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.

Just imagine doing those acts of defiance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two examples.

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

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

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

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

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

Ten years of priesthood and the fun continues

New York City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you do with 30 minutes to live?

Preparing to land recently at Yellowknife airport in a five-seat jet, I suddenly heard the pilot in front of me utter a four-letter word that begins with the letter “S.”

One of the three wheels on the aircraft refused to lock into position for landing. On the cockpit’s digital control panel we could all see two green dots for the good wheels and a black-and-yellow square for the bad one.

The pilot, talking to air traffic control, flew down to within 150 feet of the ground so emergency workers with binoculars could assess the problem. Over the radio, we heard confirmation the wheel was not down.

The pilot took the aircraft up a couple thousand feet and rocked it around trying to get the wheel to drop. When that failed, he returned to his checklist. All the while, I could hear air traffic control over the radio assembling more and more emergency workers, ordering them into position along the runway.

The magnitude of the situation really sunk in when air traffic control asked if there were any dangerous goods on board. It didn’t take a genius to know that emergency workers were thinking about possible explosions beyond the fuel in the wings if we landed on two wheels and careened down the runway out of control.

“Negative, four passengers on board and no dangerous goods,” replied the pilot. (He was calm on the outside but later admitted to being “highly stressed.”) Regardless, the airport general manager ordered all emergency workers back 100 metres from the runway, just in case.

Simply by writing this, I have taken the drama out of the ending. We survived. After 30 minutes, the last emergency measure worked: the pilot manually pulled a lever that locked the wheel in place. (It was truly the last resort, I was told later.)

It was an eerie feeling listening to the radio chatter, seeing the flashing lights on the ground and watching the pilot feverishly work. I thought about many things over those 30 minutes. My first thought was to keep quiet so as not to distract the pilot. If he needed something from me, he would ask and I would do what I could. I did not experience the proverbial “life flashing before my eyes.” But I did get a brief sensation of being at my own funeral and seeing my wife and two children sitting there.

But I snapped out of that and said to myself: “Jesus, it doesn’t feel like this is the time for me to meet you. But if it is, so be it.” (Maybe I was being presumptuous about me meeting Him. I hope not.)

Then I prayed and said many Hail Marys and Our Fathers in my head. I actually imagined Robert Redford saying Hail Marys in the classic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far as he paddled across a river against a hail of bullets. It sounds silly, but it helped.

Then, I focused on my wife and two children and whether I would see them again. I remembered my mother’s early death to cancer and how she missed my wedding and ever knowing my children. For several minutes, all I could think about was what I was about to miss. Hugs. Graduations. First jobs. Weddings. Growing old with my wife. Grandchildren.

But then I stopped thinking about what I would miss and focused only on how I was going to live, regardless if that wheel came down or not. I started mapping out how I was going to brace myself at impact and get the emergency door open.

Luckily, shortly after this, the wheel did come down and we landed safely.

Over the ensuing hours, safely in bed, I thought more about the things I didn’t think about during those 30 minutes. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about money or possessions. I didn’t think about my mistakes in life. I didn’t even think about golf or hockey, what I have always thought of as passions in my life.

But I did think about my wife and children. And I thought about the time I’ve wasted with things that do not matter when it comes to people who do matter.

I also had an odd thought: I’m glad it happened. Easy to say that now, after things worked out, you say. And you’re probably right. But it was an incredibly exhilarating life experience that taught me a lesson about what really matters.

Waters of death and life

Summertime and we head out on the waters. We have tamed them, made them safe for splashing, floating, swimming, boating. The beach and the lake beckon us away from the city. The waters promise refreshment and relaxation and recreation.

They were not created so. They were not made tame and tranquil. The Spirit hovered about the waters in the beginning, and there was chaos and darkness and the void. The biblical waters speak of the depths, down into which one descends, away from light and life. Our technologically advanced life is rather distant from the biblical world now, and the waters no longer conjure fear. We have tamed the waters, flattened out the depths. Yet the depths and the darkness cannot be altogether banished, for life in this world has not the power to tame death.

Kenton Van Pelt, 15, died in the waters at his family cottage on July 28. His parents, Michael and Deani, are friends of mine. We have worked together, as Michael is president of Cardus, the think tank that publishes our new magazine, Convivium. Michael and Deani and I have been on pilgrimage together in the Holy Land. We have laughed together and prayed together. They are an exemplary Christian couple. Now their world has been overwhelmed by the destructive power of the waters, the darkness and chaos crashing down upon them and their son. Summertime has come, and the wreckage of the waters with it.

