Fr. Raymond J. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island, and chaplain at Newman House at Kingston, Ont.'s Queen's University.

The man from Chicago is, at this writing, in the final hours of a close election campaign. U.S. President Barack Obama is praised as a gifted orator. Yet his words, mellifluous though they can be, do not linger in the mind.

There is another man from Chicago whose words are not mellifluous for the most part, but almost everything he says bears examination and rewards serious engagement. That man is Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago for the past 15 years.

And of all the many things Cardinal George has said and written, the most frequently quoted in recent years was something that no one was absolutely sure that he said. As alarm about the erosion of religious liberty in the United States was on the rise, Chicago’s archbishop reportedly made a prophecy many considered alarmist, namely that one day his successor would be martyred.

There were many sceptics that Cardinal George would have said such a thing. He is nothing if not sober, given more to measured statements than melodrama. But one would hear the prophecy repeated more and more often. Now we know the truth, for in his recent column in his diocesan newspaper, Cardinal George explains.

“The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is,” George writes. One expects he had in mind, at least in part, the administration of his fellow Chicagoan.

“Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring,” Cardinal George writes. “I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smartphone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

So there it is. The man often praised as the leading intellectual light of the American episcopate did in fact predict that martyrdom would come to Chicago, even if he considers the remarks overly dramatic. Everything Cardinal George says is worth paying attention to, and in the current contested political climate it is sobering that he would return at this time to that dramatic vision of an American future which will betray its past.

Cardinal George knows better than most that martyrdom too has its place in the history of salvation. And he is a man of Christian hope. For the martyred bishop in Chicago’s public square is not the end of the prophecy, which the cardinal demurs from calling prophetic:

“What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.’ What I said is not ‘prophetic’ but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.”

Cardinal George placed his remarks in the line of anti-Nazi comments made by his predecessor, Cardinal George Mundelein, in the late 1930s. Encouraging Americans to support the struggle against the Nazi regime, Mundelein said:

“There is no guarantee that the battlefront may not stretch some day into our own land. Hodie mihi cras tibi. (Today it’s me; tomorrow, you). If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter … it is not our fight, if we don’t back up the Holy Father when we have a chance, well, when our turn comes, we too will be fighting alone.”

We all like to think that it can’t happen here. Persecution and martyrdom is for other places, other peoples, other periods of history. Our default position is that our tradition of liberal democracy makes us safe from such dangers, immune from the principalities and powers arrayed against the Gospel from the beginning. As Americans exercise their democratic rights, it is wise to be wary that no liberty is eternally secure. This election season, it is important to listen to the prophetic, not political, man from Chicago.

Sistine Chapel turns 500, and its beauty is timeless

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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.

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.

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.”

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.

 

We rejoice the triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ

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Gaudet Mater Ecclesia! Mother Church rejoices!”

On Oct. 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with that famous allocution. This year, his successor will return to the Vatican basilica to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the council. It is not only about looking backward though, for Pope Benedict XVI will simultaneously open the Year for Faith, in which the whole Church will be asked to discover anew her faith in Jesus Christ.

Ten years ago on Oct. 11, I was at St. Peter’s and had the privilege with some of my classmates to offer the Holy Mass at the altar over the tomb of Blessed John XXIII himself. The principal celebrant that day was Archbishop Timothy Dolan, then the archbishop of Milwaukee, who had been the rector of the Pontifical North American College when I and my classmates were students there. The then rector, Msgr. Kevin McCoy joined us, as did friends of Archbishop Dolan. More than that, the day was especially memorable as my own parents were present.

At the space of then 40 years — and now 50 — Oct. 11, 1962, manifestly marked out a new path for the Church in the history of our time. That path has not been without twists and turns, successes and disappointments, as mark the Church’s pilgrimage toward the Lord of history. Most fundamentally, the council remains what it was from the beginning, a summons to proclaim with new missionary fervour the Gospel in our time.

Gaudet Mater Ecclesia captured the spirit of the Council and the spirit of the pope who convoked it,” the preacher, a newly ordained priest, said that morning 10 years ago at the tomb of that very same pope. “Those resonant words are an answer to the question: What does the Church do?

