Missionary work is cultural as well

The first Jesuits in North America arrived 400 years ago. In 1611, two Jesuit priests arrived in what is now Nova Scotia, a few months after the local Mi’kmaq chief decided to be baptized along with his family, becoming the first aboriginal Christians in Canada. With the conversion of the chief, the first Jesuits found a secure welcome and lived with the Mi’kmaq for several years. Consequently the quatercentenary emphasized the initial encounter between the Jesuits and the Mi’kmaq. But as reported in The Catholic Register (Jesuits mark 400 years of ministry in Canada), the Mi’kmaq were not only looking to the past. They want the Jesuits to help with the future.

“Maybe it’s time for the Mi’kmaq to ask for your help in preserving our language,” said Grand Keptin Antle Denny. Young people do not learn their mother tongue; indeed the new mother tongue is English for about 70 per cent of Mi’kmaq. Their historic tongue will be extinct within 20 years.

What the Jesuits can do about that is not clear. Yet the Mi’kmaq were on to something — there is a longstanding connection between Christian missionaries and the preservation and enrichment of indigenous languages.

Catholics are once again embracing meatless Fridays

Fish’n’chips, anyone? It’s either that or, given the preponderance of Indian takeout in England today, vegetable samosas and prawn curry for Catholics on Friday come this fall.

Last week the Catholic bishops of England and Wales decided to bring back Friday abstinence from meat, an initiative of potentially enormous significance. The abandonment of Friday abstinence was one of the great pastoral blunders in history, a self-inflicted neutering of Catholic identity and an assault on our own tradition. Its restoration marks a sign of increasing Catholic confidence and common sense.

According to the universal law of the Church, all Fridays, save for those which coincide with solemn feasts (e.g. St. John the Baptist this year), are days of abstinence — no eating meat. But the Code of Canon Law permits the bishops of various countries to modify the rule. Most countries did just that some 40 years ago, saying that while the obligation to do penance held, each Catholic could choose for himself what that penance might be.

The upshot was that Friday communal penance disappeared almost entirely. Not completely — I often eat at the cathedral in Kingston where, like many religious houses, there is no meat on Fridays, and at our chaplaincy activities at Newman House the students themselves are attentive to Friday abstinence. Yet most Catholics don’t observe it, and several generations may not have even heard about it.

In England, the noted historian Eamon Duffy, a self-styled Catholic liberal, called for the return of Friday abstinence in 2004, writing in the flagship journal of all things Catholic and trendy, The Tablet.

“Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority,” he wrote.

The trend of abolishing distinctive marks of Catholic identity now seems dated. In 1967, when getting rid of compulsory Friday abstinence, the English bishops wrote: “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.”

By “odd” the bishops of the day meant “different,” and by different, they meant not Protestant. In a desire to fit in, to seem less, well, Catholic, the English bishops made themselves, in fact, less Catholic.

Today though, any Catholic serious about his faith wants to be different from the toxic culture in which he lives. Being different is helped by doing things differently. The spiritual purpose of Friday abstinence is a communal penance to recall the Lord’s passion, but as a marker of Catholic identity it is far more needed now than 50 years ago when it was universally observed.

Friday abstinence gives us a chance for mutual encouragement and public witness. Invited for dinner on Friday? It permits us to mention ahead of time that we don’t eat meat — an indirect way of saying that my Catholic faith is important, and that I am not ashamed of it. After all, if one can proudly announce that one doesn’t eat beef because bovine flatulence is causing climate change, abstaining from meat in recollection of the redemption of the whole world seems reasonable enough.

And if the world should think us odd? We then find ourselves in the tradition of St. Paul, who was willing to be thought a fool for Christ. Moreover, the far greater danger is that the world does not think us odd for being Catholic, given what the world considers normal.

In recent years, the practice of voluntary Friday abstinence has become more prevalent, especially among younger Catholics who are precisely seeking a greater sense of Catholic identity and for ways of bringing their faith into their daily lives. Friday abstinence is a relatively easy way to give witness at work, at school and even in the family.

