A Protestant colleague sent a playful e-mail from Rome a few weeks back, asking, “Don’t you think the Sistine Chapel is a little over the top?”

To which Kara Johnson, a colleague at our magazine, Convivium, gave the perfect response: “Totally over the top. Over the lip of the vault and into… heaven!”

Michelangelo’s vault of the Sistine Chapel is the greatest painted work in history, and contemplating the masterpiece from below, one beholds heaven from Earth, even as Adam gazes into the face of God at the moment of his creation. The ceiling is 500 years old, completed in 1512 after four years of painstaking work, unsurpassed artistic brilliance and a collaborative clash of titanic personalities — Michelangelo on one hand, and Pope Julius II on the other.

Thanks to the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy we have a cinematic portrayal in which we glimpse the enormity of the task. Rex Harrison, playing Julius II, repeatedly demands of Michelangelo: “When will you make an end?”

“When I am finished!” Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston, replies repeatedly and heatedly.

Michelangelo did eventually finish, and on the vigil of All Saints 1512, Julius II celebrated solemn vespers to bless the new work. Pope Benedict returned on Oct. 31 to mark a half millennium of magnificence.

On the 1,100 square metres of the ceiling, Michelangelo tells the story of creation and, with a boldness born of Christian theology and artistic genius, paints the very face of God. To see the face of God is the desire of every heart, but beyond the capacity of our vision. We therefore need the eyes of faith (theology) or an experience of beauty (art) in order to see past the limitations of the natural world.

The Sistine Chapel is the great synthesis of faith and art. It is a rare instance of perfection in human achievement — as in, for example, Bach’s Mass in B Minor — which is naturally unsurpassable precisely because it is animated by the supernatural. Grace builds on nature, and Michelangelo’s ceiling is a work of grace as well as human genius.

A great work of art is akin to a sacrament. It makes visible and tangible that which is invisible and intangible. One might even say that it renders comprehensible that which lies always beyond our comprehension. Julius II, for whatever other failings he had, knew well that the Christian faith needs art to help man encounter the divine.

“We need you,” said Pope Paul VI in 1964, at a meeting with artists held in the Sistine Chapel. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God Himself. And in this activity … you are masters. Your task, your mission and your art consist in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colours, forms — making them accessible.

“If we were deprived of your assistance our ministry would become faltering and uncertain, and a special effort would be needed, one might say, to make it artistic, even prophetic. In order to scale the heights of lyrical expression of intuitive beauty, priesthood would have to coincide with art,” Pope Paul added.

Pope Benedict XVI, at another meeting of artists in 2009, held again in the Sistine Chapel, called it a “sanctuary of faith and human creativity.” Benedict frequently returns to the importance of beauty for the faith. In a sceptical world no longer sure of the truth, and in a degraded culture reluctant to judge anything good, it is beauty that alone which might raise the horizon to transcendent things.

“An essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy ‘shock,’ it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft,” Benedict said in that Sistine Chapel address.

Tens of thousands pass through the Sistine Chapel each week. The chapel demands that they turn their head upward and strain their eyes to behold the glory of the ceiling, the glory of Michelangelo’s work, the glory indeed of the Lord.

Five-hundred years on and Michelangelo’s ceiling is still at work. When will it end? In heaven.

The downside of technology

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Too often it can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity

The three front-page stories in a national newspaper the other day really caught my eye. One was about technology giant Apple Inc.’s impressive financials, the second was about a conference in Montreal on how technology makes life better, and the third was about a massive study of Canadian workers that found we’re overworked and getting more sad all the time.

There seemed to be a thread tying these stories together. Every day we’re bombarded about the virtues of technology, but we rarely take time to think about some of the downsides. For example, we’ve been told for decades that technology makes us more productive and frees us up for more leisure time. Not so, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, in which 25,000 workers were surveyed. We’re working longer hours (the vast majority of people are now working more than 45 hours per week) and technology tethers us to the boss and clients on evenings and weekends, once the sole domain of family time.

As I was thinking about technology’s impact, an interesting e-mail dropped in my box. The subject line was “Einstein was right.” Perhaps you’ve received it too, or seen it race around the social media circuits?

It is pictures of young people, each with his or her smartphone in hand, in restaurants and museums, on the beach and in cars. All the pictures show the young folks glued to their screens and ignoring nearby friends.

The caption after the pictures is a supposed quote from Albert Einstein: “I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.” I say “supposed quote” because I searched long and hard and couldn’t come up with that exact quote.

The closest I could find from the great scientist was: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Whether the originator of the e-mail took liberty or not with Einstein’s words, you get my point: technology is not pure panacea.

