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

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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.

You can never give too much to baby Jesus

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Giving and receiving are part of Christmas, but don’t forget the spiritual gifts

Give kids some credit — they’ll figure bullying out

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Bullying is taking up an awful lot of space in our public and private conversations, making an old duffer wonder if some sort of qualitative change really has taken place regarding this age-old . . . phenomenon. I almost called it a “problem” but that would be to buy into the current thinking about bullying, which is unrealistic, not very helpful and dishonestly coercive.

Certainly it’s no fun to be on the receiving end of bullying. And in extreme outbreaks there can indeed be cause to enlist the help of school and even police authorities. But in the general run of things, I don’t believe we’re ever going to eradicate bullying and, furthermore, shining a spotlight on behaviour that will usually burn itself out in a few days can do more harm than good both to perpetrators and victims by commemorating that which might more beneficially be forgotten.

It might be pleasant (if a little boring) to believe that children could find a way to grow up without ever coming into conflict with one another, but they never shall. In the furiously churning, soul-shaping cauldron of adolescence, young people look for models of behaviour they might want to emulate and they also look inside as certain characteristics emerge, some of which they discover cannot be jettisoned, even if it might be “cooler” to do so.

During this process young people can be mercilessly judgmental of everyone, including their peers, some of whom (for today at least) they’ll decide they like and some of whom they’ll dislike. If someone watches the wrong TV shows or listens to the wrong bands or wears the wrong shoes — these are not some blameless and inexplicable whimsy of taste as most of us regard them later in life when we are comparatively sane. No, these are social, indictable offences that must be commented upon, put down and even punished.

Most instances of bullying soon blow over with no input necessary from the authorities. Sometimes the perpetrators themselves come to realize that their actions are over the top and modify their behaviour. Often, the victims discourage its continuance by standing up to their bullies — verbally or physically — or else they remove the sting of bullying by sloughing it off and not rising to such cheap and inflammatory bait.

Either of these approaches is infinitely superior to letting elders get involved, mostly because young people deal with things more directly and honestly. Once you get the authorities involved, everybody has to start playing nice and affirming one another’s okayness. Smothering in officially sanctioned indifference probably doesn’t seem to matter much if the underlying disagreement is about Justin Bieber or high-topped running shoes. But there’s a danger that the lesson being learned is that it’s wrong to ever voice disagreement or disapproval and one should always strive to please everyone else.

When busybody authorities start refereeing disputes, Catholic youth are particularly at risk of being bullied (in the blandest possible way, of course) into soft pedalling important tenets of their faith. Being cowed in this way in their developing years is bad training for standing up to the bullies we all inevitably encounter as adults — whether its bosses, unions, a hectoring media with a virulently secular agenda to promote or the atheists and over-sensitive multicultural types who emerge from the woodwork at about this time of year to throw a blanket over public expression of Christmas celebrations.

A near-constant element in the modern concern about bullying is the magnifying impact of the Internet and social networking gadgets which, we are told, makes it seem like the victims can never escape their tormentors. They could, though, if they’d just summon the will to unplug the darned things. Last summer my wife and I were dining at an outdoor patio and saw six young people sitting together at a table across the way, each one of them ignoring their flesh and blood friends so they could noodle away on their nefarious handheld thingies.

Our kids, thankfully, made it through school just before the use of such devices became so pathetically ubiquitous. And significantly all three of them have at various times recognized that their dependence on that virtual world was becoming disproportionate and unhealthy and have made a point of going off-line for a season or two until they got their equilibrium back.

Young people have a way of figuring these things out. The same would apply to bullying.

If you racked up the bill, you pay it

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Perhaps thankfully, my propensity for racking up unmanageable debt emerged early in life. It started via the Capitol Record Club, which I rashly joined at the age of 14.

Gripped by spiritual dread

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A doctor’s appointment brings me to the scene of the crime

The moment I saw the address of the medical building, I felt uneasy. I had an appointment with a new doctor and I feared his office was in the same building my husband and I had prayed in front of during 40 Days for Life.

