Reigniting faith

Initially, it seemed odd when Pope Benedict XVI declared the Church would celebrate a special Year of Faith. Aren't followers called to be joyful witnesses to Christ every year? For the baptized, isn't faith already the fabric of daily Christian life?

The answers to those questions, of course, are yes. At least they should be. So in that sense the Year of Faith, which launched on Oct. 11, is preaching to the converted. But none of that diminishes the foresight of the declaration or the duty to heed its call.

The coming year is designed to usher the Church into a period of reflection and rediscovery of faith and, by extension, into a revival of Christian values. The Pope has long worried that faith, particularly in the West, is being battered by cultural and political forces that are causing a "profound crisis of faith" in society. His Year of Faith is the Church fighting back.

He wants to entice lapsed Catholics back to church and to introduce the faith to non-believers. To achieve those goals the Pope intends to stoke the fires of evangelization in all Catholics by en- couraging a deeper understanding of Scripture and Church teachings, and then urging all Catholics to proceed with authority and joy to give public witness to faith.

"We want this year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope," the Pope said.

He calls the Year of Faith a time to study, profess and demonstrate faith. It is a year for Catholics to re-learn their faith and connect proactively with others whose devotion has lapsed or by example to others who have never found God.

There are many ways to accomplish this — through the sacraments and prayer, meditation and study, retreats and pilgrimages — but some practical activities are particularly recommended. These begin with studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which just turned 20. It is the training manual for Catholics and the first source to learn or re-learn the faith.

Catholics are also encouraged to read the documents of Vatican II, to memorize the Nicene Creed and recite it daily, to attend adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, to study the lives of saints and to participate in parish workshops that explore Scripture and Church teaching. Pilgrimage is also important, not necessarily to distant locales like the Holy Land, but to closer sites such as the Martyrs' Shrine in Midland, Ont., or St. Joseph Oratory in Montreal, or St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto.

The Year of Faith is focussed on the laity, "who should not be considered collaborators of the clergy, but people who are co-responsible for the Church," said Benedict. It is about them becoming proud Catholics and Catholics that others can be proud of.

The anxious wedge between Christians and Muslims

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.)

Christians resigned to media bias

This is a column about what happens (or doesn’t happen) when Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster mocks Jesus Christ on prime time TV and a no-name amateur filmmaker mocks Mohammad on the Internet.

Throughout September, deadly violence erupted in many parts of the world as groups of Muslims attacked American embassies and other installations after a low-budget video, called The Innocence of Muslims and posted on YouTube, depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a sexual deviant. In Pakistan, at least two six-figure bounties have been offered, one by a current government official and the other by a former one, to be paid upon the death of the filmmaker. The filmmaker himself is currently being held in a Los Angeles detention centre, reportedly for parole violations.

In Pakistan, at least 23 protesters have been killed. There were also deaths in several other Muslim countries. The violence coincided with an attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four people, including the U.S. ambassador.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 28 the CBC program This Hour has 22 Minutes broadcast a skit based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. It used the tableau as a backdrop to satirize recent news reports of writings on a papyrus fragment that allude to a wife of Jesus. (The fragment is of disputed origin and there is certainly no agreement among scholars that it refers to Jesus Christ.) In the skit, a woman identified as Jesus’ wife is shown continually disrupting the Last Supper, complaining that Jesus is constantly carousing with the boys and drinking too much wine. In a particularly offensive segment, the familiar words of the consecration (“This is my blood…”) are interrupted when the Jesus figure complains: “Ellen, do you mind, I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

Although both are offensive, the two videos are different in many respects. But perhaps the most striking difference was not the video content itself but in the respective response from Muslims and Christians. In the first case, we saw violence that we would normally expect only in conditions of war or civil uprising; in the second, there were probably a few hundred groans as many people reached for the remote and perhaps a few dozen angry e-mails and phone calls to the CBC.

The Catholic Civil Rights League has tried over the years to lead the way in protesting serious anti-Catholic media portrayals. I am often asked why the typical Catholic response is usually so tame, if one happens at all. Obviously, there is a cultural factor. North American and European Christians live in free-speech societies and in environments where religious differences tend to be accommodated and where religion is downplayed in a secular public atmosphere. This doesn’t make it right to mock religious beliefs as though faith was just another form of entertainment, but it probably does mean that when it happens Christians regard it more as tasteless humour than a serious attack.

