Clothes may make the man, but vestments don’t make the priest. The Mass is holy whether the priest is wearing beautiful vestments or something akin to a picnic blanket. That being said, liturgical vesture does matter; it doesn’t make the priest or the Mass, but it can make both the priest and the offering of the Mass more worthy of the right worship of God.

We have emerged from a long period in which the norm in many Canadian parishes ranged from merely adequate to hideous. Happily though, in recent years one rarely sees the detritus of the 1970s, chasubles made out of rough fabrics and felt and apparently decorated by small children with poor motor skills. The same renewed care for the liturgy that resulted in the vastly improved new translation of the Mass is also manifest in priests choosing vestments that are elegant and evocative of Catholic devotions. Vestments ought to inspire the faithful to lift their vision toward divine things, not to avert their eyes altogether. It may even be that a priest more suitably adorned for the Mass might inspire the faithful to dress more elegantly too.

I think about vestments in a particular way on Gaudete Sunday, when the liturgical colour is rose, not the usual Advent violet. I am blessed to have more vestments than priests usually do. Some were made by my own mother, and others were made or purchased abroad, where vestments can be had at a fraction of the prevailing prices in Canada. Many of them have stories — made for my first Mass, for my sister’s religious vows, bought for an anniversary or at a particular holy shrine — but my Gaudete Sunday rose chasuble has the best story of all.

In 2002, I was studying in Rome and Msgr. Charles Elmer, a long-time faculty member and spiritual father at the Pontifical North American College, had his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination that Dec. 20. The College celebration was set for Gaudete Sunday, and I asked Msgr. Elmer, both a friend and mentor, if there was anything he wanted. The old priest, who lived very simply, said he would like to offer his anniversary Mass in the same kind of Roman chasuble that he wore at his ordination in 1952 at St. John Lateran in Rome. The College did not have a rose-coloured Roman chasuble, so to honour a priest greatly beloved and admired, I bought Msgr. Elmer a new one, simple but elegant, from Gammarelli, the Roman ecclesiastical haberdasher. He was touched and happy.

We did not count on the objection of the College’s then liturgical director, a younger priest. Whether he objected to using something the College did not own, or whether he objected to the Roman vestment, or whether he took perverse delight in asserting his authority against a priest more senior than he, I do not know, but he told Msgr. Elmer that because the dozens of concelebrants could not all wear rose, the rose chasuble could not be worn. He was wrong on liturgical grounds, and it was wrong to deny the modest request of a venerable priest. (When a few years later he suffered the acute embarrassment of being dismissed in mid-semester, I thought it well-deserved, though I regretted it was for other behaviour, and not for how he had treated Msgr. Elmer.)

In any case, Msgr. Elmer, a D-Day veteran, handled the situation with humility and grace. He declined to do what I advised, which was to show up in the sacristy clad as he wished and dare anyone to tell him otherwise. Instead, he took me aside, thanked me for the gift and said that he would do that if I insisted, as I had bought him the gift he had desired. But his own preference would be to obey the whims of the liturgical director. I was disappointed for him, and angry too. I was quite eager for a fight. Msgr. Elmer taught me that one goes to Mass not eager for a fight but ready to receive a gift. And so he gave me one.

“Raymond, I am an old man now and not many years are left. You are just newly ordained. I am grateful for your gift, but now do me another kindness and receive this gift back from me to you, from an old priest to a young one,” Msgr. Elmer told me. “You will have many Sundays to wear it, I will have few.”

Msgr. Elmer actually had eight more Gaudete Sundays; he died in September 2011. This year would have been his 60th anniversary. I received back the gift I had given, and every Gaudete Sunday I wear it, remembering a great priest who knew how to rejoice in the Lord always.

Bullying is taking up an awful lot of space in our public and private conversations, making an old duffer wonder if some sort of qualitative change really has taken place regarding this age-old . . . phenomenon. I almost called it a “problem” but that would be to buy into the current thinking about bullying, which is unrealistic, not very helpful and dishonestly coercive.

Certainly it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of bullying. And in extreme outbreaks there can indeed be cause to enlist the help of school and even police authorities. But in the general run of things, I don’t believe we’re ever going to eradicate bullying and, furthermore, shining a spotlight on behaviour that will usually burn itself out in a few days can do more harm than good both to perpetrators and victims by commemorating that which might more beneficially be forgotten.

