Anyone who doubts that haunted nothingness comprises the core of post-Christian societies needs to spend some time in Quebec.

It would be particularly productive, from the perspective of witness, if they could arrive before the current provincial election concludes.

Mere days after Premier Jean Charest launched the campaign on Aug. 1, the spiritual emptiness at the heart of Quebec life opened itself for inspection against the background of electoral rhetoric. It is an emptiness that has nothing to do with language or ethnicity or historical origins, or even  political fever. It has everything to do with being a jurisdiction in which the snake oil of the all-encompassing self has been aggressively sold and swallowed holus-bolus.

For two generations at least, people outside the province have winked knowingly and observed that Quebecers of the late 1950s and early 1960s traded, straight up, obsessive belief in religion and hockey for obsessive belief in language and hockey.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Bourassa called for Quebec to be a beacon of light for French Catholic North America. By mid-century, Quebecers simply sheared off the Catholic part and kept the rest. 

The truth, experienced though certainly not confessed to by everyone who lives in Quebec, is that you cannot simply cut the Catholic life out of a Catholic people without creating a void into which an infinity of bread and circuses will inevitably tumble. Its existence disproves the statement erroneously ascribed to G.K. Chesterton that people who stop believing in God don’t believe nothing, they believe anything. In fact, they do believe nothing because they believe nothing is worth believing.

So an otherwise good and decent man such as Jean Charest finds himself, cynically and in the worst of faith, fighting an election campaign against a gaggle of university students over their sophomoric refusal to pay higher tuition fees. The dispute, and its attendant antics, is really nothing but a Janus mask hiding the deplorable underlying state of this province — a malfeasance caused partly by the bankruptcy of treasury, but primarily by the evisceration of Catholic (Christian) charity among Quebecers.

To cite one small but telling example, people in Quebec’s public long-term care facilities receive one bath a week. If they are bedridden or incontinent, their adult diapers are changed a maximum of once a day. There is simply not enough money, apparently, to pay unionized staff to give them even marginally more adequate care. Neither, however, is there a rush of charity-conscious students knocking at the doors of such facilities to volunteer to alleviate such appalling neglect.

Though the students have demonstrated a superabundance of time for idly marching up and down the street, they have, as yet, shown themselves no more capable of a positive charitable contribution to reality than has their enraptured shaman, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois. Indeed, out of the gate, Marois has ululated a campaign theme that, elsewhere, would be assumed to originate from hallucinogenic plant consumption rather than the braintrust of a democratic political party in 2012. 

Marois will make political, financial and jurisdictional demands that Ottawa will be forced to refuse. She then intends to use the refusal to lead Quebec out of Confederation. This, as the Globe and Mail’s sober-minded and understated Konrad Yakabuski has pointed out, is occurring at a time when Quebec’s government debt places it between Portugal and Italy in the economic basket case sweepstakes.

The seriousness of this silliness is its self-absorption. Locked in the neurotic idée fixe that has obsessed her ­— and the political class around her — since the Church was vanquished in Quebec, Marois has nothing else to offer an electorate that so desperately needs something to rouse it from its malaise. In fairness, she is little more deficient there than CAQ leader François Legault, who was supposed to be a breath of fresh air but has so far managed only to promise that he will not speak of sovereignty or referenda or constitutional quarrels for a decade. Political silence, it seems, is a virtue in a spiritual vacuum.

No one outside Quebec should feel smug, however, about Quebec’s spiritual vacuum. It may be more evident in la belle province, but it is everywhere else as well. Post-Christian nothingness haunts us all.

Rumour mill forever spins tales of gay Christ film

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Given that movies owe their existence to our taste for fantasy, escapism and entertainment, it’s not surprising that rumours are a big part of the business. Most of them involve the romances and fortunes of the big stars, but from time to time a story about a pending movie takes on a life of its own.

A rumour that reaches my desk about every three months involves a supposedly upcoming film portraying Jesus Christ as a gay man, complete with various story lines involving the apostles. Usually there is an invitation to sign a petition to let “them” know we won’t stand for it. Earlier versions — and this rumour goes back to the 1980s — encouraged letter-writing campaigns to senators and the governor in Illinois, the state where one film was allegedly going to be made.