If you have teenage kids, you’ve seen them tap away not hearing a word of what you’ve said. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t the greatest listener either, but today’s teens take it to a whole new level. And it’s not just teenagers. Almost all of us pay way too much attention to our handheld devices, sometimes even in church.

Social media (ie. online relationships through Facebook, Twitter and others) have restructured human relationships. What once was the dynamic experience of having a real-life conversation became selecting from a bunch of dropdown boxes to describe ourselves and our likes. As we become digital, our interactions are dumbed down so that they play nice with technology. We don’t even have to articulate why something makes us happy any more, we just click “Like.”

Things are changing so fast with smartphones and computers for the purpose to entertain us that it gives me an eerie feeling we’re losing some of our humanity as we reach to connect online instead of connecting one-on-one or in real-life communities. Will this lead to a less caring society? I hope not.

But as Christians, we need to think about these things because the teachings of Jesus are about our relationships — with family, friends, strangers, even enemies and, of course, our relationship with God. One need only re-read the beautiful Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) to understand this.

I realize Pope Benedict has urged Catholics, particularly younger ones, to embrace the digital world and the Vatican has even given its approval to an iPhone app that can help us with Confession.

But the Pope also said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

At that technology conference in Montreal, according to the Globe and Mail, an entrepreneur from Kenya talked about a game he had developed in which players protect trees from illegal loggers.

This, apparently, has helped to change people’s views of the practice in the real world. And that’s a good use of technology; first by helping the environment and second by offering hope and opportunity to bright minds in parts of the world not as wealthy and privileged as we in North America.

But technology can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity, if we let it. We should remember that the next time we’re sending the boss an update on a Sunday while our family is nearby.

Phil Fontaine lets politics get in the way of the truth

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Native leader loses track of the facts at St. Kateri’s canonization

The making of saints is a joyous affair, with a gracious spirit abounding toward all, and a determined effort to ignore any discordant notes. I recall, for example, at the beatification Mass for Cardinal John Henry Newman my surprise at seeing Bishop Remi De Roo, the retired bishop of Victoria, sitting not a few paces away from Pope Benedict XVI. Bishop De Roo had been keeping a determinedly low profile since leaving his diocese plagued by financial scandal, so it was a surprise to see him at all.

Yet there he was, ebullient at Newman’s beatification, taking the great cardinal as inspiration for his own theological vision. The Holy Father, for his part, was inspired enough by Newman that he departed from his usual practice and conducted the beatification himself. Between Benedict XVI and Bishop De Roo there is a vast difference as to the proper interpretation of the Second Vatican Council and other theological matters, and the former would be astonished that the latter would claim Newman for his positions. But it was a beatification, the saints belong to the whole Church, and so the gracious thing to do was not to notice the incongruity of it all.

It is inevitable that new saints are used for partisan purposes by various factions in the Church. Sometimes the Holy See attempts to forestall the attempt to use the saints in this fashion, as for example when Pope John XXIII and Pope Pius IX were beatified on the same day, or when Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII were declared venerable on the same day.

The canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha on Oct. 21 was characterized — wittingly or not — in such factional terms by Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who was present in Rome for the canonization. Fontaine had been in Rome in 2009, accompanied by Canadian bishops, to receive an apology for the treatment of native children in residential schools. So he speaks with some authority on relations between native peoples and the Catholic Church. But what he said in Rome cannot go unremarked.

“(The canonization) makes it possible, very much possible, to bring our community — the First Nations — very much closer with the Catholic Church. There was rupture for too long,” he told Catholic News Service.

“The canonization makes it possible to share our daughter with the universal Church,” he continued. “If you link the two events (the 2009 visit and the canonization), it is all about imparting reconciliation. It is an opportunity for us to say, ‘We accept your apology, we forgive, and so now let us begin taking the important steps of healing and reconciliation.’ ”

Healing and reconciliation need to be rooted in truth, and what Fontaine said is not rooted in the truth of Kateri’s life. Kateri’s choice to be baptized and practise her Catholic faith meant that her own people persecuted her, so much so that she left her native village in present-day upstate New York and moved to the Christian mission near Montreal, where she died at age 24.
As to whether she belongs to her native tribe or the universal Church, the answer is that she belongs to both. But if she was forced to choose, it is clear that Kateri would have chosen her faith. In fact, that is what she did at considerable cost.

More objectionable is Fontaine’s treatment of the canonization as a sort of super-apology, as if the Church gave native Canadians a saint to compensate them for their suffering. That would make Kateri an instrument of factional jockeying rather than a model of holiness. Moreover, it neglects the fact that in the complex history of the Church and native peoples, Kateri is an example of native persecution of Christians, not the other way around.

