Waters of death and life

Summertime and we head out on the waters. We have tamed them, made them safe for splashing, floating, swimming, boating. The beach and the lake beckon us away from the city. The waters promise refreshment and relaxation and recreation.

They were not created so. They were not made tame and tranquil. The Spirit hovered about the waters in the beginning, and there was chaos and darkness and the void. The biblical waters speak of the depths, down into which one descends, away from light and life. Our technologically advanced life is rather distant from the biblical world now, and the waters no longer conjure fear. We have tamed the waters, flattened out the depths. Yet the depths and the darkness cannot be altogether banished, for life in this world has not the power to tame death.

Kenton Van Pelt, 15, died in the waters at his family cottage on July 28. His parents, Michael and Deani, are friends of mine. We have worked together, as Michael is president of Cardus, the think tank that publishes our new magazine, Convivium. Michael and Deani and I have been on pilgrimage together in the Holy Land. We have laughed together and prayed together. They are an exemplary Christian couple. Now their world has been overwhelmed by the destructive power of the waters, the darkness and chaos crashing down upon them and their son. Summertime has come, and the wreckage of the waters with it.

The Christian is inclined toward those biblical passages that speak of the refreshing, restful waters of Psalm 23 beside which the Lord leads us. We are shaped by the vision of Ezekiel, where the waters from the temple flow out into the Judean wilderness, bringing forth life in abundance from the arid desert.

Yet we forget that in the ancient world the waters were occasions of danger. The fear of the apostles amidst the storms on the Sea of Galilee was real enough. It is not Psalm 23, but Psalm 69 that speaks more truly about the biblical sense of the waters: “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”

The biblical waters are the realm of death. They have not been tamed. This is the meaning of our baptism. The water of baptism has different meanings, and today we tend to think more of the symbol of washing. The waters poured gently over the head of a baby wash away the stain of original sin. Or we might think about the waters providing refreshment and nourishment as an apt symbol of grace being poured into the soul.

We neglect the waters as a symbol of death. Perhaps if immersion baptisms were more common we would see that more clearly, for to be immersed too long means death not life. The children of Israel, marching through the Red Sea, knew that they were passing through death, towering upon either side of them, as the Pharaoh and his chariots and charioteers would soon discover.

We are baptized into Christ Jesus, and into His death. St. Paul writes to the Romans that “we believe that having died with Christ we shall return to life with Him. Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over Him.”

The answer to the waters of death is the waters of baptism. The answer to the mystery of death is the death on the cross. We are baptized into Christ crucified so that He might draw us through the waters to His resurrection. The Christian is not asked to pretend that the waters cannot bring death; to the contrary the disciple knows better than others that the waters of this vale of tears cannot be definitively tamed. Yet the waters of baptism give him confidence that life, not death, has the final word. Even in the face of the death of a young man, the Christian hears the Lord Jesus, who walks across the waters to say to His apostles, “Be not afraid.”

There are few sufferings more intense than the agony of parents who must bury their own child. Suffering is proportional to love. And it is the love — of parents for their son, of God for the world, of the Lord Jesus for those baptized into His body — that remains to give life, and life eternal.

“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song of Songs 8:7).

Modern Quebec caught up in post-Christian nothingness

Anyone who doubts that haunted nothingness comprises the core of post-Christian societies needs to spend some time in Quebec.

It would be particularly productive, from the perspective of witness, if they could arrive before the current provincial election concludes.

Mere days after Premier Jean Charest launched the campaign on Aug. 1, the spiritual emptiness at the heart of Quebec life opened itself for inspection against the background of electoral rhetoric. It is an emptiness that has nothing to do with language or ethnicity or historical origins, or even  political fever. It has everything to do with being a jurisdiction in which the snake oil of the all-encompassing self has been aggressively sold and swallowed holus-bolus.

For two generations at least, people outside the province have winked knowingly and observed that Quebecers of the late 1950s and early 1960s traded, straight up, obsessive belief in religion and hockey for obsessive belief in language and hockey.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Henri Bourassa called for Quebec to be a beacon of light for French Catholic North America. By mid-century, Quebecers simply sheared off the Catholic part and kept the rest. 

