Arts News

TORONTO - Each year, across the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Grade 2 boys take part in a yearly ritual, as adjudicators from St. Michael's Choir School visit their classrooms and listen carefully to the small, unformed voices that may one day make up the ranks of one of the finest music schools in the world.

Stained glass finishes Jesus’ story


MISSISSAUGA, ONT.  - St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga is planning to build what may be the biggest stained glass window of the resurrected Christ in Canada.

Salt+Light covers Christmas


Salt+Light TV has the Christmas season covered this year.

Getting to the heart of The Story


TORONTO - Through a cold, foggy night at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, the scent of pine and smoke from a bonfire cut through like a crisp reminder of the very Canadian setting for a very old and beloved story.

In search of the wines from biblical times


TORONTO - In Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to Modern Times, authors Randall Heskett and Joel Butler ask not what would Jesus do but rather what wine would Jesus drink?

Meditation can lead us to who Christ is


For most of us, stilling the mind seems too unproductive to be a good idea. But then again, it’s an attractive idea.

“Who do you say I am?” is the burning question Jesus asks His disciples in chapter nine of the Gospel of Luke. In Benedictine Dom Laurence Freeman’s 75-page book The Goal of Life, the author seeks to illustrate how Christian meditation can help us come up with our own answer.

Freeman, the director of The World Community for Christian Meditation, is essentially giving readers a road map to happiness via the mind and spirit, should they choose to follow his lead.

But first he debunks the widely held misconception that meditation is a “get-away-from-it-all narcissistic indulgence” à la Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat, Pray, Love. Instead, it is “the practice of silence and stillness, of non-action beyond thought and imagination.” It’s also not a leisure activity. It’s hard work.

Meditation is the work we do to accept the gift of contemplation which is already given and present in the heart, writes Freeman.

The goal of life — heaven — is to know who we are. But to figure this out we must be able to say who Jesus is. If you’re willing to give the gift of total self, you may one day be able to answer that question. He is asking no small feat.

The book is small, but don’t be deceived. You’re in for some heavy reading. It’s also chock full of strong declarations and promises. “The humanity of Jesus and His relationship to the universe come to be experienced from within.”

Never having meditated, I read the book with an open mind. But how does one meditate? It takes a while to get to that. In fact, the majority of the book is spent discussing what it is and why one would seek to achieve Christian enlightenment, with only a few pages dedicated to the how.

Essentially, you are to sit upright and breathe calmly. Then, close your eyes and in your mind and heart repeat the word “maranatha.” It’s an Aramaic word he recommends to beginners which means “Come Lord. Come Lord Jesus.”

But it’s not quite so easy to clear your mind of your busy life. Freeman admits this and addresses the very real challenges of doing anything so counter-cultural.

To meditate, we must accept Jesus’ challenge to go beyond the fear of letting go of our favourite anxieties, the ones we’ve grown accustomed to, along with getting over our fear of peace. “The practice of meditation is a way of applying His teaching on prayer; it proves through experience that the human mind can indeed choose not to worry.”

The book successfully breaks down preconceived notions about what meditation is. Freeman shows us instead a holistic path of prayer.

So, who is Jesus? Freeman isn’t going to put it in words for you. The real goal of Christian meditation is an encounter with Jesus that goes beyond words and tidy definitions. It’s a reality that has to be felt in your heart as well as your mind. When you get it, Jesus is there in everyday life, in all the distractions and tedium of the day and in the dreams that light the still mind before dawn. Christian meditation is just one more tool to be implemented on the neverending journey of faith.

Vatican congregation sets up office for art, architecture, music


VATICAN CITY - The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments is establishing an office to promote the development and use of appropriate liturgical art, architecture and music.

The new office was approved in early September by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state; final arrangements and the designation of personnel are being made, said Marist Father Anthony Ward, undersecretary of the congregation.

The office will provide advice, encouragement and guidance, he said, but it will not attempt to impose specific styles.

"The church has always adopted local artistic, architectural and music styles," Father Ward told Catholic News Service Nov. 14. At the same time, as the Second Vatican Council taught, "it always has emphasized Gregorian chant as the homegrown music of the Latin rite."

While the Pontifical Council for Culture promotes efforts in the area of sacred art and music, the congregation's new office will focus specifically on art, architecture and music used for Mass and other formal moments of prayer.

