I sometimes think God is trying to get my attention in the strangest places. For instance, I’ve sensed his presence a number of times while in line at a check-out counter.

The chair of Peter will be left in good hands

By

On hearing of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, my first thought was of some lines from the Tennyson poem “Morte D’Arthur,” which my father often quoted in unanticipated circumstances:

Trusting God in uncertain times

By

Trusting in God, as Henri Nouwen observed, is not an expression of powerlessness but rather a disposition of humility that is the beginning of spiritual life. A well-grounded Christian, Nouwen said, is deeply in love with Jesus, ready to follow Him wherever they are guided and trusting that with Jesus will come life in abundance.

Students’ good judgment has yet to catch up with their cyber-use

By

As a young teacher two decades ago I attended a conference where a packed room of educators was told that during our careers we would witness learning environments in which students would employ personal communication devices. It sounded like something out of Star Trek, as probable as warp drive.

A lingering shame from a sad decision 25 years ago

By

I can still remember where I was when I received the call that the Supreme Court of Canada had struck down our abortion law. That call stopped the baking, stopped the family chatter, stopped me in my tracks. I could not believe the court would abandon Canada’s little ones.

The abandonment began in 1969 with the expansion of our abortion provisions, finally completing the severing of all protection for these children with the Supreme Court decision in the Morgentaler case on Jan. 28, 1988. It has been stated that even with our valiant attempts we have not been able to engage the whole of this country in a debate. That, I suppose is true. However, we have neither won nor have we lost.

What we have done is constantly and consistently raised our voices against the slaughter, continued to prick the conscience of this great nation, be a thorn in the side of her politicians and a challenge to the medical profession and pro-abortion advocates.

Canada’s doctors appear content to confirm the belief in the public eye that children before birth are a part of their mothers, like a toe or a fingernail. Rather than doing no harm their moral and ethical cowardice places women and their offspring into abortion harm’s way.

Our voice has been there from the start expressed by the wonderful people from Hamilton, Burlington, London, Ottawa and Toronto who presented to the House and Welfare Committee during 1967 and 1968. Displayed in the petition and letter-writing campaigns that have been non-stop over the years. Our concern has been voiced within the hundreds of briefs written and presented at all government levels over the years. We are active in the many pregnancy support services and homes that have developed. We are heard in the media campaigns carried out all across Canada and are noticeable in the annual marches which occur at the provincial and national level. Our voice is nowhere more present than in the hearts of those who volunteer and work for pro-life groups from one end of this country to another, day in and day out. The presidents and boards, their staff and volunteers, all committed to changing our culture to one where children before birth will be protected and women unexpectedly pregnant will know that they are supported and they do not have to kill their children.

This country has travelled so far — the wrong way. Fragile lives at every stage are forfeited because they are unwanted, face challenges or are sick and dying. Canada’s answer to these situations is to kill — but the words we use protect the public from the truth. We terminate pregnancy, not kill the baby. We conduct pre-natal genetic testing and terminate the pregnancy, not lethally discriminate against those who are different. We induce labour of children with genetic anomalies cutting short the duration of their little lives and some we just neglect until they die. We create, quality control, discard, freeze and lethally research on the tiniest of human beings and call it reproductive technology.

Those with disabilities do not always receive the care that those with able-bodies do. Those facing terminal illness or suffering may soon be sanctioned to have themselves killed or provided assistance in killing themselves. The public will hear “aid in dying” and other such euphemisms, but euthanasia and assisted suicide it will be. When did killing the vulnerable become a Canadian ethic?

Talk to many people who have received negative prenatal diagnosis and it appears the medical profession believes death is better than disability. When did we become so hard-hearted and have no room for those who are different and just need our compassionate help — not the right to be killed? This is the legacy of 1969, compounded by the Supreme Court travesty of justice in 1988.

Our voice will continue to shout out a challenge. Our efforts will provide support and options. Our activities will remind Canadians that we really are all created equal before and under the law until they get it and stop the killing.

(Jeffs is executive director of Alliance for Life Ontario.)

