The daring and beautiful belongs in God's church

{mosimage}For centuries of Western history, Christian churches were the outstanding expressions of the architect’s art and craft. There are many reasons why this is no longer the case. Among them is the widespread decline of church-going and revenues, and the opinion that churches should occupy a more low-profile place in the urban fabric, and, not least important, an attitude of alienation (if not hostility) on the part of the church-going public toward the accomplishments of modern architecture.

But as long as new churches continue to be built, the opportunity of making them excellent and beautiful remains open. Catholics surely should not settle for second-rate church buildings in the Toronto archdiocese.

Trying times continue for charities

Natural disasters that inflict heart-wrenching human suffering, such as we’ve seen in the Haitian earthquake, show us the best and the worst of the changes we’ve witnessed in recent years, particularly in the media.

Through the immediate spread of eyewitness accounts, often through the use of social networking tools such as Twitter and cellphone videos, we learn of the devastation almost as it happens. As a result, faster ways to send help to crisis areas and faster ways to donate money have developed very quickly.   

Discovering Jesus in the sounds of the Deep South

I first heard black gospel singing in the fields of my father’s cotton farm, deep in the American South. No sound was more Southern: slow, serious and melancholy, like the lives of those hard-up blacks who worked in the cotton patch.

In one sense, this sad, unforgettable music was foreign to a white child spending the day with his father in the fields. Yet in another, it was close, familiar: for Southern rural religion in those days, whether black or white, was very much a matter of supplicating the beloved Jesus for deliverance from the sorrows and tribulations of life. It probably wasn’t exactly orthodox, this near-exclusive adoration of Jesus and corresponding neglect of the remote Father and ungraspable Spirit. But such religion sprang from a true place in the heart, especially the hearts of rural black Southerners, and found expression in their sincere and devout melodies.

Blair's non-Catholic approach in Iraq

The year comes to an end with what may well be one of the most significant political admissions in recent history. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that even if he had known Saddam Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction he would still have declared war on Iraq. In other words, the WMD casus belli is, as many of us assumed, utterly bogus. It also seems likely that Blair never believed that there were any such weapons and that intelligence experts had told him and U.S. President George W. Bush this for months before the invasion.

It’s particularly important in the case of Blair because, unlike Bush, he still enjoys enormous international prestige, has a thriving political career and is known to be a highly sophisticated man. He was also received into the Roman Catholic Church with little scrutiny or apparent formation by a notably liberal British hierarchy. He had led Britain through a period of infamously anti-family, anti-marriage and anti-Catholic legislation and has never shown any contrition for his failings.

Obama upsets Catholic right - again

{mosimage}Whatever you think of the current U.S. president, one thing is beyond dispute: Barack Obama certainly makes life interesting for the Catholic right.

The latest kafuffle started with the appearance in early December of a New York Times profile of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. In this piece, we learned that the Obama family had toyed with the idea of breaking with White House tradition and not putting up an antique manger scene in the East Room of the executive mansion. (A White House official later confirmed that there had indeed been a discussion of whether to make Christmas more “inclusive” — apparently by excluding the crèche.)

Most understand Christmas is the season

Most of the advertising media and much of our public space at this time of year is devoted to Christmas. While creches, angels and peace candles are often part of the mix, there is no doubt that most messages are concerned with the cultural holiday, not the religious one.

It’s no wonder that Christians have been expressing concerns for half a century or more that Christmas has become too commercialized and that religion has been pushed to the back of the line, if not out of the public space altogether. Since much of the grumbling seems to concern exchanges in shops and restaurants, I suspect merchants aren’t the only ones who regard the season as a business event. We’re all part of it.

King Tut's glory bought at great human price

{mosimage}In the enormously rich drama of dynastic Egypt, the pharaoh Tutankamun played a very minor role. He was born around 1343 B.C., a century after the traditional date of Israel’s Exodus from Egyptian subjugation and during the period when the People of God were settling in Canaan. He assumed the crown of his politically troubled empire at age nine, and died when he was just 19. During his short reign, Tutankhamun (“living image of the god Amun”) appears to have backed a restoration of Egypt’s elaborate polytheism, which had been forcefully suppressed by his father, the pharaoh Akhenaten. If so, Tutankamun was still never forgiven for being the heretic Akhenaten’s son: His statues were defaced after his death and his name was largely written out of Egyptian history.