The truth, experienced though certainly not confessed to by everyone who lives in Quebec, is that you cannot simply cut the Catholic life out of a Catholic people without creating a void into which an infinity of bread and circuses will inevitably tumble. Its existence disproves the statement erroneously ascribed to G.K. Chesterton that people who stop believing in God don’t believe nothing, they believe anything. In fact, they do believe nothing because they believe nothing is worth believing.

So an otherwise good and decent man such as Jean Charest finds himself, cynically and in the worst of faith, fighting an election campaign against a gaggle of university students over their sophomoric refusal to pay higher tuition fees. The dispute, and its attendant antics, is really nothing but a Janus mask hiding the deplorable underlying state of this province — a malfeasance caused partly by the bankruptcy of treasury, but primarily by the evisceration of Catholic (Christian) charity among Quebecers.

To cite one small but telling example, people in Quebec’s public long-term care facilities receive one bath a week. If they are bedridden or incontinent, their adult diapers are changed a maximum of once a day. There is simply not enough money, apparently, to pay unionized staff to give them even marginally more adequate care. Neither, however, is there a rush of charity-conscious students knocking at the doors of such facilities to volunteer to alleviate such appalling neglect.

Though the students have demonstrated a superabundance of time for idly marching up and down the street, they have, as yet, shown themselves no more capable of a positive charitable contribution to reality than has their enraptured shaman, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois. Indeed, out of the gate, Marois has ululated a campaign theme that, elsewhere, would be assumed to originate from hallucinogenic plant consumption rather than the braintrust of a democratic political party in 2012. 

Marois will make political, financial and jurisdictional demands that Ottawa will be forced to refuse. She then intends to use the refusal to lead Quebec out of Confederation. This, as the Globe and Mail’s sober-minded and understated Konrad Yakabuski has pointed out, is occurring at a time when Quebec’s government debt places it between Portugal and Italy in the economic basket case sweepstakes.

The seriousness of this silliness is its self-absorption. Locked in the neurotic idée fixe that has obsessed her ­— and the political class around her — since the Church was vanquished in Quebec, Marois has nothing else to offer an electorate that so desperately needs something to rouse it from its malaise. In fairness, she is little more deficient there than CAQ leader François Legault, who was supposed to be a breath of fresh air but has so far managed only to promise that he will not speak of sovereignty or referenda or constitutional quarrels for a decade. Political silence, it seems, is a virtue in a spiritual vacuum.

No one outside Quebec should feel smug, however, about Quebec’s spiritual vacuum. It may be more evident in la belle province, but it is everywhere else as well. Post-Christian nothingness haunts us all.

Rumour mill forever spins tales of gay Christ film

Given that movies owe their existence to our taste for fantasy, escapism and entertainment, it’s not surprising that rumours are a big part of the business. Most of them involve the romances and fortunes of the big stars, but from time to time a story about a pending movie takes on a life of its own.

A rumour that reaches my desk about every three months involves a supposedly upcoming film portraying Jesus Christ as a gay man, complete with various story lines involving the apostles. Usually there is an invitation to sign a petition to let “them” know we won’t stand for it. Earlier versions — and this rumour goes back to the 1980s — encouraged letter-writing campaigns to senators and the governor in Illinois, the state where one film was allegedly going to be made.

In the 30-odd years that this story has been making the rounds, no evidence for the film’s existence has ever been found. In the early days, there was a low budget, art-house film with roughly the same theme that played for a very short time before disappearing. It was probably seen by only a few hundred people. Years later, there was a stage play similar to the one described in the petition. Terrance McNally’s 1998 dramatic offering  Corpus Christi previewed at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. As described by The New York Times, it “retells the biblical story of a Jesus-like figure — from his birth in a Texas flea-bag hotel with people having profane, violent sex in a room next door, to his crucifixion as ‘king of the queers’ in a manner with the potential to offend many people.” It did indeed offend many people and was shut down after a few weeks of massive protest. It continues to play in smaller theatres from time to time, often fuelling another round of rumours that the work is soon to be released as a major motion picture.