It might be pleasant (if a little boring) to believe that children could find a way to grow up without ever coming into conflict with one another, but they never shall. In the furiously churning, soul-shaping cauldron of adolescence, young people look for models of behaviour they might want to emulate and they also look inside as certain characteristics emerge, some of which they discover cannot be jettisoned, even if it might be “cooler” to do so.

During this process young people can be mercilessly judgmental of everyone, including their peers, some of whom (for today at least) they’ll decide they like and some of whom they’ll dislike. If someone watches the wrong TV shows or listens to the wrong bands or wears the wrong shoes — these are not some blameless and inexplicable whimsy of taste as most of us regard them later in life when we are comparatively sane. No, these are social, indictable offences that must be commented upon, put down and even punished.

Most instances of bullying soon blow over with no input necessary from the authorities. Sometimes the perpetrators themselves come to realize that their actions are over the top and modify their behaviour. Often, the victims discourage its continuance by standing up to their bullies — verbally or physically — or else they remove the sting of bullying by sloughing it off and not rising to such cheap and inflammatory bait.

Either of these approaches is infinitely superior to letting elders get involved, mostly because young people deal with things more directly and honestly. Once you get the authorities involved, everybody has to start playing nice and affirming one another’s okayness. Smothering in officially sanctioned indifference probably doesn’t seem to matter much if the underlying disagreement is about Justin Bieber or high-topped running shoes. But there’s a danger that the lesson being learned is that it’s wrong to ever voice disagreement or disapproval and one should always strive to please everyone else.

When busybody authorities start refereeing disputes, Catholic youth are particularly at risk of being bullied (in the blandest possible way, of course) into soft pedalling important tenets of their faith. Being cowed in this way in their developing years is bad training for standing up to the bullies we all inevitably encounter as adults — whether its bosses, unions, a hectoring media with a virulently secular agenda to promote or the atheists and over-sensitive multicultural types who emerge from the woodwork at about this time of year to throw a blanket over public expression of Christmas celebrations.

A near-constant element in the modern concern about bullying is the magnifying impact of the Internet and social networking gadgets which, we are told, makes it seem like the victims can never escape their tormentors. They could, though, if they’d just summon the will to unplug the darned things. Last summer my wife and I were dining at an outdoor patio and saw six young people sitting together at a table across the way, each one of them ignoring their flesh and blood friends so they could noodle away on their nefarious handheld thingies.

Our kids, thankfully, made it through school just before the use of such devices became so pathetically ubiquitous. And significantly all three of them have at various times recognized that their dependence on that virtual world was becoming disproportionate and unhealthy and have made a point of going off-line for a season or two until they got their equilibrium back.

Young people have a way of figuring these things out. The same would apply to bullying.

Making Jesus the centre of Christmas is an important and worthy endeavour, if also a challenge in our increasingly secular culture.

Putting Christ back into Christmas evokes St. Paul’s reminder of what it means to live as a follower of Christ. “Put on Christ,” he encourages us in his Letter to the Romans (Rom. 13:14).

The ways that we seek to focus on Jesus’ birth this Christmas can help us develop some spiritual practices to make Christ the centre of our everyday lives.

One of my guides this Advent has been Bilbo Baggins, the unlikely and humble hero of The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I re-read this childhood favourite so that I could fully appreciate the film, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Adventure, currently playing in theatres.) Despite the lack of an overt Christmas theme, Bilbo’s adventures can offer some insight for our spiritual journey.

Christmas celebrations are full of great art — or at least imitations of great art. (We have all had occasion to shudder at an off-key rendition of our favourite Christmas hymn.) Great art — whether visual, literary, musical, cinematic or narrative — reminds us of our true human nature, as God created us. When a work of art expresses the best of what it means to be human, this goodness can be a starting point for dialogue with our secular culture. It can also become a doorway to spiritual awareness for the believer and non-believer.

Engaging with a great work of art becomes an adventure of the kind that Bilbo Baggins goes on. The newness of his experiences makes the little hobbit keenly sensitive to the beauties and dangers around him. His dwarf companions seek to regain lost treasure, but Bilbo goes on the journey for entirely different reasons. Ultimately, he is transformed — by the beauties he experiences, the goodness he witnesses in others, the dangers he faces and the choices he makes.

We can choose to engage our secular culture with a similar sensitivity: both to the seeds of the Gospel it contains and to its innate dangers. Especially at Christmas when the artistic expression is often clearly Christian, we can highlight the best of these expressions of faith. Instead of just listening to the radio, we can play a mix of religious hymns, letting their awe and wonder flood our hearts. We can look more closely at the masterpieces on our Christmas cards, even using them in our prayers as a way to meditate on the amazing mystery of the Incarnation.

