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Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis

Cardinal_Turkson_Blog

Pope Francis’ universal prayer intention for April is for Creation: That people may learn to respect creation and care for it as a gift of God. The environment is a topic that many do not expect the Church to be vocal on, but if you followed Pope Benedict’s many addresses, you would know that he spoke about the environment and ecology quite often. We also now that the topic is close to Pope Francis’ heart: Pope Francis’ second Encyclical will be on this very topic.

This is very exciting for us at S+L and especially for me, since for the last four years, I have been working on a six-part documentary series titled Creation, that looks at the ecological teachings of the Catholic Church.

If you’re wondering what those teachings are, recently, Cardinal Peter Turkson, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (the council under which the encyclical will be released), delivered the Trócaire 2015 Lenten Lecture at Saint Patrick’s Pontifical University in Maynooth, Ireland. Trócare is the overseas aid agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The Trócaire theme for Lent 2015 highlights the growing problem of drought as a result of climate change. Cardinal Turkson’s address was titled  Integral Ecology and the Horizon of Hope: Concern for the Poor and for Creation in the Ministry of Pope Francis.

This address gives us a very good idea of what Pope Francis’ encyclical’s content and direction will be.

Introduction

Your Grace, Archbishop Martin, Brother Bishops, Seminarians, ladies and gentlemen, I thank Éamonn for his very kind introduction. I also thank Bishop William Crean, Chairman of Trócaire and Monsignor Hugh Connolly, President of Maynooth for their warm welcome and for the invitation to give the Annual Trócaire Lenten lecture in Maynooth. I have learned that in the very distinguished history of this University, thousands of men and women have left these halls over the years to bring the Gospel of charity and justice to the four corners of the world. I am aware of the leading role played by this University in dialogues between faith and science, between philosophy and praxis, between economics and development, and between environmental sciences and policy decisions regarding climate change.

This evening, I am also very conscious that the Irish people themselves have an outstanding reputation for generous giving and for commitment to development issues. According to the Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index, Ireland is consistently among the five most generous countries of the world. It is the most generous country in Northern Europe. So when I come to Ireland, I already know that people in Ireland really do care about outreach to those in need, commitment to development aid, and engagement with the issues of international development. On behalf of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, I acknowledge and pay tribute to your tremendous generosity and compassion. I am glad to have this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the outstanding work of Trócaire. As the development agency of the Irish Bishops’ Conference and a member of Caritas Internationalis, Trócaire is a worthy ambassador of Ireland’s compassion and concern for justice across the world. Its professionalism and experience also make it a world leader and a respected voice in terms of insight into issues of international development and a leader in working for a more just world.

Misericordia in Latin, or Trócaire in Irish or Mercy in English: this has become a keyword in the ministry of Pope Francis. As in the Scriptures, Pope Francis often associates mercy and tenderness. Indeed, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, he appeals to all of us to bring about a “revolution of tenderness,” a revolution of the heart. For “there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor” when our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests, or when our national life and economy become caught up in their own interests.

Pope Francis intends to publish an encyclical letter later this year on the theme of human ecology. It will explore the relationship between care for creation, integral human development and concern for the poor. The timing of the encyclical is significant: 2015 is a critical year for humanity. In July, nations will gather for the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa. In September, the U.N. General Assembly should agree on a new set of sustainable development goals running until 2030. In December, the Climate Change Conference in Paris will receive the plans and commitments of each Government to slow or reduce global warming. The coming 10 months are crucial, then, for decisions about international development, human flourishing and care for the common home we call planet Earth.

So this evening is a good time to look at the relationship between development, concern for the poor and responsibility for the environment in the ministry of Pope Francis. I do so under the title: “Integral ecology and the horizon of hope: concern for the poor and for creation in the ministry of Pope Francis.” I will focus on four principles of integral ecology. Through his teaching on these themes, Pope Francis is promoting integral ecology as the key to addressing the inter-related issues of human ecology, development and the natural environment.

The Holy Father has echoed the sense of crisis that many in the scientific and development communities convey about the precarious state of our planet and of the poor. What he adds to the conversation about future approaches is the particular perspective of Catholic Social thought, rooted in the Sacred Scriptures and natural reason. This offers something unique and vital to the efforts of the international community. Ultimately, of course, what Pope Francis seeks to bring to this sense of crisis is the “warmth of hope”. Indeed, from his very first homily as Pope, a fundamental aim of his ministry has been to point us to the “horizon of hope” in the midst of those he has called the “Herods,” the “omens of destruction and death” that so often “accompany the advance of this world.” In that spirit of hope, let me reflect on the four themes that are woven through the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis on integral ecology.

