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Last revised:
23 August 2000

Controversy Surrounding the Use of the French Language at the Eucharistic Congress of Montreal [1910]

Mgr Bourne’s Speech at the Eucharistic Congress of Montreal (1910)

My Lord Cardinal Legate,
  Your Eminences,
    My Lords,
      Reverend Fathers,
        Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that at the present time the eyes of the whole world are turned towards Canada. At least it is certainly true that at home in England men of every position are thinking of Canada as they never did before. To some it is the land wherein they trust to realise hopes of a prosperity which their own country is unable to afford them. Others are preoccupied with questions of Imperial Federation or relations of commerce. The thoughtful cannot forget the possibility that some day the long Pacific coast enclosing the fertile regions of British Columbia may call for defence against invasion from the Asiatic East. It is indeed by a special disposition of Divine Providence that His Grace the Archbishop of Montreal has invited the Eucharistic Congress to meet in this city, thereby concontrating [sic - concentrating] upon Canada the attention of the whole Catholic world at such a moment, when the Dominion is beginning to play a part in the world's history so great that it is impossible either to forecast its extent or unduly to magnify its future.

As members of this Congress, longing with our whole hearts to establish the kingdom of God upon earth, His Holy Catholic Church, we may well ask ourselves what part is the Church to have in this rapid growth of a great people. There is in the answer to this question a problem and an opportunity so tremendous .that the Church has rarely, if ever, in her long history had to face the like. The solution of that problem and the grasping of this opportunity will affect not only the people of Canada but the Church throughout the world.

The early history of Canada is part of the history of the Catholic Church. The first settlers came speaking one language and having but one voice in matters of religious belief, and the growth of the commonwealth was concurrent with that of the Christian Faith, enshrined in the Catholic Church. Canada owes a debt to the Catholic Church which even those who are most opposed to her teachings will hardly venture to contest. And on the other hand the power and influence of the Catholic Church throughout all the earlier history of the Colony were due largely to the fact that the whole influence of the language and literature of the country was on the side of the Catholic Church. The French tongue, with which all progress in every department of life was identified, gave forth but one note when it expounded to the people the mysteries of religion, whether they were preached to those who had come from their ancestral home in France, or had in turn to be translated to the various races to whom the land once belonged.

Now the circumstances have vastly altered. With slow increase at first, and now with an incalculable rapidity, another language is gaining for itself a paramount importance in the ordinary things of life. It would indeed be a matter of extreme regret were the French language, so long the one exponent of religion, culture and progress in this land, ever to lose any portion of the consideration and cultivation which it now enjoys in Canada. But I no one can close his eyes to the fact that in the many cities now steadily growing into importance throughout the Western Provinces of the Dominion, the inhabitants for the most part speak English as their mother tongue, and that the children of the colonists who come from countries where English is not spoken will none the less speak English in their turn.

And this reflection takes us to the very root of the problem and shows forth all its complexity. For, alas, whereas the French tongue was in the old days synonimous [sic] with unity in religious belief, for more than three hundred years the English language has been the organ of contention, disunion, and dissension wherever the truths of Christianity are concerned. And all the while, if the mighty nation that Canada is destined to become in the future is to be won for and held to the Catholic Church, this can only be done by making known to a great part of the Canadian people in succeeding generations, the mysteries of our faith through the medium of our English speech. In other words, the future of the Church in this Country, an its consequent re-action upon the older countries in Europe, will depend to an enormous degree upon the extent to which the power, influence, and prestige of the English language and literature can be definitely placed upon the side of the Catholic Church.

The various non-Catholic religious organisations are fully alive to these new conditions. Not a new settler comes to this country from England but he is met at his .place of landing, and every effort is made to keep him in touch with the religious influences that he has known at home. In every growing township places of worship, are set up at once, as I have recently seen with my own eyes, to perpetuate the divided teaching which is being uttered all over the world wherever the English language is spoken. Large sums of money are being contributed I and strenuous personal efforts are being made, all with the same object. Years to come will show if once again, to our shame and sorrow, our English speech is to be the organ of religious division; or if, by a great mercy of God in this nation of Canada, with its long and glorious Catholic traditions, the Church is able to give to the Canadian people, set forth in the English tongue, that unity of religious belief which she alone has power to impart.

