Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland is publisher of Convivium magazine and a senior fellow at Cardus.

November 7, 2012

It’s in the heart

There is a special spot where I stand in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta every time I have the blessed fortune to enter the sublime majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica.

But there is an altogether sweeter spot in my heart that is deeply touched by attending churches whose glory is, shall we say, of a more radically humble nature.

We all know them. Things are always, well, just a little rag-tag on the liturgical front. Not in fidelity to the Mass, of course, but in the mechanics of the service. A glitch here. A stumble there. A perpetual air of excited uncertainty hangs over all.

The choir is always a titch off-key or late finding the opening words behind the organ’s roar. When there is no choir, the psalm and hymns are carried by one brave soul whose vocal range truly is a testament to soul-filled bravery. An unfamiliar word or name from the Old Testament invariably stymies the lay reader of the first lesson as if he or she is about to sneeze. The congregants scatter in the pews like dropped copies of last week’s unread parish bulletin, maintaining valiant indifference to forgetting when to stand, sit or kneel. The priest is inevitably a genuine model of Christian patience implacably enduring every blip and blemish.

I love such churches not merely as a reminder, but as a lived experience, of the fullness of the humanity at the heart of our faith. I find their foibles not a distraction but, on the contrary, an aid to focusing on why I am there.

For while Our Lord admonished us to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” we are all there to try and try again to live up to His standard, aren’t we? Indeed, even He, born perfect and without sin, did not always find it easy to bear His humanity lightly, did He?

“What stuck out for me was the humanness of Jesus,” Paul Henderson told me recently in speaking about his first trip to the Holy Land. “The fact that He had to walk around that dusty road; He got dirty; He got tired. You wonder where He spent the night. We stayed in beautiful places. Jesus didn’t have those.

“I understood His humanness a lot better by being there. I was standing where He lived. I could picture Him on the shore asking ‘did you catch any fish? Maybe you should throw the net out on the other side.’ Almost playing with them.”

Henderson, of course, is the hockey immortal who gave Canada the winning goal and the saving grace of eking out victory against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. His autobiography, The Goal of My Life, was released earlier this fall to mark the 40th anniversary of the greatest single moment in Canadian sports history.

Yet from the book’s opening pages, and from the opening moment of the interview I did with him for the forthcoming issue of Convivium magazine, no doubt exists that the man famous for his electrifying goal has made the true goal of his life the stumble toward the Cross. His greatness as a hockey player, he makes plain, is as nothing to the smallness of his humanity before Christ.

Henderson states frankly (Convivium magazine memberships are available at www.cardus. ca/convivium) that it took him more than a few slips to find his way home to God following the Summit Series. He defiantly kept his back turned to the Christian Church of his youth until he had to face himself.

“I finally realized that it’s God’s work, not my work. He uses us and that’s the dumbest plan He ever had in His life as far as I’m concerned — using dipsticks like me,” Henderson says with typical bluntness in the interview. “But God does say that we are to be His ambassadors. That’s the only plan there is. When I look at the 12 disciples that He chose, if I had been in His place, I don’t think I would have chosen any of them. But God looks at the heart. God knows what’s in the heart.”

The human heart naturally responds to the staggering creative genius of a Michelangelo. It reverberates with moments of victory that bring an entire nation to its feet. But I am certain God knows the heart as a radically humble place, too, the not-quite-right place that has a glory all its own.

October 24, 2012

Catholic Montreal lives

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.

October 11, 2012

Winds of change?

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?

My name is Peter and I am not an Appleoholic. I get resentful when people hint otherwise and maybe if they keep it up I’ll just stop being friends with them, eh?

I admit I keep both an iPad and a MacBook Air laptop tucked in my briefcase just in case I happen to need them at the same time. You never know. And, yes, I do notice my wife’s expression when she walks past the door of the computer room and sees me sitting at my 27-inch iMac with my iPad, MacBook Air and iPhone all open on the desk beside me as I listen to iTunes through my Airport. What can I say? She worries too much.

Okay, I also call the Apple Store “My Happy Place Where All The Money Goes.” But that’s for fun. It’s self-deprecation to make my wife smile so she’ll stop worrying.

Hey, I’m not one of those poor, sad souls who lined up on sidewalks last week like addicts at a soup kitchen door to order the new iPhone5. Those people need help. Interventions. Counseling. Did no one tell them they can order The Five, as we aficionados call it, online in the privacy of their own homes? (I’m not saying I’ve done that, just that I know it can be done.)
I can easily walk by an Apple Store now without any urge to go in and sit on a stool at the Genius Bar, chatting with the tech support staff while watching Apple pro- motional videos on the big blue screens. Well, maybe not easily. It takes discipline to walk by. But discipline’s good, right? Every day, in every way, I get better and better.

Even in the old touch-and-go days — there were some, I confess — it was never all my money that went away to Apple. I paid rent, put food on the table, bought the kids shoes etc. (Jumping to Apple’s defence, I get really, really, really angry when people diss The Happy Place for allegedly Hoovering money from people’s pockets. As if Steve Jobs — peace be upon him — put a gun to the world’s head to make it spend billions of dollars on consumer electronics.)

Never, ever have I shouted at a pet because someone hid my iPad to keep me from opening it at the breakfast table. (I know they hide it. They’re not fooling me. But I wouldn’t open it if my family would talk about something interesting.)