I had stood outside the building and its abortion clinic, but never gone inside. I didn’t want that to change.

Approaching the building the morning of my appointment, I realized that, yes, it was the same one. This time, no one was praying out front, no one was holding pro-life signs. Everything in me wanted to turn around and leave. The thought of entering the very building where babies were being killed — even if I was there to receive medical care — filled me with a spiritual dread I couldn’t bear.

I was also filled with a profound sense of responsibility. What was I doing to protect the babies and their mothers? What should I be doing?

I had to remind myself I was there for my own medical reasons. Yet part of me was rebelling. I wondered: “Why Our Lord, why did you bring me here today?”

When I pulled on the door handle to enter the building, a group of women whisked by, rushing to the elevator. I could hear the last few words of their conversation: “This is where they get rid of the baby.”

I was overcome. I didn’t know how to respond. Should I say something? Should I follow them? They quickly disappeared into the elevator. I went to the building directory and scanned the list of tenants. Two listings jumped out: one for a birth control and sexual health office, and the other for a women’s health clinic. I wondered if I should go to those clinics and say or do something.

Was God calling me to become more involved in the pro-life movement? I carried that thought with me as I approached my doctor’s office. I thought to myself: I could never work in this building. How could anyone come to work day after day knowing babies were dying in the building while they worked?

I was disturbed further after reaching my doctor’s office. A large, bizarre painting was hanging in the waiting room. It mocked Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece of the Last Supper. In the place of Jesus was Marilyn Munroe. Instead of apostles, the table was populated with celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Laurel and Hardy, Marlon Brando, Clarke Gable and Fred Astaire. There was even a monster, Frankenstein. I was stunned.

I stared at the painting, dumbfounded. Finally I told the receptionist that, as a practising Catholic, I was very offended by it. She muttered something under her breath about the different reactions of people to the painting. It turned out my doctor was out of the country, so I left, silently.

The events of that morning got me thinking about how hostile the world still is to Christ and to Church teachings. I realized that, as a Catholic, I would often bear the brunt of that hostility. The words, “We must be in the world, but not of the world” reverberated in my soul. I thanked God for the grace to see, hear and know the truth in a world so often overwhelmed by destructive messages. And as a parent, I reflected on the Declaration on Christian Education from Vatican II.

“Since parents have conferred life on their children, they have a most solemn obligation to educate their offspring,” it reads. “Hence, parents must be acknowledged as the first and foremost educators of their children. Their role as educators is so decisive that scarcely anything can compensate for their failure in it. For it devolves on parents to create a family atmosphere so animated with love and reverence for God and men that a well-rounded personal social development will be fostered among the children. Hence, the family is the first school of those virtues that every society needs.”

Those are powerful words and they remind me that it is my parental duty to evangelize the Catholic faith within my family but also beyond.

During prayer, my mind often returns to the morning appointment at that dreadful medical building, and I plead to Him: “Show me Lord, show me what you want me to do.”

(Writer, speaker and consultant, Pilarski’s book, Motherhood Matters: Inspirational Stories, Letters, Quotes & Prayers for Catholic Moms, is available by calling 416-934-3410.)

A whale of a story that comes with a profound message

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Even the most biblically illiterate person knows — or thinks they know! — the story of Jonah and the whale. Unfortunately, what they know is likely dredged up from school memories and is likely to be either trivial or wrong.

In my own upbringing, the story of Jonah and the whale was a kind of litmus test of the authenticity of your faith. If you swallowed Jonah, as it were, you were a true believer; if not, well, we will continue to pray for you.

The Book of Jonah begins starkly: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah: Go to the great city of Ninevah, go now and denounce it for its wickedness…”(v. 1).

Ninevah was an enemy of Israel and it was about the last place on Earth that Jonah wanted to go. Jewish belief at that time was exclusivist. God loved Israel but no others. Jews were the chosen people of God. Ninevah was full of wicked gentiles, infidels; why should Yahweh concern Himself with them?