In the 30-odd years that this story has been making the rounds, no evidence for the film’s existence has ever been found. In the early days, there was a low budget, art-house film with roughly the same theme that played for a very short time before disappearing. It was probably seen by only a few hundred people. Years later, there was a stage play similar to the one described in the petition. Terrance McNally’s 1998 dramatic offering  Corpus Christi previewed at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. As described by The New York Times, it “retells the biblical story of a Jesus-like figure — from his birth in a Texas flea-bag hotel with people having profane, violent sex in a room next door, to his crucifixion as ‘king of the queers’ in a manner with the potential to offend many people.” It did indeed offend many people and was shut down after a few weeks of massive protest. It continues to play in smaller theatres from time to time, often fuelling another round of rumours that the work is soon to be released as a major motion picture.

The spread of rumours and misinformation tends to accelerate when a desire for information is greater than the availability of verifiable facts. Studies of how news travels often find that rumour intensity is high when both the interest in an event and its ambiguity are great. The Internet has made all rumours and misinformation spread much faster, but some stories, such as this one, were able to spread quickly before the medium was even invented.

That may have something to do with Hollywood’s not-always-smooth relationship with religion in its film portrayals. While there have been such epics as The Ten Commandments or Greatest Story Ever Told, and more recently The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story, there was also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which reaped massive publicity — and long lines at the box office — after strong protests at theatres.  The uproar concerned a Jesus who both questioned His fate and who had a dream about a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. The film remains controversial, as do Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Priest (1994) and others that focussed on attacking the fundamentals of Christianity’s origins or the personal failings of clergy and religious. 

Against that backdrop it is no wonder that many people could believe a “gay Jesus film” might be in the offing. (A Canadian would probably assume there was a government grant involved.) I suspect the rumour, and the petitions, will continue as long as there is any news that might spark it.

As it happens, there is indeed a new movie about Jesus Christ in production. Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and CJ Entertainment have acquired the rights to the Anne Rice tome Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which tells the story of a seven-year-old Jesus who departs Egypt with His family to return to Nazareth. Along the way He discovers the truth about His birth, who He is and His purpose in life. The movie is expected within a year.

According to Variety magazine, Columbus says: “This film has the potential to be a cinematic classic, a picture that will appeal to all ages, all around the world. I am proud to be part of this incredible production.”

Given Hollywood’s history with religious subjects, we’ll have to wait to see whether the enthusiasm is justified. Chances are there will be more than a rumour or two between now and release day!

Finish well what God has begun in you

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The following is adapted from a homily preached by Fr. de Souza at a Mass for the 10th anniversary of his ordination, on July 20, 2012.

KRAKOW, POLAND - In this historic chapel of the residence of the archbishops of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz has now fashioned a fitting shrine to its most famous resident, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

The new reredos imaginatively includes the churches linked to the life of Blessed John Paul II — his baptismal church in Wadowice; the sanctuary of the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa; the Mariacki church of Krakow’s heart; Our Lady of Fatima, the protectress of the pope’s life; the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the destination of his epic Jubilee pilgrimage; Wawel, his seat as successor of St. Stanislaus; the Vatican basilica, his Roman home as the successor of St. Peter; and the shrine of Divine Mercy, the mystery of which, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in his funeral homily, was the key to John Paul’s entire teaching, and the shrine of which the late pope consecrated on his farewell visit to this, his beloved Krakow, in 2002.

That was 10 years ago next month. A few weeks before he returned to Krakow to consecrate the shrine of Divine Mercy, Blessed John Paul II was in Canada for Toronto’s World Youth Day. As part of those events, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ in Kingston, 10 years ago today. And a few weeks before that I came to Krakow to rejoin for a few days the seminar which first brought me to this city in 1994. During those days I came to pray in this chapel, the very chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day 1946.

