Return to civility

Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Be civil to all, sociable to many, familiar with few, friend to one, enemy to none.” But 250 years later Franklin’s wise words have been turned upside down. Public discourse today is often about being enemies to many and civil to few.

That is increasingly evident in our media, homes, schools and even churches, but is particularly true in our political dialogue. Intelligent, civil debate has been bludgeoned to death by crass, dishonest personal attacks that demean the political process and alienate voters.

For that reason, the Knights of Columbus and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan are to be commended for promoting civility as an issue in the American presidential election. It’s about time people of influence told political leaders to smarten up.

Dolan has asked the Republican and Democratic candidates for president and vice-president to sign a Knights of Columbus petition seeking a return to civility in politics. That includes refraining from personal attacks for the duration of the campaign.

No doubt the cardinal realizes this is a tough sell. But it is one well worth pitching. There is a close connection in any society between civility and morality. People must first treat each other with respect and decency in order to advance those values across society as a whole. Cynical politicians create soulless governments that pursue selfish agendas rather than advance the common good.

That is as true in Canada as it is in the United States. On this mud-ward slide, Canadian politicians are tumbling right behind their American counterparts.

Dolan may not have been speaking to Canada but we should be listening anyway.

“We need to remind those running for office and those in office that how we disagree with each other says as much about us as a nation as what issues we disagree on,”said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

For that reason, the Knights launched a Civility in America campaign to remind society in general and politicians in particular of the Christian ethos to act always with respect and dignity towards others. It is a non-partisan campaign developed after a survey showed 74 per cent of Americans believe political campaigns are increasingly negative and 66 per cent believe candidates spend more time attacking opponents than discussing issues.

“Candidates aren’t running to become the next American Idol,” Anderson said. “They are running to become our public servants. They ought to behave in a manner that keeps faith with that goal.”

Spirited debate and disagreement are signs of a healthy society. But dialogue must be conducted with civility. Otherwise conversation becomes confrontation and society is demeaned. We all have a stake in making courtesy common again.

No repeat of Iraq in Syria

The insurrection to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is entering its 18th month but despite international condemnation of his brutal methods and economic sanctions against his regime, the dictator refuses to release his grip on power.

The United Nations estimates more than 10,000 Syrians — most of them civilians — have died in the fighting. Other groups cite fatality figures twice that number. In addition, more than a million people have fled their homes, including about 200,000 Syrians, mostly families, who’ve sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

Few if any people can feel safe today in Syria. But that is particularly true for Syria’s two million Christians. Under Assad, and his father before him, Christianity was tolerated and some Christians even held prominent government positions. Now Syria’s Christians expect a Muslim backlash when Assad’s overthrow, which seems inevitable, is completed.

Their fear is based on the winds of Christian persecution that blew through Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Like his  Sryian neighbour, Hussein was also tolerant of Christianity. But when his regime fell, thousands of Christians lost their homes and businesses. Many more were harassed, assaulted and large numbers killed. Tens of thousands fled as refugees, reducing Iraq’s Christian population by half.

It may already be too late to save Syria’s Christians from the same fate. But the international community has an obligation to flex its muscle and try. It must learn from its failure in Iraq and act decisively in Syria so that a civil rebellion to end repression doesn’t install a regime that imposes a new type of intolerance.

Pope Benedict has appealed for peace in Syria and for humanitarian aid to support the uncapped flow of refugees. Later this month, he will visit Lebanon and is expected to renew the Vatican’s call for religious freedom throughout the Middle East, home to 5.7 million Christians.

The Canadian government has pledged $10-million in humanitarian aid, including $2 million for emergency medical supplies. That’s a good start, but the aid must go quickly and efficiently into trusted hands who can ensure it is actually spent on humanitarian relief. There are several reputable agencies and NGOs (including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association) that know the political terrain and whose expertise the government should utilize. Even then, the government can do more. It must become vocal at the United Nations and other forums in demanding that Syria’s next government respect human rights, particularly those of its religious minorities. It should also heed calls from the opposition Liberals and temporarily relax immigration policies to make Canada more accessible to Syrian refugees.