When the word of the Lord came to many patriarchs, they tried to play deaf: Moses, Amos, Jeremiah. But Jonah’s hearing was acute. So he boarded the first available ship sailing in the exact opposite direction to Ninevah. “It was going to Tarshish.” Tarshish was the land beyond land, the furthest extremity of the universe, the place beyond the reach of God. Jonah made off, we are told, “…to escape from the Lord” (v. 3).

In open seas, the ship was battered by a hurricane. The crew was terrified and began to jettison cargo. Jonah was asleep in the hold, until the captain found him and demanded of Jonah: “Call on your God, perhaps He can save us” (v. 6).

But Jonah could not pray. Perhaps he imagined that his disobedience had rendered prayer impossible. Perhaps he was too stubborn or terrified. Then the sailors cast lots to determine who was to blame for their predicament, and Jonah pulled the short straw. He confessed that he was on board to escape from God, and then Jonah offered himself as a sacrifice for the others, prefiguring a later and greater biblical figure who would offer Himself as a sacrifice for all.

“Take me, throw me overboard,” Jonah said, “and the sea will go down.” The sailors readily agreed. Jonah was pitched overboard, and then swallowed by “a great fish” (v. 17).

In the maw of the great fish Jonah suddenly discovered that prayer came, if not easily, then eloquently.

The great fish then spewed bedraggled Jonah up onto dry land. As American theologian Frederick Buechner wryly observed, Jonah’s relief at being out of the whale was probably exceeded by the whale’s relief at being relieved of the troublesome Jonah.

Now the word of God came to Jonah a second time: unfortunately, same instruction. Go to Ninevah. This time Jonah went. Who wouldn’t?

A miracle occurred. Not a great fish, but a great revival. The Ninevites listened. They repented. And Jonah was furious. God was saving Israel’s enemies. Jonah wanted fire and brimstone to rain down on the heads of the Ninevites. Instead there was nothing but grace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

What a marvelous story! Whimsical, perceptive, funny — full of grace and truth. It tells us that there is no Tarshish, no sanctuary safe from God. It tells us that even cowards sometimes sacrifice themselves for others. It tells us that nothing we do, nothing we are, can put us beyond the reach of God’s salvation.

If Jonah can be heard from the belly of the great fish, our forlorn prayer, whether it originates from a psychiatric ward or a prison cell, can likewise be heard. Best of all, it tells us that God’s boundless love extends to all, even to Ninevites like us.

How sad that some Christians miss the point of the story of Jonah. It is not history; it is something more important — truth.

To reduce the wonderful story of Jonah to the know-nothing question of “do you believe that the whale swallowed Jonah and that he survived three days?” is to stunt human imagination and understanding. It is to make reason a stumbling block, rather than an aid, to faith.

Edward Norman’s remarkable conversion to Catholicism

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On Oct. 7 Dr. Edward Norman was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Our Lady of Walsingham in England. In itself, this might not seem remarkable, only another former Anglican to take advantage of the door so generously opened by Pope Benedict XVI in his November 2009 invitation Angicanorum Coetibus. But when you learn who Norman is, his late conversion is remarkable indeed.

Born in London in 1938, Norman was educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His specialty was church history, which he went on to teach for two decades, much of that time as Dean of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In 1978 he was chosen to deliver the BBC’s Reith lectures on the theme: “Christianity and the World.” In addition to academic appointments and honours, Norman served as a priest, dean and chancellor of York Minster. It was not uncommon to hear his name discussed as a potential Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the author of more than 20 theological books.

As the title suggests, Norman’s 2004 book Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors was a scathing indictment of modern Anglicanism. It provided clear evidence of how uncomfortable Norman had become in the Church of England. When it was published, he told an interviewer: “There is a big hole at the centre of Anglicanism — authority. I don’t think it’s a Church; it’s more of a religious society.”

As an insider, Norman knew how the Church of England functioned and he pulled no punches. Of General Synod, he wrote: “Every disagreement, in seemingly every board and committee, proceeds by avoidance of principled debate.

Ordinary moral cowardice is represented as wise judgment, equivocation in the construction of compromise formulae is second nature to our leaders.”