“The Church rejoices. It is her mission. It is what she exists in the world for. To rejoice. She rejoices because she knows, as St. Paul teaches us, ‘that through Christ Jesus the blessing bestowed on Abraham might descend on the gentiles in Christ Jesus.’ She rejoices because the promise made to Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, her Bridegroom, her Saviour, her Redeemer, her Lord. The Church rejoices because of the ‘wondrous deeds’ of the Lord. ‘Great are the works of the Lord, exquisite in all their delights,’ sings the psalmist.

“Pope John XXIII chose this date to open the council because it was the feast of the divine maternity of Mary,” the homilist noted. “When that feast was moved to Jan. 1, Oct. 11 became free and was given to Blessed John XXIII, in memory of his most memorable words, spoken here in this basilica, only a few feet from where we are this morning: Gaudet Mater Ecclesia! His feast and this anniversary are truly an exquisite delight from the Lord.

“In that landmark address of Oct. 11, Pope John gave us several memorable phrases, warning us against the ‘prophets of gloom’ and inviting the Church to show the ‘medicine of mercy.’ Yet there is one passage that speaks to the heart of the council’s message and heart of Angelo Roncalli’s life, words that echo today’s Gospel: The great problem confronting the world after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the centre of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars.”

The joy which Blessed John XXIII proclaimed 50 years ago was not about pasting a smiley face on the Church so as to make her more popular. The Church rejoices because Jesus Christ has triumphed, and that His love is stronger than all the principalities and powers of the world arrayed against Him.

Today, more than 50 years ago, there are still many — likely a majority in Canada now — who are without Jesus, against Jesus or even deliberately opposed to His Church. The damage they wreak is great. The consequences of their decisions have grave consequences in this world and the next.

There are so many apart from Christ who bring to our common life so much sadness and wickedness, and even a metaphysical boredom that can be worse. Precisely for this reason does the Church need to bring the world joy — 50 years after the council, 50 years from now, and forever after that. Gaudet Mater Ecclesia!

Dull roar of toothless lions

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With the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council less than two weeks away (Oct. 11), the old lions of the council are getting ready to roar once again.

As a young priest, Pope Benedict XVI was at the council as a theological advisor, or peritus. As Pope he has made the proper interpretation of the council a key part of his teaching, and declared a Year of Faith to begin on Oct. 11, asking the Church to rediscover the riches of the council in light of the demands of the new evangelization.

There are other lions too. Some of them will be highlighted at a Vatican II conference this weekend at Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa. The conference has been criticized as being something of an oldtimers’ game for theological dissenters. The presence of Gregory Baum, the former priest who at one time had a rewarding career proposing that the Church was wrong on just about every issue in which her teaching clashed with secular culture, set off alarm bells for those easily alarmed. He too was a peritus at the council. But at nearly 90 years old, Baum is a lion no longer. More than a theological force, he is now of principal interest as a relic of a time when the future of the Church was going to be an abrupt break with her past. Baum and his companions thought that Vatican II meant a new Church, adapted to the times and taking its lead from the ambient culture. The idea that the ambient culture of the late 1960s and 1970s was a special repository of wisdom was just one fatal flaw in that scheme.

The Catholic journalist Robert Blair Kaiser is another of the old lions, rather grumpy now that the new Church never quite took hold in the Catholic world as it did in the world of mainline Protestantism. He wrote recently about the council, quoting the Jesuit historian John O’Malley, about how exciting it all was back when he was a young journalist covering the new Church about to be born. Vatican II, he wrote, took the Church “from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to service, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behaviour modification to inner appropriation.”

It’s amazing the Church staggered through nineteen-and-a-half centuries in such sorry shape, until everything was made new in the 1960s, from tradition to buzzwords all around. Going from “behaviour modification” to “inner appropriation” likely means little, but the general direction is clear. One does not change one’s behaviour in response to the Gospel standard, but rather appropriates what one already is and how one already lives.