 

A new evangelization can happen

By

Late last year the National Post commissioned a survey on religious attitudes of Canadians. It will surprise no one that church attendance, both Protestant and Catholic, is dropping. What was surprising was how Canadians self-reported their attitude to religion.

Of those answering the survey, 65 per cent consider themselves “spiritual,” 50 per cent consider themselves “religious” yet 66 per cent said they believe in God. What to make of this?

First, contemporary mis-education has prevented many people from thinking clearly. If you believe in God, you are by definition “religious.” The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines religion as belief in a personal God “…entitled to obedience and worship.” So to say that someone believes in God but is not religious is to utter an oxymoron.

As for the 15 per cent who consider themselves spiritual (“concerned with sacred or religious things”) but not religious, well, they truly are remarkable human beings. They are like a self-described gourmand who never eats, or someone who professes to love travel but does not leave home, or a lover of theatre who has never seen a play that he enjoyed.
Of course, one might be spiritual and not go to church; that is possible. I suppose one might even be a Protestant Christian and never go to church. But one cannot be a Roman Catholic and refrain from attending church.

That’s because the catechism teaches that there is no salvation outside the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1994) expresses the point this way: “All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His body.” Again, none can be saved “who knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it.”

Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass. One may attend Mass outside the physical structure of a church, but only a priest may consecrate the elements of bread and wine. For a Catholic to say that he is spiritual but not religious is what Dr. Johnson once called “nonsense on stilts.”

The priest who brought me into the Catholic Church never referred to the “obligation” to attend Mass. It was always, he insisted a privilege. And with him presiding, it always was. He prepared carefully for each service. His homilies were strengthening and he threw himself into every activity in the church with gusto. To my chagrin, I have discovered that this is not always the case.

Of course, I understand that one does not attend Mass because of the priest but rather for the opportunity to receive the sacraments. Still, it is difficult to be in a suitably receptive frame of mind to receive the sacraments when one is fuming inwardly at all that has gone on up to that point. Perhaps I am only now discovering the reality of what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote that one may suffer more from the Church than for the Church.

If the new statistics accurately portray Canadians’ religious attitude, what hope is there for the Church? Well, Pope Benedict XVI recognizes the problem; indeed he wrote extensively about this even before the year 2005 when he became Pope. He has called repeatedly for a “New Evangelization” with three components: (1) deepened personal faith; (2) renewed Bible study; (3) proclamation of the Gospel.

The Pope has said that it is the duty of every Catholic to proclaim the good news “with the same enthusiasm as the early Church” and he has taught that “the Gospel is not the exclusive property of those who received it, but it is a gift to share, good news to report to all.”

In this respect, buried in the statistics, is one nugget which allows for hope: 15 per cent of Canadian youth report that they are more committed to the faith than were their parents. Here is the potential spearhead of a new evangelization that can rescue the Church from the doldrums.

The new evangelization will not happen in parishes where the message is distorted, or where the priest is only going through the motions, or where the congregation trudge off content at having satisfied their obligation. But the message of hope from Pope Benedict XVI is that it can — and will — happen nevertheless.

 

Anniversary of ‘Ethical Reflections’ is call for social equity

By

Catholic social teaching holds anniversaries in high regard. Witness the many conferences and papers written in 2012 to comment on the 50th anniversary of Vatican II.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) used to release annual Labour Day statements on social themes, while the Quebec bishops chose May 1 for their annual releases. When I worked in a diocesan social action office, we would anxiously await these letters and organize church basement gatherings and discussion circles among Catholics hungry for sustenance in social ministries.

These tracts, however, were often received without much fuss in our parishes and garnered only polite commentary in minor media. But that wasn’t the case 30 years ago this month, when the bishops released a bombshell reflection that resonated with the Canadian public like never before.

“No other Church document in Canadian history ever created an equivalent reaction,” opined Bishop Remi De Roo in the CCCB’s 1999 unofficial history of the bishops’ social thought.