Iraq showed what can happen when persecuted minorities are abandoned. A repeat shouldn’t be allowed to happen in Syria.

Just imagine doing those acts of defiance

Nike made its fortune urging us to “Just Do It.” Now, in a wonderful essay, writer Janna Malamud Smith reminds us that the “it” can be as much imaginative as physical.

Smith, who lectures in psychology at Harvard Medical School, writes in the Sun magazine that the demands on the imagination that come from pursuing craft or art create a form of “resistance to mortality” equivalent to what we seek from a fitness regime.

She does not suggest we can stop the clock by playing the violin, writing poetry or learning to weave, any more than we can defeat eternity by running marathons or taking up cycling. What we can do, she argues, is express our defiance of chronology and biology by seeking to create things worthy of living on after us.

“The defiance is the act of giving to the craft more than bare necessity requires, of resisting mortality while acknowledging the futility of the resistance,” Smith writes in her essay An Absorbing Errand. “Imaginative acts…dissipate clock time like breeze shoos off a fog. They amend mortal loss.”

The previous sentence is a confirmation of the immortal G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” We do not paint water colours in anticipation of a showing at the National Gallery any more than we play oldtimers’ hockey expecting an NHL scout to be in the stands at midnight. We do it because it identifies a compulsion that produces a satisfaction that expresses something of who and what we are: what we have done with our lives.

There is more to be considered in Smith’s juxtaposition of “imaginative acts” and “amendment of mortal loss.” If the imagination can gain us immortality, can it also help us defeat immorality? If it can amend mortal loss, can it also defend against political betrayal?

If we think it can, then we might at least look differently at the routs the Church has suffered over recent decades. We could begin to see them not as failures of courage or shrewdness on the part of the bishops and the Church hierarchy, not as a result of the lamentable docility of rank-and-file Catholics (Christians), nor even as examples of the sharp-toothed cunning of the children of God on the opposite side. We can see them, instead, as commitment to acts of imaginative defiance more than bare necessity requires even while acknowledging the futility of resistance.

Here are two examples.

Quebec has witnessed an August’s worth of outcry over the Parti Quebecois’s plan to pass a Charter of Secularism that would forbid non-Christian public servants from wearing religious symbols at work. Christian symbols could still be worn, however. The Cross in the National Assembly would also be retained. This is vile, divisive bigotry, of course. Yet it manages to be something even worse. It is the cynical emptying of all religious symbols by reducing them to mere decoration.

In my imagination, the defiant retort is an all-faith procession to the door of the Quebec legislature as a show of solidarity, and with the following twist: the Christians would come bearing a hammer, a nail and a piece of paper demanding: “Give us back the Cross. It’s ours, not yours.” 

In like fashion, could not Ontario parents, teachers, principals, trustees, bishops respond to the odious bullying of Bill-13 and its brutally imposed Gay-Straight Alliance clubs by forming in every Catholic school an alternative Love Thy Neighbour club? Could not such clubs offer rewards at year’s end for meritorious acts of charity and fidelity to Church teaching? And isn’t it best to appeal to the very heart of our faith in order to outflank the children of God who oppose us?

Wouldn’t work? The kids would never join? Rules don’t allow it? So what? Imagine something better (it shouldn’t be hard). Imagine something that almost might work even if, ultimately, it doesn’t.

For surely imaginative acts of defiance, even if futile, are worthwhile. It’s better to say we have lived as Catholics and as Christians than simply accepting the deadening power of acquiescence. Just do it.

A priest, in the spirit of John Paul II, brought me out of the wilderness

More than a decade ago a Catholic friend gave me a copy of the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read it and was impressed by the depth and eloquence of its proclamation of the Catholic faith. This was the faith I affirmed, but which I considered that my own Anglican Church no longer did.    