Blessed John Paul II had a rather different idea of the council’s task, as he wrote in preparation for the Great Jubilee:

“The Second Vatican Council was a providential event, whereby the Church began the more immediate preparation for the Jubilee of the Second Millennium. It was a Council similar to the earlier ones, yet very different; it was a Council focused on the mystery of Christ and His Church and at the same time open to the world. This openness was an evangelical response to recent changes in the world, including the profoundly disturbing experiences of the 20th century, a century scarred by the First and Second World Wars, by the experience of the concentration camps and by horrendous massacres. All these events demonstrate most vividly that the world needs purification; it needs to be converted” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, # 18).

The conference at Saint Paul’s may be rather light on the need of the Church to purify and convert the world. That will be the rather intense focus of the synod on the new evangelization to be held in Rome next month. The more relevant speakers this weekend in Ottawa will have the same focus, led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate now heading up the Holy See’s office for justice and peace. But the retired lions will also have their say, like old men gathering to tell the stories about how wise they were once, and how their wisdom lives on still. It’s polite to listen, as one throws a toothless lion a bone.

In heaven, the sound of Easter laughter resounds

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That Stephen Colbert tells jokes is not news — he is a late-night TV comedian. That Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York loves a good laugh is even less news — he is, after all, Timothy Dolan.

That they told jokes together, and reflected upon humour in the life of Catholic disciples, was news. They did so before 3,000 enthusiastic students at Fordham, the Jesuit university in the Bronx. The Sept. 14 encounter was not recorded or broadcast because Stephen Colbert never appears on stage outside of his eponymous character, who is both a satirical wit and a self-aggrandizing buffoon. But for this occasion, Colbert appeared as himself, and commented upon the role of humour in the life of faith. By all accounts, the two brought the house down in a dramatic refutation of what Billy Joel sang almost 40 years ago, namely that he would rather “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.”

Good humour is a means of telling the truth, sharing a common bond and taking delight in the moment. Truth, communion, joy — all marks of the Catholic faith lived faithfully and fully.

Cardinal Dolan, drawing upon the liturgical feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, made a theological point about how the Christian life is a comedy. Not slapstick or a farce, but a comedy in the classical Greek sense of a drama that ends well, as opposed to a tragedy. A divine comedy to be exact, as Dante taught us.

“When Jesus suffered and died on the cross on that hill called Calvary… the earth sobbed with convulsions of sorrow as an earthquake occurred,” Dolan said.

“Jesus, pure goodness, seemed bullied to death by undiluted evil; love, jackbooted by hate; mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; life itself, crushed by death. It seemed we could never smile again… But, then came the Sunday called Easter! Guess who had the last word? God! Hope, not despair; faith, not doubt; love, not spite; light, not an eclipse of the sun; life, not the abyss of death. So, Good Friday did not have the last word… Easter did! That’s why I can laugh.”

We laugh because the world is redeemed. It reminded me of a classic Joseph Ratzinger homily along the same lines. Actually, it wasn’t a homily but a radio reflection that Cardinal Ratzinger did years ago for a Bavarian broadcaster. Like Dolan, Ratzinger also linked Easter and laughter but, the master biblical preacher that he is, linked it to the figure of Isaac, whose name in Hebrew means “he will laugh.”

“Jesus is both the lamb and Isaac,” Ratzinger explained. “He is the lamb who allowed Himself to be caught, bound and slain. He is also Isaac, who looked into heaven; indeed, where Isaac saw only signs and symbols, Jesus actually entered heaven, and since that time the barrier between God and man is broken down. Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy in his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy — this laughter of redemption. If you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh” (cf. Jn 16:20).
Then Ratzinger employed his encyclopedic knowledge and deep love of the liturgy to extend the point as only he could have done:

“In the Baroque period the liturgy used to include the risus paschalis, the Easter laughter. The Easter homily had to contain a story that made people laugh, so that the church resounded with a joyful laughter. That may be a somewhat superficial form of Christian joy. But is there not something very beautiful and appropriate about laughter becoming a liturgical symbol? And is it not a tonic when we still hear, in the play of cherub and ornament in baroque churches, that laughter which testified to the freedom of the redeemed?”