I prayed then for the gift of the priesthood that awaited me; I return today to give thanks to the mercy of God for 10 years of priestly life. I return with my own parents, who made of our home a domestic church where the One greater than the temple found a place to dwell. After God Himself, to them belongs the gratitude of the Church for my priestly vocation and whatever fruit there has been from these 10 years of work in the Lord’s vineyard.

I come today also with George Weigel, and in him is represented the Krakow seminar that was for me a decisive step on the path to the priesthood. To him God gave the great mission of explaining to the world who John Paul II is, and George knew that this extraordinary Christian disciple had to be explained “from the inside” not from the “outside.” In this chapel one now sees, behind the altar, the churches of Karol Wojtyla’s life, but in the tabernacle one beholds the mystery that is the window to understanding him from the inside.

It was in this house that the young Karol Wojtyla would come to know Adam Sapieha, the prince archbishop, who, George Weigel tells us in Witness to Hope, “would be his model of Church leadership for more than half a century.” Archbishop Sapieha, made a cardinal after the war, was the great defender of the Church and the people during the long night of the occupation. He courageously opened a clandestine seminary in this residence, and the young men would often come to serve the archbishop’s Mass here.

Karol Wojtyla came, as did another young man, Jerzy Zachuta. In April 1944, Jerzy was killed by the Gestapo. Later that year, Wojtyla and the others would move into this house, it being too dangerous to live outside in their own city. For Jerzy Zachuta his vocation finished almost as soon as it started. The Lord had a different plan for Karol Wojtyla.

“For some time I thought about the possibility of becoming a Carmelite,” John Paul would write in 1996. “My uncertainties were resolved by Archbishop Cardinal Sapieha, who — in his usual manner — said briefly: ‘You should first of all finish what you started.’ And that is what I did.”

It was an unusual answer, because finishing what he started meant, among other things, not becoming a Carmelite. Yet the unbroken prince archbishop spoke more providently than he knew; Karol Wojtyla would not finish what he started until he had done what the other great Polish cardinal of the 20th century, Stefan Wyszynski, prophesied, namely to lead the Church across the threshold of hope into the third Christian millennium.

Finish what you have started. The Christian life might be summed up as just that — finish well what God has begun in you at baptism. It can summarize the great Christian pilgrimage through history. What my parents have done, what I and my brother and sisters must do, is to continue what has been lived by so many generations of faithful Catholics in our family. I carry in my heart today in particular the witness of my late grandmothers; I offered my first Mass for them 10 years ago, and I offer this Mass for them today.

We do not know the finish. We walk by faith and trust in God. Yet I do know this, that the past 10 years have been a blessing beyond measure, that I cannot imagine another life that would have brought me more joy — or allowed me to have more fun! — than the great adventure of being a Catholic priest in the third millennium.

I am a Catholic priest. That declaration is a sombre one to make in Krakow, as the image of St. Maximilian Kolbe in the church across the street reminds us. The Lord has not asked of me hardship, or even difficulty. He has granted me instead a full measure, pressed down and overflowing, the hundredfold return, and as yet without persecutions. Perhaps they will come; perhaps they will not. We do not know how we will finish.

On July 20, 2002, the Most Reverend Francis John Spence, archbishop of Kingston, took my hands in his and said to me: “May God who has begun this good work in you now bring it to fulfilment.”

We might translate that into the history of this chapel: You must finish what you have started. Amen.

These are a few of my favourite (P.E.I.) things

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While on our annual family vacation to Prince Edward Island in July, a visiting friend from Ontario made an intriguing remark about her first impression of the island.

“I simply cannot get over how Catholic P.E.I. seems to be,” she said.

Such an impression never occurred to me. But her not being Catholic obviously gave her a different perspective.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not being critical,” she said. “I just mean driving here from the (Confederation) Bridge we saw so many pretty little Catholic churches, we’ve heard about the lobster suppers in Catholic churches and there just seems to be a ‘Catholic feel’ to the place.”

We had a nice visit that afternoon with our friends and nothing more was said on the topic. But it got me thinking. She had a point. In fact, about half the population of 140,000 in P.E.I. is Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

Then I started thinking about some of my favourite “Catholic” things on the island and I quickly came up with a tidy little list. (We’ve been visiting P.E.I. each summer for almost a decade after buying a cottage, which we rent when we’re not there.)