In 2004, I moved with my wife Norah from London to St. Thomas, Ont. In the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying, I first came to Holy Angels Church to pray for him. He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, and there was an afternoon Mass that day so I came. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing had happened. Only when he came to the prayers of the faithful did he mention the Holy Father had just died, therefore we would skip the usual intercession for the Pope.

Not a word to assuage the shared grief of the congregation. We were dismissed, orphaned and bereaved out into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul ll the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived, and on that day I expected more. “Never again will I enter this church,” I muttered on my way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.

This brings me to November 2005. I had not been attending any church when suddenly the conviction overwhelmed me that I could not celebrate Christmas if I did not worship somewhere during Advent. So, on the first Sunday of Advent, I trudged along to Holy Angels, rather expecting to be disillusioned again, to be perfectly frank.

To my surprise, there was a new priest. He was Polish and it soon became evident that he had been shaped by John Paul the Great. To my even greater surprise, the new priest’s homily was directed straight at me.

Fr. Adam Gabriel’s topic was “Come out of the wilderness.” I recall that he said something like this: “People experience many kinds of wilderness. There may be someone here who is in a church wilderness, someone who cannot find a church to belong to, or perhaps who has found the church but it is the church to which he cannot belong. To that person Jesus says this morning: ‘Come out of the wilderness.’ ”

The next day, without calling in advance and without an appointment, and never having met the priest, I knocked on the rectory door and told Fr. Gabriel that I was that person in the wilderness. He listened to my story and told me about the RCIA program. I told him we had tried the RCIA program in a London parish and it had been a disillusioning experience. He said that he regretted that he could not give private instruction, because Holy Angels is a large and busy parish and he was the only priest and there was simply no time.

Then, noticing I had brought my copy of the catechism, he asked if I had read it. I said that I had. Then he said: “Okay. If you are serious enough to have read the catechism, I’ll make the time to give you instruction.” And so, over the next year, he did. On July 2, 2006, at the altar of Holy Angels, I was received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church. Norah was received at Easter one year later.

I told that story at a recent farewell party not to draw attention to myself, but to illustrate my own immense debt to a priest who later became my friend. For seven years Holy Angels was the recipient of prevenient grace. Fr. Gabriel was our priest, our shepherd, our pastor, our confessor and our friend. He did everything with energy, infectious enthusiasm and dedication.Words do not adequately convey the sense of gratitude, commingled with loss, we felt when he moved to St. Teresa’s in Etobicoke, Ont.

“Not to be served but to serve.” How often we heard him say that. But he didn’t just say it — he lived it!

He brought me out of the wilderness and for that I will be forever grateful.

A summer of pain opened up a new world to me

Being dependent on others is spiritually difficult. That’s just one of the lessons I’ve learned during my summer of suffering.

It started in late spring when I experienced debilitating back spasms. I was prescribed a muscle relaxant that induced a violent physical reaction, causing my family to call 911 and sending me to hospital for 12 days. I was virtually immobilized for well over a month and discovered what it’s like to surrender a busy work agenda and summer holiday plans.

Throughout a hot summer, I was almost totally dependent on family and friends. All of my life I’ve worked hard to be in control. But I had to learn how it felt to have little control over your life.

Over the years I’ve read many books about saints who said suffering is a gift. But between rounds of morphine, medical appointments, medical tests and excruciating pain, this gift has been hard to accept. Still, I’m trying. And there has been some joy among the pain.

One night, I was crying out with despair. My teenaged son looked me in the eye and said: “Mom, offer it up! Do you know how many people you can help with this? Offer it up! That’s what you always tell me. Offer it up as a sacrifice.” 

As a mother of two teenagers my heart soared to heaven and back again. It was the same when my daughter brought me my favourite candy bar, Coffee Crisp, after school just to cheer me up.

I have become particularly grateful for the sacrament of marriage and the gift of family. Who else besides my husband and children would help me do all the things I’ve been physically unable to do myself? Early in my ordeal, I laughed when my husband remarked: “How in the world have you made dinner every night for all these years? I’ve made dinner for three days in a row and I am already running out of ideas?”

