The Pope declared two 17th-century French missionaries, Marie de l’Incarnation, far left, and Francois de Laval, as saints April 3 without requiring the verification of a miracle or a canonization ceremony. CNS photos

Model Canadians

  • October 16, 2014

The year-long celebration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Quebec reached into the Vatican on Oct. 12 with a papal Mass to honour Canada’s two newest saints. 

St. Francois de Laval and St. Marie de l’Incarnation, declared saints in April, were officially recognized by Pope Francis in a special Mass of thanksgiving at St. Peter’s Basilica. The Mass was celebrated to honour the “equivalent canonization” of the two saints and, although lacking the pomp of a full canonization ceremony, it gave a papal embrace to the pair as full-fledged members of the Church’s family of saints. 

The 17th-century bishop and nun were canonized by Pope Francis despite the absence of a miracle attributed to them since their beatification by Pope John Paul II in 1980. This route to sainthood is rare but becoming more common, and seems perfectly fitting in exceptional cases, such as these. That Quebec is celebrating 350 years of Catholic life is due in large part to this pair, sometimes called the Father and Mother of the Canadian Church. 

New France in the 1600s was not an easy place to succeed as a missionary. Conditions were harsh and relationships with the indigenous peoples precarious. Vatican policy at the time was to convert aboriginal populations spiritually and culturally, and to do it uncompromisingly if necessary. But Laval and de l’Incarnation followed what today might be called a more Canadian path. 

They advocated values like tolerance, compromise, inclusiveness and respect. They understood the importance of walking alongside the Algonquin and Iroquois rather than trying to suppress them. They tried to establish themselves as models of Christianity rather than enforcers of doctrine. 

The first female missionary in Church history, l’Incarnation accomplished this by learning four aboriginal languages and writing dictionaries in two of them. She also translated the catechism to Iroquois and wrote a book of history in Algonquin. She made sincere efforts to understand the people and to genuinely connect with them. Education, she realized, was integral to her mission and when she built her first school its doors were opened to native children, boys and girls. 

Similarly, Laval’s approach to missionary outreach included respect for native languages and culture. He, too, understood the power of education. The first bishop of New France, a diocese that stretched to the Gulf of Mexico, Laval founded The Grand Seminary of Quebec (Laval University today) and insisted his seminarians honour local ways and indigenous dialects. By founding the first seminary in North America, and ordaining priests from local communities, Laval gave rise to a truly Canadian Church, one that didn’t require priests from Europe. 

Though operating independently, Canada’s two newest saints constructed a model for a Church that endures to this day. 

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