More than likely, the people who send e-mails or make phone calls to complain know that change is unlikely. These complaints won’t reverse the ingrained biases of society and the media.

The CBC’s lampoon of  the Last Supper was far from its most serious example of anti-faith bias. No one would take the skit seriously. Some of the false impressions created by the CBC and other networks over the years by their slanted coverage of the sex-abuse scandals, or in police dramas where violence at abortion clinics always seems to have a Catholic angle, probably do more to perpetuate anti-Catholic bias.

Perhaps Catholics, and many other Christians, have stopped paying much attention to the media because the bias is rampant or because they believe any harm done falls short of egregious. While some of the worst South Park episodes, such as those involving a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary or a depiction of Jesus Christ who could not perform miracles, drew sharp responses, including boycotts, most people responded by simply watching something else.

This may well be part of the reason that the media continues to take liberties with Christianity that they wouldn’t dare take with Islam. Christians seem resigned to the insults.

No one wants a world in which violent responses are the norm, but a short e-mail or phone call in protest of anti-religious bias can let producers and advertisers know they’ve lost some audience. As media executives and politicians both attest, it’s an issue if they hear about it, and if they don’t, it isn’t.

(McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League.)

A better Church

Fifty years ago this week the largest gathering of bishops ever assembled heeded a call from Pope John XXIII to attend the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

It was a remarkable event. Each time the council was in session between 1962 and 1965 more than 2,000 bishops were present. They came from all corners of the world and, in sheer numbers, they were triple the total number of bishops (almost entirely European) who attended the First Vatican Council a century earlier. The Catholic world had never seen anything like it and, in many regards, Catholicism has not been the same since.

The Church today is better because of Vatican II. It’s not perfect, far from it. The task of interpreting and implementing the council’s 16 documents is ongoing. But Vatican II wasn’t a quest for perfection. It was about spiritual renewal and Christian unity in a post-war world on the cusp of extraordinary social, economic and technological revolution. Space flight was turning our thoughts to the heavens and Pope John sought to ensure God’s place on that journey.

“It is not that the Gospel has changed,” the Pope said at the time. “It is that we have begun to understand it better . . . the moment has come to discern the signs of the times, to seize the opportunity and to look far ahead.”

Vatican II lasted three years (with a nine-month hiatus after Pope John’s death in 1963) and the Church did indeed emerge spiritually invigorated. But, regrettably, not totally united. Considerable disagreement remains between those who say the council went too far and those who say it didn’t go far enough, between those itching to hit the rewind button and those longing to push fast forward. That disagreement won’t blacken the golden anniversary celebration but, unfortunately, it could soften the glow.

This issue of The Register devotes eight pages of special coverage to Vatican II but barely skims the surface of those historic days. What’s important to note, however, is that Vatican II was about evolution of Church practices, not revolution of Church doctrine. The council produced no radical doctrinal break with the past but, in keeping with Pope John’s intent, it emboldened the bishops to be future-looking.

The past half century has witnessed a whirlwind of social, scientific and economic innovation that, today, regularly pits society’s shifting values against the Church’s fundamental teachings. It might be a stretch to suggest Pope John saw all this coming. But he sensed something was up. The Second Vatican Council was the fruit of that foresight.

But, in the words of Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, it could take 100 years to fully understand all the implications of Vatican II. It’s a journey and we may only be half way there.

Some of us still play for the right reasons

Though we are under the watchful eye of the Beer Czar

When it comes to the NHL lockout, it proves adult men can be ridiculous and greedy. When it comes to our weekly pickup hockey games, it proves adult men can be silly and generous.

This year’s hockey “draft party” was extra special because we played a pre-season game at the Leafs practice facility at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke before the draft. (It’s not like the Leafs were in any need of the ice.) One of our regulars bought the ice time for his pals at a charity auction and another player donated his home (along with beer and burgers) for the party.

The intent of the annual party is to “draft” teams and make them as even as possible so that games are competitive and fun, week in and week out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because we have players of vastly different skill levels ranging in age from early 40s to early 60s.

