Tough on trafficking

The 18-year-old woman arrived from Africa to begin a new life working in a Vancouver hair salon. At least, that was the promise.

But when she landed, according to police, her employer confiscated her passport and used threats and intimidation to force the young woman to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day as an unpaid household servant. A virtual slave. She lived that way for a year, alone and terrified, before escaping to a women’s shelter.

Her ordeal has resulted in a Vancouver woman facing charges of human trafficking, a crime that is rampant around the world. The United Nations estimates that more than 2.4 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. It is a $32-billion global industry, behind only drug smuggling and gun-running as the most lucrative international criminal activities. It thrives because the world abounds with poor, vulnerable people who are easily exploited, but also because for every victim lured or snatched from their home there is someone willing to acquire human cargo.

Catholics are once again embracing meatless Fridays

Fish’n’chips, anyone? It’s either that or, given the preponderance of Indian takeout in England today, vegetable samosas and prawn curry for Catholics on Friday come this fall.

Last week the Catholic bishops of England and Wales decided to bring back Friday abstinence from meat, an initiative of potentially enormous significance. The abandonment of Friday abstinence was one of the great pastoral blunders in history, a self-inflicted neutering of Catholic identity and an assault on our own tradition. Its restoration marks a sign of increasing Catholic confidence and common sense.

According to the universal law of the Church, all Fridays, save for those which coincide with solemn feasts (e.g. St. John the Baptist this year), are days of abstinence — no eating meat. But the Code of Canon Law permits the bishops of various countries to modify the rule. Most countries did just that some 40 years ago, saying that while the obligation to do penance held, each Catholic could choose for himself what that penance might be.

The upshot was that Friday communal penance disappeared almost entirely. Not completely — I often eat at the cathedral in Kingston where, like many religious houses, there is no meat on Fridays, and at our chaplaincy activities at Newman House the students themselves are attentive to Friday abstinence. Yet most Catholics don’t observe it, and several generations may not have even heard about it.

In England, the noted historian Eamon Duffy, a self-styled Catholic liberal, called for the return of Friday abstinence in 2004, writing in the flagship journal of all things Catholic and trendy, The Tablet.

“Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority,” he wrote.

The trend of abolishing distinctive marks of Catholic identity now seems dated. In 1967, when getting rid of compulsory Friday abstinence, the English bishops wrote: “While an alternative dish is often available, it is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter. Non-Catholics know and accept that we do not eat meat on Fridays, but often they do not understand why we do not, and in consequence regard us as odd.”

By “odd” the bishops of the day meant “different,” and by different, they meant not Protestant. In a desire to fit in, to seem less, well, Catholic, the English bishops made themselves, in fact, less Catholic.

Today though, any Catholic serious about his faith wants to be different from the toxic culture in which he lives. Being different is helped by doing things differently. The spiritual purpose of Friday abstinence is a communal penance to recall the Lord’s passion, but as a marker of Catholic identity it is far more needed now than 50 years ago when it was universally observed.

Friday abstinence gives us a chance for mutual encouragement and public witness. Invited for dinner on Friday? It permits us to mention ahead of time that we don’t eat meat — an indirect way of saying that my Catholic faith is important, and that I am not ashamed of it. After all, if one can proudly announce that one doesn’t eat beef because bovine flatulence is causing climate change, abstaining from meat in recollection of the redemption of the whole world seems reasonable enough.

And if the world should think us odd? We then find ourselves in the tradition of St. Paul, who was willing to be thought a fool for Christ. Moreover, the far greater danger is that the world does not think us odd for being Catholic, given what the world considers normal.

In recent years, the practice of voluntary Friday abstinence has become more prevalent, especially among younger Catholics who are precisely seeking a greater sense of Catholic identity and for ways of bringing their faith into their daily lives. Friday abstinence is a relatively easy way to give witness at work, at school and even in the family.

It’s not a terribly great sacrifice, if at all. As a boy I looked forward to Friday dinners as the aforementioned prawn curry and other fish and seafood dishes were my favourites. It can pinch at times, but at least a pinch of penance needs to be part of every Christian life, especially on Fridays.

The new primate of Canada, Archbishop Gérald Lacroix of Quebec City, wears a small fish hook pin on his lapel. It’s a symbol of the new evangelization; he’s a fisher of men. Fish on Friday can be a wider reminder too of who we are and our evangelical mission.

