May three faithful shepherds enter into peace with the heavenly Master

Death comes for the archbishop, as the novel puts it. Death came for three of them this summer in Canada. Three retired metropolitan archbishops died in the space of a few weeks — my own archbishop emeritus in Kingston, Francis Spence, in late July, followed a few weeks later by Austin-Emile Burke of Halifax, and then just last week Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto.

They were all in their 80s, and had served long years as bishops —Archbishop Spence for 44 years, Archbishop Burke for 43 and Cardinal Ambrozic for 35. Their episcopal service began at a difficult time, in the years after the Vatican Council, inaugurated with so much hope, but quickly inundated by the tsunami of secularism that submerged the culture and washed over the Church. Their years were not full of great triumphs for the Gospel, for there were few of those to be had. Instead, their task was, as I wrote about Archbishop Spence upon his death, the “long fidelity.” They lived long enough to see that the Lord would begin to restore the years that the locust hath eaten.

Archbishops Spence and Burke were ordained just in time for the worldwide rejection of Pope Paul VI’s teaching on marital love in Humanae Vitae. They would have been surprised then to know they would one day see enthusiasm in parishes and in campus chaplaincies for the Theology of the Body. They were new bishops when the Canadian bishops published their Winnipeg Statement of 1968, deciding to take a pass on the unpopular teaching of Humanae Vitae on chastity and contraception. As retired bishops, they saw their brothers publish Liberating Potential, a pastoral letter for the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, which defended and celebrated Paul VI’s wisdom in teaching the ancient faith.

Parental leverage in our Catholic schools is but a dream

In an address to young university professors during his World Youth Day visit to Spain, Pope Benedict XVI warned against the cult of technicalism engulfing education.

“At times, one has the idea that the mission of a university professor nowadays is exclusively that of forming competent and efficient professionals capable of satisfying the demand for labour at any given time,” the Holy Father said.

“One also hears it said that the only thing that matters at the present moment is pure technical ability.”

Pope Benedict reminded his listeners that a university is not merely a repository of utilitarian proficiency but a home for those seeking  “the truth proper to the human person.”

“We know that when mere utility and pure pragmatism become the principal criteria, much is lost and the results can be tragic,” he said.

How will Poland honour its most noble son?

KRAKOW, Poland - The local Church here takes great pride in her saints and in the 20th century no city produced more important ones. Fr. Maximilian Kolbe studied here and died at Auschwitz, part of the archdiocese of Krakow. Sr. Faustina Kowalska’s convent was here, and the Divine Mercy devotion began here. The summer of 2011 has added Blessed John Paul II to the honour roll, and every single parish, shrine and souvenir stand is bedecked with images celebrating Krakow’s most noble son.

At the great Divine Mercy shrine here — the enormous basilica consecrated by Blessed John Paul himself in 2002 — the current archbishop of Krakow and John Paul’s lifetime secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, is building an enormous spiritual, cultural and intellectual centre called the Pope John Paul II “Be Not Afraid” Centre. It is a massive undertaking and will serve as the largest monument to the Polish pope in his native land.

For a Canadian visitor to Krakow, it is impressive to see the love the city has for her former bishop. And it is clear that Cardinal Dziwisz understands his mission to be that of securing the legacy of the great man that he served in life, and continues to serve in death.

The light of Providence shines through Auschwitz’s inglorious past

AUSCHWITZ, Poland - It was 70 years ago this Sunday, Aug. 14, 1941, that St. Maximilian Kolbe was martyred here.

It was nine years ago that I was here last, on a pilgrimage just before my priestly ordination. I wanted to come and pray at the death block of Auschwitz, to kneel at the threshold of the bunker where Maximilian Kolbe died. I came again this year, to the horror of this hell on Earth, made into the antechamber of heaven by the man — a writer and publisher who sent millions of words into print — whose most famous words were: “I am a Catholic priest.”

Is it possible to be a pilgrim in Auschwitz? In 1998, in preparation for the great jubilee, the pontifical council for migrants would suggest exactly that: “Among these (pilgrimage) cities should also be included those places desecrated by people’s sin and later on, almost out of an instinct of reparation, consecrated by pilgrimages. Let us think for instance of Auschwitz, emblematic place of torture of the Jewish people in Europe, the Shoah....”

What does the Catholic pilgrim say in this place, emblematic of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, three million of whom were Polish — half of all the six million Poles who died in the Second World War? In this place of great evil, is it possible to speak of Jesus Christ?

With the passing of Cardinal Swiatek, a glorious time in Church history closes

Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek died on July 21, bringing to a close one of the most noble chapters in the history of the Church. He was 96 when he died, having been ordained a bishop at 76 by his eventual successor in Belarus. Made a cardinal at age 80, he served as archbishop of Minsk until he was 91. His was one of the heroic lives of our age.

I encountered the great cardinal only once, in Wroclaw, Poland, during the 1997 international Eucharistic Congress, and then at a distance. As part of the congress, dozens of bishops administered the sacrament of Confirmation to thousands of young people in an enormous Mass at the local arena. With such a large crowd it was a somewhat noisy affair, but there was total silence when Cardinal Swiatek addressed the newly confirmed at the end of the Mass. He spoke in Polish, but even without understanding a word I could see that his story was enormously powerful, with teenage eyes widening, and many filling with tears. He was telling them what it meant to be a Christian witness, to fight for the Church, to remain faithful. Imprisoned in the Soviet gulag for nine years, he did brutal labour by day and whatever clandestine priestly work he could by night, including offering the Holy Mass secretly, using a matchbox as a ciborium.