But I like to think that we follow some of the rules for sport and sportsmanship that Pope Benedict mused about in September to members of the International Federation of Sports Medicine at their world congress in Rome. He talked about fair play, the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and a culture too much about winning at all costs. That didn’t apply to us middle-aged, middle-bulging men, but this did: “Just as sport is more than just competition, each sportsman and woman is more than a mere competitor: they are possessed of a moral and spiritual capacity which ought to be enriched and deepened by sports,” the pontiff said.

Our gang has played hockey together weekly for more than a decade. And friendships have been forged and skins thickened from the dressing room banter.

At the “draft” party this year, before teams were selected, there was a motion put forward that air-tight rules had to be laid out for post-game beer in the dressing room. The general rule has been that each dressing room has one player assigned the task of bringing a dozen cans. A schedule comes out before the season so you know which two dates are your “beer nights.”

Unfortunately, sometimes guys have not shown up on their beer night or forgotten to bring the beer. This problem was pretty much taken care of last year when a “Beer Czar” was appointed. The morning of the game, he e-mails our group of 30 guys naming the two beer guys that night for all to see.

Only one guy forgot his beer last year, a lawyer who claimed he was in court and didn’t read his e-mails. A lousy excuse and he is reminded of the faux pas constantly. All in all, the Beer Czar’s record was pretty good so he was re-appointed for a second term at the draft party.

Over a debate approaching one hour (yes, Canadian guys can debate the issue of beer that long), new rules were adopted and justice served when the moniker of “warm beer guy” was lifted from one player who held that epithet erroneously for almost a decade.

The new rules spell things out clearly: the beer has to be packed in ice, not freezer packs, and the cans have to be tall boys, not regular size. The Beer Czar, who seems to enjoy his work, inspects the cooler bags before we take to the ice each week.

And if there is a violation, the offender will be made to play that night’s game wearing only his skates, shin guards, protective cup, gloves and helmet.

In our wives’ eyes, all of this is pure silliness. And they may be correct. But it’s all done in a spirit of friendship and — like millions of other Canadians — it is an expression of our love for the game; unlike owners and players and their love of money. When they’re fighting over a few hundred million dollars here and there in a $3-billion business, I will take our silliness over their ridiculousness seven ways to Sunday.

We rejoice the triumph of the Lord Jesus Christ

Gaudet Mater Ecclesia! Mother Church rejoices!”

On Oct. 11, 1962, Blessed John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with that famous allocution. This year, his successor will return to the Vatican basilica to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the council. It is not only about looking backward though, for Pope Benedict XVI will simultaneously open the Year for Faith, in which the whole Church will be asked to discover anew her faith in Jesus Christ.

Ten years ago on Oct. 11, I was at St. Peter’s and had the privilege with some of my classmates to offer the Holy Mass at the altar over the tomb of Blessed John XXIII himself. The principal celebrant that day was Archbishop Timothy Dolan, then the archbishop of Milwaukee, who had been the rector of the Pontifical North American College when I and my classmates were students there. The then rector, Msgr. Kevin McCoy joined us, as did friends of Archbishop Dolan. More than that, the day was especially memorable as my own parents were present.

At the space of then 40 years — and now 50 — Oct. 11, 1962, manifestly marked out a new path for the Church in the history of our time. That path has not been without twists and turns, successes and disappointments, as mark the Church’s pilgrimage toward the Lord of history. Most fundamentally, the council remains what it was from the beginning, a summons to proclaim with new missionary fervour the Gospel in our time.

Gaudet Mater Ecclesia captured the spirit of the Council and the spirit of the pope who convoked it,” the preacher, a newly ordained priest, said that morning 10 years ago at the tomb of that very same pope. “Those resonant words are an answer to the question: What does the Church do?

“The Church rejoices. It is her mission. It is what she exists in the world for. To rejoice. She rejoices because she knows, as St. Paul teaches us, ‘that through Christ Jesus the blessing bestowed on Abraham might descend on the gentiles in Christ Jesus.’ She rejoices because the promise made to Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, her Bridegroom, her Saviour, her Redeemer, her Lord. The Church rejoices because of the ‘wondrous deeds’ of the Lord. ‘Great are the works of the Lord, exquisite in all their delights,’ sings the psalmist.

“Pope John XXIII chose this date to open the council because it was the feast of the divine maternity of Mary,” the homilist noted. “When that feast was moved to Jan. 1, Oct. 11 became free and was given to Blessed John XXIII, in memory of his most memorable words, spoken here in this basilica, only a few feet from where we are this morning: Gaudet Mater Ecclesia! His feast and this anniversary are truly an exquisite delight from the Lord.