After a recent appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, feeling a bit confident about using my new walker, I thought I’d try to run an errand. With my husband out front and me wobbling behind, I made my way through the mall to update my driver’s license. It was overwhelming to see people moving so quickly while I shuffled along in my walker. Everyone seemed in such a hurry. 
I ended up stepping on something that tweaked my back and pinched a nerve. I screamed. I was standing in my walker, in the mall, screaming in pain.

When I found a chair, a little old lady, probably in her mid-80s, wearing a pink blouse, with silver hair, all sorts of delightful jewelry and just the right amount of makeup, sat right down beside me. My eyes were closed and tearing up, and I was praying under my breath. She put her hand on top of mine and gently said: “God will help you through this!”

Her face was angelic. She said a few things to encourage me. Before long we were both in tears, talking about our love for Him. Her name was Iva. I will never forget that precious moment when a stranger, a sister in Christ, reached out to ease my suffering. It made me think of all the times I ignored people because I was in a hurry.

After some rest, I wheeled to a mall exit while my husband got the car. Another woman approached me. She told me about the time a few years ago that she was rear-ended by a drunk driver. She understood pain and she consoled me.
Moments later I noticed a man walking stiffly with a grocery cart. I asked him, “Do you have a back injury?”
“Oh no, I had a stroke a few years ago,” he replied.
 That night I prayed the chaplet and the rosary, praying for my family, my new friends at the mall and all people who are suffering, sick or lonely.

My injury, the ordeal in the walker, the entire summer of pain, has opened up a new world.
There have been bittersweet moments of joy amidst the pain. I thank God for each and every one of them.

Ten years of priesthood and the fun continues

New York City

More weight and less hair, for the most part. Priestly ordination changes the soul, after all. It does not preserve the body. So when I gathered with my ordination classmates for a 10th anniversary reunion last week, the march of time was evident. What remained unchanged was the joy granted us by the fraternity of the priesthood.

Earlier this summer I wrote about my 10th anniversary of priestly ordination, but the class reunion was this month in New York City. When we were seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, Msgr. Timothy Dolan was the rector. At our fifth year reunion in 2007, he was archbishop of Milwaukee, and invited us to join him there, which we did. Five years later, now cardinal archbishop of New York, he was kind enough to invite us again.

There was mutual admiration, mutual affirmation and mutual encouragement. The cardinal was generous in saying how much consolation it gave him to travel far and wide and see all that his former students are doing to preach the Gospel. The leader of our class reunion, Fr. James Shea, already the president of the Catholic university, spoke in turn of how we learned to be brothers at the North American College in large part because Timothy Dolan was the father.

We learned many things from our father in the priesthood, but perhaps most important is his distinctive combination of unabashed piety and intense jocularity. So he preached to us about how the enduring question for the faithful priest is simply, “Who has dominion over my life? Is Jesus my king? Is Mary my queen?” Then after dinner he led us all to the Lady Chapel of the cathedral to visit the Blessed Sacrament and sing the Salve Regina. In between there were enough backslapping jokes to dislocate a shoulder.

Years ago an old priest told me that no one has more fun than priests when they get together. It’s true, and I have been blessed enough to enjoy that since my days in the seminary. So it was good to be together with the brethren again. 

Being a young priest — especially at a time when young priests are rather more scarce than they should be — is a blessed experience, as the Catholic faithful are just delighted to have us around. If we serve them well it is an added bonus.

After 10 years we are no longer new priests and it is stretch to say that we are still young. But, as we were reminded by one of our former teachers who joined us from Brooklyn, the priestly heart is always young, for it looks not to the past, but delights in what the Lord is always doing now. Responsibilities grow with the years, and the excitement and novelty of the early years has passed. Thanks be to God though, our band of brothers is still happy.