First Principle: The call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing

The first principle is this: that the call to be protectors is integral and all-embracing. We are called to protect and care for both creation and the human person. These concepts are reciprocal and, together, they make for authentic and sustainable human development.

At the inaugural Mass of his Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis put the protection of creation to the very forefront of his own ministry and the vocation of every Christian. He offered St Joseph as a model of protecting Christ in our lives, “so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation,” and explained that the vocation of being a protector “has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone.” Its scope is very broad; it involves

“protecting creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi shows us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives…they protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness.”

Clearly this is not some narrow agenda for the greening the Church or the world. It is a vision of care and protection that embraces the human person and the human environment in all possible dimensions.

Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on human ecology.

In his insistence on an integral, relational vocation of protector, Pope Francis continues the thought of his two predecessors. In his social encyclical, Solicitudo rei socialis, Saint John Paul II spoke of the need to respect the constituent and inter-related elements of the natural world: “One cannot use with impunity the different categories of beings…animals, plants, the natural elements – simply as one wishes, according to one’s own economic needs. On the contrary, one must take into account the nature of each being and of its mutual connection in an ordered system, which is precisely the cosmos.” A recently republished pastoral of the Irish Bishops echoes his point: “Our earth is complex, its systems of life are interdependent and finely balanced. Small changes in one part of the planet’s rhythms and systems can have significant, if not dramatic consequences for the whole of the earth and its creatures.” For the natural environment to be respected, the human environment and its objective moral structure must also be respected.  When we ignore or neglect one, it has a destructive impact on the other.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also had this point as a central theme in his teaching. Some called him the “Green Pope” because of the priority he gave to concern over our destruction of nature. He echoed the call of Saint John Paul II to “change our way of life… [to] eliminate the structural causes of global economic dysfunction, and to correct models of growth that seem incapable of guaranteeing respect for the environment and for integral human development.”

Pope Benedict’s message for the 43rd World Day of Peace in 2010 was abundantly clear: “The book of nature is one and indivisible; it includes not only the environment but also individual, family and social ethics. Our duties towards the environment flow from our duties towards the person, considered both individually and in relation to others.” On this basis too, in Caritas in Veritate, he famously called contemporary society to a serious review of its lifestyle, which is so often prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed, he said, is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of “new lifestyles” in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments.

It is such integral ecology that Pope Francis took up, in eminently pastoral terms, in his inaugural homily. He does so again in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium when he calls all people to a new solidarity, “the creation of a new mind-set which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few” (n.188).

Second Principle: care for creation is a virtue in its own right

Compelled by the scientific evidence for climate change, we are called to care for humanity and to respect the grammar of nature as virtues in their own right.  This is the second principle that underpins Pope Francis’ approach to integral ecology as the basis for authentic development.

In an airplane interview while returning from Korea last August, the Holy Father said that one of the challenges he faces in his encyclical on ecology is how to address the scientific debate about climate change and its origins. Is it the outcome of cyclical processes of nature, of human activities (anthropogenic), or perhaps both? What is not contested is that our planet is getting warmer. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has undertaken the most comprehensive assessment of climate change. Its November 2014 Synthesis Report was as stark as it was challenging. In the words of Thomas Stocker, the co-chair of the IPCC Working Group I: “Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”

Yet even the compelling consensus of over 800 scientists of the IPCC will have its critics and its challengers. For Pope Francis, however, this is not the point. For the Christian, to care for God’s ongoing work of creation is a duty, irrespective of the causes of climate change. To care for creation, to develop and live an integral ecology as the basis for development and peace in the world, is a fundamental Christian duty. As Pope Francis put it in his morning homily at Santa Marta on 9 February, it is wrong and a distraction to contrast “green” and “Christian.” In fact, “a Christian who doesn’t safeguard creation, who doesn’t make it flourish, is a Christian who isn’t concerned with God’s work, that work born of God’s love for us.”