My venerated brethren, the Archbishops and Bishops of Canada, will forgive me for touching upon topics which they know better far than I can do, and for alluding to problems to which they are keenly alive. I do so only that those who, like myself, are privileged to be the guests of this great Dominion may realise something of the importance of these issues which, I firmly believe, will affect for weal or woe not only the Catholic dwellers in British North America but the whole Church of God throughout the world; and that they may be the object of our sympathy and of our thoughts and prayers.

And, if I may, I should like to make a suggestion whereby all may be united in prayer that the influence of the English language may at last, in spite of all the harm that it has wrought in religious matters in days bone by, be brought by God to be a mighty force for the support and spread of religious unity and truth. In 1897 the late, Holy Father Leo XIII of happy memory, instituted the Archconfraternity of Our .Lady of Compassion to promote prayers for the return of England and Wales to the fold of the one true Church of Jesus-Christ. He committed the direction of this Archconfraternity to the Company of St. Sulpice, and I am now glad to bear public testimony of my gratitude to the Fathers of that venerable Company for the self-sacrificing zeal with which they have carried on this work. Later the scope of the Archconfraternity was enlarged to include Scotland. But the United Kingdom, important though it be, is only a part of the English speaking world, and I would like to profit by this, the second great International Catholic Congress held beneath the British Flag, to propose that he Holy See be petitioned to make the Archconfraternity of Our Lady of Compassion still more universal in its scope, so that from the whole world prayer may go up before the Throne of God that all the English-speaking nations without exception may be brought to the unity of the Catholic Faith and restored to allegiance to the Apostolic See. It is only by bringing the English tongue to render service to the cause of truth that Canada can be made in the full sense a Catholic nation; and the spectacle of a united Canada, enunciating in French and English alike the same religious truths, would be for the whole Church of God a power of irresistible force. I trust that my proposal will not appear to you too bold, and that it will meet with your generous and whole-hearted acceptance. I make it with the full concurrence of their Eminences the Cardinals of Baltimore and Armagh, and of the Superior General of St. Sulpice.

Let me sum up what I mean. God has allowed the English tongue to be widely spread over the civilised world, and it has acquired an influence which is ever growing. Until the English language, English habits of thought, English literature - in a word the entire English mentality is brought into the service of the Catholic Church, the saving work of the Church is impeded and hampered. Each English-speaking nation can help in this great work : England, Ireland, .Scotland, the mighty United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the British Possessions of India. But the Dominion of Canada can at the present moment, owing to her long and deeply rooted Catholic traditions and to the magnificent opportunities now presented to her, render the greatest service of them all. And in accomplishing her part of the work the Catholic Church in Canada will not only advance her own sacred cause, but at the same time she will bring renewed courage to English-speaking Catholics all the world over, and become a source of ever increasing and unfailing strength to the Universal Church. It is an opportunity now given which may never come again. Humanly speaking, if it be lost, the loss will be immeasurable and irretrievable.

I may seem to have wandered from the purpose of a Eucharistic Congress which is to glorify and to promote devotion to the Most Holy Eucharist. Let me recall to you how on the opening day of the Eucharistic Congress His Eminence the Cardinal Legate reminded us that from the beginning the Blessed Sacrement [sic] took possession of this land of Canada. That empire of our Divine Master spread from place to place as He designed to take possession of the humble tabernacles set up in every village that clustered upon its soil. But it will not be complete until close to every group of homesteads in the great West a tabernacle has been set up in which fervent worshippers can come to adore in perfect unity of faith their Lord and King. And the day, to which we all look forward with so much earnestness, cannot dawn until the doctrines of the Catholic Church have been made known to every child of the Canadian nation in his own mother tongue, and are accepted and expressed. by him in the language that he learnt from his mother’s lips.

Source: Henri BOURASSA, Religion, Langue, Nationalité, Montreal, Le Devoir, 1910, 30p., pp. 18-23