“In that landmark address of Oct. 11, Pope John gave us several memorable phrases, warning us against the ‘prophets of gloom’ and inviting the Church to show the ‘medicine of mercy.’ Yet there is one passage that speaks to the heart of the council’s message and heart of Angelo Roncalli’s life, words that echo today’s Gospel: The great problem confronting the world after almost 2,000 years remains unchanged. Christ is ever resplendent as the centre of history and of life. Men are either with Him and His Church, and then they enjoy light, goodness, order and peace. Or else they are without Him, or against Him, and deliberately opposed to His Church, and then they give rise to confusion, to bitterness in human relations and to the constant danger of fratricidal wars.”

The joy which Blessed John XXIII proclaimed 50 years ago was not about pasting a smiley face on the Church so as to make her more popular. The Church rejoices because Jesus Christ has triumphed, and that His love is stronger than all the principalities and powers of the world arrayed against Him.

Today, more than 50 years ago, there are still many — likely a majority in Canada now — who are without Jesus, against Jesus or even deliberately opposed to His Church. The damage they wreak is great. The consequences of their decisions have grave consequences in this world and the next.

There are so many apart from Christ who bring to our common life so much sadness and wickedness, and even a metaphysical boredom that can be worse. Precisely for this reason does the Church need to bring the world joy — 50 years after the council, 50 years from now, and forever after that. Gaudet Mater Ecclesia!

I am really not an ‘Appleoholic’

My name is Peter and I am not an Appleoholic. I get resentful when people hint otherwise and maybe if they keep it up I’ll just stop being friends with them, eh?

I admit I keep both an iPad and a MacBook Air laptop tucked in my briefcase just in case I happen to need them at the same time. You never know. And, yes, I do notice my wife’s expression when she walks past the door of the computer room and sees me sitting at my 27-inch iMac with my iPad, MacBook Air and iPhone all open on the desk beside me as I listen to iTunes through my Airport. What can I say? She worries too much.

Okay, I also call the Apple Store “My Happy Place Where All The Money Goes.” But that’s for fun. It’s self-deprecation to make my wife smile so she’ll stop worrying.

Hey, I’m not one of those poor, sad souls who lined up on sidewalks last week like addicts at a soup kitchen door to order the new iPhone5. Those people need help. Interventions. Counseling. Did no one tell them they can order The Five, as we aficionados call it, online in the privacy of their own homes? (I’m not saying I’ve done that, just that I know it can be done.)
I can easily walk by an Apple Store now without any urge to go in and sit on a stool at the Genius Bar, chatting with the tech support staff while watching Apple pro- motional videos on the big blue screens. Well, maybe not easily. It takes discipline to walk by. But discipline’s good, right? Every day, in every way, I get better and better.

Even in the old touch-and-go days — there were some, I confess — it was never all my money that went away to Apple. I paid rent, put food on the table, bought the kids shoes etc. (Jumping to Apple’s defence, I get really, really, really angry when people diss The Happy Place for allegedly Hoovering money from people’s pockets. As if Steve Jobs — peace be upon him — put a gun to the world’s head to make it spend billions of dollars on consumer electronics.)

Never, ever have I shouted at a pet because someone hid my iPad to keep me from opening it at the breakfast table. (I know they hide it. They’re not fooling me. But I wouldn’t open it if my family would talk about something interesting.)

Still, while I don’t have an Apple problem myself (Apple solves problems, it doesn’t cause them), the truth is that some reports on the iPhone5’s launch were, ummm, scary. A guy stood outside a Tokyo Apple store overnight with a packed suitcase because he was initially headed to the airport for a business trip. Then there was 20- year-old student James Vohradsky who lined up for 17 hours and told a reporter: “I feel like if I leave it (his old iPhone) at home, I go a bit crazy. I have to drive back and get it. I can’t do my normal day without it.” The story that truly chilled me was from Hong Kong, where customers waited with backpacks of cash while staff inside the Apple Store chanted “iPhone 5, iPhone 5.” Whoa. That’s getting spiritual. Not in a good way necessarily.