“St. Kateri was persecuted for the faith she held so tenaciously,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in his statement. The prime minister did not mention who persecuted her. Good manners today mean that we don’t mention the aboriginal peoples who made martyrs — sometimes brutally so — of Christians, but an objection must be made when Kateri is advanced as an occasion of “accepting” an apology from the Church. The truth of history is exactly the opposite.

Fontaine was a discordant voice in his remarks to Catholic News Service. Most voices — aboriginal and otherwise — did not see this as the latest installment of an ongoing conflict between natives and the Church, but a blessing for both. It was, and St. Kateri may well obtain from God the gift of reconciliation for the First Nations peoples, but reconciliation requires first that the truth be told.

Catholic Montreal lives

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Within 20 minutes of my house are shrines to Canada’s two newest saints. To the south, visible across the St. Lawrence, is the spire and façade of St. Francis of Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, the simple little church that honours St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Heading in the opposite direction for a few minutes brings into view the unmistakable dome of St. Joseph’s Oratory, the imposing shrine to St. Brother André Bessette.

Both, of course, have been elevated to sainthood in the past two years — St. Kateri on Oct. 21; St. Brother André in October, 2010. I wish I could say this fresh and welcome bursting forth of sanctity has had an immediate beneficial effect on the city of Montreal, or even my neighbourhood. That might be hoping for too much too soon. Perhaps the power of the communion of saints obliges dutiful patience at least equivalent to that required for the process of sainthood itself.

What has been notable is the attention paid to both canonizations in a city that normally prides itself on its smirking, cynical secularism and its contempt for all things related to the Church. With Brother André’s elevation, particularly, there was a genuine buzz that was amplified by official civic and media interest. The interest in St. Kateri, the Lily of the Mohawks, was more muted. Her church, after all, is on the city’s south shore across the rickety Mercier Bridge, not in fashionable Outremont.

Still, significant attention was paid in quarters that might have been otherwise expected to ignore it. It was, if nothing else, an opportunity to flay the Church yet again for its sins against the aboriginal population. There was also the irresistible attraction of working in pop culture references to Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, in which Kateri is the object of a character’s obsession.

The enduring appeal of at least local saints, even if only as a morbid fascination with the Church’s purported eccentricities, confounds the authorized Quebec attitude toward Catholicism and, indeed, Christianity itself.

For generations now, Quebecers have been taught to regard their historic, foundational faith as if it were grandmother’s corpse in a rocking chair in the attic: if we ignore it eventually the smell will go away. But what ho! It turns out there is plenty of life in the old girl yet.

Recognition of that life would unquestionably have a salutary effect not just on the future of the Church as an institution, not to mention the souls of the faithful yet-to-come, but also on Quebec’s connection to, and understanding of, its past. Research being done by a young scholar I know provides a sense of how clouded that understanding is, and the larger cultural damage that is the result.

The researcher has become fascinated by the role of religious women, particularly the Ursuline nuns, in the development of early New France. While popular depiction smothers the landscape of that era with Jesuits in black robes, he is discovering how much even cloistered women religious were able to contribute to the establishment of the settlement and, more importantly, to peaceful interaction with indigenous peoples.

His research is in the early stages yet so he is shy about attention, but the evidence is starting to show that the first Ursuline teaching and nursing sisters were a focal point for the exchange of knowledge in arts such as weaving and basket making as well as in botany and chemistry. He has found a treasure trove of personal letters and official reports revealing that pivotal role. It has turned up not in Montreal or Quebec City, where one might expect to find it, but in archives in Paris and other French cities.

What’s fascinating is not just that the French archival material has gone untouched for so long, but why it has been ignored. Quebec academics, he says, don’t like to go outside Quebec to research their own history. And if it involves the Church? Well, they’d rather tiptoe past the door to the attic than enter and find out how grandmother’s doing in her rocking chair. Why not? It’s what they’ve been taught to do for generations. Yet if all history is ultimately local, as a wise man once said, what happens to a people when the very institutions that shaped its locale are declared verboten?

All we can do then is pray that the saints in the neighborhood will preserve us.

Oct. 22 vs. Oct. 16

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The days are quite significant in our Church’s history

As the present grows more distant from the past, what actually happened becomes confused with what people think happened. Even pious priests fall victim to the temptation. Take, for example, Fr. C. John McCloskey III. He wrote this recently about the election of Blessed John Paul II:

“In 1978, when I was preparing for the priesthood in Rome, I had the privilege of being present in St. Peter’s Square when the newly chosen Pope John Paul II came out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and addressed the crowd by quoting Our Lord’s words ‘Ne Timeas’ (Do not be afraid). I, along with the rest of the throng present, somehow sensed that the world was going to be different under this man who came ‘from a far country,’ as he put it.”

