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Sculpting a legacy is a central subplot in the second term of any American president. To that end, Barack Obama has started writing a key chapter to his story by squaring himself as the president who stood up to America’s powerful gun lobby.

A jewel turns 75

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“Great music,” Pope Benedict once said, “awakens profound sentiments and almost naturally invites us to lift up our mind and heart to God in every situation of human existence. Music can become prayer.”

St. Michael’s Choir School in the heart of downtown Toronto has been making great music and prayer for 75 years. It is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year much as you’d expect — by singing at several special events, topped by a spring tour to Italy which includes a performance at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The choir school is truly a jewel in the crown of the Canadian Church and richly deserves gratitude and congratulations from the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people whose Sunday Mass experience over the decades has been enriched by St. Mike’s melodious graduates.

In addition to singing at St. Michael’s Cathedral, the school has moulded generations of cantors and organists who have taken the gift of music to countless parishes. Along with others, these St. Mike’s grads bring liturgical harmony not only to parishes in the Toronto and area, but their voices brighten pews across Canada and, in some cases, internationally. Many have become teachers themselves and share their passion with new generations of church musicians.

Enriching parish musical life was always the main objective of the school’s founder, Msgr. John Edward Ronan. He opened St. Mike’s with 18 boys. A talented musician and prolific composer himself, Ronan’s students learned musical theory, classical piano as well as singing. They came to him with raw singing ability and graduated ready to serve the Church as well-rounded musicians.

Success was almost instant. By the 1940s, the choir had recorded the first of nine albums. In 1955 it was welcomed as an affiliate of the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, only the sixth choir school so honoured. The choir began touring in 1967 and, at dozens of concerts around the world, sang for prime ministers, popes and a queen. At every stop, the boys of St. Mike’s faithfully harmonized the borderless language of music with the universal message of the Church.

The school also shaped young talent that found success in non-liturgical musical genres. Two popular 1950s singing groups, the Crew Cuts and Four Lads, were alumni. Likewise for tenors Michael Burgess and John McDermott, jazz singer Matt Dusk, pianist Stewart Goodyear and opera stars Michael Schade and Robert Pomakov. But they are the school’s secondary stars.

In Colossians, St. Paul teaches: “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” The boys of St. Michael’s have been faithful to that teaching for 75 years. They have made joyful music and given proof to the Pope’s words that music can become prayer.

 

Wrong tactic

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Canada’s First Nations have legitimate grievances that warrant sympathy and government action, but hunger strikes are an unacceptable tactic to bring about change.

Christmas wishes

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The birthplace of Jesus will be quieter than usual this Christmas. Many Christians who had planned pilgrimages to Bethlehem cancelled their trips when war flared last month between Israel and Hamas. Bethlehem was spared the rockets, but many missiles were aimed at nearby Jerusalem and so, unlike a year ago when Bethlehem had 140,000 December pilgrims, the lineups will be shorter this week at the Church of the Nativity.

Overhaul overdue

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The United Nations reports there are 10.5 million refugees in the world. These are homeless, often stateless, mostly impoverished people displaced for many reasons, but frequently due to war and persecution.

Leadership based on character, Collins tells business leaders

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Strong leadership is founded on character but can be undermined by ego, Cardinal Thomas Collins told a room full of Toronto business leaders.

Faithful charity

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Engaging in charity is central to the mission of the Church or, as Pope Benedict says, “an indispensable expression of her very being.” For 2,000 years, charity has been such an obvious aspect of Christian identity that it was never expressly established in Canon Law as a duty of the bishops. There was no need. It was simply acknowledged by all as being a fundamental teaching of Christ and therefore essential to the practise of the faith.

That changed on Dec. 1 when the Pope issued an apostolic letter to formalize regulations to govern the Church’s charitable activities. He did this, he said, because there was a need to fill a lacuna, the gap between what was being enthusiastically practised but without a legislated framework.

His document will be warmly received by generous Catholics who’ve expressed concern about their donations sometimes going, directly or indirectly, to causes that conflict with Church teaching. In Canada, the most public of these cases involve a small number of agencies affiliated with Development and Peace. Even today, D&P continues to hear occasional suggestions that, despite tighter controls, some of its money finds its way to groups that support abortion.

