visiting anyone who could not leave home.  In 1914 construction began on what would eventually be known as Saint Joseph’s Oratory. By the 1920’s over one million pilgrims visited each year and Brother André’s prayers, through St. Joseph, were credited for hundreds of cures.  (There are displays of antique crutches left there many years ago.)

Lest you think L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph, and its beautiful gardens, are only for the devout a few months after my brother Craig died in 2007 I went there one hot August evening with Craig’s partner, Claude, and two of his friends to hear the church’s music director play the massive pipe organ as accompaniment to a Charlie Chaplin film – the fourth or fifth such silent move night that year. It’s a building that can’t be missed and, once there, shouldn’t be missed.

But, alas, what would a Roman Catholic celebration be without a sexual abuse scandal? That’s the risk when nothing is done about a systemic problem!

The infuriating sins of the ‘Fathers’


As I walked up to the subway this morning I passed a young Tamil-Canadian family crossing the street from St. James Town to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church – so a confession is in order. I have received Communion from Jesuits there which, as a Protestant, I am not permitted to do. A Basilian father or two has also served me the sacraments up at their now-closed retreat centre on beautiful Strawberry Island on Lake Simcoe. I seem to have genuflected convincingly.

At Lourdes the occasions for my being there were monthly healing masses for anyone affected by HIV/AIDS. I don’t know if they’re still going on but in their early days I attended semi-regularly with many others willing to at least pay lip service to just about anything offering hope. (I’ll try to refrain from further use of the term lip service in a Roman Catholic context.) Filipino-Canadian drag queens would attend, their resemblance to their mothers always quite striking. It did not surprise me that one of the priests at the mass was someone I would occasionally see in dimly lit establishments known for sexual activity – and he was not there to hear confessions.

My blood has been at a rolling boil this week as more and more revelations of sexual abuse, and the Vatican’s handling of these tragic cases, have been reported almost daily.

Item: Vatican knew of abuse in Ontario: Victim

I came out of the closet in the early 1980s during heated public debates over the basic civil rights of gays and lesbians in the Ontario Human Rights Code. One of the canards thrown at us by opponents was the equating of homosexuality with pedophilia. It was always a shocking, and infuriating, charge. I, therefore, have a great deal of empathy for Roman Catholic priests who do not happen to be molesters of their juvenile parishioners. They must feel betrayed by their brothers who are guilty of such crimes. I hope they have the strength to call them out on these matters.

The official Roman Catholic Church, from Pope Benedict (formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and “God’s Rottweiler”) down through the defensive male hierarchy of the Church, has unsuccessfully tried to do the impossible – saving its face and its ass at the same time. The influence it once held in western society long lost, the Church still carries on as if we all believe everything that comes out of the Holy See, down to the bishops and the pawns.

Item: Pope won’t be intimidated by ‘petty gossip’

I know a few Roman Catholics who cling to their faith as the way they know to experience the Mystery and, more importantly, to act out their faith through such entities as The Catholic Worker Movement. I know them to be good, loving people who believe in gay rights, for example, and other things which would not get an endorsement from the balcony at St. Peter’s Square. My heart aches for them as they see their Church being yanked from one priests’ scandal to another.

This jars memories of ‘Hawaiian Tropic’ Secret, a story I put into words and read for the first time in 1990 during an “AIDS Mastery” workshop. In writing, without judgment or self-censorship, I saw the plain fact that what I had carried as guilt for my behaviour was, in fact, the abuse of a minor (me) by a much older man. (I have no reason to believe the abuser was a priest but I do empathize with the Church – whose condemnations regarding morality over the years are coming back to bite it to the point where its outward-pointing fingers of yesterday are increasingly pointing inward today.)

Unfortunately The Church seems to be better at demeaning the sexual life force of lowly parishioners than dealing with the inexcusable sexual violence visited upon young people by priests who claim to hold such incredible moral authority over their charges.

The flock needs to revolt against the shepherds.