The spread of rumours and misinformation tends to accelerate when a desire for information is greater than the availability of verifiable facts. Studies of how news travels often find that rumour intensity is high when both the interest in an event and its ambiguity are great. The Internet has made all rumours and misinformation spread much faster, but some stories, such as this one, were able to spread quickly before the medium was even invented.

That may have something to do with Hollywood’s not-always-smooth relationship with religion in its film portrayals. While there have been such epics as The Ten Commandments or Greatest Story Ever Told, and more recently The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story, there was also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which reaped massive publicity — and long lines at the box office — after strong protests at theatres.  The uproar concerned a Jesus who both questioned His fate and who had a dream about a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. The film remains controversial, as do Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Priest (1994) and others that focussed on attacking the fundamentals of Christianity’s origins or the personal failings of clergy and religious. 

Against that backdrop it is no wonder that many people could believe a “gay Jesus film” might be in the offing. (A Canadian would probably assume there was a government grant involved.) I suspect the rumour, and the petitions, will continue as long as there is any news that might spark it.

As it happens, there is indeed a new movie about Jesus Christ in production. Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and CJ Entertainment have acquired the rights to the Anne Rice tome Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which tells the story of a seven-year-old Jesus who departs Egypt with His family to return to Nazareth. Along the way He discovers the truth about His birth, who He is and His purpose in life. The movie is expected within a year.

According to Variety magazine, Columbus says: “This film has the potential to be a cinematic classic, a picture that will appeal to all ages, all around the world. I am proud to be part of this incredible production.”

Given Hollywood’s history with religious subjects, we’ll have to wait to see whether the enthusiasm is justified. Chances are there will be more than a rumour or two between now and release day!

Virtue of sport

Blessed John Paul II, an avid sportsman in his youth, once lauded the moral value of sports. “They are a training ground of virtue,” he said.

His wisdom is worth contemplating during a busy summer that, in addition to the usual menu of baseball, football, tennis, golf, etc., offers the Olympic Summer Games in London, England.

Unfortunately, virtue can sometimes be difficult to find in modern sport. Multi-million-dollar professional salaries, bloated  TV ratings and lucrative endorsements frequently breed a cult of celebrity that often spawns immoral behaviour both on and off the playing field.

The Olympics are supposed to represent sport in its purest form but, even if that was once the case, that purity has been compromised. Commercialism is rampant and, in many glamour sports, the financial stakes are high. Organizers in London will spend millions of dollars on drug testing and it will be a shock if they fail to expose some cheaters.

But those inevitable incidents shouldn’t detract from the overall celebration of virtue that Pope John Paul II believed was the essence of sport.

John Paul II was affectionately known as the “athlete pope.” As a student he was a runner and soccer player and later became an ardent swimmer, skier and hiker. He believed that sport, in its pure form, could provide an arena for evangelization because the attributes required to become a champion — sacrifice, passion, obedience, discipline — were similar in many respects to those required to become a saint.

Sportsmanship, as an ideal, is all about character. It’s about humility, honesty, loyalty, respect and generosity. It is not a quest for perfection but, like a faith journey, is a quest for virtue. There will be moments of temptation and times of failure but the true sportsman, like the faithful person, will acknowledge setbacks with integrity and strive to become better.

John Paul II once said the Church values sport because it advances the complete development of the body and soul and contributes to the advancement of a more human society. He believed the virtues evident in true sport could cultivate harmony among cultures and peace among nations.

“Sports have, in themselves, an important moral and educative significance,” said John Paul II. “They are a training ground of virtue, a school of inner balance and outer control, an introduction to more true and lasting conquests.”

He called sport a gift from God to mankind. And like the late pope, the 19th-century founders of the modern Olympics believed in sport as a training ground of virtue.

That noble ideal may have taken a beating over the past century, but the pursuit of virtue is still worth championing and, when it bubbles to the surface in a young athlete, well worth celebrating.

Finish well what God has begun in you

The following is adapted from a homily preached by Fr. de Souza at a Mass for the 10th anniversary of his ordination, on July 20, 2012.

KRAKOW, POLAND - In this historic chapel of the residence of the archbishops of Krakow, Cardinal Stanislaus Dziwisz has now fashioned a fitting shrine to its most famous resident, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla.

