Can Christianity survive in its birthplace?

It is very difficult to make sense of the latest violence in the Middle East. And as we embark on another Advent season, it makes one wonder about the long-term viability of Christian communities in the Church’s birthplace in the Middle East, whether Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

    A child’s search for Baby Jesus

    Every year as Advent approaches, my memory goes to a moment our priest asked my six-year-old son if he would carry the Baby Jesus up the aisle on Christmas Eve.

    I could tell how honoured he was to have been asked but also, in a character trait forming for life, how much he was fretting about the task he’d just accepted. He was silent for most of the trip home, finally asking somberly: “Do we have a Baby Jesus at home? What am I going to bring instead if we can’t find Him?”

    I reassured him the church would provide the Baby Jesus, though I really wanted to tell him he had already brought Christ anew to the Church by his willingness to serve and bring whatever gift he could to God.

    The explanation would have gone over his head, naturally, but the moment never fails to open my eyes a little wider each year to the meaning of Matthew 18:3: “Verily, I say unto you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

    I must admit that particular piece of Scripture is one of many that took years to sink into my understanding. Don’t we admonish our children to stop being childish? Aren’t children supposed to become adults, not vice-versa? And what does it mean to be “like children” anyway? Sketchy table manners? Missing front teeth? Only coming up to the waist of most of the rest of the world?
    The easy thing would be to blame Catholicism for my inability to grasp such perplexing verses. Doesn’t accepted wisdom tell us Catholics simply don’t know how to read the Bible? Yet in a recent Convivium magazine interview Paul Henderson, the country’s greatest goal scoring evangelical Christian, told me that he, too, is often flummoxed by Scripture.

    A passage that upset him for a long time, he said, is the wedding feast at Cana when Our Lord comes across as a provocatively disrespectful son to Mary, speaking to her in a way that would prompt many parents — well, me, anyway — to say with full on-high authority: “Don’t you speak to me in that snippy voice, young mister.”

    As Henderson puts it so well: “You can get the same problem with Scripture as you do with e-mail. You can’t see the facial expression or hear the tone of voice so it’s easy to have misunderstandings.”

    Or, as in my case with Matthew, have no easy time understanding at all.

    Perhaps the biggest roadblock comes from approaching meaning with preconception rather than openness. When Christ calls us to “become like children” don’t our minds immediately flit to images of innocence? Of happiness?

    In a delightful recollection of long-ago childhood Christmas in Saskatchewan, however, Convivium writer Alan Hustak reminds us that being like children — being children — is not synonymous with a trouble-free, easy-peasy existence.

    At the tender age of four, Hustak found himself wrestling with the age-old conundrum of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. To be more precise: of keeping to himself a silver dollar even though that meant disobeying his grandfather by refusing to put the coin on the collection plate held by an enormous ceramic angel during Midnight Mass.

    Most adults would bet on the angel in such showdown, but that doesn’t mean children always do. The essential Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor tells of a game she invented as a child that she called Sock the Angel. She locked herself in a room, closed her eyes and swung her fists wildly around in hopes of connecting with the jaw of the angel on her shoulder.

    Fittingly, it was also O’Connor who said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

    Don’t we, as Christian children, know the crucial importance of a Baby Jesus even if we’re unclear on exactly where to find Him?

    Don’t we just need someone to give us the Word, and we will bear Him as best and as proudly as we possibly can?

      Viva the fight for Christian liberty!

      Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!

      That was the defiant cry of the Cristeros, and the Feast of Christ the King is a fitting time to remember a dark period in history. Never heard of the Cristero rebellion? Most have not, including in Mexico. It is a story we should know.

      In the 1920s, the Mexican government of Plutarco Calles waged war on the Catholic Church. Not metaphorically, but literally, with laws that proscribed worship, restricted the conduct of the clergy, interfered in the governance of the Church and trampled upon religious liberty — all of it enforced by the armed power of the state. It was totalitarianism just across the Rio Grande.

      The Cristeros were faithful Catholics who rose up — both in armed rebellion and by other means — to defend their faith and their religious freedom. They proudly proclaimed they were fighting for Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

      The Cristero war lasted from 1926 to 1929. Thousands of Mexicans suffered violent persecution for the faith — priests hanged in their churches, religious shot down by firing squad in the town squares, faithful men and women jailed, tortured and killed in hatred for the faith.

