The feminine soul brings a distinct beauty to the faith

The feminine soul, created in love and for love, can be a lovely thing to encounter. One of the joys of my life these past 10 years has been the spiritual direction of young women on campus. The soul of a young woman, searching for her own mission and vocation in life, and for a foundation upon which to build her life, has a certain aptitude for discovering the Lord’s love and offering a response to it.

Working with the young women at Newman House on Queen’s University campus is to come to love the feminine soul, which brings a certain beauty to the life of a Catholic chaplaincy. The world looks upon young women rather superficially, noting the physical attractiveness which accompanies youth, but the feminine soul has a beauty from within that contributes something to the loveliness of the faith.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a lovely soul who has had something of a difficult road in discovering the love of God and the loveliness of faith. In her case, she is typical of young Catholic women, in their university years and afterward. The ambient culture doubts whether love is truly possible and whether the feminine heart can find an enduring answer to its deepest desires. Campbell’s book My Sisters The Saints tells the story of her soul and does so in a distinctively feminine way. Those who observe the praiseworthy custom of giving books as gifts should buy not one but several copies of Campbell’s book and give them to the Catholic women they know.

Campbell’s spiritual memoir opens with a familiar campus scene. A night of partying has left her surprisingly empty. A Catholic girl not terribly serious about her faith — observant but not fervent — she has discovered that campus life, ranging from the superficial to the debauched, has left her wanting something more. It is the story of St. Augustine told once more — the mind searching for enduring truth, the heart searching for deeper meaning, the soul searching for fulfilment.

“Better to be labelled shallow, stuck-up, drunk or debauched — anything but devout,” writes Campbell about the campus scene in telling words. She became reluctantly devout, which began a surprising adventure in faith.

What follows after graduation is an astonishing series of events in which Campbell confronts almost all of the issues that Catholic women confront. She faces the challenge of reconciling her professional aspirations with the decision to marry; the challenge of caring for a father suffering dementia; the challenge of dealing with infertility in the light of the moral law; and the challenge of combining a deeper prayer life with the demands of successful career as a professional writer, author and television commentator.

Campbell’s memoir stands out because she finds, at various times in her life, profound guidance in great women saints. Teresa of Avila in moving from superficiality to spirituality; Therese of Lisieux on dealing with her father’s descent into second childhood; Faustina on trusting in God when making career and family decisions; Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) on motherhood when suffering from infertility; Mother Teresa on darkness and suffering in the face of her father’s death; and the Blessed Virgin Mary as the model disciple. Sisters in Christ are speaking to each other across the centuries, and Campbell draws inspiration and illumination from the women who went before her. Not only a testament to the power of holy women to draw others close to the Lord Jesus, Campbell’s pilgrimage is one that brings alive the reality of the communion of the saints. It is a Catholic story as ancient as the Gospel and as new as the headlines.

This book will resonate deeply with Catholic women, but men should not be dissuaded from reading it. Men who wish to understand the feminine soul but are not spiritual directors will learn something of how grace works in the lives of their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and friends. For priests, it will assist them in the care of souls and give them a source of encouragement to offer young women who are seeking to be faithful disciples. Such contemporary testimonies are essential, for the transmission of the faith and the formation of Catholic culture has been from time immemorial something more accomplished by women than men.

One example from Campbell’s book makes that point. She writes of learning the Memorare prayer — Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary — as a school girl and it became her favourite. It too is my favourite, and the one that most often comes to mind spontaneously. It is perhaps the most Catholic of all prayers, turning all matters over to the Mother of God in confidence that no child of Mary is ever left unaided. I love the prayer too because I remember my own mother teaching it to me. Every time I pray the Memorare I am thus inserted in a conversation between my own mother and the Blessed Mother. The whole history of the Church is shaped by the conversation between the mothers of every time and the Mother of God — a distinctively feminine conversation. Campbell’s book allows us to listen into that conversation, and it is lovely to do so.

Here’s to ‘Corry’ and the many good priests

Fr. Raymond Corriveau was one of the best

This week marks the second anniversary of the passing of one of the finest priests — make that people — I have had the good fortune to know, Fr. Raymond Corriveau.

Some readers may have known “Corry” through his work with the Redemptorists, but many readers probably don’t know the name. And that’s a shame. Not necessarily for Corry’s sake because he was remarkably humble for someone with such remarkable talent. But it’s a shame for the sake of the priesthood and the Church that he and others like him aren’t better known.

We hear all too often about the bad priests who have done notorious things, especially when it comes to child abuse. We hear the tasteless jokes about priests. We hear about the Church hierarchy’s ham-fisted handlings of past scandals. We hear all the bad stuff and it affects us all.

But we don’t necessarily hear about the really good priests — and there are many — who are quietly going about their business, doing good things day after day, and living up to the teachings of Jesus. Here is Corry’s story, or more rightly, a tiny slice of a life that was lived well with positive impact on so many.

Corry was born in 1936 near Woodstock, Ont., where he grew up until leaving to study to become a Redemptorist priest. He was ordained in 1962 and quickly made his mark for helping the poor and disenfranchised when he and two others started a pastoral ministry in a poor area of Montreal.

In the 1970s, he was appointed the Redemptorists’ “Novice Master” or mentor for young men interested in becoming priests. My brother, Michael, was one of Corry’s charges and they continued a close friendship, with the student counting on the teacher’s wisdom and guidance until Corry’s last day. It was in the 1970s that Corryentered our family’s lives on a regular basis, usually on a weekend afternoon for a drink with my father, an inevitable debate about some weighty matter, and dinnerwith us.

Two things stick out about Corry: his incredibly sharp mind with a depth of knowledge that seemed bottomless and his smiling eyes that could light up a room.