Is the situation different or better in the Anglican Church of Canada? Based on my three-plus Anglican decades, I would say no — although my view is that of a parishioner since I never aspired to any ecclesiastical office. This is not to say that there are not fine people and committed Christians within the Anglican Church. There are. But they tend to be in the pews and they are repeatedly let down, in my experience, by the ostensible leadership. In any case, the primary occupation of a Canadian Anglican bishop today is arranging the closing of churches. The rate of decline is such that the lights should go off in the last standing Anglican church in just a few decades.

Despite his criticism of the Church of England, Norman remained in the Church for eight years after the publication of Anglican Difficulties. It can hardly be imagined or overstated how difficult a decision it must be for a minister or priest to abandon the denomination in which he was ordained and to which he has dedicated his life.

What was the final catalyst for Norman? From the outside, who can know? Even the convert often finds it difficult to express all the subtleties, the twists and turns, of his pilgrimage. What he told the Catholic Herald at the time of his conversion was this:

“The Church of England provides a masterclass in equivocation; it also, however, is the residence of very many good and faithful Christian people who deserve respect — for their perseverance in so many incoherent spiritual adventures. To leave their company is a wrench; to adhere to the Catholic faith is to join the encompassing presence of a universal body of believers in whose guardianship are the materials of authentic spiritual understanding . . . I have immense gratitude.”

Norman is the latest in a long, distinguished line of converts: men like G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge. His conversion is further proof that even amidst the dark seas of postmodernism, St. Peter’s barque still searches out and rescues the drowning.

That doughty old warrior, Hilaire Belloc, wrote to a friend that the Catholic Church was like a landfall, at first glimpsed hazily and only through the mist:

“…but the nearer it is seen, the more it is real … The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home.”

Welcome home, Edward Norman.

No need to dilute what little is left of our ‘separate’ school system

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At what point did what used to be known as the “separate” school system become so flexible and indifferent to its creedal distinctions that one of its high schools would dedicate and outfit space for use as a Muslim prayer room?

Even people who aren’t particularly sympathetic — or are even antagonistic — to the Roman Catholic Church must be wondering about that after Ana Paula Fernandes, the principal of Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School in London, Ont., announced the re-designation of an office in that school for just such a use. There are perhaps two dozen (obviously) non-Catholic students enrolled there.

Why identify a school as specifically Catholic and then carve out a space for the religious observances of people who practise another religion?

Well, according to Fernandes, you do that “to ensure that all our students feel welcome, that they feel that they belong,” she told the London Free Press.

But those two dozen students don’t want to “belong” to a Catholic school. They’re Muslims. They or their parents obviously want them to “attend” a Catholic school, probably because of the perception that, of Ontario’s two educational systems, the Catholic curriculum (in spite of government-mandated watering down of its distinct Catholicity) has significantly more rigour than the public one.

But when you “belong” to something in any meaningful sense, you commit to it. It shapes you and you are bound to it by duty and obligations. The two dozen Muslim students do not want to “belong” to any sort of Catholic institution in that way, as made clear by their request for a separate prayer room.

One wonders what Fernandes’ response will be in the probably not-too-distant future when a couple of dozen budding Wiccans or atheists or hedonists request their own sanctuary for their religious or anti-religious observances? Surely she wouldn’t feel justified to accommodate one group and not extend the same gesture (and a few thousand dollars’ worth of broadloom and paint and wiring to effect a room overhaul) to another? That would be discrimination, and that minority group might feel they didn’t “belong” in a Catholic school.

By a decidedly peculiar arrangement in Ontario, students of any or no religious affiliation are welcome to attend a public or Catholic school. With few exceptions (I’m thinking here of the Toronto school that scandalously accommodates gender-segregated Muslim prayers in their cafeteria on Fridays) schools in the public system make no allowances for the religious proclivities — whatever they be — of their students. As a school system that is open to all, that is unquestionably the fairest and most sensible way to manage things.

