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.

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!