We are a happy few, and fewer than we used to be. Two have died. Others have left the priesthood which, for those who remain, constitutes both an enormous sadness and an inescapable sense of both bewilderment and betrayal. The priesthood remains mysterious and we see that both in the men who are called to it and in the men who abandon it.

In our class it was the youngest priest who died first. The one I tried to imitate in the seminary was the first one to leave. It was not what we expected.

Many things were unexpected. Before my parishioners began confiding in me I had no idea how much suffering there was in family life, especially grown children who are the principal source of suffering for their parents. I did not expect to encounter so many who are so distant from the Gospel that they cannot express even the simplest truths about Jesus Christ. I did not expect to encounter so many so unfamiliar with Christian culture that even the historic rituals of the faith no longer have any hold on them.

Unexpected too have been the graces. St. Paul assures us that they abound even more abundantly than sin abounds. Working on campus and in the media, where the default positions are usually secular, sometimes radically and exclusively so, I have seen how grace unexpectedly is at work. The Gospel has not lost its power. And for those of us charged with preaching that Gospel and being instruments of that power, we still marvel that such a wonderful life has been granted us, to do that work which is the most important and to have more fun doing it than we deserve!

Protect all rights

Quebec society has been chipping away at its religious foundation for years so it should be no surprise that the party poised to form the province’s next government is championing a full-blown Charter of Secularism.

Still, this is a sad testament on the state of spiritual life in what was once Canada’s most faith-filled province. Although there has been some opposition to the proposal, Quebecers have not risen up en masse to denounce the notion of a secular charter or to criticize its authors, the Parti Quebecois, which proposed this unfortunate piece of legislation.

PQ leader Pauline Marois intends to make her secularist charter a priority should her party form the government after Quebecers go to the polls Sept. 4. The gist of the policy is to prohibit public-sector employees from wearing “conspicuous religious signs.” The PQ has not released details, but the legislation is expected to target such religious items as the Jewish yarmulke, Muslim hijab and Sikh kirpan.

Such legislation would be a clear contravention of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects religious expression. But Marois said she’ll override the Charter by invoking the notwithstanding clause because, she said, “we insist on conserving our identity, our language, our institutions and our values.”

Catholic expressions of faith, however, are to be mostly exempt. Civil servants, for instance, will be permitted to wear a chain with a crucifix if it is “discreet,” and a large crucifix that hangs in the National Assembly will remain because, said Marois, it is a part of Quebec history and “we don’t have to renounce our history.”

Catholics should find little consolation in these concessions. All of society has a stake when any government disrespects fundamental rights. And all people of faith should be particularly alarmed when any group’s religious freedom is threatened.

Religious freedom is an inalienable right that is essential to the dignity of all people and, as such, it must be protected by civil authority, according to the catechism. Pope John Paul II said all social and cultural discrimination, including religious discrimination, must be “eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.” Pope Benedict once called it “inconceivable” that people should be forced to suppress their faith or “denied the right to act in accordance with their religious convictions.”

Pope Benedict’s comments were in response to violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa.  What the PQ proposes is tame by comparison. But it is discrimination nonetheless and should be denounced; freedom of religious expression is an inalienable right of all people.

Christian nations can hardly demand foreign governments respect the rights of religious minorities if Christians are unwilling to defend full expression of those fundamental freedoms at home.

Russia’s real top story — and it's not Pussy Riot

The Pussy Riot trial was the second most important story regarding the Russian Orthodox Church last week. Understandably, it got top billing. A punk band invoked the Mother of God in Moscow’s cathedral to protect Russia from its new czar, Vladimir Putin, and to inveigh against the support given to the regime by the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate. Politics, protest, church, state, freedom and censorship — it had it all, and so dominated the global news.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church — Kirill — was likely happy to be away from Moscow for the sentencing of the protesters for “hooliganism.” He was in Poland for a historic meeting, one that might hold great promise for the future of 21st-century Christian unity. That was the most important story last week.