      After this shameful period of Mexican history concluded, official Mexico decreed that it would not speak of its shame. Consequently, few people are even aware that a fierce religious persecution took place less than a hundred years ago in North America.

      All this is remedied by a film every Catholic must watch, For Greater Glory, which tells the story in a magnificent way, comparable in acting and production to any major Hollywood film. Released in theatres in the United States in the spring, it did not have theatrical release in Canada. The DVD went on sale in the United States on Sept. 11, and will be released in Canada on Dec. 18.

      Last week I wrote about the feminine soul and recommended as a Christmas gift a book — My Sisters, The Saints — that gives a compelling account of a distinctly contemporary path of Catholic feminine discipleship. This week, might I suggest this movie, martial in content, which highlights a complementary masculine path to holiness — and all the more compelling for those manly virtues are demonstrated heroically by a 14- year-old boy.

      Blessed José Luis Sanchez joins the Cristeros after witnessing the martyrdom of his parish priest. This teenage martyr was beatified in 2005, and the cinematic portrayal of his heroic life is profoundly moving. Even more impressive, the heroism of the boy moves the mercenary general, hired to lead the Cristeros, to genuine conversion.

      The general’s story is one of a great military man who no longer has a great cause to give his life to, and who does not share the tradition of faith with his own wife and the Mexican people. The general learns from the boy the heart of manly virtue, which is to embrace with great courage a noble cause, a cause greater than one’s own achievement.

      Upon enacting the laws prohibiting worship, President Calles told the French ambassador to Mexico that “without Mass and the sacraments the Mexican people will soon lose their faith.” He was right about the consequences of being denied the sacraments, but he was wrong in thinking that the Mexican people would not fight for their faith, fight for the sacraments and fight for the Mass.

      All of this is suitable to bring to mind on the Feast of Christ the King. Aware of the attacks on Jesus and His Church around the world — both the Russian and Mexican revolutions of 1917 turned viciously against religion — Pope Pius XI declared in December 1925 a new feast, the Feast of Christ the King. The Holy Father reminded the world that the kingship of Christ was not subject to the ambitions of tyrants.

      “The annual and universal celebration of the feast of the Kingship of Christ will draw attention to the evils which anticlericalism has brought upon society in drawing men away from Christ, and will also do much to remedy them,” wrote Pius XI in his 1925 encyclical, Quas Primas. “While nations insult the beloved name of our Redeemer by suppressing all mention of it in their conferences and parliaments, we must all the more loudly proclaim His kingly dignity and power, all the more universally affirm His rights. The way has been happily and providentially prepared for the celebration of this feast ever since the end of the last century. … The kingship and empire of Christ have been recognized in the pious custom, practised by many families, of dedicating themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; not only families have performed this act of dedication, but nations, too, and kingdoms. In fact, the whole of the human race was at the insistence of Pope Leo XIII, in the Holy Year 1900, consecrated to the Divine Heart.”

      I saw the film in Michigan on the Feast of the Sacred Heart last June. I cannot recommend highly enough planning to obtain and see this film now, with Christ the King upon us.

      Viva Cristo Rey!

        The refreshing sound of silence

        A month-long retreat opens eyes to importance of sanctifying the mind

        How hard do you think it would be to give up all media for an entire month — no cellphone, no Internet, no reading, no radio or TV, no media at all except for a daily newspaper?

        Surprisingly, not that hard.

        In October, I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, an intense, month-long retreat during which I was encouraged not only to be silent but to “fast” from all electronic and digital media. That may seem daunting, but being offline and silent for a whole month is a lot easier than it sounds. (Really!) The change of pace and the silence refreshed me, and the joy of focusing exclusively on the most important relationship in my life is still bubbling inside me.

        The hundreds of e-mail messages waiting for me when I got back highlighted how much I engage digitally. Whether I go online for ministry, education, connection with friends and family or enjoyment, the digital experience is important to me. The steady flow of infotainment can empower us, forge connections between us that transcend geography, inspire us, remind us of important things, broaden our perspectives and stimulate our thinking and imagination. But it can also distract us, direct our minds and hearts in unhealthy or negative ways, depress us, confuse us and entice us to focus on the instant gratification that many advertisements and entertainments promise. We all try to filter out what is trivial or annoying but our filters need a higher standard, one to help us focus our use of apps and social media to serve the real of our lives.