When I confided my concerns to a colleague, he very sensitively e-mailed me a picture of the Golden Calf. It was partly a rebuttal, I think, to my long-stand- ing argument that Apple products are proof of the existence of God. Only a benevolent Creator could create a universe where Steve Jobs would arise to design objects of such infinite beauty and utility. More than reproof, though, my colleague’s Golden Calf e-mail seemed a warning that it’s time for me, personally, to stop drinking the Apple-spiked Kool-Aid.

I always respect this fellow’s opinion. He’s highly intelligent with a great, clear approach to living his Christian faith. So why does a voice in my ear tell me to ignore him and resent the hint I’m an Appleoholic?

Maybe his “hint” is so unwelcome because it’s so untrue. The truth is I can resist Apple temptations any time. I’m in control. I’m not one of those poor souls who needs Apple for some kind of spiritual sustenance (“iPhone5, iPhone5”).

So maybe it will be a frosty Friday before this guy gets a call from me on my new iPhone5, eh? I am the one in control. I am.

Dull roar of toothless lions

With the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council less than two weeks away (Oct. 11), the old lions of the council are getting ready to roar once again.

As a young priest, Pope Benedict XVI was at the council as a theological advisor, or peritus. As Pope he has made the proper interpretation of the council a key part of his teaching, and declared a Year of Faith to begin on Oct. 11, asking the Church to rediscover the riches of the council in light of the demands of the new evangelization.

There are other lions too. Some of them will be highlighted at a Vatican II conference this weekend at Saint Paul’s University in Ottawa. The conference has been criticized as being something of an oldtimers’ game for theological dissenters. The presence of Gregory Baum, the former priest who at one time had a rewarding career proposing that the Church was wrong on just about every issue in which her teaching clashed with secular culture, set off alarm bells for those easily alarmed. He too was a peritus at the council. But at nearly 90 years old, Baum is a lion no longer. More than a theological force, he is now of principal interest as a relic of a time when the future of the Church was going to be an abrupt break with her past. Baum and his companions thought that Vatican II meant a new Church, adapted to the times and taking its lead from the ambient culture. The idea that the ambient culture of the late 1960s and 1970s was a special repository of wisdom was just one fatal flaw in that scheme.

The Catholic journalist Robert Blair Kaiser is another of the old lions, rather grumpy now that the new Church never quite took hold in the Catholic world as it did in the world of mainline Protestantism. He wrote recently about the council, quoting the Jesuit historian John O’Malley, about how exciting it all was back when he was a young journalist covering the new Church about to be born. Vatican II, he wrote, took the Church “from commands to invitations, from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to service, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behaviour modification to inner appropriation.”

It’s amazing the Church staggered through nineteen-and-a-half centuries in such sorry shape, until everything was made new in the 1960s, from tradition to buzzwords all around. Going from “behaviour modification” to “inner appropriation” likely means little, but the general direction is clear. One does not change one’s behaviour in response to the Gospel standard, but rather appropriates what one already is and how one already lives.

Blessed John Paul II had a rather different idea of the council’s task, as he wrote in preparation for the Great Jubilee:

“The Second Vatican Council was a providential event, whereby the Church began the more immediate preparation for the Jubilee of the Second Millennium. It was a Council similar to the earlier ones, yet very different; it was a Council focused on the mystery of Christ and His Church and at the same time open to the world. This openness was an evangelical response to recent changes in the world, including the profoundly disturbing experiences of the 20th century, a century scarred by the First and Second World Wars, by the experience of the concentration camps and by horrendous massacres. All these events demonstrate most vividly that the world needs purification; it needs to be converted” (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, # 18).

The conference at Saint Paul’s may be rather light on the need of the Church to purify and convert the world. That will be the rather intense focus of the synod on the new evangelization to be held in Rome next month. The more relevant speakers this weekend in Ottawa will have the same focus, led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the Ghanaian prelate now heading up the Holy See’s office for justice and peace. But the retired lions will also have their say, like old men gathering to tell the stories about how wise they were once, and how their wisdom lives on still. It’s polite to listen, as one throws a toothless lion a bone.

Family society’s rock

New data from Statistics Canada that shows the traditional family is in decline comes as no surprise but that doesn’t make the findings any less troubling.

Canadians who live alone now outnumber couples with children. Fewer people than ever are getting married and they’re having even fewer children. Single parenting is rising, as is common-law and same-sex parenting.