But it seems McCloskey’s memory is playing tricks on him.

First, when Karol Wojtyla appeared on the balcony just after his election on Oct. 16, 1978, he did not speak in Latin. In fact, what was remarkable about the balcony appearance was the new Pope’s decision to speak to the crowd in Italian, rather than restrict himself to the traditional Latin blessing alone. The speech was memorable in part because the pope asked the Romans to correct him if he made a mistake in “your … no, our” Italian language.

Second, John Paul did not say “be not afraid” on the balcony. That was the key line from the homily at the inaugural Mass in St. Peter’s Square several days later.

Third, the late Holy Father never said “ne timeas,” which is Latin. The homily was delivered in Italian. And what he said in Italian was “non abbiate paura” — second person plural — which would be “nolite timere” (second person plural) in Latin, not “ne timeas” (second person singular).

What’s the big deal? Why quibble over details? It’s not really about Fr. McCloskey. He is a well-known commentator, but sadly typical of many people who confuse Oct. 16 and Oct. 22. How many times have you heard that John Paul’s first pontifical words were “be not afraid”? Hardly. After the election of Oct. 16, he addressed the college of cardinals (Oct. 19), the diplomatic corps (Oct. 20) and then held a press conference (Oct. 21). “Be not afraid” was on Oct. 22.

It matters to get that history straight now that John Paul is beatified. The Church has assigned him Oct. 22 as his feast day, not the day of his death. A similar thing was done for Blessed John XXIII, who was assigned Oct. 11, the day of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and his famous address, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia — Mother Church Rejoices! Oct. 22 was chosen for Blessed John Paul precisely because of the “be not afraid” homily delivered that historic Roman day. Moreover, that homily is part of the divine office for the feast, excerpted in the Office of Readings. Get the history confused and the point of the feast day is lost.

It’s especially important in the month of the October, where the Church gives us an embarrassment of riches in terms of feasts. The month begins with two of the most popular saints in all Christian history, Therese of Lisieux (Oct. 1) and Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4), with the Guardian Angels in between (Oct. 2). Our Lady of the Rosary (Oct. 7) follows soon after, with the evangelist Luke (Oct. 18) and the apostles Simon and Jude (Oct. 28) also celebrated.
Then there is the curious case of Teresa of Avila, who died during the night between Oct. 4 and Oct. 15. It was a most unusual night, because in 1582 the calendar was adjusted by Gregory XIII, removing 10 days from it. Her feast day is observed Oct. 15.

With three recent blesseds, the Church departed from her usual practice of assigning the death anniversary as the feast day. Cardinal Newman (Oct. 9) was assigned the day of his conversion to Catholicism, and John XXIII (Oct. 11) and John Paul II (Oct. 22) were given significant days of their pontificates.

The liturgical calendar illustrates how holiness is rooted in history. That’s why it matters to get Oct. 22 right, when those history-shaping and life-changing words rang out:

“Brothers and sisters, do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept His power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open, I say open wide the doors for Christ. To His saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘that which is in man’. He alone knows it.”

Thanksgiving is a second Mother’s Day for me

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Thanksgiving is always special because it is the day my parents were married many years ago and I take time to feel thankful for them, though they are both long departed. And this Thanksgiving weekend was extra special because we celebrated the 80th birthday of my wife’s mother.

Though my own mother and my wife’s mother met only once, I have always felt a bond between them. They were raised very differently (one in the city, the other in the country) and they married men with polar opposite personalities. But the two women were similar in many ways; namely, they always put others first.

My mom was a saint and my dad a character. It may not have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was certainly a love story lived on Earth that I am sure continues in heaven.

In many ways, my parents were so different. She was a worker bee who wanted to get the job done (whatever the job), behind the scenes, away from the limelight. He was a free-spirit who loved the attention and often put a job around the house off until tomorrow. But he loved his wife beyond anything; even more than the racetrack, golf course or poker table. She died way too young at age 56. Her death was 15 years before his at age 73. Though he had some good years after her, he really was never the same on his own.

In his later years, he once told me the best thing I could give my children was to love their mother above all else. I said, “Dad, of course, I do.” With an unfamiliar serious look on his face, he said, “Always put her first. Your love of her reflects to them.”

On Thanksgiving, as I thought about my parents, I couldn’t help but think that he got to have more fun than she did. In some ways, he was a product of the times and a swashbuckling journalist in the 1950s and ’60s.