        The founder of my community, media apostle Blessed James Alberione, used a phrase that seems particularly apt for those who seek to follow Christ in a digital world: “sanctification of the mind.” Sanctifying our mind, or loving God with our mind, is part of the greatest commandment: to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength (Mark 12:30). Since our thoughts determine our choices, sanctifying our mind is essential for living a full life in Christ, as well as preparing for the vision of God in eternity. What we think about most often becomes what we care about most. According to Alberione, sanctifying our mind means paying attention to our thoughts and what we are feeding our minds with — our conversations, our reading and viewing.

        To sanctify our minds, Alberione offers this practical advice: 1) examine our thoughts in light of God’s Word, allowing God’s Word to direct our thoughts and to shape us on the deepest level, and 2) fill our minds with the Scriptures and with good reading and viewing that will help us to develop a Christian mentality — a way of thinking that is transformed by faith. Faith opens up our puny human perspective so we can glimpse, even if briefly, God’s point of view. Many saints, including Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Teresa of Avila, were greatly influenced by reading Scripture or the lives of the saints.

        Does sanctifying our mind mean we can only visit faith-driven Internet sites or only read Catholic newspapers? Not at all. But it is important to: evaluate what we feed our minds with; choose content that will nurture our faith; and balance what we take in and how much time we spend online.

        If we consistently view content that promotes values contrary to the Gospel (and it’s hard not to do that today), it’s important that we spend time reinforcing Jesus’ teaching in our lives. Negative influences can be both blatant and subtle. For example, I’ve enjoyed some currently popular post-apocalyptic, dystopian stories because of their social commentary on dangerous tendencies in our society today. But a steady diet of dystopian narratives makes me overly pessimistic about the future, forgetting that God is always with us, no matter what.

        Giving voice to our faith online, perhaps by responding to or avoiding digital media that is contrary to the Gospel, or by engaging respectfully in matters of faith, is another way to be digital followers of Christ.

        Most of us aren’t called to live “in retreat” from the digital world. Instead, we are to be salt that flavours it with faith, hope and love. Developing a Christian mentality by sanctifying our minds is critical for us to be both whole and holy people in today’s pluralistic and secular digital world.

          The feminine soul brings a distinct beauty to the faith

          The feminine soul, created in love and for love, can be a lovely thing to encounter. One of the joys of my life these past 10 years has been the spiritual direction of young women on campus. The soul of a young woman, searching for her own mission and vocation in life, and for a foundation upon which to build her life, has a certain aptitude for discovering the Lord’s love and offering a response to it.

          Working with the young women at Newman House on Queen’s University campus is to come to love the feminine soul, which brings a certain beauty to the life of a Catholic chaplaincy. The world looks upon young women rather superficially, noting the physical attractiveness which accompanies youth, but the feminine soul has a beauty from within that contributes something to the loveliness of the faith.

          Colleen Carroll Campbell is a lovely soul who has had something of a difficult road in discovering the love of God and the loveliness of faith. In her case, she is typical of young Catholic women, in their university years and afterward. The ambient culture doubts whether love is truly possible and whether the feminine heart can find an enduring answer to its deepest desires. Campbell’s book My Sisters The Saints tells the story of her soul and does so in a distinctively feminine way. Those who observe the praiseworthy custom of giving books as gifts should buy not one but several copies of Campbell’s book and give them to the Catholic women they know.

          Campbell’s spiritual memoir opens with a familiar campus scene. A night of partying has left her surprisingly empty. A Catholic girl not terribly serious about her faith — observant but not fervent — she has discovered that campus life, ranging from the superficial to the debauched, has left her wanting something more. It is the story of St. Augustine told once more — the mind searching for enduring truth, the heart searching for deeper meaning, the soul searching for fulfilment.

          “Better to be labelled shallow, stuck-up, drunk or debauched — anything but devout,” writes Campbell about the campus scene in telling words. She became reluctantly devout, which began a surprising adventure in faith.

          What follows after graduation is an astonishing series of events in which Campbell confronts almost all of the issues that Catholic women confront. She faces the challenge of reconciling her professional aspirations with the decision to marry; the challenge of caring for a father suffering dementia; the challenge of dealing with infertility in the light of the moral law; and the challenge of combining a deeper prayer life with the demands of successful career as a professional writer, author and television commentator.

