When love moves life’s story forward

Writing, for me, is both a part of how I make my living and how I make sense of my living. My summer reading has coincidentally connected around a theme that, in the end, a life is just a collection of stories.

Full healing requires extending forgiveness

Hopes are high Pope Francis’ visit to Canada will bring about the reconciliation that leads to healing and restoration for Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike. The Pontiff’s visit follows on the heels of his meeting with an Indigenous delegation in the Vatican at the end of March.

Celebrating language as God’s miracle

As a bilingual person I have often written about the joys and dangers of “linguistic passing.” Depending on where I found myself, I could remove or change my accent — speaking Québécois French when I needed to, Europeanizing my French on occasion and then making my French tones disappear in an English context. My goal was to disguise my origins if I sensed hostility, back when linguistic tensions were at their worse in la belle province. I confess to thinking that this was unique to Canada so was surprised to discover, as I travelled to over 50 countries, that virtually every place has a version of this, with dialects, patois, accents and more, either strictly regulated, judged or celebrated.

Social contagion and trans propaganda

When Dr. Lisa Littman learned that 80 per cent of youth showing up at “gender clinics” were females, she decided to investigate. She quickly named the phenomenon “ROGD” for rapid onset gender dysphoria, because, unlike typical gender dysphoria that begins in childhood, these girls had no discomfort with their sex until approximately age 12, and then suddenly decided they were actually boys.

Really listen when Jesus speaks

I recently learned my liver cancer had gotten more aggressive. “Aggressive” is not descriptor you want to hear with cancer. Something like your cancer has gotten “nicer” or more “considerate” would have been great.

The Church’s kairos moment

Pope Francis’ July 24-29 visit to Indigenous people in Canada will be the most public step yet in the Catholic Church’s escalating efforts to grow in reconciliation with the First Peoples of our vast country. Not only the most public, but also the most involving. Tens of thousands of Catholics will participate in the papal Masses in Edmonton and near Quebec City. Millions more may watch on TV. 

In doing so, we will be drawn into the web of reconciliation that the Church and Indigenous people have been weaving since at least the 1970s. In that era the Canadian bishops raised critical questions about how a proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline would affect the culture and lives of the people of the North.

The bishops drew considerable flak for daring to question the axiom of the developed world that traditional cultures are less important than the march of economic progress. Although Pope Francis was likely unaware of the pipeline controversy, he took the same stance when in 2015 he visited Santa Cruz, Bolivia — the home of that country’s economic elites — and declared, “The economy should not be a mechanism for accumulating goods, but rather the proper administration of our common home.”

The growing cooperation between the Canadian Church and Indigenous peoples was disrupted when residential school survivors began speaking publicly about the abuse they suffered in those Church-run schools. Catholics with eyes to see recognized that our Church had been an integral part of a system of colonialism and oppression.

Even with those revelations, that recognition is still not universal among Canadian Catholics. Our Church has been slower to respond to the calls to repentance and reconciliation than the Anglican and Protestant churches.

This papal visit stands as a kairos moment, a time of opportunity to move in a new direction — in relations between the Church and Indigenous people as well as a new direction for the Church herself. Since the Oblates of Mary Immaculates’ apology at Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., in 1991, numerous religious orders and dioceses have apologized for serving as pillars in structures which oppressed First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.

Some suggest we have apologized enough. But that assertion betrays an ignorance that a sin against God and humans is an infinite offence only forgivable through an act of Divine mercy. It also ignores that the effects of sin ripple down through the generations. We can never be freed from the role of oppressor until all the oppressed are set free.

That calls us to be a different sort of Church, a Church which liberates. Instead of being a Church which preaches morality, we must become a Church striving to make a common home for all Canadians, especially the First Peoples.

Today this is palpably not the case. How can Canada be the common home for all if Indigenous people are the most frequent victims of violence, a violence which police too often ignore? How can it be our common home if the First Peoples of our land live in poverty and despair and have exponentially higher rates of suicide and incarceration? 

The Church is a centre of worship of the living God. The Old Testament prophets repeatedly said such worship is worthless unless it is accompanied by action to end oppression. Our action must be to free our society of the scourge of racism and to make human equality a reality.

When Pope Francis spoke to the delegation of Indigenous people and Canadian bishops on April 1, he drew attention not only to the suffering of the Indigenous but also to the gifts they offer society. He spoke of their view of the land as a gift of God rather than a resource to be exploited. He spoke of the emphasis on community, of an understanding of the person not as an isolated being but as part of a web of relationships.

