New Canadians are keeping Catholic faith alive, poll says

18 July 2018

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

Anyone who has stepped inside a church in the last 40 years doesn’t need a nationwide poll to tell them that the most religious Canadians are the newest Canadians.

Immigrants are driving the bus for almost every faith community in Canada, but none more-so than Catholics.

“If you do a breakdown of immigrants to Canada by religion, the Catholic Church has benefitted the most from immigration,” said St. Jerome’s College, University of Waterloo, sociologist of religion David Seljak.

“While Protestant denominations have declined, the Roman Catholic Church has grown slightly or maintained its own in the census, largely because of immigration.”

A new poll from the Angus Reid Institute sheds some light on just why immigration and religion are so closely linked. It comes down to the practicalities of adjusting to life in Canada.

David Seljak

Nearly half (49 per cent) of immigrants surveyed by Angus Reid on behalf of the Christian think-tank Cardus said their faith community gave them material assistance when they first arrived in Canada, including help finding a job, finding a place to live and learning English.

Nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) said their faith community provided them with a vital social network. Two-thirds (65 per cent) of immigrants also said their faith community was “a spiritual home during transition to life in Canada.”

Angus Reid conducted the study from June 13-22, questioning a random sample of 1,509 adults, plus an added 494 people who specifically identified themselves as ethnic minorities. The initial sample renders a mathematical margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 per cent. The smaller ethnic sample comes in at plus or minus 4.4 per cent.

The survey also found immigrants differ from established Canadians when it comes to religion and politics. Immigrants were twice as likely as third-generation Canadians to say religion should have a significant influence on public life — 20 per cent for immigrants versus 10 per cent for established Canadians.

None of this is very surprising to academics who study religion in Canada, Seljak said.

“It’s a long-time observation that religion is more important to immigrants than to other members of the community,” he said after reading the Angus Reid study.

But if it’s practicalities and social networks that bring immigrants to church, Catholics might be losing the competition for immigrant loyalties, said Scalabrinian Fr. Tiziano Paolazzi, associate pastor at St. Anthony’s Parish in Toronto.

“Protestants, they go into the prisons. They go to the airport to welcome them,” he said. “If you go to a Protestant church, then if you don’t go anymore, they call you. They come to visit you. We are bigger communities and sometimes we don’t value too much the individuals. It’s important to value the individuals.”

Paolazzi, an Italian who studied for priesthood in Brazil, began outreach to the first wave of Brazilian immigrants in Toronto in the late 1980s.

“At the beginning we were helping them with clothing, with furniture, changing cheques — even to find a job,” he recalled.

His pastor worried that the Brazilians who came during the week looking for jobs and construction boots weren’t coming on Sunday.

“I said, I don’t care if they come to church at this point. They don’t need to go to church now, they need immediate assistance. Eventually they would come. In fact, that’s what happened here. This church is considered the Brazilian church in Toronto, I think because of this. They felt welcomed at the beginning,” Paolazzi said.

Today, as young Brazilians flood into Toronto, there’s been huge growth at the Assembleia de Deus Pentecostal congregations where Brazilians will find music and activities that make them feel at home, as well as the networks that connect them with jobs, services and economic opportunities.

For African immigrants, the practical assistance families want most from their church is a safe and positive place for their kids, said Toronto African Catholic Community chairperson Cleophas Leke. Here again, Catholic parishes are losing the competition with Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations, said Leke.

Pentecostal and Evangelical congregations make their youth groups a priority and put money aside to fund youth group activities. It’s all part of a greater emphasis on social networking among churches that have less to offer in terms of sacraments and ritual, Leke said.

“It’s a challenge for us Catholics,” he said. “Because, you know, sometimes we just go to church and after church we very, very often don’t care about getting the kids together… We just leave,” he said. “What happens with what we call the Born Again churches is they care a lot. They stay together. After praying, they will stay together. It’s social.”

As Catholic dioceses have transitioned from the small, ethnically based, national parishes in cities to large, multicultural, suburban parishes, our Church has lost the connection it once had to old-country language, customs and culture, said Seljak.

“Actually, what you have seen is a decline in membership and attendance at many of these multi-ethnic churches,” he said. “Because that relationship between ethnicity and religion is broken.”

The kind of parish Seljak’s parents went to when they came from Slovenia 60 years ago — with a Slovenian credit union, Slovenian language classes, Slovenian businesses advertising in the bulletin and a church hall that hosted Slovenian dances and festivals — is fading from the landscape.

“The church served as a kind of community hub, where people did their banking, people went to school, people had dances, weddings — rites of the passage of life were all celebrated in this one location,” said Seljak.

“There was this close connection between your identity as a particular ethnic group and religion. In these multicultural parishes, you don’t have that same dynamism.

“Churches have to find a way of integrating that second generation, because that’s the story of all immigration,” Seljak said.