(Fr. de Souza is the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island and chaplain at Newman House at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.)

Let the debate begin

A record turnout of some 15,000 pro-life supporters cheered former Liberal MP Pat O’Brien at the annual March for Life when he proclaimed on Parliament Hill that the abortion debate is back on.

O’Brien may be correct to sense a change in temperature. While still no heat wave, pressure is building for Stephen Harper’s new Conservative majority to initiate the national debate shunned by successive Parliaments since a 1988 Supreme Court decision overturned Canada’s abortion laws.

This reluctance to debate an issue of such fundamental importance is, of course, a travesty. It is Canada’s shame that it is the only Western democracy with no laws on abortion. A woman is legally entitled to receive an on-demand abortion at any point during pregnancy.

This sorry state persists despite support from only a small minority of Canadians. A poll this month by Abacus  Data of Ottawa showed 59 per cent of Canadians (and 63 per cent of women) support enacting restrictions on abortion against just 22 per cent who endorse the status quo. For most, the question isn’t whether Canada should have abortion laws; it’s a matter of how new laws should be framed.

Yet politicians, infuriatingly, frustratingly, refuse to initiate the debate. That was the case under Liberal majorities and Conservative minorities, but even with a new majority and a socially conservative caucus largely sympathetic to calls for abortion legislation, Harper sounds reluctant to budge.

“As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate,” Harper said during the recent election campaign. “The government will not bring forward any such legislation and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister.”

Although that sounds definitive and although we generally expect politicians to keep election promises, we urge Harper to reconsider.

When the Supreme Court overturned the abortion laws in 1988 it was not because it favoured an anything-goes abortion policy. The court believed it was the role of Parliament to draft abortion legislation to conform with the Charter. But Parliament has repeatedly shirked its duty.

The debate should be about more than abortion law. If an outright ban is not achievable — Catholics may have to swallow that Canadians overwhelmingly support early term abortion — the debate must include a discussion of non-abortion options for distressed women. Abortion is too often the first choice rather than last option. That has to change.

Even if Harper won’t reopen the abortion debate, government has a moral obligation to provide women with medical, financial and social programs to support them through pregnancy. Public funds that currently prop up the abortion industry should be spent on support programs for pregnant women.

This debate is long overdue. Maybe it’s not here yet, but we sense that it’s coming.

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A fair and proper ruling

A recent decision by the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal could provide a valuable precedent in future challenges to the religious freedom rights of Catholic organizations.

As reported in The Register April 24, the complaint to the Ontario human rights body was made by a parishioner of a church in Eastern Ontario who disagreed with the placement of a pro-life message on church property. The case between the Chevaliers de Colombe (Knights of Columbus) and Marguerite Dallaire stems from a monument and inscription on the lawn of the Church of St-Jean Baptiste in l’Original, Ont., stating (in French) “Let us pray that all life rests in the hands of God from conception until death.”

Ms. Dallaire complained to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that “the inscription is offensive and discriminatory because it denounces, victimizes and excludes women.” Her application, and the tribunal’s decision, make it clear that she disagrees with the Church on the matter of abortion.

The tears of joy flow

VATICAN CITY - One of our young people at Newman House recently asked me whether I ever cry. I tear up quite rarely, save for the liturgy, when it happens not rarely, and not just at funerals. Perhaps it is a grace God has given me, to feel on occasion the reality that the liturgy makes manifest. Tears often mark an intense encounter with reality, and the liturgy opens to us the world that is most real. Whether grace or simple sentimentality, weepiness can be rather awkward for a priest as it gets in the way of leading the worship and is rather distracting for the people.

It’s also a problem if you are doing live television. It happened again May 1, as I knew it would. I had the privilege of providing the commentary for EWTN’s broadcast of the beatification Mass for Blessed John Paul II. I knew the tears would come from experience; they came when I did the same duty for Global Television at the World Youth Day Mass in Toronto, and for John Paul’s funeral Mass in Rome. On all three occasions, I was not the only one with moist eyes.

Looking out upon that immense crowd on Sunday, many of whom wept openly, it was evident that these tears were different. Indeed, on all three occasions the tears came for different reasons — rather like the tears that come to weepy priests during the high point of the Church’s liturgy, the sacred Triduum.

Enhancing devotion by painting with light

Ever since medieval engineers discovered ways to open up the stone walls of their cathedrals, architectural glass has been among the glories of Western imagination.