On the first matter, the good-natured debates with dad (who was no intellectual slouch himself) were both entertaining and educational for teenage ears and eyes. On the latter, Corry had this flawless ability to make everyone around him feel special. Later, in the 1980s when my mother was sick and the chemotherapy was zapping her energy, I can remember Corry dropping by the house and mom would literally light up and one could feel her rejuvenated energy, if only for that afternoon.

For such a smart person, it was natural that Corry’s career would thrust forward and move him up the ranks, eventually to lead the Redemptorists in Canada. But it was his pastoral caring at various parishes — from St. Patrick’s in Toronto and St. Alphonsus in Peterborough to St. Teresa’s in St. John’s and Holy Redeemer in Sudbury — that touched so many lives.

Corry had that ability to make you feel good, even if you didn’t really feel good. It was a wonderful gift which he freely gave.

Years later, when he was sick, I went to visit him at the Redemptorist headquarters in Toronto. I had not seen him for a long time. We sipped tea and sat and talked for well over an hour. I remember the length of time because my teenage son was waiting in the car playing an electronic game.

When I returned to the car, my son looked at me and said: “What’s so funny, dad? Why are you smiling?”

“I didn’t realize I was smiling,” I said. “I can’t explain it, but every time I see Corry, he makes me feel good, he lifts my spirits.”

Some months later, and only days before his death, I visited him in hospital with my brother. His eyes weren’t as smiling, but his mind was still incredibly sharp which surprised me because brain cancer was killing him.

At one point, a third priest entered the room and a deep theological discussion began. For me, they might as well have been talking in Aramaic because the topic was so over my head, but for Corry it was no problem to follow along and add insight to the discussion.

A few times, he would break away from the talk and pray, urging God to take him because he was ready. His faith was so deep; he was so dignified in his submission to God’s will. I can only hope I have a modicum as much when my time comes.

Telling Corry’s story in no way erases past crimes by other priests. I cannot even imagine the pain their victims live with each and every day. These “preying priests” will be punished on Earth and beyond. But telling Corry’s story, I hope, shows that the priesthood as a whole should not be painted with one brush and mocked with tasteless jokes. There are many other “Corrys” out there right now doing good deeds; true praying priests who deserve our support.

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.

Take heed of the prophetic, not the political, Chicagoan

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.

Speech is not so free on our campuses

A new study by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) found that many Canadian university campuses may embrace the principle of free speech but in practice give it a rough ride.

Some campuses received an “A” for their written policies and statements about free speech, but a far lower grade for implementing those policies and settling disputes. To anyone who has watched the treatment of university pro-life clubs in the past decade or so, the findings were not surprising but only confirmed the extent of the problem and pointed to where it could lead.

The JCCF’s Campus Freedom Index rated the policies of university administrations and student unions based on whether they supported and protected free speech on campus. The study also reviewed human rights policies and anti-discrimination policies to determine if they were being used to censor politically incorrect speech. Higher grades went to universities that had a clear anti-disruption policy that prohibited students and others from blocking, obstructing, suppressing or interrupting speech with which they disagree. The Index also examined policies governing the imposition of “security fees” as a means to discourage groups from inviting controversial or unpopular speakers to campus.

Among incidents with religious overtones, members of Carleton University’s pro-life club were arrested, handcuffed and charged with “trespassing” for attempting to express their views in a high-traffic area on campus. Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary were both censured in the report for condoning the physical obstruction of pro-life displays on school property after campus security watched passively as the peaceful expression of opinion was made meaningless by obstructers using sheets and blankets to cover the message. The University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto and Carleton demanded that campus pro-life clubs confine their messages to isolated rooms, a restriction not placed on any other campus club, while St. Mary’s University forced the cancelation of a pro-life lecture by failing to provide adequate security to allow listeners to hear the presentation.

The survey also studied university policies on Israel Apartheid and inviting controversial political speakers on campus. In a National Post report on the findings, study co-author John Carpay, president of JCCF, said that while pro-life groups seem to be a “current target” on campus, in future it could be some other group that doesn’t fit with the popular view of the day.

An incident not included in the study suggests that day may be closer than we think. As reported in the Oct. 28 issue of The Catholic Register, a Catholic chaplaincy program at Brock University has faced harassment due to ties to the Sodalit movement, which a women’s studies professor claimed was affiliated with “far right” and “cult-like” Catholic organizations in Peru. Despite a ruling from Brock’s administration that the accusations are unfounded and the relationship between the university and SEA has been beneficial to the university, incidents of harassment continued, including an episode where a fundraising event was shut down by hecklers. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal subsequently dismissed a claim of religious discrimination against the professor, ruling that her actions fell within the realm of academic freedom. (The CCRL had an advisory role in the case at the request of one of the volunteer chaplains.)

The tribunal’s assertion that the professor’s actions do not constitute religious discrimination is certainly arguable; harassment took place and it’s impossible to see any basis for it other than religious affiliation. Some of the academics who opposed the chaplaincy initiative stated their case more plainly when they declared point-blank at a rally in 2011 that they don’t want organizations with religious ties offering any work programs or volunteer experiences on campus.

Given the very strong relationship between religious belief and philanthropy, it’s hard to imagine where those volunteer opportunities will come from if organizations with religious ties are excluded. We have been witnessing an ongoing marginalization of religion in public life for several decades, so it’s quite possible that religious groups will be deemed to no longer fit with popular notions of who belongs on campus. Only a vigourous defence of campus free speech now — including the right to express ideas Catholics may dislike — will help prevent that from happening.

Sistine Chapel turns 500, and its beauty is timeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The downside of technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phil Fontaine lets politics get in the way of the truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catholic Montreal lives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct. 22 vs. Oct. 16

The days are quite significant in our Church’s history

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving is a second Mother’s Day for me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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