The dedication page of the young seminarian’s journal, which would have been composed by a cleric from the seminary, provides a revealing perspective in this regard. It reads: “To our dear [French] Canadian youth, particularly those regrouped in specialized movements, we dedicate these pages of Catholic Action from the journal [diary] of Gérard Raymond, proud, pure, joyful and conquering adolescent.” Through this dedication, the seminary priests were clearly proposing their own student as a viable model for all youth involved with Catholic groups and organizations under the care of the Church. There was therefore an overarching purpose to their publication of the journal, which was to mold and channel the energies and talents of Catholic youth in the service of the Church’s broader religious and secular interests. It is important to underscore that the pages of the text are referred to as an example of “Catholic Action,” in the sense of that early twentieth century movement, particularly prominent in Québec, which sought to transform the everyday secular world through the application of Catholic social ideals and teachings by committed members of the Church’s faithful. Interestingly enough, while Gérard Raymond did participate in the activities of a number of Catholic youth groups, mostly those of a devotional nature—and while the pages of his journal do make occasional reference to them—they do not constitute a major focus of his intimate writings. The priests here seem to be recuperating Gérard Raymond’s ideal of personal asceticism as an example of Catholic Action, a subtle but significant shift which seeks to extend even further, and ever more intimately, the hold of Roman Catholic institutional hegemony.
It is without a doubt the description of Gérard Raymond as a “proud, pure, joyful and conquering adolescent” that most clearly spells out what the youth ideally represented for his clerical guardians. These are the Christian virtues and qualities that they looked for, and which they actively promoted, in the Catholic boys under their care. This was how they understood and delineated Catholic masculinity: someone who was confident and secure in both his maleness and his faith; who was pure and therefore self-controlled; who was able to offer the world, despite his virtuous ascetic life, the look of a happy, contented and cheerful individual; and who finally was grandiosely heroic in having overcome his natural and sinful bodily urges, and thus willingly resigned himself to an early and painful death. This was the Catholic version of the Protestant ideal of “the muscular Christian,” the soldier-boy/man of Christ and the athlete for Jesus. In proposing the saintly Gérard Raymond as an exemplar for Catholic adolescent boys, the clergy of the seminary were idealizing and sanctifying this masculine standard. The expression “conquering adolescent” may strike one as being odd or slightly out of place. It does, however, reflect, at an individual level, the broader cultural sense, at that time, of an imperial mandate, particularly as this might apply to the British colonial context and experience, and from which Canada, including Québec, was certainly not exempt. Catholic masculinity was always a masculinity subservient to, and in service of, the Church, an institution defined primarily as the ultimate protector of French Canadian identity and survivance. As opposed to Protestantism, which may have placed much more of an emphasis upon perfection for the sake of the individual’s own salvation or, more broadly, in the interests of some global colonialist political goal, French Canadian Catholicism understood masculine vigour in an almost ecclesiastical context, i.e., it was concerned with forming strong Catholic citizens whose loyalty was to Rome rather than to a specifically national authority. This, of course, reflects quite well the overarching clerical ideology of ultramontanism which dominated Québec society so powerfully at this time. “Imperial” for the Catholic Church in Québec was therefore not necessarily the British Empire, but rather the imperial and autocratic nature of the Church itself, whose structures were understood as divinely-sanctioned.
In Une âme d’élite, another resounding plea is made: “Young people, have the courage to follow him. You owe it to God, you owe it to the Church, you owe it to your country.” Gérard Raymond thus leads the way as the perfect man of faith, the perfect Catholic and the perfect citizen. A perfect citizen is one who exhibits, above all, a visible and total sense of discipline and subservience in his personal and religious life. One should understand “country” here as referring to French Canada, in that this concept or idea was the locus of identity for French-speaking Catholics. This re-inscribes the traditional nationalist motif of language and faith as the bulwarks against assimilation, and as the legitimate guarantors of collective survival. Further in the same text, one reads: “Our young people, impacted more and more by a diversity of influences, have an even more pressing need to contemplate and imitate models which will teach them how to resist evil passions, how to hitch themselves forever, to the true and the good.” The long-suffering Québec City youngster is now offered, by his clerical mentors, as a model of resistance to the allures of the world and a saintly guide in the timeless struggle between good and evil, between truth and falsehood, between the safety of the Church and the nefarious pull of the world at large.