The Christian is inclined toward those biblical passages that speak of the refreshing, restful waters of Psalm 23 beside which the Lord leads us. We are shaped by the vision of Ezekiel, where the waters from the temple flow out into the Judean wilderness, bringing forth life in abundance from the arid desert.

Yet we forget that in the ancient world the waters were occasions of danger. The fear of the apostles amidst the storms on the Sea of Galilee was real enough. It is not Psalm 23, but Psalm 69 that speaks more truly about the biblical sense of the waters: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”

The biblical waters are the realm of death. They have not been tamed. This is the meaning of our baptism. The water of baptism has different meanings, and today we tend to think more of the symbol of washing. The waters poured gently over the head of a baby wash away the stain of original sin. Or we might think about the waters providing refreshment and nourishment as an apt symbol of grace being poured into the soul.

We neglect the waters as a symbol of death. Perhaps if immersion baptisms were more common we would see that more clearly, for to be immersed too long means death not life. The children of Israel, marching through the Red Sea, knew that they were passing through death, towering upon either side of them, as the Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers would soon discover.

We are baptized into Christ Jesus, and into His death. St. Paul writes to the Romans that “we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with Him. Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over Him.”

The answer to the waters of death is the waters of baptism. The answer to the mystery of death is the death on the cross. We are baptized into Christ crucified so that He might draw us through the waters to His resurrection. The Christian is not asked to pretend that the waters cannot bring death; to the contrary the disciple knows better than others that the waters of this vale of tears cannot be definitively tamed. Yet the waters of baptism give him confidence that life, not death, has the final word. Even in the face of the death of a young man, the Christian hears the Lord Jesus, who walks across the waters to say to His apostles, “Be not afraid.”

There are few sufferings more intense than the agony of parents who must bury their own child. Suffering is proportional to love. And it is the love — of parents for their son, of God for the world, of the Lord Jesus for those baptized into His body — that remains to give life, and life eternal.

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7).

Modern Quebec caught up in post-Christian nothingness

Anyone who doubts that haunted nothingness comprises the core of post-Christian societies needs to spend some time in Quebec.

It would be particularly productive, from the perspective of witness, if they could arrive before the current provincial election concludes.

Mere days after Premier Jean Charest launched the campaign on Aug. 1, the spiritual emptiness at the heart of Quebec life opened itself for inspection against the background of electoral rhetoric. It is an emptiness that has nothing to do with language or ethnicity or historical origins, or even  political fever. It has everything to do with being a jurisdiction in which the snake oil of the all-encompassing self has been aggressively sold and swallowed holus-bolus.

For two generations at least, people outside the province have winked knowingly and observed that Quebecers of the late 1950s and early 1960s traded, straight up, obsessive belief in religion and hockey for obsessive belief in language and hockey.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Bourassa called for Quebec to be a beacon of light for French Catholic North America. By mid-century, Quebecers simply sheared off the Catholic part and kept the rest. 

The truth, experienced though certainly not confessed to by everyone who lives in Quebec, is that you cannot simply cut the Catholic life out of a Catholic people without creating a void into which an infinity of bread and circuses will inevitably tumble. Its existence disproves the statement erroneously ascribed to G.K. Chesterton that people who stop believing in God don’t believe nothing, they believe anything. In fact, they do believe nothing because they believe nothing is worth believing.

So an otherwise good and decent man such as Jean Charest finds himself, cynically and in the worst of faith, fighting an election campaign against a gaggle of university students over their sophomoric refusal to pay higher tuition fees. The dispute, and its attendant antics, is really nothing but a Janus mask hiding the deplorable underlying state of this province — a malfeasance caused partly by the bankruptcy of treasury, but primarily by the evisceration of Catholic (Christian) charity among Quebecers.

To cite one small but telling example, people in Quebec’s public long-term care facilities receive one bath a week. If they are bedridden or incontinent, their adult diapers are changed a maximum of once a day. There is simply not enough money, apparently, to pay unionized staff to give them even marginally more adequate care. Neither, however, is there a rush of charity-conscious students knocking at the doors of such facilities to volunteer to alleviate such appalling neglect.

Though the students have demonstrated a superabundance of time for idly marching up and down the street, they have, as yet, shown themselves no more capable of a positive charitable contribution to reality than has their enraptured shaman, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois. Indeed, out of the gate, Marois has ululated a campaign theme that, elsewhere, would be assumed to originate from hallucinogenic plant consumption rather than the braintrust of a democratic political party in 2012. 