In this, Pope Francis is affirming a truth revealed in the first pages of Sacred Scripture. In the second creation account of the Book of Genesis, humankind is placed in the Garden by the Creator to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). These concepts of “tilling” and “keeping” involve a vital and reciprocal relationship between humanity and the created world. They involve humankind, every individual and every community in a sacred duty to draw from the goodness of the earth, and at the same time to care for the earth in a way that ensures its continued fruitfulness for future generations.

Justice in this context is essentially a relational term. Its defining quality is fidelity to the demands of the threefold relationship within which each of us stands and upon which each of us depends for life itself: our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, and with the natural environment in which we live. To neglect or violate one of these relationships is an offense, quite literally a sin. In the Scriptures, the “just person” is one who maintains these relationships by respecting the demands that they entail. The just person is one who therefore preserves communion with God, with neighbour and with the land, and by doing so, also makes peace!  The various holiness and justice codes of the Old Testament are unequivocal. Those who till and keep the land have a responsibility to share it fruits with others, especially the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. The law of the Covenant is clear; the gift of the land and its fruitfulness belongs to the whole people of Israel together.

So when Pope Francis says that destroying the environment is a grave sin; when he says that it is not large families that cause poverty but an economic culture that puts money and profit ahead of people; when he says that we cannot save the environment without also addressing the profound injustices in the distribution of the goods of the earth; when he says that this is “an economy that kills” – he is not making some political comment about the relative merits of capitalism and communism. He is rather restating ancient Biblical teaching. He is pointing to the fact that being a protector of creation, of the poor, of the dignity of every human person is a sine qua non of being Christian, of being fully human. He is pointing to the ominous signs in nature that suggest that humanity may now have tilled too much and kept too little, that our relationship with the Creator, with our neighbour, especially the poor, and with the environment has become fundamentally “un-kept”, and that we are now at serious risk of a concomitant human, environmental and relational degradation.

Third principle: we will – we must – care for what we cherish and revere

Thirdly, binding regulations, policies, and targets are necessary tools for addressing poverty and climate change, but they are unlikely to prove effective without moral conversion and a change of heart. Think of the present Pope’s choice of the name Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi is an example par excellence of a lived and integral ecology. In fact, Saint Pope John Paul II had declared him the patron saint of those who promote ecology. His love for creation, for creatures and for the poor, are one, they form an integral whole. And the prior and fundamental source of that integrated whole was his religious faith. In pointing to Saint Francis as a model, Pope Francis holds that a truly practical and sustainable integral approach to ecology, has to draw on more than the scientific, the material and the economic, more than laws and policies. When Saint Francis gazed upon the heavens, when he surveyed the wonder and beauty of the animals, he did not respond to them with the abstract formulae of science or the utilitarian eye of the economist. His response was one of awe, wonder and fraternity. He sang of “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.” In other words, his response was that of reverence – of a deep and relational respect based on kinship and fraternity, the kinship with God, our neighbour and the land spoken of in the book of Genesis and praised throughout the wisdom literature and the psalms.

There have been many attempts in recent years to implement international agreements on development goals, carbon emission targets and climate change limits, with varying degrees of success. For example, the Millennium Development Goals – many of which sought to remedy the particular crises that I have mentioned – have only achieved partial success, with half remaining unfulfilled. For instance, between 1.2 and 1.5 billion people are still mired in “extreme poverty.” Global inequalities continue to widen. Sub-Saharan Africa has the second highest rate of economic growth in the world (after developing Asia). Nevertheless, the region remains locked in a negative cycle of poverty and underdevelopment, with development aid shifting away from some of the poorest countries. The wealth of the top 1% has grown 60% in the last twenty years, and it continued to grow through the global economic crisis. Despite the UN Framework Convention of Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 and subsequent agreements, global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) continue their upward trend, almost 50 per cent above 1990 levels. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a level last seen 3 million years ago – when the planet was significantly warmer than it is today. Millions of hectares of forest are lost every year, many species are being driven closer to extinction, and renewable water resources are becoming scarcer.

The list could go on. Certainly international agreements are important, they can help. But they are not enough in themselves to sustain change in human behaviour. As Saint John Paul II put it, we require an “ecological conversion,” a radical and fundamental change in our attitudes to creation, to the poor and to the priorities of the global economy. By pointing us to the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis teaches the world that the ancient wisdom, insights and values of religious faith, most notably the tradition of Catholic Social Doctrine, can contribute something of value to the search for sustainable development, based on an integral ecology. Genuine “ecological conversion” involves the whole person. Commitment assumes a relationship, an emotional and relational attachment. It is the kind of kinship and fraternity with creation, creatures and the poor that flowed so clearly and directly from the relationship between Saint Francis and the Creator.