          Campbell’s memoir stands out because she finds, at various times in her life, profound guidance in great women saints. Teresa of Avila in moving from superficiality to spirituality; Therese of Lisieux on dealing with her father’s descent into second childhood; Faustina on trusting in God when making career and family decisions; Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) on motherhood when suffering from infertility; Mother Teresa on darkness and suffering in the face of her father’s death; and the Blessed Virgin Mary as the model disciple. Sisters in Christ are speaking to each other across the centuries, and Campbell draws inspiration and illumination from the women who went before her. Not only a testament to the power of holy women to draw others close to the Lord Jesus, Campbell’s pilgrimage is one that brings alive the reality of the communion of the saints. It is a Catholic story as ancient as the Gospel and as new as the headlines.

          This book will resonate deeply with Catholic women, but men should not be dissuaded from reading it. Men who wish to understand the feminine soul but are not spiritual directors will learn something of how grace works in the lives of their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters and friends. For priests, it will assist them in the care of souls and give them a source of encouragement to offer young women who are seeking to be faithful disciples. Such contemporary testimonies are essential, for the transmission of the faith and the formation of Catholic culture has been from time immemorial something more accomplished by women than men.

          One example from Campbell’s book makes that point. She writes of learning the Memorare prayer — Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary — as a school girl and it became her favourite. It too is my favourite, and the one that most often comes to mind spontaneously. It is perhaps the most Catholic of all prayers, turning all matters over to the Mother of God in confidence that no child of Mary is ever left unaided. I love the prayer too because I remember my own mother teaching it to me. Every time I pray the Memorare I am thus inserted in a conversation between my own mother and the Blessed Mother. The whole history of the Church is shaped by the conversation between the mothers of every time and the Mother of God — a distinctively feminine conversation. Campbell’s book allows us to listen into that conversation, and it is lovely to do so.

            Here’s to ‘Corry’ and the many good priests

            Fr. Raymond Corriveau was one of the best

            This week marks the second anniversary of the passing of one of the finest priests — make that people — I have had the good fortune to know, Fr. Raymond Corriveau.

            Some readers may have known “Corry” through his work with the Redemptorists, but many readers probably don’t know the name. And that’s a shame. Not necessarily for Corry’s sake because he was remarkably humble for someone with such remarkable talent. But it’s a shame for the sake of the priesthood and the Church that he and others like him aren’t better known.

            We hear all too often about the bad priests who have done notorious things, especially when it comes to child abuse. We hear the tasteless jokes about priests. We hear about the Church hierarchy’s ham-fisted handlings of past scandals. We hear all the bad stuff and it affects us all.

            But we don’t necessarily hear about the really good priests — and there are many — who are quietly going about their business, doing good things day after day, and living up to the teachings of Jesus. Here is Corry’s story, or more rightly, a tiny slice of a life that was lived well with positive impact on so many.

            Corry was born in 1936 near Woodstock, Ont., where he grew up until leaving to study to become a Redemptorist priest. He was ordained in 1962 and quickly made his mark for helping the poor and disenfranchised when he and two others started a pastoral ministry in a poor area of Montreal.

            In the 1970s, he was appointed the Redemptorists’ “Novice Master” or mentor for young men interested in becoming priests. My brother, Michael, was one of Corry’s charges and they continued a close friendship, with the student counting on the teacher’s wisdom and guidance until Corry’s last day. It was in the 1970s that Corryentered our family’s lives on a regular basis, usually on a weekend afternoon for a drink with my father, an inevitable debate about some weighty matter, and dinnerwith us.

            Two things stick out about Corry: his incredibly sharp mind with a depth of knowledge that seemed bottomless and his smiling eyes that could light up a room.

            On the first matter, the good-natured debates with dad (who was no intellectual slouch himself) were both entertaining and educational for teenage ears and eyes. On the latter, Corry had this flawless ability to make everyone around him feel special. Later, in the 1980s when my mother was sick and the chemotherapy was zapping her energy, I can remember Corry dropping by the house and mom would literally light up and one could feel her rejuvenated energy, if only for that afternoon.

            For such a smart person, it was natural that Corry’s career would thrust forward and move him up the ranks, eventually to lead the Redemptorists in Canada. But it was his pastoral caring at various parishes — from St. Patrick’s in Toronto and St. Alphonsus in Peterborough to St. Teresa’s in St. John’s and Holy Redeemer in Sudbury — that touched so many lives.

            Corry had that ability to make you feel good, even if you didn’t really feel good. It was a wonderful gift which he freely gave.