There was a story when he was in Manhattan at a party at a swanky nightclub and he danced with Liz Taylor. The next morning, he called home to tell mom about the evening but she was scrubbing floors so my oldest brother had the conversation with him on the phone. He was about eight years old and he relayed the story to mom and then looked at her on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, and said, “Mom, you’re just like Cinderella and daddy was at the ball.”

In our family, given who our father was, teasing was a sport. Once, when I was upset over being teased, mom consoled me by saying it is okay to be teased because it means that person isn’t teasing someone else. A very Christian attitude that, unfortunately, I sometimes forget. Long ago, at Sunday dinner mom was getting teased by several of her seven children and she exasperatedly said: “How come women at the CWL, or at the beauty salon or our friends in the bowling league all like me but you guys treat me like this?”

I was about 10 years old and I blurted out: “Mom, they just don’t know you like we do!” They say there is a grain of truth in any joke, but she knew there was no truth in that one and she smiled. Later, I heard her tell that story on more than one occasion.

This brings me back to this past Thanksgiving weekend. It started with a birthday dinner for my wife’s mother with her children, grandchildren and her brothers and their wives at the table. Then the next night she took 10 of her family to the production of War Horse and also paid for the dinner at a fancy restaurant. We tried to pay but she just shook her head and said: “This is my birthday present to myself. I am paying.”

She has done things like this regularly for the 30 years I’ve known her and it is just another example of how she puts others first, just like my mom did. And it’s one of the reasons I have never, ever referred to her as my “mother-in-law” because of the negative connotations associated with that phrase. She is my second mother, period. And how many people are lucky enough to have two fantastic mothers in one lifetime? That’s why Thanksgiving is a second Mother’s Day for me.

The best of both worlds

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What is our favourite TV show? Do we allow our children to read and watch The Hunger Games? What style of clothing do we choose? How much time do we spend online, and how do we spend it?

Every day, we are influenced by a culture that was rooted in Christianity but is now shaped by a radical secularism and a need for instant gratification. How are we as Catholics called to live in a culture that has not only forgotten its evangelical roots but often denigrates or even opposes them?

St. Kateri Tekakwitha offers valuable insights into this question by her intense commitment to Jesus Christ at a time when native cultures were confronted and often oppressed by European cultures.

Born of an Algonquin mother and Mohawk father, Kateri courageously bridged the gap between her own First Nations cultures and French Catholicism, embracing the best of both. Even her name highlights this characteristic: “Kateri” is a Mohawk version of the French “Catherine.” In embracing both her native heritage and Christianity, Kateri discovered and lived fully her deepest identity, expressing it in her total commitment to the Person of Christ.

Kateri’s intense love for Christ inspired her to follow Him wholeheartedly, both in prayer and in works of charity. But her ardour stirred up the animosity of many in her home village. Initially petty, the hostility escalated into real persecution — from children taunting her and throwing rocks, to her family refusing to allow her to eat on Sundays when she took extra time to pray, to death threats.

Instead of scaring her into a compromise, Kateri’s Mohawk upbringing inclined her to regard bravery in suffering as a sign of spiritual strength. She didn’t just accept suffering as part of life, but embraced it, wanting to share in the Cross of Christ for the sake of her people. Only after repeated death threats did Kateri reluctantly decide to flee to where she could live her faith freely.

Upon arriving at Sault St. Louis, the Christian native village in present day Kahnawake, Kateri’s fervour in prayer and generous kindness quickly made her a spiritual leader. She loved to pray in the Jesuit chapel, arriving first for Mass early in the morning, but she also prayed in the outdoor “chapel” she created by carving a cross into a tree trunk. Even the austere penances she practised were an expression of her love for Christ.

Kateri’s intense love for Jesus led her to embrace the counter-cultural call to virginity. Marriage was such an important value in her native culture that both in her home village and in the Christian village, Kateri faced innumerable pressures to marry. (Even her Jesuit mentors did not initially encourage her.) Her inexplicable fidelity to virginal chastity can only be explained by a call from God.

As her understanding of Christian life matured, Kateri’s desire for chastity flowered into a vow of virginity. Kateri is the first native woman of North America known to make this vow. Virginity was her vocation, her “way of love” in the world, and only in becoming a Catholic could Kateri discover and live the fullness of her vocation.

Immersed in her own culture, but not enslaved by it, Kateri’s reception of Christ’s saving love enabled her to develop her deepest identity. Affirming her First Nations heritage kept her rooted in her own culture, but also helped her follow a personal call and make the courageous choices for Baptism and consecrated virginity.

