Holy Door opens in Quebec, the first outside of Europe
At Quebec City’s Notre-Dame de Québec basilica, Sunday Dec. 8 will see a rare Catholic ceremony, performed once a generation.
In an ages-old ritual, the Catholic archbishop of Quebec will rap three times on a bronze Holy Door — the first in the Americas — and wait for it to be opened so that he can pass through.
The opening of the door Sunday is a powerful moment in a ceremony that dates back to Rome in the 1400s, but has never, until now, taken place outside Europe.
Beyond the symbolism of the open door, church leaders hope that pilgrimages and other celebrations around next year’s 350th anniversary of the basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec may be a turning point in the province’s decades-long slide into secularism.
“I believe this is a wonderful opportunity and a concrete way of inviting all to come to Notre-Dame de Québec during the Jubilee year to experience a renewal in their faith,” says Archbishop Gérald Lacroix.
Notre-Dame de Québec, in the heart of old Quebec City, was the first Catholic diocese north of Mexico and the Spanish colonies. Seen as the mother parish of all Catholic dioceses in Canada and the U.S., it was once the largest in the world, stretching from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico.
Opening a Holy Door has long been part of jubilee ceremonies. None was more moving than Christmas Eve 1999, when an ailing Pope John Paul II, bent in his infirmity, knelt on the threshold of St. Peter’s Basilica Holy Door at the Vatican. Holy doors, which are sealed after the jubilee, are opened only once every 25 years.
Notre-Dame becomes the seventh Holy Door in the Catholic world — four are in Rome, one in Ars-sur-Formans, France, the other in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
“With the Holy Door, we invite people to come to Quebec with their own faith, with what they live, as a heritage from the missionaries of the 17th century,” says Monsignor Denis Belanger, the priest at Notre Dame.
“This door is open to all persons of good will. For Catholics it is a pilgrimage, a sign, a passage, a kind of spiritual preparation.”
The door — two-sided bronze, with Christ on one side, Mary on the other — will be opened for one year and then locked until the next time the Holy Doors in Rome are opened, in 2025.
The door is on the left side of the cathedral. Workers broke open a wall to create the door, which now leads from a garden into what was a small chapel. The chapel gives way to the cathedral proper.
Even if religion is not a part of everyday life for most Quebecers, “the background of this modern, secular society is, of course, Catholic,” says Susan Sebert, a former adult educator and now tour guide in Quebec City.
Quebec once had one of the highest birth rates in the world, and now it ranks among the lowest. “It was called ‘revenge of the cradle,’ ” she says. “Priests told women they must have children to keep the language and culture alive.”
Families with three children were not considered large enough, and women were encouraged to have many more, Sebert says. Many left the church.
“People are not going to church now,” she says, “but it is very present in their psyche.”
Even as a secular person, she will be at Sunday evening’s opening of the doors, because she sees it in the context of Quebec’s past. “I’m going not as a practising Catholic, but because it is an important historic event.”
Notre-Dame’s website emphasizes that the celebrations are open to everyone. In promotional material the jubilee is being billed as a celebration of “faith, family, patrimony and culture.”
“They really are being inclusive,” says Sebert.
In this way, she says, the church is talking to a generation of people in Quebec who have turned away.
Sebert has signed up to be a volunteer tour guide at the basilica. “For a few months I will take pilgrims,” she says. “It’s kind of romantic, don’t you think? I find the idea of going through a door to be very symbolic and inclusive, going from one state to another.”
The door itself, which weighs about a half-tonne, is relatively humble in size compared to the grand doors in Rome. Illuminated with a narrow cross, the door is about a metre wide. Belanger calls it a “sign of humility.”
The opening procession through the door will also include relics of Canadian saints and those who have been designated “Blessed” by the Catholic Church, but not named as saints. The relics will remain in the church throughout the year.
The early history Notre-Dame is linked not only with the development of the church in Canada, but wider Canadian culture and institutions. The first bishop of Quebec, François de Laval, came with a new vision about the way a diocese should be organized, says Lacroix. Lacroix says early priests and nuns “reached out to meet the native people where they were and learned their languages and made efforts to respect their customs.”
Jesous Ahatonhia (Jesus is Born), composed by missionary Jean de Brébeuf in the Huron language in 1643, is the oldest Canadian Christmas carol.
Marie de l’Incarnation was an Ursuline nun who started learning native languages after her arrival in 1639. She wrote a French-Algonquin dictionary and an Iroquois dictionary and published a catechism in Iroquois.
She saw that native girls had difficulty studying in a classroom, so she held classes outdoors in the monastery garden, to provide a more comfortable learning environment.
While Notre-Dame celebrates the 350th anniversary of the first parish, the first formal church organizational structure, in the New World, there were earlier churches. Christopher Columbus laid the first cornerstone in the cathedral of Santo Domingo, now the capital of Dominican Republic, in 1514.
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