Christians resigned to media bias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of us still play for the right reasons

Though we are under the watchful eye of the Beer Czar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We rejoice the triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ

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!

I am really not an ‘Appleoholic’

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.

Dull roar of toothless lions

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.

Christ the true ‘Super Hero’

I have been a secret fan of Superman all my life, enjoying almost every version that has lit up the screen. Now, my secret is out. This August, in front of all the guests celebrating my 25th anniversary of profession as a Daughter of St. Paul, my sister gave me Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on DVD. Not a typical gift for a sister’s jubilee, but one I appreciated and will certainly enjoy.

Superman has always appealed to me because of his selflessness. Although he is supposed to be indestructible, the best Superman episodes revolve around his vulnerabilities: his friendships, his compassion for humanity, the moral code that prevents him from using deadly force even in life-threatening situations, his unrequited love for Lois Lane, his loneliness, etc. Despite the many sacrifices he has already made, Superman repeatedly puts the well-being of others ahead of his own life and happiness. This is what keeps me glued to the screen.

Self-sacrificing love has become something of a rarity in our culture. The “me-first” attitude is nothing new, but its current cool factor is. Selfishness — disguised as happiness — has snuck its way onto our roads, into our homes and through our relationships. It’s so prevalent that often we are expected “to take care of number one” and only after that, if we are feeling generous, worry about the good of others. We’re told that putting ourselves first is the thing to do. What a depressing, boring way to live.

I’m not sure if the scarcity of true love is one of the symptoms or part of the cause of our “post- Christian” culture. But it certainly contributes to one of the huge misconceptions about Catholicism. Many people think that being Catholic is mostly about wearing a straitjacket of uncompromising moral laws that prevent happiness. The truth, instead, is that Catholicism is first and foremost about the saving love of Christ Jesus for us. Catholicism’s moral teachings — a consequence of our relationship with Christ, not the cause of it — point us towards real happiness, not the false happiness of selfishness. Blessed John Paul II captured this truth insightfully when he said that we become fully human only when we love to the point of sacrifice, to the point of giving ourselves away.

Self-sacrificing love is a major theme in a surprising number of popular recent movies and novels. While many of these box-office giants (such as Twilight and The Hunger Games) have their problems, their protagonists, however flawed, consistently sacrifice themselves for their loved ones. Many of the popular comic book movies that came out this summer, from The Avengers to The Amazing Spider-Man, have this same theme of self-sacrifice.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Batman trilogy that attempts to explore the horror of evil, Batman has been shattered by his heroism in the previous film. Yet he risks his life to save Gotham once again. Is this theme of self-sacrificing love one of the main reasons comic book movies are so popular with our young people? Perhaps youth have the purity of heart to be attracted to the godliness of self-sacrificing love.

It’s striking that these self-sacrificing superheroes are so popular with young people immersed in and being formed by such a narcissistic culture. Perhaps one of the reasons many of us secretly love our superheroes is that they teach us about being human. “Super” doesn’t always mean “above.” It can also mean a degree of intensity.

In Superman and other superheroes, we can recognize our vocation to truly love others, because true love always calls for self-sacrifice. Unlike our superheroes, we may not seem to have any “super powers” to help us to transcend our weaknesses. But, in actuality, the grace of God is the only super power we need.

Received in Baptism and nurtured in the sacraments and in our prayer, our sharing in the life of God is what can enable us to go beyond ourselves, to seek to truly imitate Christ — the real Super Hero, who loves us and gave His life for us.

Grace is the secret of the super-heroic Christian life, a heroism we are each called to live.

The Greeks get it when it comes to love

My wife and I were at a wonderful wedding on the Labour Day weekend.

The weather was superb. The setting in Muskoka was spectacular. The love emanating around the happy couple was undeniable. And the sermon during the ceremony on the shores of Lake Rosseau was thought-provoking. So much so, that I am still thinking about it.

Maybe I am thinking about it because we’re celebrating an anniversary on Sept. 24. It is our 24th anniversary: 24 on 24. How special is that for a red-blooded Canadian guy? Women may expect jewelry or other trinkets on milestone anniversaries like five, 10 or 20 years, but celebrating your two-four on the two-four? (I digress, even though the perfect gift from her would be a lot less expensive than most of the anniversary gifts I’ve bought her over the years and it comes in bottles or cans.)

But getting back to the wedding, it involved the daughter of two very close friends and it was the first wedding we’ve attended of friends’ children. So, we’ve officially moved into the next generation: the “parents’ generation.” Age certainly does creep up on you and years meander past.

The pastor who delivered the sermon is the bride’s grandfather. How cool is that having your grandpa take you from his lap not that long ago to presiding over your wedding?