St. Kateri is a remarkable model for how we can engage in our culture today. She showed us how to claim our own heritage, embracing the values that strengthen our deepest identity and foster our commitment to Christ; how to discerningly engage with culture, aware that our unique identity is shaped by culture and also by God; and how to view every people and culture with the eyes of Christ, discovering common human values and the seeds of the Gospel even in the midst of conflict.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha, saint of the New Evangelization, pray for us!

Winds of change?

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It was hardly a wind of change. But it was at least a whisper of hope.

And if Parliament’s vote on MP Stephen Woodworth’s motion gives new hope to pro-life Canadians, it also affords an opportunity to change for the better.

Woodworth’s private member’s motion seeking to have a House of Commons committee study when life begins was, of course, defeated 203-91 in late September. But while the win-loss margin seems large, the 91 “yeas” were much more than just a moral victory. They were a shock. Few, if any, predicted such a level of support. No one publicly foresaw high profile cabinet ministers such as Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose voting for the motion.

Whatever their other motives, it’s clear Woodworth’s character and conduct during the acrimonious debate was key in making it possible for his colleagues to vote yes. He was implacably patient and polite. He went out of his way to try to help reporters understand that his motion did not pit him “against” Prime Minister Stephen Harper but merely signaled a “difference” between them.

The distinction has virtually no currency in the binary world of parliamentary media coverage, where conflict-model news reporting is the default, indeed almost exclusive, mode. If Woodworth’s efforts in that regard help the penny to drop in just one reporter’s head, he will have done this country a world of service.

He did at least two additional things that were strategically brilliant precisely because, more than mere tactical maneuvers, they formed the essence of his action. First, he made the motion about study, not insistence. Second, he made it about science, not shouting. The upshot was that those who argued “nay” were arguing to resist the scientific study of the most foundational question any lawmaking body faces, namely how we define being human.

As Preston Manning wrote on The Globe and Mail’s op-ed page, the response of some of God’s children was a reflexive fallback to ideology and, in some cases, mere shrill harangue. Referencing Woodworth’s honestly intentioned attempt to reframe the debate, Manning wrote, “the opposition and most of the media insisted on debating... within the historical abortion-focused framework — still polarized between pro-choice and pro-life positions developed in the 1970s and 1980s. The result was not only divisive but embarrassingly unproductive — confirming once again in the public mind that our Parliament seems to be the last place in the country where we can have a forward-looking discussion of a substantive issue.”

That confirmation opens up questions as to why this is so, and whether it need remain so. Starkly, it asks us all to confront the basic question of what a Parliament is for. It asks us where can we debate such contentious matters if not in Parliament? In that sense, Woodworth’s motion was as much about democratic life as it was about when life begins. It was predicated on the reality that scientific certainties have moved us a long way from the 19th-century misconception that life commences only when birth is completed. It required us as a democratic people to take a first step toward deciding how our laws and lawmaking can best embody that reality and balance it against the equal reality of the rights of the mother within whom that life begins.

The opening, lesson and hope for those Canadians who consider themselves pro-life comes directly from Woodworth’s recognition of the necessity of an incremental approach not to win, but to balance and, perhaps most importantly, to balance democratically.

Such talk naturally raises hackles among some pro-life Canadians. As one of the finest and smartest once asked me point-blank: “Who in their right mind would talk about incrementalism if the subject was bombing the train tracks into Auschwitz?” It’s a fair question, and it’s a strong question but it’s also, ultimately, a question of despair. It presumes there is not even a whisper of hope that democratic means remain available to resolve Canadians’ most foundational conundrum.

The fate of Woodworth’s motion, the unexpected support it received, undermines that presumption. It shows the system, minus the shouting, can be made to persuade in the name of what is right for all. Can the wind of change do anything but follow?

Regiopolis-Notre Dame marks 175 years of Catholic excellence

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Kingston is the mother church of English Canada, the first diocese erected in Upper Canada. Last weekend, we celebrated an important part of that history, marking the 175th anniversary of the oldest Catholic high school in English Canada — Regiopolis-Notre Dame High School.

In 1762, 250 years ago, Alexander MacDonnell was born in the Scottish highlands. He came to Canada in 1804, already in his early 40s, as chaplain of the Glengarry Fencibles. One of the few English-speaking priests in the British colonies, he was made auxiliary bishop of Quebec with responsibility for what would become Ontario. In 1826, when Kingston was made the diocese for all of Upper Canada, MacDonnell was appointed the first bishop.

At the age of 75, just three years before his death, Bishop MacDonnell petitioned the legislature of Upper Canada for a new college, originally planned as a seminary for the training of future priests. The old bishop provided better than he could have known. In 1837, Regiopolis (Latin for "Kingston") College was incorporated and became a college for men, not exclusively a seminary, just a few years later in 1840, soon after MacDonnell died.