The document, called “Ethical Reflections on the Economic Crisis,” was released early in 1983 and became a front-page story. Within the first week, 18 editorials debated its contents (11 in favour, six opposed), 16 public affairs programs on radio dissected it, and 23 columnists wrote commentaries. The statement received international coverage in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Time and Newsweek. In the days before fax and electronic mail, over 200,000 copies were sold and the text was eventually translated into seven languages. (You cannot find the CCCB history or the statements themselves on the CCCB’s web site, but Ethical Reflections is available on the Internet.)

The document, published at a time of high unemployment and inflation, urged people to place the needs of the poor and oppressed ahead of the financial ambitions of the rich.

It called for government policies that would place worker rights ahead of profit and would invite marginalized groups to participate in political and economic systems that were excluding them.

Ethical Reflections was not a radical departure from the previous teaching of the bishops, but it was released at a specific moment in understandable moral language that echoed the social and economic angst of that time. The final lines of the statement inspire me to this day: “As Christians, we are called to become involved in struggles for economic justice and to participate in building a new society based on Gospel values.”

With 1.5 million Canadians out of work at the time, and government policy more focused on defeating inflation than unemployment, Ethical Reflections explicitly highlighted two fundamental Catholic social principles: “the preferential option for the poor” and “the value and dignity of labour.” Tony Clarke, a CCCB staffer at the time (and one of the authors of Ethical Reflections) recounted a poignant anecdote: A west coast friend called Clarke to say that he was greeted that morning on the dock by a group of unemployed workers who yelled out: “Have you heard the news? The bishops are on our side!”

Another major explanation for the incredible media buzz the statement generated was that many prominent Canadians publicly disagreed with the message, among them Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter, businessman Conrad Black and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

That brings us to 2013. Last month, Radio Ville-Marie reported that in September 2011, a draft of a pastoral letter focusing on the global financial crisis which began in October 2008 was rejected for publication by the CCCB. Montreal’s Catholic station suggested that the letter, prepared by the bishops of the Commission for Justice and Peace, was shelved (according to the CCCB Executive) because it would have “little impact,” given that it was “obscure” and “old news.”

Papal encyclicals often begin with recognition of the writing that has been inherited from predecessor statements. After 1891’s Rerum Novarum, important documents like Quadragesimo Anno, Octogesima Adveniens and Centesimus Annus recognize and deepen the social thought that preceded them.

One hopes that Catholic colleges and universities will commemorate, debate and deepen the message of Ethical Reflections on the 30th anniversary of its publication.

More importantly, will the Catholic hierarchy and laypeople take up the challenge to make Catholic social thought — and action — come alive today?

 

Opening the door of faith

By

Betty was called mama ndi father (mother of priests) even though she did not have a son who was a priest. Actually Betty had no children of her own. Her husband left her for another woman 45 years ago because Betty could not bear children as a result of a terrible accident.

In traditional African society, few things are more painful and traumatic for a woman than being divorced or being barren. Betty’s world was shattered and during this time she lived in silent despair.

However, she had one thing going for her: she was a woman of faith who went to daily Mass and spent an hour every day with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Rejected by her husband, misunderstood by her friends, and even suspected by her family of being a bearer of bad fortune, she sought direction from God on what to do with her life. During those encounters with God, Betty felt a deep calling in her soul to devote her life to supporting priests and missionaries in her own little way.

So she answered that call, and spent the last 45 years of her life as a housekeeper in a rectory, as well as a lay catechist and an unofficial spiritual counsellor for priests, seminarians and laity. She became a mother-like figure to priests and seminarians and started to be called mama ndi father.

I came to her parish in 1997 as the head of a team of 15 seminarians who were trained in new evangelization by the local ordinary. Bishop Gbuju (now retired) had established the first school of new evangelization in Africa and encouraged many young seminarians to learn a new way to communicate the truth of our faith in a changed world. We came to Betty’s parish to practice what we had learned.

We would go to market squares and shopping malls and begin open-air preaching like Jesus did in His own ministry. We had megaphones that we used to good effect to make “holy noises” to attract attention. This type of preaching has to be boisterous to make people stop and listen.