So, of course, an emotional sap like me was set up for a head-spinning afternoon right from the get go.

The pastor spoke about the word love and that in English we use it so many different ways, such as “I love you” or “I love ice cream” or “I love that car.” Love is such a complicated word in English, he said, because it means different things. One does not love ice cream the same way one loves her children, or one does not love a car the same way one loves his wife. (Well, if he does, you know such a marriage is doomed.)

But the Greeks, he said, figured it out when it comes to love. The Greek language uses different words for love depending on which type of love.

Eros, or the more modern erotas, is a love of passion, romantic love. However, eros does not necessarily have to be sexual. (Plato redefined the word and that’s where “Platonic friendship” comes from.) But it is a very deep sense of love between humans.

Then there is philia, which applies to friendship, family, community. Philia is about kinship and camaraderie. Hence, Philadelphia (from Greek words) is called the city of brotherly love, even if it doesn’t feel that way at sporting events.

The third Greek love word is agape, which is used 250 times in the New Testament. Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. As John writes in his Gospel: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love.

As I sat there at this wedding, listening and thinking, it dawned on me that God’s love is not sappy or sentimental, even if I am sappy and sentimental. It is something so much deeper.

We’ve all been to weddings with sermons like this, but this one really stuck with me. Perhaps it was because it was my friend’s dad talking, maybe it was because our anniversary was coming up, or maybe it was because I had a life-threatening scare recently. Whatever the reason, I thanked God for the love I have in my life and remembered a story, often attributed to Winston Churchill, although I am not sure it was he who came up with it originally. A man was asked on his death bed whom would he choose to come back as if given the chance to return to Earth. He answered quickly and unequivocally: “As my wife’s second husband.”

Eros and philia may be reasons he chose that response, but surely agape played a role.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca.)

In heaven, the sound of Easter laughter resounds

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.)

New school year, and trouble’s brewing

Bound to be further developments for parental rights, religious freedom

 

Parental rights and religious freedom in schools have been under the microscope in Canada’s two largest provinces over the past year.  The arrival of a new school year is bound to bring further developments.

Let’s begin with Quebec, where parental objections to a mandatory school course led to a Supreme Court of Canada challenge. In 2008, Quebec introduced a course called Ethics and Religious Culture to replace existing courses in religious and moral instruction being taught in Catholic, Protestant and non-sectarian elementary and secondary schools. The curriculum change affected both public and private schools.

All children were required to take the new course. That prompted two parents, supported by a group of many more, to bring a case in Quebec Superior Court when requests to exempt their children from the course were denied. The parents argued that the mandatory course violated their religious convictions because it taught relativism — i.e. all religious beliefs are equally valid — and this  conflicted with their Roman Catholic beliefs.

Roughly 2,000 applications for exemptions had been submitted by Quebec parents. All were refused. Some parents removed their children from the class anyway, despite the threat of sanctions, including suspension of the students.

By refusing to make the course optional or allow exemptions, the state essentially foisted one belief system on students and their families. Polls have consistently shown that more than 70 per cent of Quebeckers believe parents should be allowed to withdraw their children from the course and also have the option of enrolling them in traditional Catholic or Protestant religious instruction. 

The case found support among a number of religious and civil liberty associations and was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.  But the appeal failed. The high court ruled in February 2012 that  Quebec school boards did not have to grant exemptions, stating that parents had yet to prove that the new course interfered with their right to religious freedom.

In effect, the court asserted that all Quebec parents (including the more than 2,000 parents who sought exemptions) must first expose their children to the new course and obtain evidence for their concerns. After gathering evidence, they could then re-start the process of seeking an exemption from their local school board. The Supreme Court left open the possibility of re-hearing the application, but only if it could be based on evidence to support the parents’ concerns. Still, a ruling that permits the state to impose a mandatory course on religious topics sets a troubling precedent that could be applied in other provinces when parents try to assert their rights.

The next challenge could come in Ontario, where  Bill-13, the Accepting Schools Act, became law in June following considerable input from parent and education groups. Presented as a strategy to combat bullying in schools, Bill-13 amends the Education Act to require schools to implement strategies to document and reduce bullying, and discipline the bullies.

While all parent and school groups endorse efforts to combat bullying, many are concerned that Bill-13 focusses on bullying based on sexual orientation. The preamble to the bill introduces the notion of gender as a social construct to include the “LGBTTIQ” categories of sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning).

In perhaps the most controversial provision, the bill says all schools, including Catholic schools, must permit clubs called Gay-Straight Alliances if students request them. Opponents to the bill contend that the focus on concepts that conflict with a Catholic understanding of sexual morality  challenges a constitutional right to allow Catholic schools to teach Catholic values.