The laughter of redemption, the freedom of the redeemed! The freedom to laugh belongs to those who know that it is all a comedy. All that makes us weep has been overcome. Every Christian should be named Isaac, for he will laugh.

Cardinal Dolan occasionally introduces laughter into his preaching, but it is not, strictly speaking, liturgical laughter. And Colbert does not offer the risus paschalis. Yet all authentic laughter — as opposed to the cruelty of the snicker or the sneer — is a taste of that laughter of Isaac, freed from his binding on Mount Moriah and returned to life from the brink of death. It is a foretaste too of the heavenly liturgy, where one expects that the Easter laughter resounds.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.cardus.ca/convivium.)

Cardinal Martini’s influence spreads across Canada

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There was a time when I hated the wedding feast at Cana. Couldn’t stand to read it; couldn’t stand to hear it. But it was only a year or two, and it passed. One doesn’t remain in the seminary forever.

During my theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, I took the usual list of introductory biblical courses: Pentateuch, prophets, synoptic gospels, Pauline letters and, of course, the corpus of St. John. The whole lot of them were mostly useless in understanding the Scriptures as the word of God revealed to His people and received in the life of the Church.

The Johannine course was worse than useless; it actively damaged my faith. Not because it was heterodox or stupid, but because by subjecting John 2 — the wedding at Cana — to an excruciating examination according to textual criticism, the depth and breadth of John’s Gospel lost its power, suffocated by a welter of secondary and obscure historical and literary analysis. We would have not known from the course that, for example, St. Augustine had written volumes on John’s Gospel. It was deadly. The only saving grace was that time limited us to only one chapter, leaving the rest of the Gospel uncontaminated for spiritual nourishment.

All of which was brought to mind by the gracious comments offered by my friend Fr. Thomas Rosica upon the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

“Cardinal Martini was for me a mentor, teacher, model Scripture scholar and friend,” wrote Fr. Rosica. “He has influenced my life, teaching, pastoral ministry in a very significant way over the past 30 years. When many colleagues, students and friends have asked me these past years how I maintained my faith and hope in the world of Scripture scholarship and teaching, I often told them: ‘I had three Martinis a day.’ ”

Why would people ask Fr. Rosica how he maintained his faith and hope in the world of Scripture scholarship? Wouldn’t the normal expectation be that studying the Scriptures would deepen one’s faith? The question is counter-intuitive only to those unfamiliar with the world of Scripture scholarship. The entire field is often deadening to faith, as the Scriptures get picked apart, reduced to entrails of a lost civilization, rather than the lifeblood of the living body of the Church.
Fr. Rosica praised Cardinal Martini because he was an exception to this norm. He could take the Scriptures apart like a scholar and put them back together again as a Christian disciple and pastor. Cardinal Martini put his biblical scholarship to pastoral use with his famous lectio divina sessions in Milan’s cathedral, where the cardinal and youth would read the Bible together, both literally and spiritually in the heart of the local Church.

Martini’s influence touches Canada and not only in the work of Fr. Rosica. Cardinal Thomas Collins, both in Edmonton and now in Toronto, regularly leads lectio divina in his cathedral on the Martini model. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa is well known to Catholic Register readers for his weekly scriptural commentaries, now published in book form. Collins and Prendergast are both Scripture scholars called to be bishops.

And of course, the one greater than even Cardinal Martini, Joseph Ratzinger, has demonstrated how the highest levels of biblical scholarship can be combined with the life of faith in his multi-volume Jesus of Nazareth.

Despite the example of these pastors, the study of Scripture in the theological faculties has largely remained unchanged. Fortunately, Catholics today can more easily free themselves from the deadening effects of such scholarship, and reclaim the life-giving fruit of biblical study for themselves. 