The papal visit will not be the culmination of the journey but an important step in nurturing a new relationship. It will be a time of hope, a hope we are all challenged to make real.

(Argan is a writer in Edmonton.) 

I bid you goodnight, my brother

He was a giant of a man who rode a Harley-Davidson. He was a giant of a man who was a high school dropout but went on to receive two Honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees, and one Honorary Doctor of Laws degree. He was a giant of a man who was CEO of Yonge Street Mission for 23 years, transforming it into one of the leading urban ministries in North America. Rick Tobias, a giant of a man, died on May 18 at the end of a protracted time living with cancer.

My friendship with Rick goes back to 2005 when I needed someone to talk to the diaconate candidates in St. Augustine’s Seminary formation program about their calling to ministry. When I asked around, the one name that consistently came up was that of Rick Tobias, usually followed by, “If you can get him, he is the best.” 

Indeed, he was. His talks on “A Compassionate Understanding and Response to Poverty” and “The Meaning of Poverty in Scripture” threw down the gauntlet to all in the room. “There are about 1,000 references in Scripture to the poor,” he said, “and another 2,000 verses that speak about justice and injustice and their impact on people. Three thousand verses is about equal in content to the whole of the gospels.” He would punctuate these facts by saying, “Justice ain’t political, it’s Biblical!” Then he would quote from Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

Even though Rick never described himself as an academic, saying that he was a practitioner not an academic, the depth of his understanding of Scripture came from a wisdom born of contemplation and listening to the poor. As he completed his talk, he paused, and with a prophetic warning said, “The Church will never be dynamic again until it takes seriously the plight of the poor.”

His follow-up discussion question revealed both his understanding, and hope for the diaconate: “How can I employ my office as deacon to lead my Church and the community towards a better understanding of, and response to, this city’s poor?” He understood what a deacon is about; not to look divine in a dalmatic, but to prophetically lead the Church and the city to take seriously the plight of the poor. 

Rick continued to be my mentor in ministry. In 2006, when I was thinking of starting a ministry of presence on streets once described as, “A patch of inner-city Toronto plagued by crack addicts, drug-dealers and low-rent sex trade workers,” Rick was the first person I called. He was always generous with his time, and he said, “Come on over, it sounds interesting.” 

When you were in Rick’s presence, you felt you were the most important person in the world, and indeed at that moment you were. He listened carefully, sat back, and as he always did, took a moment to respond. But when he responded, he had a way of lifting a simple question or idea to a higher plane. “I think you should do it,” he said. “Everyone needs a friend, and that is the hardest thing for the addicts and the people on the street to find. Just be their friend.” 

My final meeting with Rick, three weeks before he died, was a time of grace. I met him and another giant of inner-city ministry, Dion Oxford. We sat in Dion’s back garden, sipping fine Scotch whisky which Rick had brought, and reminiscing in thanksgiving for the opportunities we have received to be blessed by the poor of our city. We shared our memories of retreating to the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland, to be with the international ecumenical community working for justice and peace. And of course, we reflected on how our wives, each in their unique way, has lived out their own ministry of service to the poor among us. 

Rick’s vision and lifetime of service are reflected in one of his quotes in the memorial service booklette: “Embrace and inclusion, for me, represent the highest manifestation of our aspiration to be a just society. We can do many things to pursue that aspiration, but for me the acid test of justice actualized is embrace. Do we belong to each other? Are we a people together? Are we inclusive?”

Finally, I echo the words of the farewell Soweto Gospel hymn at Rick’s memorial service: “Lay down my brother, lay down and take your rest. I wanna lay your head, upon your Saviour’s breast. I love you, but Jesus loves you best. I bid you goodnight, goodnight. I bid you goodnight, my brother, goodnight.”

(Kinghorn is a deacon in the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

Understanding comes at the peripheries

Having to wait in a hospital emergency department, I had leisure to observe and absorb other waiters. After sitting awhile, awareness emerges: a bruised old man assisting a limping woman to her chair; a lady with a big angry voice protecting her cart filled with plastic bags; a wrapped-up woman chattering to nobody about having the shakes; a tall woman talking on her phone, trying to rouse interest in her suicidal feelings; and the staff, with varying degrees of patience, performing the dance of triage.   

As I took it in, my brother’s favourite question came to mind: “Where’s God in all that?”   