His successor, Bishop Remigius Gaulin, sought to provide for the education of girls by inviting the Congregation of Notre Dame to open a school. Two sisters arrived from Montreal in 1841, and Bishop Gaulin gave them MacDonnell's residence as a location for the new school, which opened with 12 girls. Taking its name from the CND sisters, Notre Dame high school for girls flourished on the same site in downtown Kingston for well over a century, until the 1960s.

Over at Regiopolis College, the school did so well that it was granted a Royal Charter in 1866, meaning that it could grant university degrees. But finances were tight and Regiopolis closed in 1869. It fell to Kingston's first archbishop, James Vincent Cleary, to reopen Regiopolis in 1896 as a secondary school. The boys' high school continued as an archdiocesan venture, although entrusted to the Jesuits from 1931 to 1971.

In the days before provincial funding for Catholic high schools, the continuation of Regiopolis for boys and Notre Dame for girls was an impressive achievement, depending on sacrificial tuition payments from families and constant fundraising by the Catholic community. But by the late 1960s, sustaining both schools became too much, and in 1967 the two schools were merged into the new co-educational Regiopolis-Notre Dame (RND). Full funding came in 1984, and RND marked its 150th anniversary by shifting from diocesan and religious control to that of the local government-funded Catholic school board.

It's hard to overestimate the impact of RND on the Catholic Church in Ontario. For 150 years, it was Catholic secondary education, touching every Catholic family in the Kingston area. Register readers felt that impact too. Both long-time columnist Msgr. Thomas Raby and recently deceased publisher Fr. Carl Matthews were graduates of Regiopolis.

The 175th anniversary was marked by the completion of a new chapel, dedicated in honour of the foundress of the Congregation of Notre Dame, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. The school's principal, Wayne Hill, a champion of Catholic education who understands the importance of preserving and promoting the Catholic identity of our schools, desired the new chapel as a concrete sign that the Lord Jesus, present in the Holy Eucharist, is the heart of a Catholic school. The stately and serene new chapel, which opens immediately off the entrance foyer, succeeds in doing just that.

The dedication ceremonies stressed the importance of Catholic education, and the sheer longevity of RND makes the point in historical terms. The Catholic Church has been about education for centuries, and the local community in Kingston has been at it since before Confederation.

In a time when there is friction between the provincial government's education bureaucracy and the Catholic system, it is worth remembering that the provincial bureaucracy is the junior partner in education. They have the money thanks to the coercive power of taxation, but not similar experience nor competence. The arrogance and arbitrary power of the education bureaucracy needs to acknowledge that long before it existed, Catholics knew how to establish and operate excellent schools.

Regiopolis was established the same year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne. The school has been operating long enough to witness not only the diamond jubilee of Victoria in 1897, but also the diamond jubilee this year of Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Hill was wise to highlight that long record of specifically Catholic excellence, a record older than Canada itself, and one that Catholics ought to be proud of, and committed to protect.

 

Christians resigned to media bias

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This is a column about what happens (or doesn’t happen) when Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster mocks Jesus Christ on prime time TV and a no-name amateur filmmaker mocks Mohammad on the Internet.

Throughout September, deadly violence erupted in many parts of the world as groups of Muslims attacked American embassies and other installations after a low-budget video, called The Innocence of Muslims and posted on YouTube, depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a sexual deviant. In Pakistan, at least two six-figure bounties have been offered, one by a current government official and the other by a former one, to be paid upon the death of the filmmaker. The filmmaker himself is currently being held in a Los Angeles detention centre, reportedly for parole violations.

In Pakistan, at least 23 protesters have been killed. There were also deaths in several other Muslim countries. The violence coincided with an attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four people, including the U.S. ambassador.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 28 the CBC program This Hour has 22 Minutes broadcast a skit based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. It used the tableau as a backdrop to satirize recent news reports of writings on a papyrus fragment that allude to a wife of Jesus. (The fragment is of disputed origin and there is certainly no agreement among scholars that it refers to Jesus Christ.) In the skit, a woman identified as Jesus’ wife is shown continually disrupting the Last Supper, complaining that Jesus is constantly carousing with the boys and drinking too much wine. In a particularly offensive segment, the familiar words of the consecration (“This is my blood…”) are interrupted when the Jesus figure complains: “Ellen, do you mind, I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

Although both are offensive, the two videos are different in many respects. But perhaps the most striking difference was not the video content itself but in the respective response from Muslims and Christians. In the first case, we saw violence that we would normally expect only in conditions of war or civil uprising; in the second, there were probably a few hundred groans as many people reached for the remote and perhaps a few dozen angry e-mails and phone calls to the CBC.

