The number of baptisms has dropped dramatically in Quebec since 2012. CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Decline in baptisms leads Church in Quebec to ponder new strategies

By  Philippe Vaillancourt, Catholic News Service
  • November 23, 2019

QUEBEC CITY -- The great doorway to growing in the Christian faith is narrowing from year to year in Quebec as baptisms have significantly declined since 2012 and there’s no indication the trend will reverse.

Confronted with a shift away from traditional practices of transmitting the faith in childhood, leaders in the Quebec Church are rethinking how to approach children’s spirituality.

Data compiled by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec shows the number of baptisms declined from 42,213 (of 88,933 births) in 2012 to 30,394 (of 83,900 births) in 2017. The figures represent a 28-per-cent decline in five years.

Clement Vigneault, director of the Catechesis Office of Quebec, is monitoring the situation. Before the question of baptizing and catechizing children is even raised, he sees a growing concern — especially among grandparents — to consider the spiritual life of children.

“There’s a trend of waiting to baptize children in order to give them the opportunity to choose later,” he said. 

“But how will they choose if they have never been accompanied in their spiritual life?”

Elaine Champagne, associate professor of theology and religious studies at Laval University, has been working on children’s spirituality for several years. It was while working in pediatric health care for eight years that she developed her interest in the topic.

She noted that spiritual care in health facilities was mainly oriented toward parents and that children sometimes were forgotten. She said, however, that being interested in this “sacred, very personal space” in children is just as important. 

Champagne’s research has enabled her to identify three modes to better grasp children’s spirituality in everyday life.

The “existential” mode is interested in how they live in the present. In the “sensitive” mode, children communicate with their bodies and senses. “Something is said all over their bodies. The whole body expresses it, their being is coherent,” Champagne said. In the “relational” mode, it’s about the relationship to oneself, to others, to God and to one’s environment.

Champagne invites adults to go beyond the image they may have of children’s spirituality. Certainly, the children have a “beautiful capacity for wonder,” but it’s also necessary to know how to respect that “in this state of becoming, there’s fragility, a dependence.”

The Rev. Jean-Daniel Williams is working on a doctorate in practical theology on children’s ministries. As a part-time chaplain at McGill University and an associate priest at the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal, he works with children of all ages.

“There’s of course a difference between a three-year-old and a 10-year-old child. However, it should be emphasized that children are completely human from the beginning. If we see children as adults in the making, we don’t respect the reality of their current spirituality,” he explained.

For Williams, children are the “most spiritual beings in the world” simply because they ask so many questions. 

“Isn’t the very foundation of religion people asking, ‘Why?’ ” he said. Curiosity and openness are, he said, two distinct marks of children’s spirituality.

“It’s important to understand that in institutional religion, there has been a tradition of having a normalized path: baptism, communion and so on. But the questions ‘Why I exist?’ ‘How to make the right moral choice?’ ‘Do I belong to something bigger than myself?’ remain regardless of the institutional or family context,” said Williams, who is the father of 11-year-old twins.

Williams said that it’s difficult to find the right balance to recognize the child as he or she is without treating the child as an adult. He believes that churches have not always been able to set an example in this regard.

“Jesus says we must attract children with all our hearts. Otherwise we are not the Church.”

In order to allow children younger than five years old to “awaken to the faith while having fun,” officials from the Office of Faith Education of the Archdiocese of Montreal asked Christiane Boulva to develop what would become “La P’tite Pasto,” or “little pastoral.” Its English version is called Little Hearts Playgroup.

The program covers 60 themes over a three-year period. It is being used in more than 100 parishes throughout Quebec as well as in Alberta, Manitoba and Yukon.

Boulva, a mother herself, is concerned about the lack of places where children can hear about spirituality today.

“In the future, our society must succeed in reaching them where they will be and offer them and their parents activities adapted to their aspirations, their dreams and the challenges they face on a daily basis by directly meeting their needs,” Boulva said.

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