To begin with, there are the works of Pope Benedict, Collins and Prendergast. One thinks also of the vast publishing of Scott Hahn, who writes books for both beginners and scholars. One of his books that helped me most recover from my biblical courses was A Father Who Keeps His Promises. I used it earlier this year with my students as part of our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

There are also the works of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the papal household for more than 30 years. His preaching, translated into English and widely available in print and online (www.cantalamessa.org), is fresh and contemporary. I remember one Good Friday sermon, preached in the presence of the Holy Father in St. Peter’s, in which he dismantled John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

I recommend to seminarians and lay people that they find a great biblical preacher that resonates with them, and discover the Scriptures through that preacher’s eyes. The Fathers of the Church are the deepest source, of course, but closer to our own time and in English, I always profit from Blessed John Henry Newman, Msgr. Ronald Knox and the Venerable Fulton Sheen.

Cardinal Martini chose a verse from the psalms for his tombstone: Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to guide my path. Due to scholars who are also disciples, that word is shining a little brighter today.

Ten years of priesthood and the fun continues

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New York City

More weight and less hair, for the most part. Priestly ordination changes the soul, after all. It does not preserve the body. So when I gathered with my ordination classmates for a 10th anniversary reunion last week, the march of time was evident. What remained unchanged was the joy granted us by the fraternity of the priesthood.

Earlier this summer I wrote about my 10th anniversary of priestly ordination, but the class reunion was this month in New York City. When we were seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, Msgr. Timothy Dolan was the rector. At our fifth year reunion in 2007, he was archbishop of Milwaukee, and invited us to join him there, which we did. Five years later, now cardinal archbishop of New York, he was kind enough to invite us again.

There was mutual admiration, mutual affirmation and mutual encouragement. The cardinal was generous in saying how much consolation it gave him to travel far and wide and see all that his former students are doing to preach the Gospel. The leader of our class reunion, Fr. James Shea, already the president of the Catholic university, spoke in turn of how we learned to be brothers at the North American College in large part because Timothy Dolan was the father.

We learned many things from our father in the priesthood, but perhaps most important is his distinctive combination of unabashed piety and intense jocularity. So he preached to us about how the enduring question for the faithful priest is simply, “Who has dominion over my life? Is Jesus my king? Is Mary my queen?” Then after dinner he led us all to the Lady Chapel of the cathedral to visit the Blessed Sacrament and sing the Salve Regina. In between there were enough backslapping jokes to dislocate a shoulder.

Years ago an old priest told me that no one has more fun than priests when they get together. It’s true, and I have been blessed enough to enjoy that since my days in the seminary. So it was good to be together with the brethren again. 

Being a young priest — especially at a time when young priests are rather more scarce than they should be — is a blessed experience, as the Catholic faithful are just delighted to have us around. If we serve them well it is an added bonus.

After 10 years we are no longer new priests and it is stretch to say that we are still young. But, as we were reminded by one of our former teachers who joined us from Brooklyn, the priestly heart is always young, for it looks not to the past, but delights in what the Lord is always doing now. Responsibilities grow with the years, and the excitement and novelty of the early years has passed. Thanks be to God though, our band of brothers is still happy.

We are a happy few, and fewer than we used to be. Two have died. Others have left the priesthood which, for those who remain, constitutes both an enormous sadness and an inescapable sense of both bewilderment and betrayal. The priesthood remains mysterious and we see that both in the men who are called to it and in the men who abandon it.

In our class it was the youngest priest who died first. The one I tried to imitate in the seminary was the first one to leave. It was not what we expected.

Many things were unexpected. Before my parishioners began confiding in me I had no idea how much suffering there was in family life, especially grown children who are the principal source of suffering for their parents. I did not expect to encounter so many who are so distant from the Gospel that they cannot express even the simplest truths about Jesus Christ. I did not expect to encounter so many so unfamiliar with Christian culture that even the historic rituals of the faith no longer have any hold on them.

Unexpected too have been the graces. St. Paul assures us that they abound even more abundantly than sin abounds. Working on campus and in the media, where the default positions are usually secular, sometimes radically and exclusively so, I have seen how grace unexpectedly is at work. The Gospel has not lost its power. And for those of us charged with preaching that Gospel and being instruments of that power, we still marvel that such a wonderful life has been granted us, to do that work which is the most important and to have more fun doing it than we deserve!