On our first day, I recall being interrupted with questions like: “When did Catholics start preaching like Pentecostals?” “Your noisy preaching is disturbing public order!” One enraged vendor, claiming our preaching was disruptive and hurting his business, threatened to call police or take the law into his own hands.

That first day was very challenging but, when we came home, our mama ndi father was waiting to comfort and strengthen us. At 84, she could no longer cook because her bones ached from arthritis and she had begun to lose her memory. But she retained all her Christian charm and spiritual lucidity.

I don’t remember everything she said that evening, but I do recall two significant insights she passed along.

First, Betty said the door of faith was opened to humanity by Christ and our Christian calling is to pass through that door and to lead others to the door by how we live our lives. To do that we need God’s grace. She said her life, following the pain of her divorce and childlessness, became more meaningful because every day she passes through the door of faith.

Second, she took my hand as the head of the group and breathed on my palm and offered assurance that she would pray for me and the group because she knew that through prayer we would be able to touch people and lead them to the door of faith.

Betty was not a theologian, but she knew through personal experience the meaning of faith. Reading Pope Benedict’s apostolic letter introducing the Year of Faith, I thought of Betty. She taught me that faith means to centre our lives on Christ and that we should bring our dreams and challenges of life to the door of faith. It is in trusting God and bearing witness to the values of our Christian tradition that we create deep intimacy with God.

I also learned from Betty that the surest means of leading others through the door of faith is to lead an authentic Christian life. Above all, mama ndi father taught me that prayer is the clearest expression of faith because it brings the whole of life to the whole of God.

(Fr. Stan Chu Ilo’s latest book, Discover Your Divine Investment, is published by Catholic Register Books and is available by calling 416-934-3410.)

 

The truth of Christmas: it’s hard to believe

By

The event we celebrate at the feast of Christmas is mind-boggling: the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth.

God comes to us in the ordinariness of a child

By

The Greek god Janus, after whom the month of January is named, is said to have two faces, one looking to the past and the other looking to the future. The end of the year challenges us to look to the past and future as we take inventory of the choices we’ve made and the goals and direction of our personal and group life.

Some questions in particular should come to mind at year’s end:

What have I done for my God through the life I am living and the choices I make?

What have I done for my neighbour without counting the cost?

What have I done with my life this year?

What should I do through my faith to bring joy and peace to my troubled soul and to heal the wounds of sin, divisions in my family and conflicts and deceptions in my private and public life?

The Year of Faith particularly offers Catholics the grace to embrace anew the treasures of the faith and to journey into the future with Jesus as our guide.

Whether or not someone believes in God they approach life through a centre of meaning and value. Religious faith is a centring of life’s meaning and value on God as the beginning and end of all things. Religious faith not only centres our lives on God, but it grounds our understanding of human identity and human destiny. Faith is my centre of meaning and value.

Indeed, religious faith shapes our beliefs, ethics, spirituality, history, future and happiness. Religious faith, then, is the centring of one’s life on God from an experience of God’s love. It floods the soul with a knowledge of God based on one’s personal encounter with Him.

Religious faith, within the Christian tradition, is not simply emotions, perceptions and feelings about the presence of God in our lives. It is trust in God, a conviction about the certainty of the things we hope for and the promise of things we do not yet see (Hebrews 11:1-3). It is a commitment to God and a God-centred ethics.

More than the accumulation of propositions, religious truths and creeds about God, religious faith means personally embracing those truths out of love, confidence and conviction in the God who concretely reveals these truths in our daily personal encounters. Religious faith is an encounter with God, a union with God, a friendship and intimacy with God and an immersion in God’s love.

This is particularly so in Christianity, which professes that God’s interaction in our lives has been revealed through His Son, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas. Christ’s birth is not simply a yearly ritual, but is an opportunity to encounter God again by re-centring our lives on what is necessary to realize our purpose on Earth. The Catholic faith provides a narrative of God interacting in human lives. It upholds that faith is a loving encounter with our God who reaches out to us in love and reveals Godself to us. Our faith is a loving invitation to be in relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters and the world of nature because of God.