The Catholic Civil Rights League has tried over the years to lead the way in protesting serious anti-Catholic media portrayals. I am often asked why the typical Catholic response is usually so tame, if one happens at all. Obviously, there is a cultural factor. North American and European Christians live in free-speech societies and in environments where religious differences tend to be accommodated and where religion is downplayed in a secular public atmosphere. This doesn’t make it right to mock religious beliefs as though faith was just another form of entertainment, but it probably does mean that when it happens Christians regard it more as tasteless humour than a serious attack.

More than likely, the people who send e-mails or make phone calls to complain know that change is unlikely. These complaints won’t reverse the ingrained biases of society and the media.

The CBC’s lampoon of  the Last Supper was far from its most serious example of anti-faith bias. No one would take the skit seriously. Some of the false impressions created by the CBC and other networks over the years by their slanted coverage of the sex-abuse scandals, or in police dramas where violence at abortion clinics always seems to have a Catholic angle, probably do more to perpetuate anti-Catholic bias.

Perhaps Catholics, and many other Christians, have stopped paying much attention to the media because the bias is rampant or because they believe any harm done falls short of egregious. While some of the worst South Park episodes, such as those involving a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary or a depiction of Jesus Christ who could not perform miracles, drew sharp responses, including boycotts, most people responded by simply watching something else.

This may well be part of the reason that the media continues to take liberties with Christianity that they wouldn’t dare take with Islam. Christians seem resigned to the insults.

No one wants a world in which violent responses are the norm, but a short e-mail or phone call in protest of anti-religious bias can let producers and advertisers know they’ve lost some audience. As media executives and politicians both attest, it’s an issue if they hear about it, and if they don’t, it isn’t.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League.)

Some of us still play for the right reasons

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Though we are under the watchful eye of the Beer Czar

When it comes to the NHL lockout, it proves adult men can be ridiculous and greedy. When it comes to our weekly pickup hockey games, it proves adult men can be silly and generous.

This year’s hockey “draft party” was extra special because we played a pre-season game at the Leafs practice facility at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke before the draft. (It’s not like the Leafs were in any need of the ice.) One of our regulars bought the ice time for his pals at a charity auction and another player donated his home (along with beer and burgers) for the party.

The intent of the annual party is to “draft” teams and make them as even as possible so that games are competitive and fun, week in and week out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because we have players of vastly different skill levels ranging in age from early 40s to early 60s.

But I like to think that we follow some of the rules for sport and sportsmanship that Pope Benedict mused about in September to members of the International Federation of Sports Medicine at their world congress in Rome. He talked about fair play, the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and a culture too much about winning at all costs. That didn’t apply to us middle-aged, middle-bulging men, but this did: “Just as sport is more than just competition, each sportsman and woman is more than a mere competitor: they are possessed of a moral and spiritual capacity which ought to be enriched and deepened by sports,” the pontiff said.

Our gang has played hockey together weekly for more than a decade. And friendships have been forged and skins thickened from the dressing room banter.

At the “draft” party this year, before teams were selected, there was a motion put forward that air-tight rules had to be laid out for post-game beer in the dressing room. The general rule has been that each dressing room has one player assigned the task of bringing a dozen cans. A schedule comes out before the season so you know which two dates are your “beer nights.”

Unfortunately, sometimes guys have not shown up on their beer night or forgotten to bring the beer. This problem was pretty much taken care of last year when a “Beer Czar” was appointed. The morning of the game, he e-mails our group of 30 guys naming the two beer guys that night for all to see.

Only one guy forgot his beer last year, a lawyer who claimed he was in court and didn’t read his e-mails. A lousy excuse and he is reminded of the faux pas constantly. All in all, the Beer Czar’s record was pretty good so he was re-appointed for a second term at the draft party.

Over a debate approaching one hour (yes, Canadian guys can debate the issue of beer that long), new rules were adopted and justice served when the moniker of “warm beer guy” was lifted from one player who held that epithet erroneously for almost a decade.

The new rules spell things out clearly: the beer has to be packed in ice, not freezer packs, and the cans have to be tall boys, not regular size. The Beer Czar, who seems to enjoy his work, inspects the cooler bags before we take to the ice each week.

And if there is a violation, the offender will be made to play that night’s game wearing only his skates, shin guards, protective cup, gloves and helmet.

In our wives’ eyes, all of this is pure silliness. And they may be correct. But it’s all done in a spirit of friendship and — like millions of other Canadians — it is an expression of our love for the game; unlike owners and players and their love of money. When they’re fighting over a few hundred million dollars here and there in a $3-billion business, I will take our silliness over their ridiculousness seven ways to Sunday.