That led to a second question. Can theology make any difference in the grittiness of life? Yes, though we need good solid theology. We need it to meet us where we are. We need it to open us up and take us where we can’t otherwise get to. And we need it acutely at the peripheries.  

But how do we help those who wrestle with life’s questions, in ways that don’t seem to be clearly marked on the map of Church teaching? How not to get torn apart amidst the anxiety and desperation? 

These questions come up for me and my colleagues in our counselling service, which has a special outreach to people of faith. We seek to wrestle with them within the Church’s tradition. We appreciate respected priests and theologians who can help us flesh out Church teaching in difficult situations.   

Our faith, handed down through millennia, doesn’t need safeguarding as though it were weak and fragile. It can withstand the quarrels, mistakes and egos of our era. We can’t be satisfied with having our minds formed by media or allowing our prayers to be made for us by popular movements. What we can do, instead, is allow our intelligence and knowledge to be formed by our faith. We need an ascetical, teeth-grinding effort to understand others — the ones we agree with and those we don’t — and bring our lives to the core of our faith. 

In the Church’s formative days, apologists like St. Justin described the truths of the Christian faith in reasoned ways. They could also hear and understand what society was saying, and show the meeting place between the two. We can’t reach such understanding alone in the safety of our rooms. And we can’t get there by picking up secular pious fads and slogans and importing them unthinkingly into church. 

We need to take time and care to figure out what our church, and our Church, needs to pray for. We could try some asceticism of the mind: using our intellect to painstakingly see and understand the times, while carefully learning and growing in our theology. St. Anselm’s brilliant definition of theology is “faith seeking understanding.” Understanding comes by doing the humble work of learning Christ’s way and learning to hear the questions and groanings of our society.  Otherwise, we miss an opportunity to be of service as the incarnate Church.   

That was the inspiration of the Second Vatican Council, and that is the “high adventure” to which we are called by our baptism. We need today’s Church apologists sifting and responding in faith to the needs and philosophies of our time.  This is the asceticism of “faith seeking understanding” in our day. 

However, we can’t just stuff our heads with knowledge and platitudes, hold our breath and wait for death. Our faith and understanding must be tested with our life. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, apparently, used research experiments in raising his children. Physicist Isaac Newton performed experiments on his own eyes to test his theories. I don’t recommend putting one’s children or body at risk in seeking proof of a theory. But our faith does require us to learn, and we need to test or “prove” our faith by walking on it, as babies walk on their soft little feet and Peter walked on the sea.   

Can we take our faith off the dusty back shelf into life? Christianity is a laboratory: test it out and see if it’s real. Everybody should know, and test with their lives, what St. Ignatius of Antioch said about the Eucharist.  

Not doing so will lead to polarization of the Church. Power struggles polarize; truth is a compass. 

Theologians, priests, bishops, all of us, need time to ask questions and listen, resisting the “easy” path of being formed by what appears on our phones. We need especially to learn and understand at the peripheries — in the emergency room or elsewhere. This requires humility. 

Shall we bury our talents out of fear (Matthew 25:18) or spend ourselves, flawed and tainted though our efforts will be? It’s our job to bring our faith and theology to the questions and needs of our time, wherever we’re planted. Give your life away to get it (Matthew 10:39). 

(Marrocco can be reached at mary.marrocco@outlook.com.)

Why the whole world’s at home in Rome

I recently had the honour of joining a small delegation of American and Canadian Catholic university presidents on a trip to Rome. The purpose of the meeting was largely to introduce the leaders of post-secondary institutions to the many important bodies that support educational initiatives at the Vatican.

The curveball of sexual identity politics

I went to a baseball game a few weeks ago at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. The play on the field was great as the Blue Jays destroyed the Minnesota Twins 12-3. Our starting pitcher, Jose Berrios, who has been inconsistent this year, struck out 13 opposing players. For those who are not aficionados of pitching, that was a work of art.

A working class hero for the lilies of the alley

It all started with a phone call. When the Daughters of St. Paul arrived in downtown Chicago in 1979, we were in need of a garbage pickup company. Why not continue with the company that had already been servicing our building? When the Sisters called Flood Brothers Disposal, little did they know the lifelong friendship it would kick off. Mike and Joe Flood were fervent Irish Catholics and…practical jokers. They first pretended to be atheists, but eventually came clean (pun intended) and began picking up our trash gratis, along with financially supporting our media mission.