The new reredos imaginatively includes the churches linked to the life of Blessed John Paul II — his baptismal church in Wadowice; the sanctuary of the Queen of Poland at Czestochowa; the Mariacki church of Krakow’s heart; Our Lady of Fatima, the protectress of the pope’s life; the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the destination of his epic Jubilee pilgrimage; Wawel, his seat as successor of St. Stanislaus; the Vatican basilica, his Roman home as the successor of St. Peter; and the shrine of Divine Mercy, the mystery of which, as Cardinal Ratzinger said in his funeral homily, was the key to John Paul’s entire teaching, and the shrine of which the late pope consecrated on his farewell visit to this, his beloved Krakow, in 2002.

That was 10 years ago next month. A few weeks before he returned to Krakow to consecrate the shrine of Divine Mercy, Blessed John Paul II was in Canada for Toronto’s World Youth Day. As part of those events, I was ordained a priest of Jesus Christ in Kingston, 10 years ago today. And a few weeks before that I came to Krakow to rejoin for a few days the seminar which first brought me to this city in 1994. During those days I came to pray in this chapel, the very chapel where Karol Wojtyla was ordained a priest on All Saints Day 1946.

I prayed then for the gift of the priesthood that awaited me; I return today to give thanks to the mercy of God for 10 years of priestly life. I return with my own parents, who made of our home a domestic church where the One greater than the temple found a place to dwell. After God Himself, to them belongs the gratitude of the Church for my priestly vocation and whatever fruit there has been from these 10 years of work in the Lord’s vineyard.

I come today also with George Weigel, and in him is represented the Krakow seminar that was for me a decisive step on the path to the priesthood. To him God gave the great mission of explaining to the world who John Paul II is, and George knew that this extraordinary Christian disciple had to be explained “from the inside” not from the “outside.” In this chapel one now sees, behind the altar, the churches of Karol Wojtyla’s life, but in the tabernacle one beholds the mystery that is the window to understanding him from the inside.

It was in this house that the young Karol Wojtyla would come to know Adam Sapieha, the prince archbishop, who, George Weigel tells us in Witness to Hope, “would be his model of Church leadership for more than half a century.” Archbishop Sapieha, made a cardinal after the war, was the great defender of the Church and the people during the long night of the occupation. He courageously opened a clandestine seminary in this residence, and the young men would often come to serve the archbishop’s Mass here.

Karol Wojtyla came, as did another young man, Jerzy Zachuta. In April 1944, Jerzy was killed by the Gestapo. Later that year, Wojtyla and the others would move into this house, it being too dangerous to live outside in their own city. For Jerzy Zachuta his vocation finished almost as soon as it started. The Lord had a different plan for Karol Wojtyla.

“For some time I thought about the possibility of becoming a Carmelite,” John Paul would write in 1996. “My uncertainties were resolved by Archbishop Cardinal Sapieha, who — in his usual manner — said briefly: ‘You should first of all finish what you started.’ And that is what I did.”

It was an unusual answer, because finishing what he started meant, among other things, not becoming a Carmelite. Yet the unbroken prince archbishop spoke more providently than he knew; Karol Wojtyla would not finish what he started until he had done what the other great Polish cardinal of the 20th century, Stefan Wyszynski, prophesied, namely to lead the Church across the threshold of hope into the third Christian millennium.

Finish what you have started. The Christian life might be summed up as just that — finish well what God has begun in you at baptism. It can summarize the great Christian pilgrimage through history. What my parents have done, what I and my brother and sisters must do, is to continue what has been lived by so many generations of faithful Catholics in our family. I carry in my heart today in particular the witness of my late grandmothers; I offered my first Mass for them 10 years ago, and I offer this Mass for them today.

We do not know the finish. We walk by faith and trust in God. Yet I do know this, that the past 10 years have been a blessing beyond measure, that I cannot imagine another life that would have brought me more joy — or allowed me to have more fun! — than the great adventure of being a Catholic priest in the third millennium.

