The priest's service provides what the world can't provide itself

About a dozen years ago I was at a dinner party in the home of people I had not previously met. When our hostess discovered that I was a seminarian, she shrieked with perverse delight, announcing to all, “Wait until my husband hears about that!”

Freedom of speech often not what it's cracked up to be

Three recent incidents provide insight — and perhaps a warning as well — about how Canadians interpret the right to freedom of speech, especially when it comes to unpopular topics. Like any legal and constitutional principle, some interpretation is involved. The old saw about not yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre applies here because constitutional principles must be balanced against factors such as public safety and the impact on others, among other things.

Projecting Christian truth

In his Oct. 24 Catholic Register column, Michael Coren reports that he has been deluged by e-mails from “people complaining about how some journalists use their Catholicism as a rather self-indulgent vehicle for their own secular politics.”

While not singled out by name in the column, I am clearly among the rascals whose writings Coren’s correspondents (and Coren) dislike. I am replying to this criticism here, because I believe that Coren’s column raises interesting questions about the nature and scope of Catholic journalism, and indeed the Catholic practice of everyday life, that deserve to be answered.

Sagrada Familia elevates the pilgrim’s heart to God

At the heart of every culture is its cult. Cult includes what is worshipped, what is placed at the centre of communal life, what is deemed worthy of the greatest exertions of talent and treasure.

That cult is concretely expressed in buildings — what is built and how. A culture which puts up churches cheek by jowl, small country chapels and magnificent urban cathedrals, expresses itself in one way. A culture which builds enormous shopping malls, sports facilities and entertainment complexes expresses itself in another.

Enough already! Let’s call a jihadist a jihadist

May we now speak of the Muslims who want to kill us?

Isn’t that way out of line? Surely Islam is a religion of peace, from which we have a lot to learn?

Let’s then dispense with the disclaimers: Christians and Muslims have often lived together in peace. Only a minority of Muslims are homicidal fanatics. Terrorism is a corruption of Islam. Fine.

Tony Judt: A righteous man in an unrighteous age

The recent death of historian and essayist Tony Judt at age 62 has shut down a remarkable wellspring of straight talk about the modern world and its woes, and left-thinking people everywhere bereft of one of our time’s finest political and moral voices.

His books helped make Judt famous. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2005), for example, is a majestic best-selling survey that has, in the words of a reviewer, “the pace of a thriller and the scope of an encyclopedia.’’

But it was the essays from the decades on either side of 2000, gathered into the outstanding book Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (2008), that earned Judt an international reputation as a fearlessly sceptical critic of modern political pieties. His best-known texts today, after the great Postwar, are surely his contributions on politics and current affairs to such journals as The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement and The London Review of Books, and especially The New York Review of Books.

The Church's 'Israel problem'

Do Catholics have an Israel problem? The recent Middle East synod of bishops ended last weekend with a bitter exchange with Israeli authorities, who accused the synod of singling out Israel for critical treatment, and of making a serious theological error regarding the covenant with the Jews.

Respected Vatican journalist John Allen wrote that acrimony was expected between the region’s Arab bishops and Israel, but that it took so long to surface was the surprise. Arab hostility to Israel is intense and commonplace — it is routine to hear Israel blamed exclusively for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and also for all manner of problems that stretch anywhere from Algeria to Afghanistan. Catholics in the region, almost entirely Arab, are not immune from this anti-Israeli hostility. Indeed, because Catholics are a tiny minority in an otherwise Islamic Arab world, they are often tempted to demonstrate their Arab bona fides by vocally demonstrating that they are not friends of Israel. A synod of bishops held in the Middle East itself would have had a constant anti-Israeli refrain. But held in Rome, the Vatican, which prizes good relations with Jews, restrained for the most part the anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Radical Islam is synod's elephant in the room

Two Sundays ago, on Oct. 10, Pope Benedict XVI opened the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East. The synod participants joined the Holy Father for a solemn Mass to begin two weeks of discussions about the situation of Christians in the Middle East — a small minority that is getting smaller in many places.

Prostitution ruling further exploits the vulnerable

In late September, Justice Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice struck down the last direct prohibitions in the Criminal Code against prostitution. If upheld (the federal government is currently applying to appeal it), the decision will make it legal to operate a common bawdy house, communicate in public for the purpose of prostitution and live off the avails of prostitution.

St. Joseph's feast should be a holy day of obligation

The Oct. 17 canonization of Brother André of Montreal is a moment of pride for Canada’s Catholics, but something of a challenge too. How best to take advantage of the grace of this occasion?

Often a new saint is rather obscure, little known outside of a local place or religious order. That’s not the case with Brother André, who is well known across the land. At the same time, though, one does not see in parishes a visible devotion to Brother André, as one does with Padre Pio or Mother Teresa. Our new saint is also one who is difficult to imitate. The work that he did, serving as a doorkeeper, is not very much done today, and his miracle-working sets him apart from the life of the ordinary Christian disciple.


Yet the advice that Brother André gave to the thousands upon thousands who came to see him remains valid — Go to Joseph! Devotion to St. Joseph was the heart of Brother André’s specific charism. The great Oratory of St. Joseph on Mount Royal gives extraordinary witness to that.

Herewith then a proposal to apply the new saint’s advice to the life of the Church in Canada today: Make the Feast of St. Joseph a holy day of obligation. St. Joseph is the patron saint of Canada, and of the universal Church, so it would be fitting to declare his feast as a holy day throughout the country.