Marois will make political, financial and jurisdictional demands that Ottawa will be forced to refuse. She then intends to use the refusal to lead Quebec out of Confederation. This, as the Globe and Mail’s sober-minded and understated Konrad Yakabuski has pointed out, is occurring at a time when Quebec’s government debt places it between Portugal and Italy in the economic basket case sweepstakes.

The seriousness of this silliness is its self-absorption. Locked in the neurotic idée fixe that has obsessed her ­— and the political class around her — since the Church was vanquished in Quebec, Marois has nothing else to offer an electorate that so desperately needs something to rouse it from its malaise. In fairness, she is little more deficient there than CAQ leader François Legault, who was supposed to be a breath of fresh air but has so far managed only to promise that he will not speak of sovereignty or referenda or constitutional quarrels for a decade. Political silence, it seems, is a virtue in a spiritual vacuum.

No one outside Quebec should feel smug, however, about Quebec’s spiritual vacuum. It may be more evident in la belle province, but it is everywhere else as well. Post-Christian nothingness haunts us all.

Rumour mill forever spins tales of gay Christ film

Given that movies owe their existence to our taste for fantasy, escapism and entertainment, it’s not surprising that rumours are a big part of the business. Most of them involve the romances and fortunes of the big stars, but from time to time a story about a pending movie takes on a life of its own.

A rumour that reaches my desk about every three months involves a supposedly upcoming film portraying Jesus Christ as a gay man, complete with various story lines involving the apostles. Usually there is an invitation to sign a petition to let “them” know we won’t stand for it. Earlier versions — and this rumour goes back to the 1980s — encouraged letter-writing campaigns to senators and the governor in Illinois, the state where one film was allegedly going to be made.

In the 30-odd years that this story has been making the rounds, no evidence for the film’s existence has ever been found. In the early days, there was a low budget, art-house film with roughly the same theme that played for a very short time before disappearing. It was probably seen by only a few hundred people. Years later, there was a stage play similar to the one described in the petition. Terrance McNally’s 1998 dramatic offering  Corpus Christi previewed at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. As described by The New York Times, it “retells the biblical story of a Jesus-like figure — from his birth in a Texas flea-bag hotel with people having profane, violent sex in a room next door, to his crucifixion as ‘king of the queers’ in a manner with the potential to offend many people.” It did indeed offend many people and was shut down after a few weeks of massive protest. It continues to play in smaller theatres from time to time, often fuelling another round of rumours that the work is soon to be released as a major motion picture.

The spread of rumours and misinformation tends to accelerate when a desire for information is greater than the availability of verifiable facts. Studies of how news travels often find that rumour intensity is high when both the interest in an event and its ambiguity are great. The Internet has made all rumours and misinformation spread much faster, but some stories, such as this one, were able to spread quickly before the medium was even invented.

That may have something to do with Hollywood’s not-always-smooth relationship with religion in its film portrayals. While there have been such epics as The Ten Commandments or Greatest Story Ever Told, and more recently The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story, there was also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which reaped massive publicity — and long lines at the box office — after strong protests at theatres.  The uproar concerned a Jesus who both questioned His fate and who had a dream about a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. The film remains controversial, as do Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Priest (1994) and others that focussed on attacking the fundamentals of Christianity’s origins or the personal failings of clergy and religious. 

Against that backdrop it is no wonder that many people could believe a “gay Jesus film” might be in the offing. (A Canadian would probably assume there was a government grant involved.) I suspect the rumour, and the petitions, will continue as long as there is any news that might spark it.

As it happens, there is indeed a new movie about Jesus Christ in production. Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and CJ Entertainment have acquired the rights to the Anne Rice tome Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which tells the story of a seven-year-old Jesus who departs Egypt with His family to return to Nazareth. Along the way He discovers the truth about His birth, who He is and His purpose in life. The movie is expected within a year.

According to Variety magazine, Columbus says: “This film has the potential to be a cinematic classic, a picture that will appeal to all ages, all around the world. I am proud to be part of this incredible production.”

Given Hollywood’s history with religious subjects, we’ll have to wait to see whether the enthusiasm is justified. Chances are there will be more than a rumour or two between now and release day!

Finish well what God has begun in you

The following is adapted from a homily preached by Fr. de Souza at a Mass for the 10th anniversary of his ordination, on July 20, 2012.