            Years later, when he was sick, I went to visit him at the Redemptorist headquarters in Toronto. I had not seen him for a long time. We sipped tea and sat and talked for well over an hour. I remember the length of time because my teenage son was waiting in the car playing an electronic game.

            When I returned to the car, my son looked at me and said: “What’s so funny, dad? Why are you smiling?”

            “I didn’t realize I was smiling,” I said. “I can’t explain it, but every time I see Corry, he makes me feel good, he lifts my spirits.”

            Some months later, and only days before his death, I visited him in hospital with my brother. His eyes weren’t as smiling, but his mind was still incredibly sharp which surprised me because brain cancer was killing him.

            At one point, a third priest entered the room and a deep theological discussion began. For me, they might as well have been talking in Aramaic because the topic was so over my head, but for Corry it was no problem to follow along and add insight to the discussion.

            A few times, he would break away from the talk and pray, urging God to take him because he was ready. His faith was so deep; he was so dignified in his submission to God’s will. I can only hope I have a modicum as much when my time comes.

            Telling Corry’s story in no way erases past crimes by other priests. I cannot even imagine the pain their victims live with each and every day. These “preying priests” will be punished on Earth and beyond. But telling Corry’s story, I hope, shows that the priesthood as a whole should not be painted with one brush and mocked with tasteless jokes. There are many other “Corrys” out there right now doing good deeds; true praying priests who deserve our support.

              It’s in the heart

              There is a special spot where I stand in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta every time I have the blessed fortune to enter the sublime majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica.

              But there is an altogether sweeter spot in my heart that is deeply touched by attending churches whose glory is, shall we say, of a more radically humble nature.

              We all know them. Things are always, well, just a little rag-tag on the liturgical front. Not in fidelity to the Mass, of course, but in the mechanics of the service. A glitch here. A stumble there. A perpetual air of excited uncertainty hangs over all.

              The choir is always a titch off-key or late finding the opening words behind the organ’s roar. When there is no choir, the psalm and hymns are carried by one brave soul whose vocal range truly is a testament to soul-filled bravery. An unfamiliar word or name from the Old Testament invariably stymies the lay reader of the first lesson as if he or she is about to sneeze. The congregants scatter in the pews like dropped copies of last week’s unread parish bulletin, maintaining valiant indifference to forgetting when to stand, sit or kneel. The priest is inevitably a genuine model of Christian patience implacably enduring every blip and blemish.

              I love such churches not merely as a reminder, but as a lived experience, of the fullness of the humanity at the heart of our faith. I find their foibles not a distraction but, on the contrary, an aid to focusing on why I am there.

              For while Our Lord admonished us to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” we are all there to try and try again to live up to His standard, aren’t we? Indeed, even He, born perfect and without sin, did not always find it easy to bear His humanity lightly, did He?

              “What stuck out for me was the humanness of Jesus,” Paul Henderson told me recently in speaking about his first trip to the Holy Land. “The fact that He had to walk around that dusty road; He got dirty; He got tired. You wonder where He spent the night. We stayed in beautiful places. Jesus didn’t have those.

              “I understood His humanness a lot better by being there. I was standing where He lived. I could picture Him on the shore asking ‘did you catch any fish? Maybe you should throw the net out on the other side.’ Almost playing with them.”

              Henderson, of course, is the hockey immortal who gave Canada the winning goal and the saving grace of eking out victory against the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. His autobiography, The Goal of My Life, was released earlier this fall to mark the 40th anniversary of the greatest single moment in Canadian sports history.

              Yet from the book’s opening pages, and from the opening moment of the interview I did with him for the forthcoming issue of Convivium magazine, no doubt exists that the man famous for his electrifying goal has made the true goal of his life the stumble toward the Cross. His greatness as a hockey player, he makes plain, is as nothing to the smallness of his humanity before Christ.

              Henderson states frankly (Convivium magazine memberships are available at www.cardus. ca/convivium) that it took him more than a few slips to find his way home to God following the Summit Series. He defiantly kept his back turned to the Christian Church of his youth until he had to face himself.

              “I finally realized that it’s God’s work, not my work. He uses us and that’s the dumbest plan He ever had in His life as far as I’m concerned — using dipsticks like me,” Henderson says with typical bluntness in the interview. “But God does say that we are to be His ambassadors. That’s the only plan there is. When I look at the 12 disciples that He chose, if I had been in His place, I don’t think I would have chosen any of them. But God looks at the heart. God knows what’s in the heart.”