Throughout the year, we can become like the magi, seeking Christ in the secular corners of our culture.

Gift-giving in a consumer culture easily becomes an exercise in impressing others, a way to “prove” our love by how much money we spend, or a way to “use” one another — gift-giving in the hopes of getting something back. Consumerism falsely fulfills our insecurities through the acquiring of more and more material things.

In The Hobbit, the dwarves’ attitudes toward the dazzling treasure are quite consumeristic. Bilbo is the one who sees the gold for what it is: useful only up to a certain point. His brushes with gold help him to see with a spiritual vision and to choose friendship over treasure, honesty over deception, justice over greed.

As Bilbo clearly saw, material things are gifts to be used and shared. We can strive to make our Christmas gifts more authentic expressions of love, more personal and meaningful: a homemade gift card for going out for ice cream together; a hand-crafted item; a favourite spiritual book. This personal approach shifts our focus from the gift to our relationship with the person receiving the gift. Gift-giving then takes its proper place as a celebration of God’s abundant love for us.

Throughout the year, we can continue to shift from our consumeristic, “gotta-have-it” attitude to a deepening perspective of gratitude. We can seek to share what we have received, giving of ourselves with greater love.

Christmas Mass is where we celebrate the ultimate gift: God’s coming to us. This coming of God is a mystery and a grace to be celebrated year-round with a humble and brave “hobbit-like” heart that views the spiritual life as a quest for a more abundant life. Every Mass — not just Christmas — becomes an invitation for us to cherish the coming of our God, to welcome Him, and to respond to His coming with love.

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.

At his Angelus address on Dec. 9, Pope Benedict commented upon the Sunday Gospel, in which St. Luke carefully lists the various rulers, sacred and profane, when St. John the Baptist began his preaching.

Fewer baby girls are gifted with Our Lady’s name nowadays

Earlier this month, Today’s Parent published its annual list of most popular baby names in Canada and I scanned, as I usually do, to see where my two children’s names are located.

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.

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

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.

A one-month suspension given to a Montreal radio host who allowed, or perhaps tacitly encouraged, anti-Semitic commentary on his phone-in show has provoked considerable debate as to whether the punishment is in proportion to the breach of ethics.

Jacques Fabi has been on the air for 35 years and is described as “king of the night” at his midnight to 5:30 a.m. phone-in show on 98.5 FM. On Nov. 22, a caller identifying herself as Maria launched into a hate-filled rant against Jews and Israel, even including some praise for the Holocaust. Of concern is not just that the caller got through the station’s normal screening procedures, but also that she was not stopped immediately by Fabi, who instead added a few comments of his own, including that despite freedom of expression, “it is very difficult to make any negative comments about Jews.”

He allowed the conversation to go on for some time and at the end politely thanked the contributor for her call. In his subsequent apology, portions of which were printed in the National Post, Fabi said he would never endorse the caller’s “anti-Semitic comments” nor trivialize the Holocaust.

“For 35 years I have hosted a nighttime call-in segment and it is not the first time that a listener has tried to use it as a vehicle for communicating unacceptable messages,” he said. “I have always reacted quickly in order to avert these situations. Unfortunately, I did not last week.”

For some people, the apology should have been enough, but for others the suspension, as well as the censure of his peers, is appropriate. I agree with the suspension, since it underlines the importance of responsibility on the part of those who control the use of broadcasting outlets. This is not the “wild west” of the Internet, where technically it is almost impossible to regulate web sites operated by the hateful and the twisted. The fact that people are free to hold opinions doesn’t mean that a radio station is obliged to provide a platform for them.

With that said, it would be nice to see some consistency in standards. Just a few weeks before the Montreal incident, John Tory’s suppertime drive-home show onToronto’s NewsTalk 1010 included, during panel conversation, a joke by panelist Gail Vaz-Oxlade about the Pope and masturbation. I know of at least a dozen e-mails being sent to the station about the remark. Many were unanswered. Of those that were, the brief apology was of the “just a joke” and “no offence intended” variety.

I’m not suggesting that a sick joke about a public figure is on the same level as vile anti-Semitism, but for some people the “joking remark” about the Pope was almost as offensive, and it was at a time of day when many more people were likely to hear it.