It’s not a terribly great sacrifice, if at all. As a boy I looked forward to Friday dinners as the aforementioned prawn curry and other fish and seafood dishes were my favourites. It can pinch at times, but at least a pinch of penance needs to be part of every Christian life, especially on Fridays.

The new primate of Canada, Archbishop Gérald Lacroix of Quebec City, wears a small fish hook pin on his lapel. It’s a symbol of the new evangelization; he’s a fisher of men. Fish on Friday can be a wider reminder too of who we are and our evangelical mission.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

A fair and proper ruling

A recent decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal could provide a valuable precedent in future challenges to the religious freedom rights of Catholic organizations.

As reported in The Register April 24, the complaint to the Ontario human rights body was made by a parishioner of a church in Eastern Ontario who disagreed with the placement of a pro-life message on church property. The case between the Chevaliers de Colombe (Knights of Columbus) and Marguerite Dallaire stems from a monument and inscription on the lawn of the Church of St-Jean Baptiste in l’Original, Ont., stating (in French) “Let us pray that all life rests in the hands of God from conception until death.”

Ms. Dallaire complained to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that “the inscription is offensive and discriminatory because it denounces, victimizes and excludes women.” Her application, and the tribunal’s decision, make it clear that she disagrees with the Church on the matter of abortion.

The tears of joy flow

VATICAN CITY - One of our young people at Newman House recently asked me whether I ever cry. I tear up quite rarely, save for the liturgy, when it happens not rarely, and not just at funerals. Perhaps it is a grace God has given me, to feel on occasion the reality that the liturgy makes manifest. Tears often mark an intense encounter with reality, and the liturgy opens to us the world that is most real. Whether grace or simple sentimentality, weepiness can be rather awkward for a priest as it gets in the way of leading the worship and is rather distracting for the people.

It’s also a problem if you are doing live television. It happened again May 1, as I knew it would. I had the privilege of providing the commentary for EWTN’s broadcast of the beatification Mass for Blessed John Paul II. I knew the tears would come from experience; they came when I did the same duty for Global Television at the World Youth Day Mass in Toronto, and for John Paul’s funeral Mass in Rome. On all three occasions, I was not the only one with moist eyes.

Looking out upon that immense crowd on Sunday, many of whom wept openly, it was evident that these tears were different. Indeed, on all three occasions the tears came for different reasons — rather like the tears that come to weepy priests during the high point of the Church’s liturgy, the sacred Triduum.

Enhancing devotion by painting with light

Ever since medieval engineers discovered ways to open up the stone walls of their cathedrals, architectural glass has been among the glories of Western imagination.

The glass has not always been coloured. Classical Revival architects in the Renaissance wanted their churches and residential interiors lit by clear windows. The pioneers of architectural modernism followed suit — hence the handsome expanses of clear glass in such projects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s splendid Toronto Dominion Centre.

But the art of splintering light into the colours of the rainbow returned to architecture with Romanticism. That 19th-century movement in the arts saw the renewal of things the medieval glass-makers knew well: how to paint with light, how to shape and mould interior space with colour, how to fashion moods of devotion with symbols and images and abstract patterns.

Toronto artist Sarah Hall is today one of the world’s most talented inheritors of this venerable tradition. And with nearly a thousand works to her credit, she is also one of the most prolific living contributors to her art. Over a career spanning some 35 years, her highly expressive, richly colourful projects have been installed in churches, synagogues, schools and other public places, including an embassy in Ottawa and Toronto’s Scotia Plaza, across Canada and the United States.

A book that acknowledges Hall’s accomplishment has been overdue for some time, but at last it has arrived. It’s called The Glass Art of Sarah Hall and is published by Glasmalerei Peters, a German fabrication studio that has translated several of the artist’s complex designs into reality. This portfolio of 27 installations includes a brief introduction by architectural historian Karen Mulder and a thoughtful essay on glass, spirituality and Hall’s distinctive esthetic by J. S. Porter, a Hamilton, Ont., poet and essayist.