The glass has not always been coloured. Classical Revival architects in the Renaissance wanted their churches and residential interiors lit by clear windows. The pioneers of architectural modernism followed suit — hence the handsome expanses of clear glass in such projects as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s splendid Toronto Dominion Centre.

But the art of splintering light into the colours of the rainbow returned to architecture with Romanticism. That 19th-century movement in the arts saw the renewal of things the medieval glass-makers knew well: how to paint with light, how to shape and mould interior space with colour, how to fashion moods of devotion with symbols and images and abstract patterns.

Toronto artist Sarah Hall is today one of the world’s most talented inheritors of this venerable tradition. And with nearly a thousand works to her credit, she is also one of the most prolific living contributors to her art. Over a career spanning some 35 years, her highly expressive, richly colourful projects have been installed in churches, synagogues, schools and other public places, including an embassy in Ottawa and Toronto’s Scotia Plaza, across Canada and the United States.

A book that acknowledges Hall’s accomplishment has been overdue for some time, but at last it has arrived. It’s called The Glass Art of Sarah Hall and is published by Glasmalerei Peters, a German fabrication studio that has translated several of the artist’s complex designs into reality. This portfolio of 27 installations includes a brief introduction by architectural historian Karen Mulder and a thoughtful essay on glass, spirituality and Hall’s distinctive esthetic by J. S. Porter, a Hamilton, Ont., poet and essayist.

“The visual artist’s task is to renew — in a world of throwaway marketing images intended to seduce or numb — the viewer’s relationship with the ancient qualities of the heart by new pictorial means,” Porter writes. “Reconnecting with the sacred means revitalizing spiritual traditions that have borne transcendent light throughout human cultures for centuries.”

In Porter’s view — and he is certainly correct — Hall performs this task in an original and penetrating way. “Her windows,” he notes, “call us into reverence and contemplation; they evoke wonder and mystery.” They do so by presenting images deeply ingrained in the history of the Christian West — the Cross, the waters of Creation and baptismal Re-creation, the fire of the burning bush and Pentecost — in very fresh, vibrantly hued visual languages.

If Hall’s vocabulary of symbols and signs is usually traditional — whether the tradition she is working in is Christian or Jewish or other — her search for creative means equal to the job of communicating ancient meanings has taken her far afield from the realm of simply tinted glass. She casts prisms for inclusion in some works; she hand-paints, laminates, sandblasts and screen-prints her panes and fragments of glass. And in recent years, she has been especially interested in the possibilities for visual drama afforded by new glass products coming off the technological assembly line.

Hall first demonstrated the incorporation of photovoltaic cells in her glass art in 2005, for example, in a piece she contributed to Canada’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an international competition of solar-powered house designs held each year in Washington. This beautiful secular work was called Northern Light, and its cells produced energy that was stored and later used to illuminate the building’s foyer.

Her most ambitious handling of new materials so far, however, and the first permanent installation of photovoltaic glass art in North America, is the award-winning True North/Lux Nova. Fabricated in Germany, this lyrical, devout composition, illustrated well in the book under review, was designed for the façade of a 12-metre ventilation tower over an underground theological library at Regent College, a Christian studies institution on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. True North/Lux Nova stands in a park at Regent College’s heart, recalling Christian devotion with its inscription of the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

The religious theme of the piece is further reinforced by 12 crosses that shimmer against a cascade of silvery blue, violet and white. And this luminous tower of fused and etched glass also provides a memorable reminder of the peace that can reign between humankind and the environment: It declines to add to the burden already on the public electricity grid, and, instead, creates from sunshine (via embedded solar cells) the energy needed to power a column of light that glows by night behind the glass panels.

Leafing through this volume, I found myself thinking back again and again to a line from Porter’s catalogue essay: “She makes visible the usually invisible thrust of life.” Sarah Hall does exactly that, celebrating in new glass the old symbols by which we know God, life and each other.

Legitimate kill

He was the face of evil, an indiscriminate murderer, a terrorist whose tentacles reached across nations to snare others into an ideology of hate.

Now Osama bin Laden is dead and Christians are called to sober reflection, not celebration.

The announcement that bin Laden had been shot dead in his Pakistan mansion by U.S. Navy Seals sparked rejoicing around much of the Western world. It had taken almost 10 years to sniff him out after the 9/11 attacks that claimed more than 3,000 lives, including 24 Canadians. The search was long but retribution was swift — a bullet to the head and a hasty burial at sea.