The Second Vatican Council document on the liturgy said, "The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites."

It called for the preservation of the great liturgical art of the past and the encouragement of modern artists to create pieces appropriate for Catholic worship, "provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor."

A church built for Vatican II liturgy


There’s more to the liturgy than which words are spoken when and by whom. There’s more to it than can be captured by any one language, living or dead.

Architect Douglas Cardinal was one of the first to show the post- Vatican II liturgy in a church. As the Second Vatican Council ended, the now world-famous architect of Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Civilization began work on his first internationally recognized masterwork — St. Mary’s Church in Red Deer, Alta.

The story of St. Mary’s encapsulates triumphs and tragedies of the Canadian Church against the backdrop of Vatican II ideals. The church was consecrated as a cathedral by the Oblate Archbishop Anthony Jordan of Edmonton in 1968, who attended all four sessions of the ecumenical council in Rome.

Cardinal grew up going to a residential school in the 1940s — St. Joseph’s Convent School in Red Deer. His father was Blackfoot and his mother Metis. He was one of the rare success stories — a smart kid who got top marks, excelled in art and music, studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto.

He was also the head altar boy at St. Joseph’s and today as he pushes toward 80 years old he can still remember every word of the Latin Mass and can still sing the chants.

Cardinal’s brilliant career almost never happened. He was assaulted on the street as a young man in an ugly racial incident. In the Alberta of the late-1950s, it was naturally the native kid who wound up in jail. Jordan got him a lawyer, and helped get him out of jail.

From there, Cardinal travelled Europe — taking in everything from Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona to the baroque San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome by his favourite architect, Francesco Baromini.

That was followed by more architecture studies at the University of Texas and travel through Mexico and the American southwest, where he saw adobe missionary churches that reminded him of one of the great 20th-century masterworks, Le Corbusier’s Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France.

When German Oblate missionary Fr. Werner Merx tapped the young Cardinal to design a new church the priests didn’t know of the young architect’s history with his bishop. Merx stormed off to Edmonton prepared to battle Jordan for the chance to employ this brilliant young architect, not knowing how pleased his fellow Oblate would be to see the young man he saved from jail erect the first post-conciliar church in his diocese.

Merx and Cardinal weren’t just going to design a big building with some pews and a spire. They were going to invent a church based on the liturgy.

“We started by saying, what is the reason for the space?” Cardinal told The Catholic Register. “The altar.”
Merx insisted on a spare, unadorned sanctuary without even a cross. The pastor wanted the altar to be the sole symbol of the real presence, open and accessible to everyone gathered around it.

Every day at 4 p.m. Merx and Cardinal would meet at the church, play organ music and go over Cardinal’s designs. Their instruction manual was Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It took months to come up with the spare, unpolished altar that would dominate the sanctuary.

Cardinal designed a “light canon” — essentially a hole in the roof — over the altar.

“I wanted divine light coming from the altar,” he said. “That’s the sacrifice, the table of sacrifice. It should be the symbol of Christ. So light should emanate from the altar.”

The roof itself became a tent-like baldacchino hovering over the altar. Merx’s last church had burned down, so he wanted this one made of pure masonry and concrete. It was a tall order for a low roof.

“They told me it was impossible, with 81,000 simultaneous calculations to be solved. They said it would take 100 years,” recalled Cardinal.

The walls around the altar were laid out in a spiral form for the sake of acoustics.

“I want the sound of the Church to ring like a cathedral so that when the priest said ‘Dominus vobiscum’ it would go ‘Dominus vobiscum-um-um-um,’ ” he said. “Those beautiful Gregorian chants, I wanted them to sound properly in the church.”

Cardinal rooted his design in the spirit of baroque architecture, with its moving, dynamic forms.

“I felt the Church was better expressed by the Jesuit order, which was the baroque order, which was to bring some drama and power to the forms and shapes,” he said.

The result is something architecture students everywhere study, said Toronto architect Roberto Chiotti.

“Cardinal’s church in Red Deer always comes up as one of the case studies,” said Chiotti. “It’s very influential on the students and some of their designs.”

But Merx and Cardinal’s vision suffered in the post-Vatican II era. Merx was transferred to a northern mission almost as soon as the church was completed.