I am a Catholic priest. That declaration is a sombre one to make in Krakow, as the image of St. Maximilian Kolbe in the church across the street reminds us. The Lord has not asked of me hardship, or even difficulty. He has granted me instead a full measure, pressed down and overflowing, the hundredfold return, and as yet without persecutions. Perhaps they will come; perhaps they will not. We do not know how we will finish.

On July 20, 2002, the Most Reverend Francis John Spence, archbishop of Kingston, took my hands in his and said to me: “May God who has begun this good work in you now bring it to fulfilment.”

We might translate that into the history of this chapel: You must finish what you have started. Amen.

These are a few of my favourite (P.E.I.) things

While on our annual family vacation to Prince Edward Island in July, a visiting friend from Ontario made an intriguing remark about her first impression of the island.

“I simply cannot get over how Catholic P.E.I. seems to be,” she said.

Such an impression never occurred to me. But her not being Catholic obviously gave her a different perspective.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not being critical,” she said. “I just mean driving here from the (Confederation) Bridge we saw so many pretty little Catholic churches, we’ve heard about the lobster suppers in Catholic churches and there just seems to be a ‘Catholic feel’ to the place.”

We had a nice visit that afternoon with our friends and nothing more was said on the topic. But it got me thinking. She had a point. In fact, about half the population of 140,000 in P.E.I. is Catholic, according to Statistics Canada.

Then I started thinking about some of my favourite “Catholic” things on the island and I quickly came up with a tidy little list. (We’ve been visiting P.E.I. each summer for almost a decade after buying a cottage, which we rent when we’re not there.)

We’ve all heard the tourist spiel about Anne of Green Gables, white sandy beaches, the quaint red clay roads and the fabulous P.E.I. golf courses. And we might think potatoes or lobster when P.E.I. is mentioned, but Catholic is not a word that typically comes top of mind.

So, here are some tourist ideas for things to check out with Catholic flavour the next time you are, as the locals say, “on island.”

o The Confederation Trail is a walking and biking trail from one tip of the island to the other. The trail used to be the railway lands. I have not ridden the entire trail but I have found no prettier ride than the 12 kilometres from Morell to St. Peter’s. Most of the ride you’ll have a beautiful view of St. Peter’s Bay with the stately old St. Peter’s Church majestically standing on the hill across the bay. There are many places to stop along the trail for a picnic lunch and a clear vista of the big white church, which is generally open for a visit and with Sunday Mass at 11 a.m.

o St. Dunstan’s Basilica in Charlottetown is a century-old stone French Gothic church built from the remains of the cathedral that had been damaged by fire in 1913. It is the fourth church on the site and one of the most visible landmarks in Charlottetown with its three copper spires being some of the highest points on the city skyline. It is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in the province and one of the most elaborate churches in the Maritimes. The marble altar is 10 metres high and if you look closely at the ribs in the ceiling, you’ll see symbols of the Allied nations in the First World War, which was raging during St. Dunstan’s construction. Guided tours are available but you’re also welcome to quietly visit on your own or attend Mass.

o Ceilidhs (pronounced kaylees) are a fun part of the musical culture in P.E.I. Though not specifically Catholic, the Ceilidh tradition of singing, dancing, fiddling and strumming occurs in many churches and halls around the island. Ceilidhs began some years ago as weekend “kitchen parties” and now they are open to the general public and occur most nights of the week in summer. Each year, we attend a couple of Ceilidhs, especially the Crane Family Ceilidh at the refurbished St. Andrew’s Chapel in Mount Stewart, near our cottage.

o St. Andrew’s Chapel is significant on its own. It was the first church built in P.E.I. by Scottish settlers in 1772. In 1864 it was moved by horse and men on the ice down the river 28 kilometres to Charlottetown where it was converted into a school by the Sisters of Notre Dame. Later abandoned, it was restored and renovated and returned to Mount Stewart in 1998. Next to the chapel is the burial site of Fr. Angus MacEachern, the first bishop of P.E.I. His story is worth exploring and available at the site.

o St. Mary’s Church is the largest wood church in the province and is renowned for its acoustics. Located near Cavendish in Kensington, it hosts the Indian River Festival with world-class vocalists and musicians. It attracts tourists and singers the world over, as well as worshippers every Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.

o The Chez Shea Inn and Spa is a former convent only minutes from the Confederation Bridge. We’ve never stayed overnight at the beautiful old three-storey building, but are told it is spiritually rejuvenating, although perhaps not as healing as the Sisters of St. Martha who used to reside there. Its grounds are peaceful amid a colourful and fragrant garden.  