Such a sanctified ideal of heroic virtue is quite obviously contingent upon the existence of a “dangerous” and suspect environment outside the secure borders of the Catholic worldview. In this regard, it is particularly illuminating to consider the written reactions of a selection of priests and members of religious congregations to having received complimentary copies either of Une âme d’élite or Gérard Raymond’s journal from Father Oscar Genest. On 14 March 1937, a certain F. Manuel of the Pères du Très Saint-Sacrement in Montréal innocently writes: “…my heart holds a special attraction for this young man caught up with the ideal of sanctity. In these times of revolting paganism and of exaggerated materialism, it is good to encounter souls which understand the sublime realities of the afterlife and who live in accordance with their beliefs.” On 9 January 1933, the superior general of the Soeurs de l’Assomption de la Sainte-Vierge expresses her feelings as follows: “It is indeed a good action to teach youth to elevate themselves to the heights of sacrifice and Christian mortification while everything compels them to remain in the more comfortable domains of easy and selfish pleasure – when they are not encouraged to descend even further.” From Collège de Sainte-Anne in Sainte-Anne de la Pocatière, an anonymous writer, presumably a priest, states the following in a letter dated 27 March 1936: “Paganism, egotism, sensualism: here are the three causes of the present crisis. Is it not true that Gerard Raymond made whatever laid in his power to apply the break to this affliction towards himself? Charity, modesty, mortification, visits to the Holy Sacrament: all these things composed his program. His day-book attests all that.” It is interesting that this writer does not specify what is meant by “present crisis” or “affliction.” Presumably, they referred to a sense of overall degeneracy about the secular world. Finally, from something intriguingly called The Boy Savior Movement, headed by a certain W.H. Walsh, a New York City Jesuit, come these words dated 28 January 1937: “In these dreadful days, when the efforts of Satan to draw our youth from God are powerfully aided by the impure worldly atmosphere around them, it is lovely and encouraging to have so recent an example of the power of God’s grace in one just like themselves and with the same advantages, to put before them.” Through these selections, one gets a clear sense of the multi-vocality of Gérard Raymond as a symbol of disciplined, chaste, pious and saintly youth.
What these various representatives of Catholic clerical authority have in common is a shared sense of the dangers inherent to the temporal world, especially when it comes to the perceived innocence of youth. This sharp sense of moral panic was not typically Catholic; rather, it was reflective of a far broader nineteenth- and twentieth-century North American cultural concern with the hazards and pitfalls of uncontrolled adolescence, just as adolescence itself was beginning to emerge as a clearly identifiable and identifying age category. The wild, untamed bodies of adolescents, particularly those of boys, were perceived as frontiers to be charted and brought under the control of such civilizing forces as religion. This era, for example, saw the birth and rapid growth of the scouting movement. Catholicism too was anxious about subjugating its teenage bodies, hence Gérard Raymond’s emergence as the perfectly disciplined and self-controlled boy. His was a body on which was written—in fact, carved through a variety of ascetic practices—the wishes and designs of an insecure and apprehensive Church, a Church always anxious to ensure the unquestioned loyalty and continued devotion of its members. Here again, though there may have been many similarities between the Protestant and Catholic views of the dangers associated with adolescence, particularly the widespread perception of the increased “feminization” of young men because of easy or undisciplined living, the distinctiveness of the Catholic perspective—or at least its special salience—may arise more from a sense, if not a sharp and sustained expectation, of the higher morality of “the Catholic way.”
The French Canadian Church at this time was very much a missionary church, and it sent missionaries to all corners of the earth (per capita, the highest percentage of any Catholic country in the world). In that sense, the Church can be said to have had “dreams of conquest,” of wanting to spread the faith well beyond its geographical borders. Gérard Raymond also wanted to be a missionary; his sense of vocation and his ascetic agenda of self-perfection were modelled on those of the martyred Jesuit missionaries to New France. The conquest of the young self through acts of abnegation, always in service to a higher Catholic institutional ideal, therefore mirrored and extended the Church’s own expansionist designs. The two, in fact, were co-extensive.
One strategy in the Catholic pedagogical arsenal for dealing with adolescent boys was that of proposing models of chaste and youthful sanctity for them to emulate, in the hope that these saints would inspire and motivate the boys. The Church offered several such exemplars, drawn mostly from religious orders: Aloysius Gonzaga, a Jesuit novice, was the most popular, as was Dominic Savio, a Salesian student. Both were closely tied to issues of bodily chastity. In fact, more often than not, these boy saints came across as highly ambivalent sexual icons. Gérard Raymond himself was regularly compared to some of these saints, most notably one of his personal favourites, Stanislaus Kostka, a Polish Jesuit novice and a relatively popular saint in French Canada at that time. The unspoken hope was that Gérard would eventually join this illustrious saintly company.
That Ever Elusive (but, Oh, So Important) Purity
The most important virtue hoped and sought for in Catholic youth was that of purity or bodily integrity, also often called chastity. Though it was seldom referred to in explicit terms, the biggest fear by far, particularly in the case of boys, was that they might engage in the hidden practice of masturbation, also known as the sin of self-abuse. The nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries had a very different view of this particular sexual act. Seen as a disease by many in the medical profession, masturbation was long understood as contributing to a variety of physical, psychological, moral and even social ills. Above all, it was believed literally to sap the manhood out of boys, and engaging excessively in it might even feminize them and make them less manly, hence an almost obsessive concern with its full eradication. Masturbation was understood as an actual threat to masculinity because it denoted lack of proper manly self-control, an inability to dominate one’s urges, and hence eventually an incapacity to assume one’s proper social role as a dominant male. Of course, the threat of masturbation—also called the solitary sin in the confessional literature—raised the spectre of homoerotic acts, for it was believed that boys, especially younger ones, could be easily subjected to peer pressure, thereby being “forced” by older youngsters to engage in same-sex activities.
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