“Which really broke his heart,” said Cardinal. “He wanted to be there, but he was too liberal for the community.”

Subsequent pastors and parishioners found the design too austere and too far off the beaten path of regular Church architecture.

“No, they don’t get it. They put all those horrible statues in there. They’ve got... ugh!” Cardinal said.

At one point another architect was brought in to remove the baptistry from the entrance, where it had been a symbol of initiation into the church, and to make things a little more conventional. Cardinal tried to sue for the moral rights to his design, but the courts were reluctant to limit the parish’s right to dispose of its property.

When the church was built it stood alone on the horizon — a mysterious and beckoning shape. Today, it’s surrounded by a suburban subdivision with houses and schools. The bell tower still stands above the entrance, but the parish has never commissioned a peel of bells to occupy the trinity of open spaces left for them in the wall.

Despite all these disappointments and compromises, St. Mary’s made its mark.

“It’s captured in any historical anthology or survey of Canadian architecture. It would likely be in any major anthology of Church architecture because it’s so unique in its form,” said Chiotti. “Cardinal came along just at that moment when we were trying to articulate Vatican II and what does it mean. It’s a major transformation. He was a leader in trying to give tangible, meaningful expression to the documents as they would manifest themselves in Church architecture. It was very courageous and bold.”

Film seeks to find hope in hopelessness of Argentine slum


TORONTO - Sacrifice and temptation are common among priests in the fictional shantytown of Villa Maria in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires. But director Pablo Trapero is intent on art imitating life in White Elephant.

The film focuses on two priests of the Third World Church who are somewhat isolated from the larger Church body because they live and work in slums. They are devoted to helping Argentina’s poor like their predecessors in the 1960s and ’70s, but do not always live the holiest of lives.

“I like to put the camera in their lives because they are unknown,” said Trapero, who was in Toronto mid-September for the screening of White Elephant at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is in Spanish, with English subtitles.

Though he emphasizes the movie is fictional, Trapero felt it was important to give the priests, social workers and numerous others working a space to show what it means to exist in the slums of his homeland.

The film gets its title from a real White Elephant, a still-unfinished hospital in the Argentinian slum known as the Hidden City. The hospital was meant to be the largest of its kind in all of South America when on-again off-again construction began in the 1930s, but now the homeless turn to it for shelter. For Trapero, the hospital symbolizes “this idea of the dream that became a nightmare.”

This theme of lost hope is not limited to architecture, but is perpetually emphasized in the priests’ lives. Fr. Julián (Ricardo Darín) is what a Third World priest should be: dedicated and unselfish. Coming from a well-off family, he chose to spend years living with the people he ministers to.

“He has the luxury to decide to be poor,” Trapero said.

Fr. Julián uses his influence with the higher-ups of the Church to try to gain resources for the people in the slum. To do so, he must travel to the nearby urban centre, demonstrating that the divide between rich and very poor is a short car ride away.

Back in the slums, he tries to diplomatically navigate a world of warring drug lords and police that divide his flock and endanger the youth he tries so hard to protect. But after years in the slums, he is ill and, now facing his own mortality, struggles to suppress feelings of bitterness and anger.

Fr. Nicolás (Jérémie Renier) is the younger, cooler priest, originally from France, who the youth admire and who crosses a line Fr. Julián believes priests shouldn’t in a dangerous slum. Fr. Nicolás comes to Villa Maria after a violent incident in the Amazon. He suffers from survivor’s guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve God’s love. Though he turns to Fr. Julián, a long-time friend and his confessor, for spiritual guidance, he also turns to social worker Luciana (Martina Gusman) for physical comfort.

According to Trapero, Fr. Nicolás follows intuition more than rules and thinks too much of his needs, rather than the needs of others.

“You know when you should do something, but you decide not to do it,” Trapero said in reference to Fr. Nicolás.

But White Elephant is nothing like the 1983 American mini-series The Thorn Birds, where a priest is torn between his ecclesiastical goals and his love of a woman. Fr. Nicolás feels no guilt about his relations with Luciana, said Trapero.

“They are trying to be close and support each other in their life, but they are not pretending they will have a family.”

Trapero’s film does not hold priests to a holier-than-thou standard, but portrays them as men who chose a difficult vocation and who deal with it in their own imperfect ways.