Most Catholic educators and parents recognize that Bill-13 cannot be implemented in Catholic schools without clear and consistent provisions to ensure anti-bullying clubs and other activities conform to Catholic teaching. During the legislative process, Catholic trustees, educators and bishops developed a policy called Respecting Difference to address bullying in all its forms, including bullying based on sexual orientation.

The policy requires anti-bullying clubs to be guided by knowledgeable and committed staff who can address student needs while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching. That has created the potential for conflict with leaders in the gay rights movement, who have indicated that they may initiate legal proceedings against Catholic schools.

Vigilance and involvement by Catholic parents and educators is vital in supporting anti-bullying initiatives that allow all students to feel safe and welcome while at the same time ensuring that Catholic denominational rights are protected.

Cardinal Martini’s influence spreads across Canada

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.

Politicians aren’t all bad, are they?

On a guys’ weekend at the cottage, my 16-year-old son invited me to join him to see the new Will Ferrell hit movie The Campaign.

Like so many Ferrell movies, it is rude, raunchy and rowdy, so I guess he thought dad was a good mark to pick up the price of admission, popcorn and drinks. (His mom is a much bigger fan of Ferrell’s humour than me. But that’s another story.)

Anyway, we arrived at the great little theatre in Kinmount, Ont., in cottage country and I was surprised that most of the audience was teenage girls. I never figured this sort of movie would appeal to them, but obviously my son has a better scope on what is trending with teenage girls than me.

The movie was what I expected: lots of coarse language, innuendo and a few funny scenes. It gleefully skewers the sad state of American politics, and by extension, politics in general in all democratic countries.

The message was clear: money and sleaze wins, truth and honour don’t matter; notwithstanding the sappy ending that takes a whiff at erasing all the lies and sleaze bombarded on viewers the previous 90 minutes.

Leaving the theatre, my son said something to the affect that all politicians are sleazy and only care about themselves and no one else; not the voters, not even their own families. (Don’t underestimate the power of movies on impressionable minds.)

I told him I am not a defender of politicians, but that seemed a harsh comment to wipe all of them with such a broad stroke.

“You’re always complaining about high taxes and politicians wasting your money,” he said during the drive back to the cottage. “Name me one good politician.”

My first thought was “touché, my boy, I didn’t realize you were listening.” My second thought was that I have met many politicians over the years, including five prime ministers, at least 10 premiers and even one of Canada’s Fathers of Confederation (Joey Smallwood) — and even though I’m sure there are many good ones, only two or three jumped to mind who were in it for the right reasons, unlike Ferrell’s character.

The first name was John Tory, whom I have known for about 20 years. I don’t know him well enough to call him a friend, but I do know him well enough to know that he went into politics to help others, not himself. Ted Rogers once called John Tory the best premier Ontario refused to elect.

“But he got creamed so that proves that good people can’t succeed in politics,” my son said.

He almost got me, and then I mentioned the current federal finance minister, Jim Flaherty.

“Son, when you were just a little guy, your mother and I met Mr. Flaherty at a cocktail party when he was finance minister in Ontario,” I said. “He was receiving the royal treatment at the party but when he was introduced to your mother (who is a home design expert of some renown) all he wanted to do was talk to her about what he and his wife were doing about renovating their century home in Whitby. He was a real person, not some phony politician, even though the party hosts were trotting him around the room as if he were the Pope.”

But my son quipped: “All that tells me is that he was interested in talking to mom about something for himself and getting her ideas for renovating. Maybe he is a good person but that story doesn’t tell me that.”

Darn, this kid is good, I thought.

“Okay,” I said. “Have you ever heard of a politician named Irwin Cotler?”

“No,” he said.

“He used to be Canada’s justice minister and he is still a Member of Parliament,” I said. “Ever heard of Nelson Mandela?” 

“Of course. But what does Nelson Mandela have to do with Irwin Cotler?”

“Because Irwin Cotler was one of the lawyers who helped Mandela get free. He has fought for years for human rights and has worked hard to get so many good people free around the world who were unjustly imprisoned. Some of these names probably don’t mean much to you but political prisoners like Natan Sharansky and many others owe their freedom to Irwin Cotler,” I said.

My son asked me why I knew so much about Cotler and I told him I don’t know that much, but I met him once and he spoke passionately about how people can make a difference. I could tell he was not in politics for the money.

And, I said, hopefully, there are more people like Irwin Cotler coming into politics, even if the types being mocked by Ferrell seem to be all too prominent and wasting my tax dollars.