Public funding of Catholic schools up to Grade 10 was part of the British North America Act. In 1984, then retiring Premier Bill Davis — much to the surprise of just about everybody — extended full funding to the end of high school. Considering the changing patterns of immigration and secularization then in play, it was a highly unpopular move. A more credible case could’ve been made for withdrawing public funding from the Catholic system altogether or finding some method to allow parents to designate their tax dollars to the school system of their choice.

Realigning anything as complex as the educational structure of an entire province would be a hugely disruptive process so the hesitation to tackle that job is understandable. But the current system is patently unfair and any modifications or exceptions we make to the system in the name of fairness and inclusivity only dilute the distinct Catholic character of Catholic schools. That distinctiveness — that recognition that Catholics have different educational requirements than the rest of the population — was the raison d’être for creating a separate system in the first place.

While it might appear that Catholics are making out like bandits here and getting everything their way, there is swelling displeasure within the ranks of the faithful that true Catholic identity is being lost in our schools as the province — which is, after all, paying the bills — demands modifications that chip away at the integrity or contradict Catholic teaching. Home schooling — once the preserve of evangelicals disaffected by the secularization underway in public schools (such as the banning of prayer) — is now catching on with more and more Catholic parents who, sadly, are coming to feel the very same way about the Catholic system.

Halloween can be a Catholic teaching moment

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I was taken aback in early October when I went to a local drug store to pick up some medication and was confronted with rows and rows of Halloween merchandise. Even with trick-or-treating just around the corner, the costumes, candies and other accessories seemed so out of place in a drug store. Then again, I’ve seen the stuff in hardware stores, too. It seems to be everywhere.

Halloween has become big business. The Retail Council of Canada says “Halloween is one of the most anticipated days of the year for Canadian children.” During October, it’s estimated that nearly $600 million worth of goodies and snack-food items will be sold. A recent statement from the National Retail Federation stated that a record 170 million Americans will celebrate Halloween this year and they’ll spend $8 billion on decorations, costumes and candy. That includes 25 million people who will dress their pets in a costume.

As a businesswoman with a marketing background, I understand the business opportunity of Halloween. It’s hard to knock retailers for trying to make a buck from the holiday. But as a Catholic mother I have long wrestled with the spiritual fallout of society’s increasing infatuation with this day.

Should we be dressing up our daughters and sons as monsters, witches, devils and skeletons? When we celebrate Halloween this way, do we risk glorifying violence and evil? Are we sending the wrong message, a non-Catholic message, when we give so much attention and spend so much money on a holiday with pagan origins? Surely, that money could be better used to feed the poor or support our local churches.

I’ve sometimes wondered if I should pull down my blinds, lock my door and ignore Halloween altogether. Or maybe we should just dress our children in wholesome costumes, give them proper warning and reluctantly let them join in the fun.

I used to run a saints club in a local Catholic elementary school. The purpose was to teach children about the lives of saints and encourage them towards saintly virtues. It was mostly rewarding but the end of October was always a troubling time.

It was sad to see the attention given to the secular celebration of Halloween, the costumes, the parties, the snacks, while absolutely nothing was done to mark the Catholic feasts of All Saints Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2). It struck me as odd that a Catholic school would mark a festival with pagan roots and then the next two days virtually ignore important feasts on the Church calendar. (Actually, it was rare to hear teachers mention the liturgical calendar or any feast days.)

I’m not suggesting that Halloween be banned in Catholic homes and schools. I’m not opposed to children having fun. But there are several ways educators can use the season of Halloween to teach the Catholic faith to children. Here are some examples:

o Make All Saints Day a school event and ask students to dress up as saints. Offer prizes for those who do. Rather than receiving treats, this could be a day about giving.

o Have students do a short presentation on a saint of their choosing.

o Teach the Irish folktale of Jack O’Lantern and the Catholic origins behind the custom of burning a candle in a carved pumpkin on Halloween.

o Take students to a Catholic cemetery and pray the rosary for the deceased.

o Study the history and evolution of Halloween but with a focus on it being of secondary importance to the two days that follow it.

o In high schools, use Halloween to discuss Catholic teaching on the occult and why the catechism rejects such things as magic, sorcery, horoscopes, clairvoyance and astrology.