Benedict’s welcomed decree is a succinct reflection on the essential nature of charity and its integral place in the Church. It’s a call for charities to exemplify Christian life, for the laity to engage in charitable activity and for bishops to provide firm leadership and strict oversight.

Most striking, though, is the Pope’s unequivocal edict that Catholic charities always act in accordance with Church doctrine.

Without exception, they “are required to follow Catholic principles in their activity and they may not accept commitments which could in any way affect the observance of those principles,” he said. He has also prohibited these charities from accepting financial support from groups that contravene Church teaching.

Additionally, dioceses and parishes are instructed to prohibit publicity for charitable organizations that contravene Church teaching. The Pope makes it the duty of bishops in particular but also pastors to “ensure that they (charities) are managed in conformity with the demands of the Church’s teaching and the intentions of the faithful.”

These are welcomed words. When Catholics support a Catholic charity they have every right to expect their money is supporting causes that align with their faith. For many years, everyone assumed that was the case. Several recent incidents, however, suggest that has not always been so.

The Pope has now decreed that being faithful is more than merely expected of Catholic charities. It is mandatory. These charities are obligated to strictly adhere to Church doctrine and bishops are formally required to ensure that charities comply.

It’s all about ensuring that Catholic charities are, in every respect, truly Catholic.

Keys to peace

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As this editorial is being written, the guns are silent in Israel and Gaza. But for how long? Hours, days, weeks? Maybe months, at best?

Truly universal Church

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When Pius XII became Pope in 1939 the college of cardinals had token representation from Latin and North America, one cardinal from the Middle East and none from the rest of Asia or from Africa. It was 89 per cent European.

By the time Pius died in 1958, the college had welcomed cardinals from Africa, India and China, Latin American representation had tripled and European membership was just 64 per cent of the total. The internationalization of the Vatican had begun.

But the journey has been slow since then even though European Catholics as a percentage of the worldwide Church have been in steady decline, if not outright free fall. So it was welcomed news last month when Pope Benedict announced a “little-consistory” for Nov. 24 to create six new cardinals who come from six non-European countries.

In doing so, history of sorts is being made. This is the first consistory in a thousand years of cardinal making in which Europe and North America are outnumbered by new cardinals from the developing world. In addition to one American, red hats are going to bishops from Lebanon, India, Nigeria, Colombia and the Philippines. Together they reflect the changing face of a Church in which two-thirds (and growing) of its members live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Church continues to evolve. Announcing the consistory last month, Pope Benedict called it recognition that “the Church belongs to all peoples, speaks all languages.” In a reference to Europe, he said the consistory confirms “it is not the Church of one continent but a universal Church.”

Last February, the Pope added 18 new elector cardinals at a consistory that raised eyebrows for being European-heavy, naming just three new cardinals from the developing world. Africa, despite having the world’s fastest growing Catholic population, was completely shut out. Adding five non-Westerners now doesn’t even things out but it puts a welcomed dent in the imbalance and foreshadows the future.

The newest cardinals are relatively young. Two are in their 50s, the oldest is 73 and the average age is 63. In addition to helping select future popes, they will sit on various Vatican committees and exert influence for many years to come.

Also, these additions bring the college to its full complement of 120 electors for a new pope, and lowers European votes to 51 per cent of the total. That’s not much different from when Benedict became Pope in 2005. What continues to change, however, is the demography of the world’s one billion Catholics. The Church is projected to be 75 per cent non-Western within the lifetime of many of the new cardinals.

How that impacts the Church will be watched closely, particularly so for the papacy, an institution that has been mostly Italian and always European for the last 12 centuries.

Preserving roots

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Once civilization’s most important language, Latin has been on life-support for decades. That it retains even a faint pulse is due to the persistence of academia but primarily due to the Church.

To reverse the decline, Pope Benedict XVI has established a Vatican-based academy to encourage Latin studies and the promotion of Latin culture. He hopes not only to restore the prominence of Latin as a common language within the Church but to encourage all of society to honour Latin’s important place in human history.