In the days after bin Laden’s mercenaries brought down the World Trade Centre in 2001, then U.S. president George W. Bush declared that America would have its justice. Asked if he wanted bin Laden dead, Bush made a quip about the bad guys in old-west posters: “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” But there was never a sense bin Laden would be taken alive and face trial.

Dorothy Pilarski: For mothers, their time belongs to the family

Surrendering to Motherhood, Loosing Your Mind, Finding your Soul by Iris KrasnowSonia Commisso is one of the most remarkable mothers I know. The first time I saw her she was with her young family in the first row at St. Patrick’s Church in Mississauga, Ont. Immediately, I was drawn to her. She prayed devoutly but, more than that, she radiated joy. I wanted to introduce myself, to learn more about her, but something held me back.

A short while later I read her story in the Toronto Star. I was stunned. Only then did I introduce myself. Her story of mother’s love and sacrifice had to be shared, so I invited her to join a Catholic mother’s group that meets regularly at my house.

Sonia’s husband has multiple sclerosis. Her son has a learning disability and seizure disorder. Her daughter Jesse passed away in 2001. She was 2 1/2 years old. Her other daughter Alessia, who uses a walker and wheelchair, has been diagnosed with the same disease that Jesse succumbed to. She recently celebrated her first Holy Communion.

When Sonia arrived, our mother’s group started as usual, with prayer. Then Sonia spoke to us about her life. She is her family’s sole caregiver. Despite the family’s obvious trials, her voice was without bitterness. It was a voice of optimism, fortitude, understanding and, above all, a voice of love. A mother’s love.

Where others might be angry, Sonia was cheerful. She was gracious, not resentful; embracing, not withdrawn. But above all she was faithful, trusting without question God’s providence. Her story touched each of us in a different way. But we were all humbled — and inspired.

Mother’s Day is a time to acknowledge our mom’s for all they do for us, but for me it is also a day of reflection. I became a mother in the middle of a thriving career — and embarked on a spiritual quest that was like none other I’d ever experienced. I sensed God calling me to radical change, a change I was unsure how to embrace. What type of mother would I be? I thought and prayed about it. I wanted to know what makes a good mother and who was God calling me to become now that I was a mother.

My search led me to a book titled Surrendering to Motherhood, Losing Your Mind, Finding your Soul by Iris Krasnow. Krasnow, a prominent journalist and a professor of journalism, brilliantly described the often frenetic experience of balancing a career with motherhood. Her book touched the deepest recesses of my heart and, although she is Jewish, we seemed to be undergoing the same profound experience. We both felt a divine call to the vocation of motherhood.  

That book helped me realize I needed to turn to my Catholic faith to discern this exciting chapter of my life. I poured through, and was inspired by, hundreds of practical spiritual resources available to Catholics. But I think my real saving grace in this spiritual adventure has been my mother’s group. It has been a blessing and grace to journey with other mothers who love God, the Church and are prayerfully doing their best to fulfill the divine vocation of being a wife and mother.

Based on the meetings of our group, Salt + Light Television produced a television series called Mothering, Full of Grace. It abounds with inspirational stories from mothers who live out their vocation of motherhood counter culturally. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve prayed, we’ve learned and together we’ve changed.  The 13-episode series still airs on Salt + Light and is available on DVD.

At our next mother’s group meeting, we will discuss one of the most serious challenges confronting busy mothers today — the lack of time.

I was touched by Blessed Mother Teresa’s words: “I think the world today is upside down. Everybody seems to be in such a terrible rush, anxious for greater development and greater riches and so on. There is much suffering because there is so very little love in homes and in family life. We have no time for our children, we have no time for each other; there is no time to enjoy each other. In the home begins the disruption of the peace of the world.”

Moms like Sonia already live these words. Her time belongs to her family. She is the embodiment of the divine vocation we call motherhood. Selfless, courageous, faithful and, above all, loving, she has shown us what it means to be a mother in a way that TV programs and books can only begin to describe.

(Pilarski, a professional speaker and consultant, can be reached at

Christ’s promise fulfilled in those who assumed the seat of Peter

In his inaugural homily in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict concluded, “At this point, my mind goes back to 22 October 1978, when Pope John Paul II began his ministry here in St. Peter’s Square. His words on that occasion constantly echo in my ears: ‘Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ!’ ”

Indeed, the whole Church will look back to that day — that’s the new feast day for Blessed John Paul. For the feast day’s Office of Readings in the breviary, an excerpt from the day’s “be not afraid” homily has been chosen.

