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About two years ago, I was doing research in the Gérard Raymond papers held in the archives of the Séminaire de Québec. These consist mainly of his student writings, most notably his journal, but one also finds several thick files of letters and testimonials from around the world, each attesting to the exceptionally virtuous life of the 19 year-old seminarian, or soliciting special favours through his intervention. One letter in particular caught my eye, primarily because it was so touching. In phonetically broken French, a certain Mrs. Rosaire Doyon, on 16 October 1936, writes asking a seminary priest to intercede on her behalf with Gérard Raymond so that he can ask God to watch over her husband, who, she says, is not frank with her. He drinks and returns home late in the mornings, hides money from her and their six children, and comes and goes as he pleases. She is particularly worried about her eldest 15 year-old son, who may follow in his father’s bad footsteps. She herself is not well, and she is also concerned about what the neighbours may be thinking. She asks that, in his response, the priest not mention any details of her difficulties, as this would only worsen things. She also asks for heavenly protection for her husband, and that he be made to see the error of his ways.
Our sensibilities cry out against the injustice of such a situation, where a woman with few options in life finds herself caught in what was undoubtedly a cold and abusive marriage. We also see here, however, a vivid manifestation of faith: an absolute belief and hope that, through the intercession of some exceptionally holy individual—in this case, Gérard Raymond—the trials and tribulations of earthly existence can somehow be made bearable. We have here the beginning of the cult of saints. How can a woman caught in such desperate straits come to believe that a young seminarian who had died only four years earlier could act as a divine intercessor on her behalf, and help bring her husband back to her safe and sound? This woman believes in the power of conversion; it is, perhaps, the one thing that sustains her. Her lonely, heart-wrenching letter may well be addressed to an earthly man, a priest, but her prayer—for that is what it is—goes well beyond this world to another man. This man, who was young, strong, pure and selfless, can empathize with the depth of her pain and suffering, for he too suffered much. She wants to put her longing in the strength of such a man who, rather than ignoring her, will give her the life to which she believes she is properly entitled. Equally important, she is seeking protection—a sort of heavenly peer influence—for her own son. She wants the saintly Gérard Raymond to act as a protective older sibling to this young son, who is far more at risk of straying from the path of goodness because of his age and immaturity.
The Young Québec City ‘Martyr’
Gérard Raymond is not an official saint of the Catholic Church. He has not even reached the first stage of being declared Venerable. Yet for over seventy years, there has been a small but persistent cult to him. Every year, on July 5th, the anniversary of his death, a mass is held in Québec City to ask for the grace of his beatification. Pilgrims occasionally still visit the family plot where he is buried. Who was this elusive young man, known almost exclusively through the pages of a journal which was discovered and published after his death, and which still sells, albeit in rather small numbers?
Gérard Raymond was born on 20 August 1912 into a typically modest urban Québec City family, the fourth of eight children. His father, Camille Raymond, was a tramway conductor, while his mother, Joséphine Poitras, as with most Catholic women of that era, maintained the household. Very little is known of his brief life, except for those events recounted in his journal—written during his last four years—and which quite naturally reflect his own selective priorities and interests. In 1924, at the age of twelve, he entered the Petit Séminaire de Québec as a day student, where he remained until he was forced to enter hospital in January 1932. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he died on 5 July 1932, at the age of nineteen. From the seminary archives, we know that he was a bright and diligent student, often finishing first or second in his class. From his journal, we also know that it was his intention to enter the Order of Friars Minor upon completion of his studies. In particular, he wanted to become a Franciscan missionary to China, and he would often express a burning desire and willingness to die as a martyr for the faith. Most of the other details of his short and uneventful life come from the journal, but also from a popular hagiographic text published anonymously in 1932, a few months after his death, with a particularly suggestive title: Une âme d’élite: Gérard Raymond (1912-1932). Its author was undoubtedly Oscar Genest, priest and spiritual director of the students at the seminary.
This text is important for a number of reasons. First, the seminary must have distributed it—together with holy cards of Gérard Raymond—rather widely to religious congregations, parishes and schools throughout North America, for its archives contain many letters of acknowledgement and thanks. These documents provide the researcher with a uniquely rich look at the particular worldviews of these recipients—clerical for the most part—for they are loaded with luxuriant and nuanced commentaries on the religious meaning and import of the life of the young Gérard Raymond. Second, Une âme d’élite is very much a classic hagiographic text, in the sense that it does two things: it makes a case for the sanctity of Gérard Raymond, and it proposes his life as a compelling model for other Catholic youth. In so doing, it offers much by way of insight into how the French Canadian Catholic clerical culture of this distinctive era understood and defined not only adolescent spiritually, but lay sanctity more generally. Third, and perhaps most significant, the book essentially consists of a prolonged spiritual commentary on Gérard Raymond’s own journal. Because it was written by the spiritual director of the seminary, a person directly responsible for the welfare of the souls of the young students, it has much to say about how this clerical authority chose to “construct” Gérard Raymond as a potential saint, by drawing and emphasizing particular elements from his life, and how these might be relevant, in turn, to the lives of other seminary students, both present and future. In this regard, the choice of title is quite revealing: it bespeaks an overriding concern with Christian perfection, particularly for young males, as a task best suited to strong, exceptional or elite types, as might be the case for an athlete or a soldier. There is another sense in which the term “elite” can be understood here. Because they ran a collège classique the priests of the seminary were indeed forming a French Canadian elite of future lawyers, doctors, notaries, politicians or clergy. For the priests, this elite would naturally need to possess the sorts of qualities and virtues that Gérard Raymond so well embodied if its members were to occupy the rightful place that belonged to them in society and in the French Canadian Church.