But despite his long obscurity, no ancient Egyptian is more popular today or more familiar to us than this royal young man. We know his serene and handsome face from the portrait-casket of solid gold that enclosed him in death. We know the games he liked to play, the beautiful wooden boxes he handled, even the bed he slept on. We know Tutankhamun so well because, in 1922, the British archeologist Howard Carter broke the seal on his tomb and found its treasury of grave-goods unplundered. The discovery of this trove of household furniture, jewellery, statuary and much else — interred for the king’s use in the afterlife — made headlines around the world. It also set in motion a wave of Egyptomania that persisted through the 1920s and, in some sense, has never subsided to this day.

Faith groups' hiring rights under the microscope

Arguments will begin Dec. 15 in Ontario Divisional Court in the appeal of the decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against Christian Horizons . The tribunal ruled against the social service agency in April, 2008, stating that it cannot insist on faith requirements in its hiring, nor require employees to sign agreements attesting to such requirements.

The decision raised significant concerns about the freedom of all religious organizations to require employees to pledge to adhere to tenets of a religious faith. Christian Horizons operates more than 180 residential homes for people with developmental disabilities and provides support and services to about 1,400 people. It is funded almost entirely by the province, receiving about $75 million each year.

Recognizing the beauty of the Latin Mass

{mosimage}Earlier this autumn, the Oratorians who operate Toronto’s St. Vincent de Paul Church, my liturgical home base, decided to make the principal Sunday service, at 11:30, a celebration of the 1962 Latin Mass.

At first, I was dismayed by the strangeness of it all. The Mass in English had always seemed entirely reverent and otherwise satisfactory, at least the way the Oratorians do it; and it surely is a satisfactory way to thank God for His many blessings. (I have fortunately never witnessed one of those eccentric vernacular Masses the fervent Catholic bloggers complain about.)

Media focus on divisiveness in Pope's invite to Anglicans

Pope Benedict’s recent announcement of provisions to permit some Anglicans to convert to Catholicism while keeping some of their liturgical forms and customs caused varied reactions in the Canadian press. Most news coverage was based on international wire services, but many headlines were rather curious, and the commentary ranged from genuinely knowledgeable to downright prejudiced.

Based on what we know at this point, the Vatican’s plan includes the preparation of an Apostolic Constitution that would allow groups of Anglicans to enter full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of Anglican liturgy and custom. Under the terms of the Apostolic Constitution, the Vatican’s press release said, “pastoral oversight and guidance will be provided for groups of former Anglicans through a Personal Ordinariate, whose Ordinary will usually be appointed from among former Anglican clergy.” Many details have not been announced, but the constitutional changes would make provisions for married Anglican clergy to be ordained as Catholic priests, which has already occurred in a small number of individual cases.

Perhaps the most curious reaction is the assertion that the Pope is attempting to bump up Catholic membership at Anglican expense or “poaching,” as more than one headline and cartoon put it. Most appeared to mean it in a humourous way, and the accompanying news coverage made clear that Anglican-Catholic dialogue has been going on harmoniously for many years, and that the Pope’s invitation follows requests from groups of Anglicans who, sensing a loss of  community and tradition, feel a stronger tie to Rome than Canterbury.

How many Anglicans will take the dip in the Tiber?

The shock-waves set in motion by Pope Benedict’s invitation to Anglicans to convert en masse, bringing their legacy of spiritual thought and worship with them, continues to ricochet throughout the world.

Some Anglican prelates, most notably in the large churches of Africa, have dismissed the call out of hand. At least one sizable group of dissident Anglicans — the Australia-based Traditional Anglican Communion, which claims some 400,000 adherents worldwide — has announced its eagerness to “swim the Tiber,” as Anglicans say, as soon as possible. But at the time of this writing, no observer or Anglican leader is in a position to make any move, since the Vatican has yet to announce the terms and time frame of its surprising offer.

Only this much is really clear at the present time: Married Anglican male clergy who convert will be eligible for ordination and ministry as Catholic priests in the new ecclesiastical structures, which will take the form of non-territorial dioceses. It is not clear, however, whether these married priests will be allowed to serve outside that structure, in “ordinary” Catholic parishes, or whether Catholic laypeople who did not come over from Anglicanism will be welcomed in the new Anglican rite parishes. (I think it likely that both things will eventually happen: the first, because of the shortage of priests in Latin rite parishes; the second, because of the fluidity of parish affiliation that already exists in Catholicism.)