KRAKOW, POLAND - In this historic chapel of the residence of the archbishops of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz has now fashioned a fitting shrine to its most famous resident, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

The new reredos imaginatively includes the churches linked to the life of Blessed John Paul II — his baptismal church in Wadowice; the sanctuary of the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa; the Mariacki church of Krakow’s heart; Our Lady of Fatima, the protectress of the pope’s life; the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the destination of his epic Jubilee pilgrimage; Wawel, his seat as successor of St. Stanislaus; the Vatican basilica, his Roman home as the successor of St. Peter; and the shrine of Divine Mercy, the mystery of which, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in his funeral homily, was the key to John Paul’s entire teaching, and the shrine of which the late pope consecrated on his farewell visit to this, his beloved Krakow, in 2002.

That was 10 years ago next month. A few weeks before he returned to Krakow to consecrate the shrine of Divine Mercy, Blessed John Paul II was in Canada for Toronto’s World Youth Day. As part of those events, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ in Kingston, 10 years ago today. And a few weeks before that I came to Krakow to rejoin for a few days the seminar which first brought me to this city in 1994. During those days I came to pray in this chapel, the very chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day 1946.

I prayed then for the gift of the priesthood that awaited me; I return today to give thanks to the mercy of God for 10 years of priestly life. I return with my own parents, who made of our home a domestic church where the One greater than the temple found a place to dwell. After God Himself, to them belongs the gratitude of the Church for my priestly vocation and whatever fruit there has been from these 10 years of work in the Lord’s vineyard.

I come today also with George Weigel, and in him is represented the Krakow seminar that was for me a decisive step on the path to the priesthood. To him God gave the great mission of explaining to the world who John Paul II is, and George knew that this extraordinary Christian disciple had to be explained “from the inside” not from the “outside.” In this chapel one now sees, behind the altar, the churches of Karol Wojtyla’s life, but in the tabernacle one beholds the mystery that is the window to understanding him from the inside.

It was in this house that the young Karol Wojtyla would come to know Adam Sapieha, the prince archbishop, who, George Weigel tells us in Witness to Hope, “would be his model of Church leadership for more than half a century.” Archbishop Sapieha, made a cardinal after the war, was the great defender of the Church and the people during the long night of the occupation. He courageously opened a clandestine seminary in this residence, and the young men would often come to serve the archbishop’s Mass here.

Karol Wojtyla came, as did another young man, Jerzy Zachuta. In April 1944, Jerzy was killed by the Gestapo. Later that year, Wojtyla and the others would move into this house, it being too dangerous to live outside in their own city. For Jerzy Zachuta his vocation finished almost as soon as it started. The Lord had a different plan for Karol Wojtyla.

“For some time I thought about the possibility of becoming a Carmelite,” John Paul would write in 1996. “My uncertainties were resolved by Archbishop Cardinal Sapieha, who — in his usual manner — said briefly: ‘You should first of all finish what you started.’ And that is what I did.”

It was an unusual answer, because finishing what he started meant, among other things, not becoming a Carmelite. Yet the unbroken prince archbishop spoke more providently than he knew; Karol Wojtyla would not finish what he started until he had done what the other great Polish cardinal of the 20th century, Stefan Wyszynski, prophesied, namely to lead the Church across the threshold of hope into the third Christian millennium.

Finish what you have started. The Christian life might be summed up as just that — finish well what God has begun in you at baptism. It can summarize the great Christian pilgrimage through history. What my parents have done, what I and my brother and sisters must do, is to continue what has been lived by so many generations of faithful Catholics in our family. I carry in my heart today in particular the witness of my late grandmothers; I offered my first Mass for them 10 years ago, and I offer this Mass for them today.

We do not know the finish. We walk by faith and trust in God. Yet I do know this, that the past 10 years have been a blessing beyond measure, that I cannot imagine another life that would have brought me more joy — or allowed me to have more fun! — than the great adventure of being a Catholic priest in the third millennium.

I am a Catholic priest. That declaration is a sombre one to make in Krakow, as the image of St. Maximilian Kolbe in the church across the street reminds us. The Lord has not asked of me hardship, or even difficulty. He has granted me instead a full measure, pressed down and overflowing, the hundredfold return, and as yet without persecutions. Perhaps they will come; perhaps they will not. We do not know how we will finish.

On July 20, 2002, the Most Reverend Francis John Spence, archbishop of Kingston, took my hands in his and said to me: “May God who has begun this good work in you now bring it to fulfilment.”

We might translate that into the history of this chapel: You must finish what you have started. Amen.