It is premature to declare the traditional family structure as dead, far from it, but it’s certainly suffering. From 2006 to 2011, the number of children living in either common-law or single-parent households shot up by 22 per cent. One-third of Canadian children are now living in non-traditional family households, compared to about 10 per cent 50 years ago. That gap between traditional and non-traditional parenting will only become more narrow as young people continue to reject marriage to live common-law, as high divorce rates and pre-marital births create more single-parent homes and as same-sex parenting increases. The data has been moving in that direction since the 1970s and nothing indicates the trend will change.

What is surprising, however, is the nonchalant reaction of Canadian society to this radical reconstruction of family. Studies have found that stable, loving, two-parent (mom and dad) families make for a healthier society. Indeed, many studies suggest society suffers when traditional families and the values they instill are replaced by alternate child-rearing arrangements.

Families are the bedrock of civil society. They are the primary teachers of right and wrong, the place where values and morals are instilled and the foundation is laid for good citizenship. They are the place where children learn to love, give, co-operate, compromise and pray. It is also where they learn how to be good moms and dads.

Children raised in traditional families are less likely to fall into drug or alcohol abuse, criminal activity, depression, promiscuity, and they are less likely to grow up in poverty. They have better success rates in school, work and marriage, and they tend to become better parents themselves.

Catholics further recognize the sacredness of family as rooted in Scripture and promulgated by the saints and Church leaders. Speaking recently to a group of French bishops in Rome, Pope Benedict called family the foundation of society but said the foundation is threatened by “a faulty conception of human nature.”

“Marriage and family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.”

So the prudent reaction to the decline of the traditional family would be a thorough evaluation by society of this worrisome trend. To blithely accept it as an inevitable, even commendable, evolution of society is something we do at our peril.

Co-operatives could be the basis for a new economic model

In designating 2012 as The Year of Co-operatives, the United Nations has recognized that co-operatives are a powerful force for positive social and environmental change and thus instruments for building a better world.

Canadian experience gives clear witness to this truth. The pioneer Alphonse Desjardins established the first caisse or credit union in Levi, Que., in 1901, following the innovative European financial model of savings and credit owned and governed by its members.

Recognizing that French Canadians had no tradition of saving and that many were forced to leave Quebec in times of economic crisis, the Catholic clergy endorsed the new caisses and received Pope Pius X’s approval for priests to manage local branches. By 1963, Quebec had 1,248 caisses with assets of over $1 billion and 1.5 million members. Co-operatives soon spread across Canada.

Despite many trials, the movement prospered and today Canada has 9,000 co-operatives with a combined membership of 18 million and annual revenue of $50 billion. And so the Canadian Association has good reason to celebrate The Year of Co-operatives with an international summit Oct. 6-11 in Quebec City. The theme is “The Amazing Power of Co-operatives.”

In reading the promotion literature for this event, one discovers a remarkable resonance between it and recent teaching by Pope Benedict in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate. He sees the promotion of social or civic economy as a way to modify, indeed civilize, our present economy. For him, business may or may not aim at profit, but it should have the primary goals of social and human welfare.

In co-operatives and credit unions, where members are owners, there is a more communal appeal to taking initiatives, making decisions and sharing earnings. Co-operative leaders and Benedict both foresee a real possibility for the co-operative approach to grow and become powerful enough to influence mainstream business into becoming more civilized and less focused on monopolistic markets.

The Pope writes in Caritas in Veritate: “Without prejudice to the importance and the economic and social benefits of the more traditional forms of business, they (social or civic business) steer the system towards a clearer and more complete assumption of duties on the part of the economic subjects. And not only that. The very plurality of institutional forms of business gives rise to a market which is not only more civilized but also more competitive.”

The co-operative movement can take many forms, including mutual insurance, agriculture, housing, many kinds of consumer and production goods, including housing and hotels, and financial institutions. In 600 municipalities in Quebec and 380 in the rest of Canada, credit unions are the only financial institution. And credit unions are ranked 18th among the 50 safest banks in the world.

Co-operatives are guided by seven principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; autonomy and independence; education training; information; co-operation among co-operatives; and concern for the community. Thus they promote democracy, self-help, equality and solidarity, all of which reflect Pope Benedict’s own expectation for social economy.