“The visual artist’s task is to renew — in a world of throwaway marketing images intended to seduce or numb — the viewer’s relationship with the ancient qualities of the heart by new pictorial means,” Porter writes. “Reconnecting with the sacred means revitalizing spiritual traditions that have borne transcendent light throughout human cultures for centuries.”

In Porter’s view — and he is certainly correct — Hall performs this task in an original and penetrating way. “Her windows,” he notes, “call us into reverence and contemplation; they evoke wonder and mystery.” They do so by presenting images deeply ingrained in the history of the Christian West — the Cross, the waters of Creation and baptismal Re-creation, the fire of the burning bush and Pentecost — in very fresh, vibrantly hued visual languages.

If Hall’s vocabulary of symbols and signs is usually traditional — whether the tradition she is working in is Christian or Jewish or other — her search for creative means equal to the job of communicating ancient meanings has taken her far afield from the realm of simply tinted glass. She casts prisms for inclusion in some works; she hand-paints, laminates, sandblasts and screen-prints her panes and fragments of glass. And in recent years, she has been especially interested in the possibilities for visual drama afforded by new glass products coming off the technological assembly line.

Hall first demonstrated the incorporation of photovoltaic cells in her glass art in 2005, for example, in a piece she contributed to Canada’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an international competition of solar-powered house designs held each year in Washington. This beautiful secular work was called Northern Light, and its cells produced energy that was stored and later used to illuminate the building’s foyer.

Her most ambitious handling of new materials so far, however, and the first permanent installation of photovoltaic glass art in North America, is the award-winning True North/Lux Nova. Fabricated in Germany, this lyrical, devout composition, illustrated well in the book under review, was designed for the façade of a 12-metre ventilation tower over an underground theological library at Regent College, a Christian studies institution on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. True North/Lux Nova stands in a park at Regent College’s heart, recalling Christian devotion with its inscription of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The religious theme of the piece is further reinforced by 12 crosses that shimmer against a cascade of silvery blue, violet and white. And this luminous tower of fused and etched glass also provides a memorable reminder of the peace that can reign between humankind and the environment: It declines to add to the burden already on the public electricity grid, and, instead, creates from sunshine (via embedded solar cells) the energy needed to power a column of light that glows by night behind the glass panels.

Leafing through this volume, I found myself thinking back again and again to a line from Porter’s catalogue essay: “She makes visible the usually invisible thrust of life.” Sarah Hall does exactly that, celebrating in new glass the old symbols by which we know God, life and each other.

Christ’s promise fulfilled in those who assumed the seat of Peter

In his inaugural homily in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict concluded, “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!’ ”

Indeed, the whole Church will look back to that day — that’s the new feast day for Blessed John Paul. For the feast day’s Office of Readings in the breviary, an excerpt from the day’s “be not afraid” homily has been chosen.

The “be not afraid” inaugural homily remains one of the electrifying moments of the entire pontificate, and John Paul repeated the exhortation to Christian courage and witness over and over for nearly 27 years. Yet to go back to Oct. 22 means more than words; there are striking images from that day too.

During the inaugural Mass, the entire College of Cardinals processed to the new pope to show their fidelity and loyalty. One by one they knelt in front of his chair and kissed his ring. Yet when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland for 30 years at that point, approached the new Polish pope, John Paul tried to prevent him from kneeling. He rose from his chair, and as the old cardinal kissed the fisherman’s ring, the young pope embraced him with profound emotion, kissing his forehead, kissing the primate’s ring.

Will the ‘many’ be counted?

Many Catholics are reading the Holy Father’s most recent book, Jesus of Nazareth, Holy Week, as spiritual reading this Holy Week. Does many mean all?

Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI sheds light on a matter that English-speaking Catholics will encounter later this year. The new translation of the Roman Missal, which will take effect in Advent 2011, changes the words of institution, the words the priests says to consecrate the bread and wine, transubstantiating them into the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Week is a good time to examine that.