Trapero shines light on life in all its misery. The scenes in White Elephant appear as if they were filmed slowly, when really life happens in such a steady pace. And as a result, the film is dull at times, like the monotony of life can be, yet the scenes of sorrow, death and passion are more prolonged and pronounced.

“Love is what they are trying to understand, not just love about God or about a woman,” Trapero said. “Everything they do is moved by love.” It is love that has Fr. Julián and Fr. Nicolás risking their lives for the youth of Villa Maria.

“It’s easy to be a martyr. To be a hero too,” said Fr. Julián. “The hardest thing is working day after day knowing your work is meaningless.”

And that is the question that lingers once the film is finished: In the face of dreams turned to nightmares, is their work meaningless or is the fact that there are priests who continue to work tirelessly in the slums hope enough?

Prisoners' Wives looks to spark conversation on prison families


It may be the world of make believe, but the British drama series Prisoners’ Wives is all about a harsh, complex reality. The producers of the BBC show and people who work with prisoners and their families hope the series sparks a conversation about the social cost of incarceration.

“When a man or a woman goes to jail the whole family does the time. It changes everything in the family dynamic,” Deacon Mike Walsh of the Friends of Dismas told The Catholic Register.

The Friends of Dismas, an ecumenical ministry for ex-prisoners in Toronto, is launching a new support team dedicated to working with families of those on the inside.

That makes Prisoners’ Wives “very timely,” Walsh said.

Prisoners’ Wives has been picked up in Canada by Vision TV and airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. It tackles the stories of four women with loved ones who are imprisoned — Lou, who has tried to escape poverty by selling drugs; Francesca, who has risen to fabulous wealth on the criminal entrepreneurship of her husband and now loses it all; middle-class, middle-aged Harriet, who finds herself bewildered and isolated when her son goes to jail; and pregnant Gemma, who gradually learns her husband is not who she thought he was.

The women find themselves on a journey of discovery about themselves and their relationships while the men inside struggle to keep up. Both the prisoners and their wives have to answer basic questions.

The family dynamic of prison life hasn’t often made it to either the big or the little screen. While there are plenty of cop shows and prison dramas about the lives of criminals and workings of the criminal justice system, there are no great films about wives, children and parents left behind.

“In popular entertainment, TV drama, have people thought about the plight of prisoners’ wives before? No. Uh-uh,” said executive producer Rebecca de Souza. “It’s delightful, because we could be the first one’s to do it.

“There are a lot of spiritual journeys prisoners have to go through. (Harriet’s son) Gavin goes on a pretty misguided spiritual journey. He thinks it’s a spiritual journey but it really isn’t.”

But the writers, directors and actors had no easy, well established film clichés to fall back on. Instead they had to do hundreds of hours of research talking to prison families, chaplains, guards, social workers and prisoners.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for POPS (the British charity Partners of Prisoners) and other organizations to engage with and influence the public dialogue as well as making the public aware of the support services we offer,” said POPS policy and research officer Rebecca Cheung. “(The show) raised a number of key issues such as the bullying of children of prisoners and the diversity of individuals affected by imprisonment.”

The show has been successful enough in the UK to be picked up for a second season and POPS has noticed much more conversation in British media and on social media about prison issues from the point of view of families.

“Families of prisoners are generally speaking invisible,” said Cheung. “Prison life in the UK conversely receives quite a lot of attention.”

Public dialogue is obsessed with punishment but ignores social costs, said de Souza.

“Is he being punished enough? Is he being rehabilitated enough? Should they be allowed televisions in their cells? We’re all very interested in those subjects,” she said. “What people don’t talk about is the massive community around him that is equally affected.”

Walsh for one hopes the drama might prick up a few ears to the real spiritual needs of real prison families.

“(Imprisonment) has a ripple effect we often never think about, and it is a time when the parish community needs to come together in support,” Walsh said.

16th-century Peruvian convent and its historic art eyed for restoration


LIMA, Peru - Half-hidden behind palm trees at the end of a once elegant avenue in a now rundown neighborhood, the Convento de los Descalzos -- the Convent of the Barefoot Friars -- has witnessed half a millennium of Peruvian history.

Age, economic woes and benign neglect have taken their toll, and the convent has fallen on hard times. But Alberta Alvarez, the director of a foundation established less than a year ago to revitalize the convent, is trying to change that.