The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is the single most important figure for Christian unity. The Roman Catholic Church has been ready for closer, even full, unity with the Orthodox Church for more than a generation. And that is the only prospect for Christian unity. Unity with the Anglican Communion is no longer an option; the next archbishop of Canterbury’s principal task will be to preside over the peaceful dissolution of that Christian communion, not to deepen stronger ties with Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

Kirill is not the head of Orthodoxy. That office belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul), but he has been reduced to a largely ceremonial role. His flock is only a few thousand souls, and the Turkish government has so strangled his religious liberty that he can barely function as bishop of his own city, let alone the global head of Orthodoxy.

That leaves the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia as the leader of the majority of Orthodox Christians in the world.

The Pussy Riot story was about how Kirill is managing the patriarchate’s relationship with the Kremlin. His explicit support of Putin makes many wary, worried that Kirill intends to make the Orthodox Church the long arm of the Kremlin in exchange for privileges from the state. Relations between the Orthodox Church and the czar, then with the communist state, have a long and tortured history. The question facing Kirill is whether the Orthodox Church will defend liberty, including religious liberty, or prefer to reconstruct an altar-and-throne arrangement with Putin as Russia’s de facto king.

The visit to Poland was about how Kirill will position the Orthodox in relation to the Catholic world, and whether he will resist or support Putin’s attempts to recreate the old Soviet empire by establishing a Russian sphere of influence that will include Ukraine certainly, and perhaps aspires to move westward toward Poland.

The signs from this visit were promising. It was the first visit of the patriarch of Moscow to Poland, which alone made it an historic moment. He came at the invitation of the local Orthodox Church in Warsaw, but in visiting the largest Slavic Catholic nation, the critical meetings were with the leadership of the Catholic Church.

The highlight of the visit was the joint signing of an appeal for reconciliation between Russians and Poles, who throughout history have had hostile relations. Russia’s role in the dismemberment of Poland in 1795, and again in 1939 in complicity with the Nazis, is not forgotten by Poles, the majority of whom regard Russians with suspicion. “We appeal to our followers and ask them to pray in order to be forgiven for their wrongdoings, injustice and all the ill deeds they inflicted upon one another over the centuries,” states the joint appeal, entrusting to the Mother of God this work of mercy. Kirill and the head of the Polish bishops’ conference exchanged icons of the Blessed Mother as a sign of Christian charity and common Slavic spirituality.

The meeting of fellow Slavic Christians ought not to be so unusual, but it is. The hope is that Kirill’s visit to the Catholics of Poland signals a willingness for a more fraternal relationship with Catholics, both in Russia and abroad. Blessed John Paul II repeatedly desired to meet the patriarch and to visit Russia, but Kirill’s predecessors refused permission. A meeting of the Pope and Patriarch remains unlikely today, but might be arranged before long.

The Polish visit may bear other fruit. The centuries-long model in Russia has been for the Church to seek amenable arrangements with the state. The Polish Church learned, under more than 150 years of brutal foreign occupation and persecution, to align itself not with the state, but with the historic liberties of the people. Those who desire a more humane and free Russia, religious or not, hope that Kirill’s visit to Poland might prompt the Orthodox in Russia to move in that direction too.

What would you do with 30 minutes to live?

Preparing to land recently at Yellowknife airport in a five-seat jet, I suddenly heard the pilot in front of me utter a four-letter word that begins with the letter “S.”

One of the three wheels on the aircraft refused to lock into position for landing. On the cockpit’s digital control panel we could all see two green dots for the good wheels and a black-and-yellow square for the bad one.

The pilot, talking to air traffic control, flew down to within 150 feet of the ground so emergency workers with binoculars could assess the problem. Over the radio, we heard confirmation the wheel was not down.

The pilot took the aircraft up a couple thousand feet and rocked it around trying to get the wheel to drop. When that failed, he returned to his checklist. All the while, I could hear air traffic control over the radio assembling more and more emergency workers, ordering them into position along the runway.