              The human heart naturally responds to the staggering creative genius of a Michelangelo. It reverberates with moments of victory that bring an entire nation to its feet. But I am certain God knows the heart as a radically humble place, too, the not-quite-right place that has a glory all its own.

                Take heed of the prophetic, not the political, Chicagoan

                The man from Chicago is, at this writing, in the final hours of a close election campaign. U.S. President Barack Obama is praised as a gifted orator. Yet his words, mellifluous though they can be, do not linger in the mind.

                There is another man from Chicago whose words are not mellifluous for the most part, but almost everything he says bears examination and rewards serious engagement. That man is Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago for the past 15 years.

                And of all the many things Cardinal George has said and written, the most frequently quoted in recent years was something that no one was absolutely sure that he said. As alarm about the erosion of religious liberty in the United States was on the rise, Chicago’s archbishop reportedly made a prophecy many considered alarmist, namely that one day his successor would be martyred.

                There were many sceptics that Cardinal George would have said such a thing. He is nothing if not sober, given more to measured statements than melodrama. But one would hear the prophecy repeated more and more often. Now we know the truth, for in his recent column in his diocesan newspaper, Cardinal George explains.

                “The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is,” George writes. One expects he had in mind, at least in part, the administration of his fellow Chicagoan.

                “Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring,” Cardinal George writes. “I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smartphone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”

                So there it is. The man often praised as the leading intellectual light of the American episcopate did in fact predict that martyrdom would come to Chicago, even if he considers the remarks overly dramatic. Everything Cardinal George says is worth paying attention to, and in the current contested political climate it is sobering that he would return at this time to that dramatic vision of an American future which will betray its past.

                Cardinal George knows better than most that martyrdom too has its place in the history of salvation. And he is a man of Christian hope. For the martyred bishop in Chicago’s public square is not the end of the prophecy, which the cardinal demurs from calling prophetic:

                “What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: ‘His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the Church has done so often in human history.’ What I said is not ‘prophetic’ but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.”

                Cardinal George placed his remarks in the line of anti-Nazi comments made by his predecessor, Cardinal George Mundelein, in the late 1930s. Encouraging Americans to support the struggle against the Nazi regime, Mundelein said:

                “There is no guarantee that the battlefront may not stretch some day into our own land. Hodie mihi cras tibi. (Today it’s me; tomorrow, you). If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter … it is not our fight, if we don’t back up the Holy Father when we have a chance, well, when our turn comes, we too will be fighting alone.”

                We all like to think that it can’t happen here. Persecution and martyrdom is for other places, other peoples, other periods of history. Our default position is that our tradition of liberal democracy makes us safe from such dangers, immune from the principalities and powers arrayed against the Gospel from the beginning. As Americans exercise their democratic rights, it is wise to be wary that no liberty is eternally secure. This election season, it is important to listen to the prophetic, not political, man from Chicago.

                  Speech is not so free on our campuses

                  A new study by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) found that many Canadian university campuses may embrace the principle of free speech but in practice give it a rough ride.

                  Some campuses received an “A” for their written policies and statements about free speech, but a far lower grade for implementing those policies and settling disputes. To anyone who has watched the treatment of university pro-life clubs in the past decade or so, the findings were not surprising but only confirmed the extent of the problem and pointed to where it could lead.

                  The JCCF’s Campus Freedom Index rated the policies of university administrations and student unions based on whether they supported and protected free speech on campus. The study also reviewed human rights policies and anti-discrimination policies to determine if they were being used to censor politically incorrect speech. Higher grades went to universities that had a clear anti-disruption policy that prohibited students and others from blocking, obstructing, suppressing or interrupting speech with which they disagree. The Index also examined policies governing the imposition of “security fees” as a means to discourage groups from inviting controversial or unpopular speakers to campus.

                  Among incidents with religious overtones, members of Carleton University’s pro-life club were arrested, handcuffed and charged with “trespassing” for attempting to express their views in a high-traffic area on campus. Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary were both censured in the report for condoning the physical obstruction of pro-life displays on school property after campus security watched passively as the peaceful expression of opinion was made meaningless by obstructers using sheets and blankets to cover the message. The University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto and Carleton demanded that campus pro-life clubs confine their messages to isolated rooms, a restriction not placed on any other campus club, while St. Mary’s University forced the cancelation of a pro-life lecture by failing to provide adequate security to allow listeners to hear the presentation.