That’s a tall order. Latin is not anyone’s first language and is seldom even a second or third choice in a shrinking world in which Mandarin classes are filling up. But the Pope should be commended for applying CPR to an ancestral language of the Church at a time when a rapidly modernizing, techno-crazy world seems increasingly less mindful of the past.

“The Latin language has always been held in high regard by the Catholic Church and Roman pontiffs,” the Pope wrote. “After the fall of the western Roman empire the Church of Rome not only continued to use Latin, but in a certain sense also became its custodian and promoter in the theological and liturgical fields, as well as in education and the transmission of knowledge.”

Latin became a central language of the Church during Roman times and remains the Church’s universal language today. But since Vatican II it has been in decline, in the liturgy, of course, but also in the seminary and Catholic education in general. Yet no serious study of Church theology, history or canon law can occur without fluency in Latin because Latin is the language of most source documents in Vatican archives and other museums and universities.

Through the Middle Ages Latin was also the common language of scholars, diplomats, poets, traders and nobility. From Latin evolved the romance languages of French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. More than half the English vocabulary has Latin roots, and Latin words and phrases remain prominent in medicine, law and science. It’s part of our cultural DNA.

“There is therefore an apparent pressing need to encourage commitment to a greater knowledge and more competent use of Latin in the ecclesial environment as well as in the world of culture at large,” the Pope said.

The Pope’s Latin initiative, however, is bound to cause some grumbling among those who believe connecting more intimately with the past means losing touch with the modern world. But promoting Latin is a forward-looking strategy. Society is poorer when it cuts off its roots. Building new bridges to the past ensures that the Church’s rich teachings, history and traditions can be carried into the future.That’s a noble objective, no matter how you say it.

Save our chaplains

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Chaplaincy has always been a cornerstone of the Canadian prison system.

Long before governments introduced things like professional counselling, therapy, education and job training to rehabilitate inmates, 19th-century priests and ministers brought faith to jail cells to help convicts find their way back into society.

It was understood by wardens and pastors alike that lessons in moral, ethical and civic behaviour required a spiritual grounding in faith to be truly effective. Although the years have brought considerable evolution in how prisons operate, the transforming role of faith has never changed. Inmates, more than most, need the hope and healing that is reflected in the faith of their chaplains.

So there is reason to despair over a government decision to eliminate 49 part-time chaplains from Canada’s federal prisons. Effective April 1 next year, prisons across the country will become a little more soulless for the sake of saving $1.3 million.

Canada’s 80 full-time prison chaplains will remain employed but their services will be spread thinner than ever. Particularly striking is that of those 80 chaplains just one will be non-Christian, an Iman. Of the 49 part-timers being let go, 31 are Christian and 18 currently serve non-Christian inmates.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has offered the naive suggestion that the spiritual needs of non- Christians can be served by Christian chaplains or by volunteers. But asking a Catholic chaplain to be a spiritual advisor to say, a Buddhist, is like asking a hockey coach to mentor an ice fisherman because both sports involve ice.

Equally unrealistic is the notion of replacing paid chaplains with volunteers. In addition to concerns about their qualifications, volunteers are often managed by the very part-time chaplaincy offices that are closing. Expecting full-time chaplains to assume this overseer role would only take them from other duties and further diminish their overall effectiveness.

Beyond that, there is a fundamental unfairness in a policy that denies all prisoners equal access to faith-specific chaplaincy services. Canadians are guaranteed the right to freely practise their religion. This right has been broadly respected for as long as prisons have existed here. To now virtually choke off that right for non-Christian inmates seems discriminatory and a potential spark for a Charter challenge. It’s all so unnecessary.

Society is obligated to provide prisoners with humane care. That includes spiritual nurturing. It’s in everyone’s best interests to inject faith into jails because discovering God or reconnecting with Him is often an important step in rehabilitiation.

Of course, prisoners can no more be forced to embrace faith than they can be forced to clean their plate at suppertime. But they are entitled to have access to spiritual nourishment. That should apply to prisoners of all faiths. Equally.