We’ve all heard the tourist spiel about Anne of Green Gables, white sandy beaches, the quaint red clay roads and the fabulous P.E.I. golf courses. And we might think potatoes or lobster when P.E.I. is mentioned, but Catholic is not a word that typically comes top of mind.

So, here are some tourist ideas for things to check out with Catholic flavour the next time you are, as the locals say, “on island.”

o The Confederation Trail is a walking and biking trail from one tip of the island to the other. The trail used to be the railway lands. I have not ridden the entire trail but I have found no prettier ride than the 12 kilometres from Morell to St. Peter’s. Most of the ride you’ll have a beautiful view of St. Peter’s Bay with the stately old St. Peter’s Church majestically standing on the hill across the bay. There are many places to stop along the trail for a picnic lunch and a clear vista of the big white church, which is generally open for a visit and with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.

o St. Dunstan’s Basilica in Charlottetown is a century-old stone French Gothic church built from the remains of the cathedral that had been damaged by fire in 1913. It is the fourth church on the site and one of the most visible landmarks in Charlottetown with its three copper spires being some of the highest points on the city skyline. It is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the province and one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes. The marble altar is 10 metres high and if you look closely at the ribs in the ceiling, you’ll see symbols of the Allied nations in the First World War, which was raging during St. Dunstan’s construction. Guided tours are available but you’re also welcome to quietly visit on your own or attend Mass.

o Ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees) are a fun part of the musical culture in P.E.I. Though not specifically Catholic, the Ceilidh tradition of singing, dancing, fiddling and strumming occurs in many churches and halls around the island. Ceilidhs began some years ago as weekend “kitchen parties” and now they are open to the general public and occur most nights of the week in summer. Each year, we attend a couple of Ceilidhs, especially the Crane Family Ceilidh at the refurbished St. Andrew’s Chapel in Mount Stewart, near our cottage.

o St. Andrew’s Chapel is significant on its own. It was the first church built in P.E.I. by Scottish settlers in 1772. In 1864 it was moved by horse and men on the ice down the river 28 kilometres to Charlottetown where it was converted into a school by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later abandoned, it was restored and renovated and returned to Mount Stewart in 1998. Next to the chapel is the burial site of Fr. Angus MacEachern, the first bishop of P.E.I. His story is worth exploring and available at the site.

o St. Mary’s Church is the largest wood church in the province and is renowned for its acoustics. Located near Cavendish in Kensington, it hosts the Indian River Festival with world-class vocalists and musicians. It attracts tourists and singers the world over, as well as worshippers every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.

o The Chez Shea Inn and Spa is a former convent only minutes from the Confederation Bridge. We’ve never stayed overnight at the beautiful old three-storey building, but are told it is spiritually rejuvenating, although perhaps not as healing as the Sisters of St. Martha who used to reside there. Its grounds are peaceful amid a colourful and fragrant garden.  

A quick word about the P.E.I. lobster suppers; they are no longer run by church councils or CWL members. They are run by for-profit businesses in a few churches and restaurant halls. If you love lobster, they are worth checking out but the ambiance is more like a restaurant than an old-fashioned church supper.

I am sure there are plenty more Catholic sites in P.E.I. and I expect to find more during our future visits.

America’s most cherished liberty under attack

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On the Fourth of July, the Catholic Church in the United States turned toward Washington, not for the fireworks, nor for a windy speech from the president, but for the conclusion of what the American bishops declared to be a Fortnight for Freedom.

I followed it rather more closely than most, since I was appointed last year a consultant to the American bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Alarmed at encroachments on religious liberty at home, and escalating violence against Christians abroad, the ad hoc committee of senior bishops proposed a special fortnight of prayer, fasting, catechesis and public action in defense of religious liberty. Summoning forth “all the energies the Catholic community can muster,” the fortnight was a dramatic appeal to Americans — both Catholic and otherwise — to realize that their “first, most cherished liberty” is under sustained and serious attack.