Still, while I don’t have an Apple problem myself (Apple solves problems, it doesn’t cause them), the truth is that some reports on the iPhone5’s launch were, ummm, scary. A guy stood outside a Tokyo Apple store overnight with a packed suitcase because he was initially headed to the airport for a business trip. Then there was 20- year-old student James Vohradsky who lined up for 17 hours and told a reporter: “I feel like if I leave it (his old iPhone) at home, I go a bit crazy. I have to drive back and get it. I can’t do my normal day without it.” The story that truly chilled me was from Hong Kong, where customers waited with backpacks of cash while staff inside the Apple Store chanted “iPhone 5, iPhone 5.” Whoa. That’s getting spiritual. Not in a good way necessarily.

When I confided my concerns to a colleague, he very sensitively e-mailed me a picture of the Golden Calf. It was partly a rebuttal, I think, to my long-stand- ing argument that Apple products are proof of the existence of God. Only a benevolent Creator could create a universe where Steve Jobs would arise to design objects of such infinite beauty and utility. More than reproof, though, my colleague’s Golden Calf e-mail seemed a warning that it’s time for me, personally, to stop drinking the Apple-spiked Kool-Aid.

I always respect this fellow’s opinion. He’s highly intelligent with a great, clear approach to living his Christian faith. So why does a voice in my ear tell me to ignore him and resent the hint I’m an Appleoholic?

Maybe his “hint” is so unwelcome because it’s so untrue. The truth is I can resist Apple temptations any time. I’m in control. I’m not one of those poor souls who needs Apple for some kind of spiritual sustenance (“iPhone5, iPhone5”).

So maybe it will be a frosty Friday before this guy gets a call from me on my new iPhone5, eh? I am the one in control. I am.

Nike made its fortune urging us to “Just Do It.” Now, in a wonderful essay, writer Janna Malamud Smith reminds us that the “it” can be as much imaginative as physical.

Smith, who lectures in psychology at Harvard Medical School, writes in the Sun magazine that the demands on the imagination that come from pursuing craft or art create a form of “resistance to mortality” equivalent to what we seek from a fitness regime.

She does not suggest we can stop the clock by playing the violin, writing poetry or learning to weave, any more than we can defeat eternity by running marathons or taking up cycling. What we can do, she argues, is express our defiance of chronology and biology by seeking to create things worthy of living on after us.

“The defiance is the act of giving to the craft more than bare necessity requires, of resisting mortality while acknowledging the futility of the resistance,” Smith writes in her essay An Absorbing Errand. “Imaginative acts…dissipate clock time like breeze shoos off a fog. They amend mortal loss.”

The previous sentence is a confirmation of the immortal G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” We do not paint water colours in anticipation of a showing at the National Gallery any more than we play oldtimers’ hockey expecting an NHL scout to be in the stands at midnight. We do it because it identifies a compulsion that produces a satisfaction that expresses something of who and what we are: what we have done with our lives.

There is more to be considered in Smith’s juxtaposition of “imaginative acts” and “amendment of mortal loss.” If the imagination can gain us immortality, can it also help us defeat immorality? If it can amend mortal loss, can it also defend against political betrayal?

If we think it can, then we might at least look differently at the routs the Church has suffered over recent decades. We could begin to see them not as failures of courage or shrewdness on the part of the bishops and the Church hierarchy, not as a result of the lamentable docility of rank-and-file Catholics (Christians), nor even as examples of the sharp-toothed cunning of the children of God on the opposite side. We can see them, instead, as commitment to acts of imaginative defiance more than bare necessity requires even while acknowledging the futility of resistance.

Here are two examples.

Quebec has witnessed an August’s worth of outcry over the Parti Quebecois’s plan to pass a Charter of Secularism that would forbid non-Christian public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Christian symbols could still be worn, however. The Cross in the National Assembly would also be retained. This is vile, divisive bigotry, of course. Yet it manages to be something even worse. It is the cynical emptying of all religious symbols by reducing them to mere decoration.

In my imagination, the defiant retort is an all-faith procession to the door of the Quebec legislature as a show of solidarity, and with the following twist: the Christians would come bearing a hammer, a nail and a piece of paper demanding: “Give us back the Cross. It’s ours, not yours.” 

In like fashion, could not Ontario parents, teachers, principals, trustees, bishops respond to the odious bullying of Bill-13 and its brutally imposed Gay-Straight Alliance clubs by forming in every Catholic school an alternative Love Thy Neighbour club? Could not such clubs offer rewards at year’s end for meritorious acts of charity and fidelity to Church teaching? And isn’t it best to appeal to the very heart of our faith in order to outflank the children of God who oppose us?

Wouldn’t work? The kids would never join? Rules don’t allow it? So what? Imagine something better (it shouldn’t be hard). Imagine something that almost might work even if, ultimately, it doesn’t.

For surely imaginative acts of defiance, even if futile, are worthwhile. It’s better to say we have lived as Catholics and as Christians than simply accepting the deadening power of acquiescence. Just do it.

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.

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.

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.

Most of us wish the title of Greg Wolfe’s book Beauty Will Save the World could come true.

But few of us would automatically agree with the argument made in Italian dramatist Romeo Castellucci’s newest work — On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God — that even human waste can serve the faith.

Two questions about political progressives have always stumped me: What do they think we are progressing toward, and how will they know when we get there?

Three months of student protests in the streets of Montreal fail to provide   full answers, but they are prime evidence of an outcome. Nearly 50 years of progressive politics have produced a generation whose very vanity is a form of violence as bad as, perhaps worse than, smashed store windows, nightly street riots and quasi-terrorist attacks on the public transit system.