Russia’s real top story — and it's not Pussy Riot

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The Pussy Riot trial was the second most important story regarding the Russian Orthodox Church last week. Understandably, it got top billing. A punk band invoked the Mother of God in Moscow’s cathedral to protect Russia from its new czar, Vladimir Putin, and to inveigh against the support given to the regime by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. Politics, protest, church, state, freedom and censorship — it had it all, and so dominated the global news.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — Kirill — was likely happy to be away from Moscow for the sentencing of the protesters for “hooliganism.” He was in Poland for a historic meeting, one that might hold great promise for the future of 21st-century Christian unity. That was the most important story last week.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is the single most important figure for Christian unity. The Roman Catholic Church has been ready for closer, even full, unity with the Orthodox Church for more than a generation. And that is the only prospect for Christian unity. Unity with the Anglican Communion is no longer an option; the next archbishop of Canterbury’s principal task will be to preside over the peaceful dissolution of that Christian communion, not to deepen stronger ties with Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

Kirill is not the head of Orthodoxy. That office belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul), but he has been reduced to a largely ceremonial role. His flock is only a few thousand souls, and the Turkish government has so strangled his religious liberty that he can barely function as bishop of his own city, let alone the global head of Orthodoxy.

That leaves the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia as the leader of the majority of Orthodox Christians in the world.

The Pussy Riot story was about how Kirill is managing the patriarchate’s relationship with the Kremlin. His explicit support of Putin makes many wary, worried that Kirill intends to make the Orthodox Church the long arm of the Kremlin in exchange for privileges from the state. Relations between the Orthodox Church and the czar, then with the communist state, have a long and tortured history. The question facing Kirill is whether the Orthodox Church will defend liberty, including religious liberty, or prefer to reconstruct an altar-and-throne arrangement with Putin as Russia’s de facto king.

The visit to Poland was about how Kirill will position the Orthodox in relation to the Catholic world, and whether he will resist or support Putin’s attempts to recreate the old Soviet empire by establishing a Russian sphere of influence that will include Ukraine certainly, and perhaps aspires to move westward toward Poland.

The signs from this visit were promising. It was the first visit of the patriarch of Moscow to Poland, which alone made it an historic moment. He came at the invitation of the local Orthodox Church in Warsaw, but in visiting the largest Slavic Catholic nation, the critical meetings were with the leadership of the Catholic Church.

The highlight of the visit was the joint signing of an appeal for reconciliation between Russians and Poles, who throughout history have had hostile relations. Russia’s role in the dismemberment of Poland in 1795, and again in 1939 in complicity with the Nazis, is not forgotten by Poles, the majority of whom regard Russians with suspicion. “We appeal to our followers and ask them to pray in order to be forgiven for their wrongdoings, injustice and all the ill deeds they inflicted upon one another over the centuries,” states the joint appeal, entrusting to the Mother of God this work of mercy. Kirill and the head of the Polish bishops’ conference exchanged icons of the Blessed Mother as a sign of Christian charity and common Slavic spirituality.

The meeting of fellow Slavic Christians ought not to be so unusual, but it is. The hope is that Kirill’s visit to the Catholics of Poland signals a willingness for a more fraternal relationship with Catholics, both in Russia and abroad. Blessed John Paul II repeatedly desired to meet the patriarch and to visit Russia, but Kirill’s predecessors refused permission. A meeting of the Pope and Patriarch remains unlikely today, but might be arranged before long.

The Polish visit may bear other fruit. The centuries-long model in Russia has been for the Church to seek amenable arrangements with the state. The Polish Church learned, under more than 150 years of brutal foreign occupation and persecution, to align itself not with the state, but with the historic liberties of the people. Those who desire a more humane and free Russia, religious or not, hope that Kirill’s visit to Poland might prompt the Orthodox in Russia to move in that direction too.