In the current English translation the priests says over the chalice, “... it will be shed for you and ‘for all’ so that sins may be forgiven...”  The new translation will say, “... will be poured out for you and ‘for many’ for the forgiveness of sins....”

The Resurrection transformed all our relationships

As I think back over the long winter now ending in Easter’s joy and promise, one spiritual event I took part in comes to mind with special urgency. The discussion, entitled “The Senses of Creation: Ecology and Symbolism,” happened one snowy weekend at the St. Mary of Egypt retreat centre, near Belleville, Ont. (This outstanding ministry is co-ordinated by Catholic Register columnist Mary Marrocco.)

The leader of the retreat was Gavin Miller, a biologist, ecologist and Catholic layman. Miller’s theme was humankind’s relationship with the realm of nature, as that ratio has been deformed, especially over the last two or three centuries, by motives of greed and exploitation long endemic in Western culture. This lethal link, however, is neither necessary nor inevitable. We can choose life instead of death, co-existence with nature instead of manipulation — if we are willing to view nature in the holistic perspectives opened in history by the Resurrection of the Lord.

The contemporary environmental crisis, Miller told us, is deeply rooted in an instrumental and utilitarian attitude toward nature that is typical of mainstream Western thought and practice. This impulse has a venerable history. Magic, for example, was the ancient bid to desacralize and conquer nature, to reduce everything to operational quantities.

Actors rediscover faith on set

Wes Bentley, the son of two Methodist ministers from Arkansas, said his involvement in the faith-based movie and the support of other cast members have helped him get back on the right path. (CNS photo/Motive)MADRID - Playing a character with no apparent redeeming qualities was a blessing that helped Wes Bentley regain sobriety after years of addiction and isolation.

The actor made the comments to journalists in Madrid for the premiere of Academy Award-winning director Roland Joffe’s film There Be Dragons about the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei.

Bentley, the son of two Methodist ministers from Jonesboro, Ark., said he grew up in a “loving, supportive, spiritually strong family.” Over time he said he “drifted into another world” where “things got very dark and lonely. I had isolated myself from everybody who cared about me.”

The first scenes Bentley was asked to shoot were scenes in which his character, Manolo, was 78 years old, on his deathbed and about to reveal long-held secrets to his son. In the film, Manolo grew up with and attended the seminary with St. Josemaria but left after one year and ended up becoming a spy for fascist forces during the Spanish Civil War. The war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, tore apart families, as well as the country.

Another Salt+Light gem

My friends at Salt + Light Television are in the cable television business — or perhaps better to say, in the evangelization business, cable television department. The greatest profit I gain from their work though is not their TV programs but their special documentaries, available on DVD. I have about a half dozen myself, but there are more than 30 to date, ranging from devotional materials for Lent and profiles of religious communities to lives of the saints and current controversies.

On the last point, their documentary on the Venerable Pius XII and the Second World War is a signal service, dealing with the historical slander that the late Holy Father was indifferent to, or even complicit in, the Holocaust. Given that Pope Benedict XVI has entered the war over Pius XII’s reputation in full battle armour — declaring last year that Pius likely did more than any other person to save Jews — the material assembled in the documentary, A Hand of Peace, is essential viewing.

Faith fuels teen after shark attack

The film Soul Surfer hit theatres April 8. It tells the story of Bethany Hamilton, left, who loses an arm during a shark attack. (photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions)NEW YORK - The true story of a teenage girl who overcame a horrific shark attack to rise to the top of her sport is translated to the big screen in Soul Surfer (Tri-Star), an uplifting film about the power of faith and perseverance.

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is a happy, ordinary 13-year-old living in Hawaii with her parents (Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid) and two brothers. The entire family surfs, but Bethany shows the most promise, winning competitions and gaining a sponsor.

When they’re not at the beach, Bethany’s family is often in church, where sermons are given by youth group leader Sara (country singer Carrie Underwood in her film debut).