One year I asked kids in our saints club to do a project on a saint. On the day the project was due, All Saints Day, our club had 25 bristol-board projects that covered an entire wall of the school. There were projects on Padre Pio, St. Bernadette, St. Anthony and St. John Bosco, to name just a few.

The project prompted other students to start asking questions. What does levitate mean? What is incorruptible? Do I really have a Guardian Angel? The entire experience was an absolute joy.

Along the hallway that morning the focus shifted from ghouls and goblins to the great saints of the Church. It was a reminder that Halloween costumes come and go but the saints are with us always.

The anxious wedge between Christians and Muslims

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Pope Benedict’s XVI visit to Lebanon last month was a proud and privileged moment for Lebanese and other Christians in the region. But as the Pope spoke on behalf of peace, called for Christian unity and addressed the importance of living the interfaith reality in the region, American embassies in the Middle East and other locations around the world were under siege by Muslim crowds.

Muslim anger was aroused by an amateur film made in the United States that depicted the prophet Mohammad in disrespectful ways. Political cartoons in French newspapers quickly picked up the theme, exacerbating an already volatile situation. The issue is very sensitive to all Muslims. Even a respectful image of the prophet is forbidden.

Much of the world was left with sadness at the death of the U.S. ambassador and three colleagues who were killed when the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, was stormed. Many in the civilized world simply do not understand why some Muslims respond so violently to a film created by a single individual. We’re left to ask: does the punishment poured out upon those embassies equal the offence?

Pope Benedict, standing shoulder to shoulder with leaders of the Christian world, along with various inter-faith leaders and a group of atheists in Assisi, Italy, in October 2011, made the following comment: “We know that terrorism is often religiously motivated and that the specifically religious character of the attacks is proposed as a justification for the reckless cruelty that considers itself entitled to disregard the rules of morality for the sake of the intended good. In this case, religion does not serve peace, but is used as a justification for violence. While we condemn terrorism of the day, it should be acknowledged that history also gives testimony that Christians have used force and violence in a way which today we acknowledge with a measure of shame.”

Most Canadian and Americans, including Canadian and American Muslims, would agree that these outrageous attacks are without justification and must be condemned. But, regrettably, there is a growing sense in the West that Muslims in general are a menace. Incidents such as these contribute another layer of undeserved resentment and suspicion of most Muslims. It is becoming more difficult for the average person in the West to believe the majority of Muslims are law-abiding, God-fearing, neighbourly people who walk the streets of our neighbourhoods and are very much committed to our same values of freedom, peace and family.

The Muslims who act violently represent a tiny percentage of the world’s Muslim population. Muslims are about a quarter of the planet’s population, about 1.6 billion people in total. In 2009, they exceeded the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics (although there are 2.18 billion Christians overall) and over the next 20 years the Muslim population is projected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world. The tendency is to regard Muslims as being Middle Eastern or south Asian but the reality is that they inhabit every continent and embody many nationalities and cultures.

So it is incumbent upon us, as Christians, to not paint the whole Muslim world with the same brush of suspicion. Islam is one of three world monotheistic religions, joining Christianity and Judaism. In Islam, Jesus is revered as a prophet but not as divine, while Mary is honoured and mentioned more often in the Quran than in the New Testament. Like Christians, Muslims are called to love their neighbour — and most do.

When a Christian or a Muslim dishonour their neighbour, both fail in the faithfulness to which they have been called, and both must undergo a change of heart. What that means in our day-to-day lives is that if a Christian has an opportunity to befriend a Muslim based upon the Golden Rule, they should take that initiative, thus building a better world. And vice-versa.

Together, Christians and Muslims need to address the sobering question of how to overcome the ideological differences that drive such a wide wedge between them. Is the human desire for genuine peace and freedom stronger than acts of violence? Let’s pray that the answer to that question is yes.

(Fr. MacPherson, SA, is Director of Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)