Buy a beautiful missal

A few weeks back I wrote in these pages that the new Roman Missal, which will come into effect this Advent, should be beautiful, worthy of being on the altar during Mass. The missal is the book used by the priest which contains all the Mass prayers. A new English translation of the missal has been done, and so new missals are required in every Catholic parish.

The current missal produced by the publications service of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is most unworthy, lacking even the creative design of a low-end recipe book. Canadian priests were hoping that the new missal published this fall would be a true work of art, not a mere functional instruction manual. We saw that publishers in England, Australia and the United States had sample pages posted online, drawing upon the long tradition of Catholic art adorning the altar missal. I wrote that if the CCCB version was as unimaginatively plain as their existing work, Canadian parishes should consider buying a British or American missal. All the prayers are exactly the same and the minor adaptations for Canada — local saints and variations in the rubrics for Mass — are easily enough obtained elsewhere.

Pius XII’s actions spoke louder than words

The conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War, specifically in regard to Jews and the Shoah, has been a bone in the throat of Catholic-Jewish relations for some time now. Recent developments may point, however tentatively, to the possibility of a way forward.

In late June, the Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, made a remarkable statement in the course of the ceremony in which Fr. Gaetano Piccini was named “Righteous among the Gentiles” — a designation given to those who were heroic in saving Jews during the Shoah. Ambassador Lewy noted that after the Nazis rounded up Jews in Rome in October 1943 for deportation to the death camps, Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to shelter Jews — something risky and dangerous under Nazi occupation.

“There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on,” he said. “So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”

Lewy added that the fact that the Vatican couldn’t stop the deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto on Oct. 16-18, 1943 “only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews.”

Some people miss mail

The recent disruption in Canada Post service has produced news stories about the unimportance of mail delivery that are at odds with my own experience, but presumably reflect the view of many others.

When Canada Post was on strike 14 years ago, even a few days without mail was big news. But during the recent disruption, settled on June 28, I’m not aware of a single newscast that made the work stoppage the lead item, and most days it has not even been front-page news. True, the growth of the online world has undoubtedly reduced most people’s reliance on mail delivery, but newscasters and pundits who think the letter carrier is dispensable are mistaken.

For those of us with a greater than average reliance on mail delivery, it was galling to see editorial content such as: “Postal strike looms — will anyone notice?”;  “In 20 years no one will remember what a mailbox looks like” or “I think there’s a packet of stamps in the house some place.” Even after almost a month, Lorne Gunter of the National Post claimed that “almost no one cares yet that the mail is not being delivered.” Trust me, if a good chunk of your income takes the form of cheques in the mail, you will care.

God’s call still shaping Pope Benedict’s life 60 years later

The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 29, is kept with suitable solemnity in Rome, with the Holy Father offering Mass at St. Peter’s on the patronal feast of his diocese. Ten years ago, in 2001, Blessed John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to celebrate the Mass in his stead. It was the 50th anniversary of Ratzinger’s priestly ordination, 29th June 1951, and the honour of offering the patronal Mass in the Holy Father’s presence was thought both a tribute to Ratzinger’s long service, and, perhaps, a prelude to a farewell earnestly sought by Ratzinger himself.

The farewell never came; the long service continued. Now, on the 60th anniversary of his priestly ordination, Ratzinger will offer the Mass for the two princes of the apostles, not in place of anyone, but as Bishop of Rome himself.

Sixty years of faithful service in any vocation is a remarkable testimony of cooperation with God’s grace. The 60 years of Pope Benedict are all the more remarkable given that, since being called from his professor’s chair to the episcopate in 1977, he has been labouring in a section of the vineyard that he did not choose. On April 19, 2005, the cardinals chose him to be pope.

Joseph Ratzinger has long desired to devote his life to scholarship. Had it been up to him, his 60th anniversary would be spent, if not in heaven, in retirement in his library, studying and writing theology. But even as a young man Joseph knew that God might be calling him to something different.

Priests from abroad serve as fathers to Canadian Catholics

On Father’s Day, many Catholics take time to say a kind word to priests – their spiritual fathers. Might I suggest that this Father’s Day, a special word of gratitude be extended to those priests from foreign countries – India, Poland, Philippines, India, Nigeria and other nations – who are working in Canadian parishes, hospitals, prisons and universities? To extend the familial metaphor, they have become fathers to Canadian Catholics left orphaned by our own lack of priestly vocations.

It’s hard to overstate the catastrophic decline in priestly vocations. A senior Holy See diplomat, intimately familiar with the Canadian situation, once reported a devastating statistic: In one recent year there were more bishops in Canada than there were seminarians.

“A Church where there are as many bishops as seminarians is dead,” he told me. By that standard, if not dead, the Church in Canada is at least in intensive care.

D&P has a tenuous claim on Catholic dollars

It was about two months ago that I wrote about the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P), and the serious questions about its pro-life commitment. It was just after Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., of Ottawa had cancelled the speaking tour of a D&P partner organization in Mexico which collaborated with groups promoting abortion rights. Since then the most frequent question I have been asked by pastors is: What should we do about raising money for D&P?

My view is that D&P has a tenuous claim on Catholic dollars because, aside from fundraising in Catholic parishes, they have a tenuous relationship with any distinctively Catholic mission. In their operations they are largely — and by their own proud design — indistinguishable from any number of peace and justice NGOs working in the developing world.

Developments since April have underscored how weak their Catholic identity really is. The controversy in Mexico centred on D&P’s relationship with the  Centro PRODH. As reported in these pages this week, the archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera, wrote to the Canadian bishops saying that the Centro PRODH supports “activities that are an affront to Christian values.”