The “be not afraid” inaugural homily remains one of the electrifying moments of the entire pontificate, and John Paul repeated the exhortation to Christian courage and witness over and over for nearly 27 years. Yet to go back to Oct. 22 means more than words; there are striking images from that day too.

During the inaugural Mass, the entire College of Cardinals processed to the new pope to show their fidelity and loyalty. One by one they knelt in front of his chair and kissed his ring. Yet when Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Primate of Poland for 30 years at that point, approached the new Polish pope, John Paul tried to prevent him from kneeling. He rose from his chair, and as the old cardinal kissed the fisherman’s ring, the young pope embraced him with profound emotion, kissing his forehead, kissing the primate’s ring.

Your right, and duty

The early months of 2011 have witnessed many hundreds of people killed in North Africa and the Middle East because they dared to demand the right to vote in free elections. In Canada, where freedom is taken for granted, this week’s federal election will be snubbed by 40 per cent of eligible voters.

It is a sad statement about the state of our democracy when millions of citizens give voting day the cold shoulder, particularly when so many people in so many countries are giving their lives for the right to cast a ballot. In Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria, hundreds have been killed this year alone by regimes that refuse to grant citizens the ballot. Canadian troops are in Afghanistan and our fighter planes are supporting Libyan freedom fighters because we believe their struggle to replace oppression with democracy is just. But at home millions of Canadian citizens, many of whom presumably support the Afghan and Libya interventions, treat their own democracy with indifference.

The explanations for that are varied but none offer a good excuse for citizens to shirk their civic duty. Yes, four elections in eight years add up to voter fatigue. A string of minority parliaments has created an atmosphere of hostility in Ottawa that is off-putting to voters. There have been a series of scandals over the past decade, from the Liberals’ ad-scam fiasco to the Conservative’s Bev Oda affair, which have deepened voter cynicism. Attack ads, commonplace among all major parties, debase our democracy and foster harmful polarization in society. Yet, staying home on election day is not the answer.

Catholics in particular are called to actively promote the common good by engaging in the political process. For some, that means participating in public life by standing for elected office. But for most Catholics it means, at minimum, casting a ballot on election day for a candidate who can best represent Christian values in Parliament. Voting is not an option; it is a duty.

Canada’s bishops urge Catholics to carefully discern their choices. They believe a candidate’s views on life issues is a paramount consideration, as well as their position on a broad range of family and social justice matters. And even when there is no obvious choice — for example, when no candidate reflects the Church’s teaching on life — the obligation to vote remains. But it then becomes incumbent on citizens, acting respectfully, to continuously lobby MPs to advocate for a more just and moral society.

In many countries, people are willing to risk death to be able to cast a ballot in an open and free election. Canadians are blessed to have that privilege. We have a civic duty to vote but, also, we owe it to our less-fortunate world brethren to respect their cause by exercising our right on election day.

Marisa Casagrande: I will believe in the truth of Fr. Joe

There was not a dry eye at Mass as Fr. Joe LeClair delivered his public apology at Ottawa’s Blessed Sacrament Church. This, following an article in the Ottawa Citizen that disclosed the most personal of Fr. LeClair’s financial records, described the lax financial control measures at Blessed Sacrament and insinuated that parish funds had been used to support his gambling habit. The picture was dire, the tone accusatory.

And I can just imagine the many conversations which have ensued. The debate might be about the merits of the Church, the priesthood, the number of priests being called out for wrongdoings.

There was a time when I too would have reacted to this story in such a way. For many years I had left the Church, believing it to be an outdated institution, way too top heavy to attract its future and imploding by its incessant focus on rules and ceremony. And then I attended Blessed Sacrament. The church was full — of young people, of music, full of good energy, or dare I say Spirit. And there was Fr. Joe and his gift of bringing the Gospel to life, of making it relevant to us today.

I had witnessed these things before. But this didn’t seal the deal for me. For me, it was the depths of Fr. Joe’s humanity and his humility that stood out. He was not only a priest, he was human, just as I. Struggling, just as I. And at times hopeful and joyful, just as I. This was not just one way. He was not all knowing and all perfect. He was being honest about who he was.