The magnitude of the situation really sunk in when air traffic control asked if there were any dangerous goods on board. It didn’t take a genius to know that emergency workers were thinking about possible explosions beyond the fuel in the wings if we landed on two wheels and careened down the runway out of control.

“Negative, four passengers on board and no dangerous goods,” replied the pilot. (He was calm on the outside but later admitted to being “highly stressed.”) Regardless, the airport general manager ordered all emergency workers back 100 metres from the runway, just in case.

Simply by writing this, I have taken the drama out of the ending. We survived. After 30 minutes, the last emergency measure worked: the pilot manually pulled a lever that locked the wheel in place. (It was truly the last resort, I was told later.)

It was an eerie feeling listening to the radio chatter, seeing the flashing lights on the ground and watching the pilot feverishly work. I thought about many things over those 30 minutes. My first thought was to keep quiet so as not to distract the pilot. If he needed something from me, he would ask and I would do what I could. I did not experience the proverbial “life flashing before my eyes.” But I did get a brief sensation of being at my own funeral and seeing my wife and two children sitting there.

But I snapped out of that and said to myself: “Jesus, it doesn’t feel like this is the time for me to meet you. But if it is, so be it.” (Maybe I was being presumptuous about me meeting Him. I hope not.)

Then I prayed and said many Hail Marys and Our Fathers in my head. I actually imagined Robert Redford saying Hail Marys in the classic World War II movie A Bridge Too Far as he paddled across a river against a hail of bullets. It sounds silly, but it helped.

Then, I focused on my wife and two children and whether I would see them again. I remembered my mother’s early death to cancer and how she missed my wedding and ever knowing my children. For several minutes, all I could think about was what I was about to miss. Hugs. Graduations. First jobs. Weddings. Growing old with my wife. Grandchildren.

But then I stopped thinking about what I would miss and focused only on how I was going to live, regardless if that wheel came down or not. I started mapping out how I was going to brace myself at impact and get the emergency door open.

Luckily, shortly after this, the wheel did come down and we landed safely.

Over the ensuing hours, safely in bed, I thought more about the things I didn’t think about during those 30 minutes. I didn’t think about work. I didn’t think about money or possessions. I didn’t think about my mistakes in life. I didn’t even think about golf or hockey, what I have always thought of as passions in my life.

But I did think about my wife and children. And I thought about the time I’ve wasted with things that do not matter when it comes to people who do matter.

I also had an odd thought: I’m glad it happened. Easy to say that now, after things worked out, you say. And you’re probably right. But it was an incredibly exhilarating life experience that taught me a lesson about what really matters.

Positive change

The Vatican has made commendable efforts to integrate modern communication tools into its daily routines. Even the Pope has embraced the Internet and encouraged such social media innovations as blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Yet it’s been like entering a Ferrari in the Formula 1 racing circuit without hiring a professional driver.

That has changed, however, with the recent appointment of a seasoned journalist who brings impressive newspaper and television credentials into the new role of senior communications advisor in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Greg Burke, 52, left Fox News to take the wheel of the Vatican’s communication machine. His daunting challenge is to steer the Church clear of the public relations potholes that, in recent years, have so often jarred all Catholics.

Hiring a qualified professional for this critical role is long overdue. The Church has been hammered in the international media almost from the day in 2005 that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, chided in the press as the Vatican’s bulldog, became Pope Benedict XVI. In countless media accounts, the new Pope suffered in comparisons to his popular predecessor, John Paul II. It has been a losing battle since then to usher the secular media past its bias and stereotyping and have them report fairly and accurately on the Pope and Church events.

That now become’s Burke’s job. His resume suggests he is up to the challenge. He came to Rome in 1988 as a correspondent for the U.S.-based National Catholic Register and has covered the Vatican ever since. After a decade as a Time magazine correspondent,  he joined Fox News in 2001 and has covered the papacy extensively, developing a reputation for fairness and accuracy. Burke, a member of Opus Dei, calls himself an old-fashioned mid-western Catholic.