A faithful Catholic is obliged by canon law to attend Holy Mass every Sunday, as well as on special feasts — the holy days of obligation. There are 10 such days for the universal Church. Four are feasts of the Lord Jesus: Christmas, Epiphany, Ascension and Corpus Christi. Three are feasts of Our Lady: Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), Mother of God (Jan. 1), and the Assumption (Aug. 15). Three relate to the other saints: Joseph (March 19), Peter and Paul (June 29) and All Saints (Nov. 1).

Each country’s bishops are permitted to make adjustments and reductions. For example, in Ireland the feast of St. Patrick is a holy day. In Canada, the bishops decided years ago to reduce to the absolute minimum the number of holy days. The Church insists on Christmas, but permits the other three feasts of the Lord to be transferred to Sunday, so Epiphany, Ascension and Corpus Christi are observed on Sunday in Canada. One feast of Our Lady must be kept, so in Canada we opted to keep only one, the feast of Mary, Mother of God. The three feasts of the saints can be abolished as holy days, and so we have.

The result is that Canada has the fewest number of holy days possible —  Dec. 25 and Jan. 1. Along with the Australians, we are the bottom-dwellers of the Catholic world when it comes to holy days. But even the Australians are slightly better off, in that their Marian day is the Assumption, Aug. 15. Ours is Jan. 1, poorly attended by even faithful Catholics, and confused in the minds of many with New Year’s Day, a civic observance.

It’s rather embarrassing to explain to Catholics in other countries that we Canadians opt for the fewest possible holy days, which ought to be days to celebrate the richness of Catholic liturgical and devotional life.

So why not add St. Joseph’s feast to our list of holy days? The national patron’s feast is kept as a holy day by the Irish (St. Patrick) and the Americans (Immaculate Conception). The canonization of Brother André highlights that praying to St. Joseph is rooted in the history and popular piety of our people. As the largest and most imposing shrine in Canada, the Oratory of St. Joseph could easily become the focal point for the principal Mass in the country, drawing pilgrims and prelates from one coast to the other. And it would make concrete the advice of Brother André, Canada’s best known saint.

The establishment of a third holy day would also be an important liturgical signal, namely that doing the bare minimum is not the operating principle of Catholic life in Canada. Most vibrant parishes already have what one might call unofficial holy days — feasts that are kept with greater solemnity, often accompanied by processions and parish socials. There is already a desire to keep such feasts, and to have a national feast kept across the country would build upon that desire, and build up the unity of the Church across Canada.

St. André of Montreal, pray for us — and lead us to Joseph!

Catholic press can help heal Church's woes

What with the woes besetting the newspaper industry, any gathering of journalists these days is likely to be a gloomy affair. But the Vatican’s recent international congress of Catholic journalists, by every account, was marked by a decidedly mixed mood, with sober reflection on the problems now facing Christian media throughout the world mingling with strong and reasonable hope for the future of the Catholic press.


Convened in early October by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the congress heard speakers describing the steady hail of bad news now battering both traditional secular and Catholic media, according to reporters who were there. Operating budgets continue to shrink due to steep declines in both paid circulation and advertising income. The upward-trending migration of former print-media readers to the various news and opinion platforms offered by the Internet and cable television is another threat.

But the Catholic press is also afflicted by some issues peculiar to itself. Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing in the United States, said that Catholic publishing suffers because Catholics today know less about what their religion teaches and understands about human and divine life. There is “a growing distrust of institutions” and, as a consequence, there is “a resulting decline in Catholic identity.” Speakers said the culminating blow to the trust many had in the Catholic Church and its media has been what Archbishop Celli called the “difficult and painful” sexual and other abuse cases that have rocked the Church from the local parish level up to the Vatican itself.

Catholicism, however, encourages believers to see the blessing inherent in even dark and heart-breaking moments. One of those moments, at least for Catholic publishing, is now. For Archbishop Celli, the abuse cases, horrible as they are, could lead “the entire believing community to a greater commitment to following the Lord and placing itself at the service of humanity with an even greater witness of life capable of demonstrating what we bear in our hearts.” By means of this renewed program of mission, and through effective recommitment to factual rigour and honesty, the Catholic press can restore the Church’s damaged credibility.

This welcome burden falls on reporters, who have the job of being first-on-the-scene eyewitnesses of the events of the day, and of the personalities who are shaping these events. Despite the profound technological changes now taking place in the information society, “the principles of journalism haven’t changed,” Amy Mitchell, vice-director of the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the congress. “The ideas of verification, authentication, of being transparent with your readers or listeners about the information you know, the information you don’t know, about where you’re coming from, the influences you have — all of those remain constant.”

But responsibility for cogent journalism also falls on the shoulders of the columnists, commentators, editors and others who attempt to make sense of things within the framework of Catholic thought. “Of no less importance (than reporting),” Archbishop Celli said, is “the role that the Catholic press has within the Church because it can be a privileged instrument in the not easy task of promoting and nourishing an intellectual understanding of the faith.”

Keeping these values alive in the contemporary world is a tall order, especially in a time of financial uncertainty and widespread scepticism about the institutions of social democracy, including the traditional secular and Church media. Nobody at this conference, to my knowledge, doubted the difficulty of doing so. But the viability of the Catholic press in contemporary Canadian and Western society largely depends on meeting that order fully — and never forgetting the God for whom Catholic journalists are doing it.

The enduring task of the Catholic press, Benedict XVI told participants in the congress, is “to help modern man to turn to Christ, the one Saviour, and to keep the flame of hope alight in the world, so as worthily to live today and adequately to build the future.”