                  The survey also studied university policies on Israel Apartheid and inviting controversial political speakers on campus. In a National Post report on the findings, study co-author John Carpay, president of JCCF, said that while pro-life groups seem to be a “current target” on campus, in future it could be some other group that doesn’t fit with the popular view of the day.

                  An incident not included in the study suggests that day may be closer than we think. As reported in the Oct. 28 issue of The Catholic Register, a Catholic chaplaincy program at Brock University has faced harassment due to ties to the Sodalit movement, which a women’s studies professor claimed was affiliated with “far right” and “cult-like” Catholic organizations in Peru. Despite a ruling from Brock’s administration that the accusations are unfounded and the relationship between the university and SEA has been beneficial to the university, incidents of harassment continued, including an episode where a fundraising event was shut down by hecklers. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal subsequently dismissed a claim of religious discrimination against the professor, ruling that her actions fell within the realm of academic freedom. (The CCRL had an advisory role in the case at the request of one of the volunteer chaplains.)

                  The tribunal’s assertion that the professor’s actions do not constitute religious discrimination is certainly arguable; harassment took place and it’s impossible to see any basis for it other than religious affiliation. Some of the academics who opposed the chaplaincy initiative stated their case more plainly when they declared point-blank at a rally in 2011 that they don’t want organizations with religious ties offering any work programs or volunteer experiences on campus.

                  Given the very strong relationship between religious belief and philanthropy, it’s hard to imagine where those volunteer opportunities will come from if organizations with religious ties are excluded. We have been witnessing an ongoing marginalization of religion in public life for several decades, so it’s quite possible that religious groups will be deemed to no longer fit with popular notions of who belongs on campus. Only a vigourous defence of campus free speech now — including the right to express ideas Catholics may dislike — will help prevent that from happening.

                    Sistine Chapel turns 500, and its beauty is timeless

                    A Protestant colleague sent a playful e-mail from Rome a few weeks back, asking, “Don’t you think the Sistine Chapel is a little over the top?”

                    To which Kara Johnson, a colleague at our magazine, Convivium, gave the perfect response: “Totally over the top. Over the lip of the vault and into… heaven!”

                    Michelangelo’s vault of the Sistine Chapel is the greatest painted work in history, and contemplating the masterpiece from below, one beholds heaven from Earth, even as Adam gazes into the face of God at the moment of his creation. The ceiling is 500 years old, completed in 1512 after four years of painstaking work, unsurpassed artistic brilliance and a collaborative clash of titanic personalities — Michelangelo on one hand, and Pope Julius II on the other.

                    Thanks to the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy we have a cinematic portrayal in which we glimpse the enormity of the task. Rex Harrison, playing Julius II, repeatedly demands of Michelangelo: “When will you make an end?”

                    “When I am finished!” Michelangelo, played by Charlton Heston, replies repeatedly and heatedly.

                    Michelangelo did eventually finish, and on the vigil of All Saints 1512, Julius II celebrated solemn vespers to bless the new work. Pope Benedict returned on Oct. 31 to mark a half millennium of magnificence.

                    On the 1,100 square metres of the ceiling, Michelangelo tells the story of creation and, with a boldness born of Christian theology and artistic genius, paints the very face of God. To see the face of God is the desire of every heart, but beyond the capacity of our vision. We therefore need the eyes of faith (theology) or an experience of beauty (art) in order to see past the limitations of the natural world.

                    The Sistine Chapel is the great synthesis of faith and art. It is a rare instance of perfection in human achievement — as in, for example, Bach’s Mass in B Minor — which is naturally unsurpassable precisely because it is animated by the supernatural. Grace builds on nature, and Michelangelo’s ceiling is a work of grace as well as human genius.

                    A great work of art is akin to a sacrament. It makes visible and tangible that which is invisible and intangible. One might even say that it renders comprehensible that which lies always beyond our comprehension. Julius II, for whatever other failings he had, knew well that the Christian faith needs art to help man encounter the divine.

                    “We need you,” said Pope Paul VI in 1964, at a meeting with artists held in the Sistine Chapel. “We need your collaboration in order to carry out our ministry, which consists, as you know, in preaching and rendering accessible and comprehensible to the minds and hearts of our people the things of the spirit, the invisible, the ineffable, the things of God Himself. And in this activity … you are masters. Your task, your mission and your art consist in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colours, forms — making them accessible.