Over the years, the Catholic Civil Rights League has protested dozens of incidents of anti-Catholic content on radio and television, including a Jesus look-alike contest at Eastertime and a Christmas special that portrayed the Virgin Mary as, shall we say, a party girl. While there have been a few apologies from individual stations, I’m not aware of a single case where the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has upheld a complaint about anti- Catholic content, especially if there was any sort of humourous context involved. That is why, for many believers, the dial often goes to the “off” position.

The Montreal episode is a reminder that action from the station is as important as action by the listener.

***

In response to the annual barrage of Christmas and “holiday” advertising, the American Family Association is compiling its “Naughty or Nice List” for 2012. It singles out major North American retailers that avoid using or ban the term Christmas in their advertising, as well as identifying those that still use it.

I understand the reasoning behind this but still I wonder about the fairness of singling out retailers for something that is widespread and to which we all contribute by accepting the “bigger every year” commercialization of Christmas. While we’re free to “report” stores that are reluctant to use “Christmas” in advertising and in-store greetings, I have always found the simpler solution is to wish a Merry Christmas to those we buy from, but also to happily accept any and all greetings in the spirit in which they’re intended.

And still going strong after 10 years

I have been writing about a lot of anniversaries this year — 1,700 years since Constantine’s victory at the Milvian bridge, 500 years since the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, 50 years since the opening of the Second Vatican Council. In the secular calendar, we have had the diamond jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the 30th anniversary of the patriation of the constitution, including the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the light of all that, 10 years may not seem like very much — though I did write about my own 10th anniversary of priestly ordination this past summer. Another anniversary comes this week. Ten years for Salt + Light Television, and it is an occasion worth celebrating.

Fr. Thomas Rosica, director of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, founded Salt + Light TV in the months after WYD, with the generous support of the Gagliano family. The name Salt + Light came from the theme of the WYD itself, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells His disciples that they are to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

This week Salt + Light marks 10 years since its establishment, even though it did not begin broadcasting until June 2003. The major celebratory event was the Dec. 5 Christmas concert with The Priests, but we had something of an anticipated celebration in Kingston when Fr. Rosica and Sebastian Gomes visited our archdiocese Dec. 2. They offered two presentations — one in Sebastian’s home parish in Perth, Ont., and the other at our cathedral — on the new evangelization, reporting on their experience at the recent synod on the new evangelization in Rome.

Fr. Rosica served among the synod officials, briefing the English-speaking journalists. Gomes is one of the network’s dynamic young journalists who, along with his colleague Cheridan Sanders, covered the synod. Their report stressed two points. First, that the new evangelization is not to teach people about Jesus, but to help people encounter Jesus. Second, that faithful Catholics themselves have to be converted anew and feel a new enthusiasm for their faith. Without this new enthusiasm, we won’t desire to share our faith with others.

Salt + Light, a powerful initiative for the new evangelization in Canada, is entering its second decade launching a new program that attempts to do just that. Hosted by Gomes and Sanders, The Church Alive takes its title from Pope Benedict XVI’s inaugural homily, wherein he proclaimed that the “Church is young, the Church is alive.” It was not exactly the “be not afraid” of Blessed John Paul II’s inaugural homily, but it speaks of Benedict’s priority for the new evangelization. The Church is alive in Jesus Christ to be sure, but needs to become more lively, precisely in those places where the Church is in critical condition.

The Church Alive is described as “fast-paced,” meaning that its pilot episode covers the year of faith, the Second Vatican Council and Blessed John XXIII in the first four-and-a-half minutes. It’s aimed at making young Catholics excited about their faith and equipping them to share it with their contemporaries. This is not your grandmother’s religious TV. Gomes on the documents of Vatican II: “These are absolutely huge.”

Huge, indeed. Imagine what that would make Ephesus or Trent. Enormous.

Gomes and Sanders are just the latest innovation from Salt + Light in presenting the faith. Gomes reveals something of the Salt + Light secret when he says that the staff at Salt + Light is not permitted to say that something can’t be done, or that we have never done it that way before.

The new evangelization requires, by definition, new methods. And so not having done something that way before is often an advantage. At 10 years, Salt + Light is no longer new, but it is still doing new things and is very much part of the new evangelization in Canada.
Having led the reform of the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto in the 1990s, World Youth Day in 2002 and now Salt + Light for 10 years, Fr. Rosica is becoming — if one might put it this way — a young elder of the new evangelization. The continuing good news about Salt + Light is that there are a great many young evangelists following behind him. Salt + Light — ad multos annos!