Could it actually be that the media is on the side of life?

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The parallels between abortion and euthanasia or assisted suicide are often cited during debates, especially by those who recall the role played by the media and the courts in first liberalizing Canada’s abortion laws and later eliminating them.  But over the past few weeks we have seen a striking difference emerge. 

Decades ago, almost all media outlets supported liberalization of abortion laws. In recent weeks, however, media reaction to a B.C. court decision striking down Canada’s assisted suicide laws has  been anything but unanimous. Even editorials supportive of the decision have acknowledged the vulnerability of the elderly and disabled, and pointed out the potential for abuse through a more liberal law.

Opposing the court decision, the Vancouver Province said, “Allowing doctors to kill patients nearing the end of their lives, even with their consent, cheapens the sanctity of life, no matter how horrible the disease a patient is suffering from.”

Providing safeguards for medical killing is delusional

By Peter Stockland

Tragedy at a Montreal psychiatric facility should stop proponents of  medicalized killing dead in their tracks.

On June 16, one day after the B.C. Supreme Court struck down Canada’s laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide, someone in the high security psychiatric unit of the Centre Hospitalier Université de Montréal asphyxiated a patient. On June 21, a second patient was suffocated.

But here’s the thing: neither death was recognized as a homicide, let alone raised alarm bells, until the next day when an attempt to choke a third patient to death was foiled. A former slaughterhouse worker with a lengthy history of violent crime, who checked himself into the ward the very day the first patient was killed, was charged June 27.

In Calgary, eternal fatherhood is made manifest once more

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CALGARY - Four new priests were ordained here on the Feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, a most grace-filled day for the diocese of Calgary in its centenary year. It was a blessing for me to be on hand to witness some family friends ordained, and then later to join in the joy of a First Mass at my home parish of St. Bonaventure.

Priestly ordinations are rather fewer than we need these days, so to have four young men is remarkable, all the more so as they all came from local parishes. Their vocation stories are a combination of old patterns and new ones. Two went almost straight from high school, the others after some time working. Their vocations were nourished in Catholic families and inspired by good priests. As is common today, World Youth Day had a significant impact too.

American Jesuit James Martin can find the humour in the Church

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Jesuit Father James (Jim) Martin is quickly becoming one of my favourite religious writers and orators. And the more I read of his works or watch his talks on TV and the Internet, the more impressed I become.

This American Jesuit thinks clearly, speaks and writes directly, and best of all, he is funny, although he has serious messages. (He is the official chaplain of Comedy Network’s The Colbert Report where he sometimes appears.) He is a populist who endeavours to make Catholicism ever more popular.

If you’re looking for summer reading, Fr. Martin has several best-selling books, including My Life With the Saints, A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Centre Stage with Jesus, Judas and Life’s Big Questions, and the Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything.

My misgivings about Dublin congress leave me just a little embarrassed

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I was a little embarrassed watching the coverage of the International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in Dublin. Not because of anything that went on in Ireland, but rather because of my original attitude toward the congress being held there at all. Yet watching the pilgrims from around the world gathering in Dublin, I saw that their gestures of sympathy and solidarity were better than an attitude of ostracism and punishment.

When it was announced in 2008 at Quebec City that the 2012 IEC would be in Dublin, I was rather dismayed. I understood that sometimes a local Church in distress can be buoyed by such an international event — after all, that was the logic of having the IEC in Quebec City to begin with, to administer an emergency transfusion to the anemic local Church. Yet Dublin struck me as a step too far. After all, it would be hard to find any place where spectacular incompetence had brought the Church into greater crisis than in Ireland. And Irish society as a whole, led by its government, was hardly better.

Laity must join bishops in answering affronts to the Church

By Peter Stockland

I cannot abide bishop bashing.

The habit in some Catholic circles of remorselessly denouncing and denigrating our prelates for perceived failures to lead, to act, to show courage, to boss the world about, sets my teeth on edge.

It is difficult to imagine a role outside the world of electoral politics that requires a broader back, a thicker skin and a finer ability to manage expectations than that of a North American Catholic bishop in 2012.