Gérard Raymond’s reputation for sanctity rests almost exclusively on his journal. The document is exceptional in that it provides the reader with an intimate look at the spiritual development of a young French Canadian Catholic man of the early part of the twentieth century. Its first entry is dated 23 December 1927; its last, 2 January 1932. Published by the Séminaire de Québec, it is reminiscent of the remarkably popular auto-biographical spiritual text by St. Thérèse de Lisieux, Histoire d’une âme. In fact, Gérard Raymond may have modelled his entries on those of Thérèse. In his journal, he writes about how much he was impressed with her writings and spiritual insights, and he often invokes her as one of his special patrons. It is also important to note that the seminary itself edited and published the journal, and that selective parts of the original manuscript (mostly detailed summaries of sermons heard and recorded by Gérard) were removed from it. This parallels the process at Lisieux, where the Carmelite convent edited and arranged for the first publication of Histoire d’une âme, thereby almost single-handedly being responsible for the spread of the cult of the young Thérèse Martin, who would arguably become the most influential Catholic saint of the twentieth century.
Raymond Lemieux, a scholar of Québec Catholicism, characterizes the major focus of the spirituality of Gérard Raymond, as reflected through the pages of his journal, as: “…a sharp awareness – and sharpened by the institution to which he submits himself – of the distance between daily life and the ideal, an awareness of work always needing to be redone to bridge the chasm, the challenge and necessity of perseverance.” He further delineates the young seminarian’s personality as comprising the threefold aspects of the model student, the pious adolescent and the elite soul. When reading the journal, one is struck by a number of recurring themes: the overriding concern with perfection in all aspects of life, and the consequent guilt which inevitably comes from not attaining it; the emphasis on penance and suffering, whether self-imposed or not, and how this imitates Christ and the tribulations of the martyrs; and the overly punctilious observance of Catholic rituals and devotions. The motto of the young student was: “Aimer, Souffrir, Aimer” (To love, to suffer, to love). The picture of Gérard Raymond that emerges from his journal is that of an exceptionally religious yet determined youth, insecure and often guilt-ridden, who wanted to be perfect in all things, whether his studies, his faith and devotional observances, his home life or his relationships with peers. In psychological terms, he might perhaps be viewed today as a bit of an obsessive-compulsive.
Above all else, however, stood Gérard Raymond’s burning desire to be a saint and a martyr: “…as of today, I give myself to you, do with me as you wish, I know that it will be good. Make of me a saint, and if possible a martyr.” Such an idealistic Catholic ambition for sanctity and martyrdom—much more common in that era than was often admitted—served as a powerful template. In reflecting homogenous Tridentine ideals of Catholic perfection and perfectibility, it provided individuals, particularly youth, with the necessary inspiration, impetus and models for the forging of their fragile identities. In striving for sanctity and martyrdom, Gérard Raymond thereby became both himself and a good Catholic, for the two were seen as indivisible. The ideal of the martyr-saint bridged a chasm between the world and the Church, between this earth and the heavenly promise, between ordinary humans and stronger, more elite ones. What more could any typical adolescent look or ask for?
The Ideal of Heroic, Sanctified Masculinity
Since ‘‘Une âme d’élite’’ and his journal were both officially published by the priests of the Québec City seminary, Gérard Raymond’s exemplary youthful sanctity could be said to be a clerical construction. This does not detract from the merits of the youngster’s life. Rather, it points to a common process in saint-making: that it is often those with particular vested interests—sometimes very legitimate ones—who are the real advocates of sainthood for a given individual. The seminary priests were the ones who wrote about Gérard Raymond; who edited and distributed his writings; who had images and holy cards of him printed; who composed prayers in his honour and organized novenas for his canonization; who kept alive his memory; and who proposed him as a model for other French Canadian Catholic youth. They created the saintly and ascetic Gérard Raymond. Without them, it is fairly certain that he would have remained unknown. Why, therefore, did they do it, and what sort of young man were they interested in fashioning?
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