The changing face of Toronto’s church

  • December 13, 2007

{mosimage}TORONTO - The linguistic ground is shifting underneath arguably the most diverse diocese in Catholicism, where Mass is celebrated in 34 languages every Sunday morning. The latest numbers from the 2006 Census show quick and dramatic changes in the languages spoken in Toronto.

More than 40 per cent of greater Toronto’s 5.1 million people claim a mother tongue other than English or French. The numbers also show a sharp divergence between multicultural Toronto and the rest of Canada. In all of Canada without Toronto, 15.2 per cent claim a non-official mother tongue, compared to 42.6 per cent for Toronto and the surrounding suburbs.

The most dramatic increases in Toronto are in Asian languages, while European tongues are at a standstill or dropping.

 2006Change since 2001
Other Chinese1813658.5%
Persian (Farsi)6398038.6%
Source: Statistics Canada, 2006 Census

Urdu speakers from the Indian peninsula increased 82.9 per cent between 2001 and 2006. Mandarin Chinese (the language spoken on most of the Chinese mainland, Singapore and Taiwan) jumped 78 per cent in the same period.

Italian — still the second most spoken non-official language in both Canada and Toronto after Chinese — dropped 5.2 per cent in Toronto between 2001 and 2006. Across Canada, the shrinkage in Italian speakers was 11.6 per cent. Ukrainian as a mother tongue retreated 2.3 per cent in Toronto and sank 9.2 per cent in Canada as a whole.

The shift in immigration has brought old mission lands onto the parish doorstep, and many parishes are responding with outreach and evangelization efforts, said Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Richard Grecco.

“Through Baptism, we’re all missionaries,” said Grecco, who has special responsibility for Toronto’s ethnic parishes. “The whole church has a mission, and it’s to spread the Gospel.”

Grecco boasts that the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults programs at Toronto’s majority-Chinese parishes has been spectacularly successful. Four Chinese parishes on their own baptize close to 800 adults every year, said the bishop.

“That’s a growth of a parish a year,” he said.

The church’s first concern remains serving Catholic immigrants with sacraments offered within the language and cultural context they bring with them. Spanish-speaking migrants from Latin America have become the growth language for the archdiocese of Toronto and in parishes across Canada. In five years Toronto’s Hispanic population increased 30.2 per cent, while across Canada the Hispanic wave grew an even more dramatic 40.7 per cent.

While large numbers from Mexico, Central America and South America naturally gravitate toward the church for both spiritual and social support, the church in Toronto is already looking ahead to the second generation born or growing up in Canada.

“It’s that classic set-up, where when you minister to them you try to usher the second generation into the Canadian church,” said Grecco.

Churches and religious institutions generally have proven themselves effective in helping immigrants settle in Canada and deal with a new culture, said Prof. Usha George, dean of the faculty of community services at Ryerson University. George has recently completed a major study of South Asian women immigrants and found they trust religious institutions above all others for unbiased, altruistic help in establishing their families in Canada. George believes the same result could be replicated in other ethnic enclaves.

“Most of these organizations, religious organizations, do not think of providing settlement services in whatever form it is as their primary or even secondary responsibility,” said George. “But the very fact you are coming to a group of people who have gone through similar experiences, who then will be able to direct people’s attention to do this and you will be fine, or go to this organization and they’ll give you some leads — that sort of introduces rich contacts for them.”

While the church may be a vital support for new immigrants, ethnically based religion tied to a language and a set of old-country traditions does not necessarily transfer to the second generation, or even what George calls the 1.5 generation — children born in the old country but growing up in Canada.

“A large number of them really do not attend their parents’ churches wholeheartedly,” George said.

“Even though it helps them (new immigrants) to integrate into Canadian culture, what it’s really doing is helping them to become part of this new kind of diaspora community,” said Professor Robert Campbell, sociologist of religion and humanities at the University of Toronto. “So it’s heavily flavoured with their original ethnic identity.”

Campbell has been studying religious identity and practice among second-generation immigrants who take his courses at U of T’s Scarborough Campus. He sees a much stronger tendency for the children of Muslim and Hindu immigrants to strongly identify with their parents’ religion.

“I see it less among Christians than non-Christians, and I see it less among Catholics than I do among Protestants,” Campbell said.

“Ghettoization is always a danger,” said Grecco. “On the other hand, what do you do? Do you ignore these people? You can’t.”

Strong parish leadership focussed on helping people make the transition, rather than holding them in an ethnic and linguistic bubble, can make the ethnic parishes work better, said the bishop. Pastors are also increasingly offering at least one Sunday Mass in English to help the second generation feel more at home in the church, he said.

Shifts in immigration patterns that diminish the demand for some languages and increase demand for others are nothing new in Toronto, Grecco said.

“We’ve had some parishes right down on Bloor (Street) that were one nationality four years ago and now they’re another,” he said.

A great deal of the vitality and growth in Toronto’s church is courtesy of immigrants and immigration, said Grecco.

“They’re doing all kinds of things out of renewal in the spirit, devotion, social action,” he said.

In addition to their languages and cultures, immigrants have reminded the church in Toronto of some basic, positive values that make community life possible, said the bishop.

“There’s a healthy attitude towards family and the meaning of marriage, and devotional groups focussed in on family and the meaning of marriage,” said Grecco. “I see the wonderful work they do. It’s truly edifying.”

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