In his book Letters from the Desert, the monk Carlo Carrotto tells Christians that it pays once in a while in our busy lives to stop and reflect on what God is saying to our world through the events and tragedies in life. Carotto says that if we pay attention to God, if we focus life’s goals on God, then we can hear God gently telling us: Be patient with yourself, learn to wait for each other, learn to wait for God, and learn to wait for love, for happiness and for answers from God for whatever burdens your soul.

If we realize that God is within us and that we are in God, then we can trust that God has written a wonderful plot for our lives and will work with us to face the challenges and joys of tomorrow. God is present in our lives not as an angry, vengeful God waiting to punish us when we fail, but as a loving and merciful God who lifts us up when we fall.

And He comes to us at Christmas in the ordinariness of a child.

Word was made flesh that first Christmas

By

The Gospels of Mark and John provide no account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew’s Gospel gives an attenuated account, but it is from the physician-disciple, Luke, that we get the birth narrative that has come to dominate Christian iconography for 20 centuries.

The story is so familiar we can easily miss its wonder: the Holy Family’s exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the stable birth and the wise men, all narrated in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

There are three particular phrases in Luke’s account that fairly vibrate with authenticity and poignancy.

The first is “In those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” Always, everywhere, there are government decrees. This particular one was for the relatively innocuous twin purposes of census and taxation. How many decrees, before and since, have sent people packing on needless and dangerous journeys. And it is not just tinpot dictators but sometimes duly elected officials who dispatch people from their homes to a far country where no one knows their name.

Of the fathomless depths of human misery, how much is attributable to Caesar? Who knows? But it is to government decree that we owe the wrenching phrase “displaced person,” which is how Luke portrays the Holy Family on that first Christmas — displaced persons abandoned by everyone but God.

The second phrase comes after the Holy Family arrived in Bethlehem: “(Mary) laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” When one reads this, the first response may be indignation. That dastardly innkeeper — how dare he turn them away! No doubt if there had been an Occupy Judea movement, protests would have been made, a tent city might have sprung up outside the inn and we would have heard talk about the one per cent and the 99 per cent.

The birth of Christ occurs in anonymity, outside the city, outside respectability, in a manger of hay or straw. Now, flash forward about three decades to Christ’s crucifixion: another barren place, Golgotha, “the place of a skull,” outside respectability, outside the city.

There was no room for the birth of Christ in a Judean inn and there seems little room for Christ in contemporary Canada. He has been tossed out of the schools and the public square is kept resolutely secular.

Christians maintain that on that first Christmas God clothed Himself in the lineaments of human flesh. Yet it is difficult to catch a glimpse of Him today. Not at the United Nations nor in the corridors of power. Certainly not in television studios or the echoing halls of academia. He is not to be found seated among the powerful.

Back then it was shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (in the King James language) who first realized something unprecedented was happening. Not many shepherds, then or since, acquire celebrity status, and certainly not these. Their first reaction was fear. Then fear gave way to curiosity, and they decided to go to Bethlehem “…to see this thing which has come to pass.” And what did they find? Not Caesar’s laurel crown but a baby.

The third tingling phrase in Luke’s account is found in chapter one. It’s a phrase that tries to make sense of all that will follow, to answer the shepherd’s question before it was posed: “Through the tender mercy of our God whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”

This is the biblical definition of the Incarnation. Many books and treatises clutter the shelves of theological libraries seeking to explain this phrase, but there it is, the actual biblical definition.

It may be that dates and details are a bit off. Perhaps the three wise men who came were more or less than three (although in the absence of a Judean affirmative action program, the modernist contention that it was actually three women seems a bit far-fetched!). But the message transcends detail. The message is that at a specified point in human history, God became man, took upon Himself human flesh, so that man might more intimately relate himself to God.

So what did happen that first Christmas night? Well, it is not St. Luke but St. John who gives the answer that I find most satisfying: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

That is good news. May the presence of the incarnate Word bring all of us a Christmas filled with joy.