A quick word about the P.E.I. lobster suppers; they are no longer run by church councils or CWL members. They are run by for-profit businesses in a few churches and restaurant halls. If you love lobster, they are worth checking out but the ambiance is more like a restaurant than an old-fashioned church supper.

I am sure there are plenty more Catholic sites in P.E.I. and I expect to find more during our future visits.

America’s most cherished liberty under attack

On the Fourth of July, the Catholic Church in the United States turned toward Washington, not for the fireworks, nor for a windy speech from the president, but for the conclusion of what the American bishops declared to be a Fortnight for Freedom.

I followed it rather more closely than most, since I was appointed last year a consultant to the American bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. Alarmed at encroachments on religious liberty at home, and escalating violence against Christians abroad, the ad hoc committee of senior bishops proposed a special fortnight of prayer, fasting, catechesis and public action in defense of religious liberty. Summoning forth “all the energies the Catholic community can muster,” the fortnight was a dramatic appeal to Americans — both Catholic and otherwise — to realize that their “first, most cherished liberty” is under sustained and serious attack.

Julian Fantino must be an advocate for the poor

At first glance, the appointment of Julian Fantino to replace Bev Oda as Canada’s Minister of International Co-operation seems an odd choice.

Fantino inherits responsibility for overseeing a $5-billion aid budget co-ordinated through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Becoming the public face of Canadian charity is a big leap for someone best known as a hard-nosed cop who, if he has a soft side, keeps it well hidden.

Then again, Fantino may be exactly what CIDA needs.

Could it actually be that the media is on the side of life?

The parallels between abortion and euthanasia or assisted suicide are often cited during debates, especially by those who recall the role played by the media and the courts in first liberalizing Canada’s abortion laws and later eliminating them.  But over the past few weeks we have seen a striking difference emerge. 

Decades ago, almost all media outlets supported liberalization of abortion laws. In recent weeks, however, media reaction to a B.C. court decision striking down Canada’s assisted suicide laws has  been anything but unanimous. Even editorials supportive of the decision have acknowledged the vulnerability of the elderly and disabled, and pointed out the potential for abuse through a more liberal law.

Opposing the court decision, the Vancouver Province said, “Allowing doctors to kill patients nearing the end of their lives, even with their consent, cheapens the sanctity of life, no matter how horrible the disease a patient is suffering from.”

Wily McGuinty’s Orwellian law scorns Church over Bill 13

What makes Premier Dalton McGuinty’s treatment of Toronto Archbishop (and Cardinal) Thomas Collins over the gay-straight alliances particularly distressing is that the Church asked for so little and wound up with nothing. To go down fighting in defence of core teachings of the Church would be one thing, but to get a dismissive backhand from the premier when the Church had already accommodated almost every item of Bill-13 and when all that was left is nomenclature, well, that is truly humiliating.

Of course, Cardinal Collins was betrayed by many of his putative allies. OECTA, the Catholic teachers’ union, made it clear that they sided with McGuinty and not with the Church from which they derive their raison d’etre. Quislings too, publicly or privately, were many Catholic school trustees. With allies like these, how could anyone confidently go into battle?

Providing safeguards for medical killing is delusional

Tragedy at a Montreal psychiatric facility should stop proponents of  medicalized killing dead in their tracks.

On June 16, one day after the B.C. Supreme Court struck down Canada’s laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide, someone in the high security psychiatric unit of the Centre Hospitalier Université de Montréal asphyxiated a patient. On June 21, a second patient was suffocated.

But here’s the thing: neither death was recognized as a homicide, let alone raised alarm bells, until the next day when an attempt to choke a third patient to death was foiled. A former slaughterhouse worker with a lengthy history of violent crime, who checked himself into the ward the very day the first patient was killed, was charged June 27.