                    “If we were deprived of your assistance our ministry would become faltering and uncertain, and a special effort would be needed, one might say, to make it artistic, even prophetic. In order to scale the heights of lyrical expression of intuitive beauty, priesthood would have to coincide with art,” Pope Paul added.

                    Pope Benedict XVI, at another meeting of artists in 2009, held again in the Sistine Chapel, called it a “sanctuary of faith and human creativity.” Benedict frequently returns to the importance of beauty for the faith. In a sceptical world no longer sure of the truth, and in a degraded culture reluctant to judge anything good, it is beauty that alone which might raise the horizon to transcendent things.

                    “An essential function of genuine beauty, as emphasized by Plato, is that it gives man a healthy ‘shock,’ it draws him out of himself, wrenches him away from resignation and from being content with the humdrum — it even makes him suffer, piercing him like a dart, but in so doing it ‘reawakens’ him, opening afresh the eyes of his heart and mind, giving him wings, carrying him aloft,” Benedict said in that Sistine Chapel address.

                    Tens of thousands pass through the Sistine Chapel each week. The chapel demands that they turn their head upward and strain their eyes to behold the glory of the ceiling, the glory of Michelangelo’s work, the glory indeed of the Lord.

                    Five-hundred years on and Michelangelo’s ceiling is still at work. When will it end? In heaven.

                      The downside of technology

                      Too often it can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity

                      The three front-page stories in a national newspaper the other day really caught my eye. One was about technology giant Apple Inc.’s impressive financials, the second was about a conference in Montreal on how technology makes life better, and the third was about a massive study of Canadian workers that found we’re overworked and getting more sad all the time.

                      There seemed to be a thread tying these stories together. Every day we’re bombarded about the virtues of technology, but we rarely take time to think about some of the downsides. For example, we’ve been told for decades that technology makes us more productive and frees us up for more leisure time. Not so, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, in which 25,000 workers were surveyed. We’re working longer hours (the vast majority of people are now working more than 45 hours per week) and technology tethers us to the boss and clients on evenings and weekends, once the sole domain of family time.

                      As I was thinking about technology’s impact, an interesting e-mail dropped in my box. The subject line was “Einstein was right.” Perhaps you’ve received it too, or seen it race around the social media circuits?

                      It is pictures of young people, each with his or her smartphone in hand, in restaurants and museums, on the beach and in cars. All the pictures show the young folks glued to their screens and ignoring nearby friends.

                      The caption after the pictures is a supposed quote from Albert Einstein: “I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.” I say “supposed quote” because I searched long and hard and couldn’t come up with that exact quote.

                      The closest I could find from the great scientist was: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Whether the originator of the e-mail took liberty or not with Einstein’s words, you get my point: technology is not pure panacea.

                      If you have teenage kids, you’ve seen them tap away not hearing a word of what you’ve said. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t the greatest listener either, but today’s teens take it to a whole new level. And it’s not just teenagers. Almost all of us pay way too much attention to our handheld devices, sometimes even in church.

                      Social media (ie. online relationships through Facebook, Twitter and others) have restructured human relationships. What once was the dynamic experience of having a real-life conversation became selecting from a bunch of dropdown boxes to describe ourselves and our likes. As we become digital, our interactions are dumbed down so that they play nice with technology. We don’t even have to articulate why something makes us happy any more, we just click “Like.”

                      Things are changing so fast with smartphones and computers for the purpose to entertain us that it gives me an eerie feeling we’re losing some of our humanity as we reach to connect online instead of connecting one-on-one or in real-life communities. Will this lead to a less caring society? I hope not.

                      But as Christians, we need to think about these things because the teachings of Jesus are about our relationships — with family, friends, strangers, even enemies and, of course, our relationship with God. One need only re-read the beautiful Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) to understand this.

                      I realize Pope Benedict has urged Catholics, particularly younger ones, to embrace the digital world and the Vatican has even given its approval to an iPhone app that can help us with Confession.

                      But the Pope also said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

                      At that technology conference in Montreal, according to the Globe and Mail, an entrepreneur from Kenya talked about a game he had developed in which players protect trees from illegal loggers.

                      This, apparently, has helped to change people’s views of the practice in the real world. And that’s a good use of technology; first by helping the environment and second by offering hope and opportunity to bright minds in parts of the world not as wealthy and privileged as we in North America.

                      But technology can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity, if we let it. We should remember that the next time we’re sending the boss an update on a Sunday while our family is nearby.