A sense of what he faces was evident in a snide account of his hiring in a prominent London, England, newspaper. It read: “The scandal-plagued Vatican has hired a U.S. news specialist to drag its public-relations operations out of the dark ages.” The Vatican is hardly “scandal-plagued” or stuck in the “dark ages” but those types of messages are consistently delivered to Catholics and non-Catholics by the secular media.

Burke’s unenviable task is to not only reverse the negative messaging but, in a dizzying world of media overload and sound bites, he must show Vatican leaders how to effectively communicate the Church’s message. That won’t be easy. It requires a confident communications strategy to rebuild the Church’s image, but also a resolve to respond quickly, directly and candidly to harmful, often inaccurate stories about the Church.

Burke acknowledges that counselling the Pope and his advisors is “a little bit scary.” He says any turnaround will take time, but putting a qualified professional behind the wheel is a positive start.

Maybe it’s time that we turn the whole conversation to Jesus

Every so often a conversation resonates with far greater power upon reflection than when it occurred. A friend recently visited me at home. We spoke about how the Catholic Church, and to a large extent Christianity, is presented to society. She expressed frustration that the Church is usually discussed in relation to “pelvic issues” — birth control, abortion and homosexuality. And those topics have become the breadth and width of Catholic teaching, at least to those who only follow religion in the media.

The discussion has to return to a focus on Jesus, she said. The Church gets attacked, she noted, but Jesus never gets attacked. She suggested that maybe the answer to every question should always come back to Jesus.

Her comments make sense even when not discussing faith. There is probably no individual who has had more influence on the world than Jesus. Yes, there have been great people who have moved the world in immeasurable ways, even in modern times, but Jesus represents 2,000 years of adoration and fascination.

Does anyone not know the name Jesus? Even the most ardent atheist would respect what Jesus had to say and how He acted. Even those who do not believe He was the Son of God or that He was in any way divine, would not likely dismiss His message.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus spoke about love of the poor, those who mourn and the merciful. He spoke about a love of neighbour and that our neighbour is everyone, not just members of our own class or race or even religion. He spoke about breaking the cycle of violence by turning the other cheek. And He said laying down one’s life for a friend was the epitome of love — something He actually did.

He left stories that nearly everyone knows but no longer attach to the author. Try to find a flaw in the story of the good samaritan. It is impossible. Likewise, the story of the prodigal son is perfect. Even if you resent the miserable child who blew the father’s fortune on booze and hookers, the story raises up a deep well of emotion. And everyone can relate to the older son, the good son, who stayed home and did what was right.

Moreover, Jesus said to repent and to change our ways because they were corroding our hearts with those things which do not make us happy.

Read this in Matthew: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”

How true this would ring to the most ardent secularist being crushed under mountains of debt or to all those trying to fill empty spaces in their lives with goods rather than God.

Matthew also spoke about forgiveness. It is why a woman who has had an abortion will find love and understanding in the Church rather than scorn and banishment — despite what those outside the Church think.

I realize there is a problem in all this. Nuanced thinking is a lost art. How can something be labelled a serious sin and yet be forgiven? It does not seem to make sense. Doesn’t it have to be one or the other?. To which Jesus would say: not quite.

Maybe my friend is right. Maybe pelvic politics is obscuring the abundant beauty of our faith. Maybe it is time to take a break from talking about gay-straight alliances and birth control and remind people what moves us to work at shelters, help the poor, sponsor refugees and hold the highest respect for life.

After our talk, this is what my friend wrote to me. I am thinking of framing it:

“In any case, I wish you the best as you journey more deeply into your Catholic faith. As time passes, I hope you come to see, as many Catholics do, that we try our best, often fail, but remain steadfast in our faith that God is a merciful God, and that Jesus and His mother Mary are much closer than all the noise our current world allows us to sense. We are unwavering in our belief that Jesus is Eucharist and that we are called to praise and worship before Him together at Mass.”