In recent years, co-operatives, especially credit unions, have developed rapidly in poor countries. Nelson Kuria, CEO of the co-operative group in Kenya, who will be coming to the Quebec Summit, states: “I have no doubt that the co-operative model provides a most effective institutional mechanism for responding to the development challenges of the African continent on a sustainable basis. Co-operatives can simultaneously promote wealth creation, poverty alleviation and more equitable distribution of resources.”

Tom Webb, who helped create the international Master of Management, Co-operatives and Credit Unions program at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, says: “It’s time to unplug ourselves from the old global economics and plug into the enormous potential of cooperative economics to truly build a better world.”

Is Tom dreaming? Probably not. If the co-operative movement were able to collaborate effectively on the international level — with one-billion members and $1.6 trillion annual income (counting only the largest 300 co-operatives) — it could significantly influence the future global economy.

And so the Quebec summit will be emphasizing how co-operatives weathered the economic crisis better than ordinary business and banks, and planning how co-operatives can have a much greater impact on economic thinking, planning, policy and action taken by business, government and international agencies in Canada and around the world.

Christ the true ‘Super Hero’

I have been a secret fan of Superman all my life, enjoying almost every version that has lit up the screen. Now, my secret is out. This August, in front of all the guests celebrating my 25th anniversary of profession as a Daughter of St. Paul, my sister gave me Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman on DVD. Not a typical gift for a sister’s jubilee, but one I appreciated and will certainly enjoy.

Superman has always appealed to me because of his selflessness. Although he is supposed to be indestructible, the best Superman episodes revolve around his vulnerabilities: his friendships, his compassion for humanity, the moral code that prevents him from using deadly force even in life-threatening situations, his unrequited love for Lois Lane, his loneliness, etc. Despite the many sacrifices he has already made, Superman repeatedly puts the well-being of others ahead of his own life and happiness. This is what keeps me glued to the screen.

Self-sacrificing love has become something of a rarity in our culture. The “me-first” attitude is nothing new, but its current cool factor is. Selfishness — disguised as happiness — has snuck its way onto our roads, into our homes and through our relationships. It’s so prevalent that often we are expected “to take care of number one” and only after that, if we are feeling generous, worry about the good of others. We’re told that putting ourselves first is the thing to do. What a depressing, boring way to live.

I’m not sure if the scarcity of true love is one of the symptoms or part of the cause of our “post- Christian” culture. But it certainly contributes to one of the huge misconceptions about Catholicism. Many people think that being Catholic is mostly about wearing a straitjacket of uncompromising moral laws that prevent happiness. The truth, instead, is that Catholicism is first and foremost about the saving love of Christ Jesus for us. Catholicism’s moral teachings — a consequence of our relationship with Christ, not the cause of it — point us towards real happiness, not the false happiness of selfishness. Blessed John Paul II captured this truth insightfully when he said that we become fully human only when we love to the point of sacrifice, to the point of giving ourselves away.

Self-sacrificing love is a major theme in a surprising number of popular recent movies and novels. While many of these box-office giants (such as Twilight and The Hunger Games) have their problems, their protagonists, however flawed, consistently sacrifice themselves for their loved ones. Many of the popular comic book movies that came out this summer, from The Avengers to The Amazing Spider-Man, have this same theme of self-sacrifice.

In The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Batman trilogy that attempts to explore the horror of evil, Batman has been shattered by his heroism in the previous film. Yet he risks his life to save Gotham once again. Is this theme of self-sacrificing love one of the main reasons comic book movies are so popular with our young people? Perhaps youth have the purity of heart to be attracted to the godliness of self-sacrificing love.

It’s striking that these self-sacrificing superheroes are so popular with young people immersed in and being formed by such a narcissistic culture. Perhaps one of the reasons many of us secretly love our superheroes is that they teach us about being human. “Super” doesn’t always mean “above.” It can also mean a degree of intensity.

In Superman and other superheroes, we can recognize our vocation to truly love others, because true love always calls for self-sacrifice. Unlike our superheroes, we may not seem to have any “super powers” to help us to transcend our weaknesses. But, in actuality, the grace of God is the only super power we need.

Received in Baptism and nurtured in the sacraments and in our prayer, our sharing in the life of God is what can enable us to go beyond ourselves, to seek to truly imitate Christ — the real Super Hero, who loves us and gave His life for us.

Grace is the secret of the super-heroic Christian life, a heroism we are each called to live.