This is why the cultural trend of relegating religious language, religious motivation and religious faith to the sphere of the purely private and personal undermines a vital and powerful source of meaning and action in the common effort to address both climate change and sustainable development. The Judaeo-Christian insight into creation can transform our relationship from that of remote observers or technical managers of nature, to that of “brother and sister,” of nurturer and protector of all. Religious insights into creation in this sense can help to orient and integrate us as humans within the wider universe, to identify what is most important to us, what we revere, sustain and protect as sacred. Giving space to the religious voice and to its ancient experience, wisdom and insight therefore can transform our attitudes to creation and to others in a way that purely scientific, economic or political approaches are less likely to achieve. What more radical and comprehensive charter for sustainable development and environmental care do we have after all than the Beatitudes, than the call to generosity that permeates Evangelii Gaudium: the command to go the extra mile, to give to the least, to give our tunic as well as our cloak to the one who asks us.

Fourth principle: the call to dialogue and a new global solidarity

Fourthly, for Pope Francis, integral ecology, as the basis for justice and development in the world, requires a new global solidarity, one in which everyone has a part to play and every action, no matter how small, can make a difference.

During World Youth Day celebrations in Brazil in July 2013, this call to solidarity became most explicit in his address to Varginha, a favela community. Pope Francis noted that the rich could learn much from the poor about solidarity: “I would like to make an appeal to those in possession of greater resources, to public authorities and to all people of good will who are working for social justice: never tire of working for a more just world, marked by greater solidarity… The culture of selfishness and individualism that often prevails in our society is not what builds up and leads to a more habitable world: it is the culture of solidarity that does so, seeing others not as rivals or statistics, but brothers and sisters.”

The Holy Father then added that giving “bread to the hungry,” while required by justice, is not enough for human happiness. “There is neither real promotion of the common good nor real human development when there is ignorance of the fundamental pillars that govern a nation, its nonmaterial goods,” he said. The Pope identified those goods as life; family; “integral education, which cannot be reduced to the mere transmission of information for the purposes of generating profit”; health, “including the spiritual dimension” of well-being; and security, which he said can be achieved “only by changing human hearts.”

As this year’s Drop in the Ocean campaign by Trócaire implies, and as the Pastoral Letter of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, The Cry of the Earth, points out, “Action at a global level, as well as every individual action which contributes to integral human development and global solidarity, helps to construct a more sustainable environment and therefore, a better world.” Thanks to the Trócaire box in many homes and classrooms during Lent, you already know how little gestures add up to make a difference.

Conclusion: Let us become artisans of the revolution of tenderness

Allow me to summarize all that I have said this evening:

  • The threats that arise from global inequality and the destruction of the environment are inter-related; and they are the greatest threats we face as a human family today.
  • In responding to this combined threat, every action counts. We all have a part to play in protecting and sustaining what Pope Francis has repeatedly called our common home.
  • Our efforts in this regard require an integral approach to ecology, not one limited to scientific, economic or technical solutions.
  • At the heart of this integral ecology is the call to dialogue and a new solidarity, a changing of human hearts in which the good of the human person, and not the pursuit of profit, is the key value that directs our search for the global, the universal common good.

In this, we have the core elements of an integral ecology which in turn provides the basis for authentic and sustainable approaches to human development.

In conveying my thanks to you once again for the honour of giving this annual Lenten lecture, and in commending Trócaire for its excellent and timely Climate Justice campaign, I encourage you to give great attention to the forthcoming encyclical from Pope Francis on the themes we have just considered.  As we confront the threat of environmental catastrophe on a global scale, I am confident that a shaft of light will break through the heavy clouds and bring us what Pope Francis describes as the warmth of hope! Most importantly, as we become revolutionaries of tenderness overcoming the world’s pervasive inequities, these years can indeed initiate a millennium of respect for life, of care for God’s creation, of solidarity and síocháin.  Peace!

Thank you for listening.

(CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Loyola vs. Quebec: the new reality of confessional secularism

Loyola
(Photo: loyola.ca)

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Quebec’s Minister of Education infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola, a private Catholic high school in Montreal, by requiring the school to teach all aspects of the province’s Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC) from a neutral perspective, i.e. from a non-confessional, or specifically non-Catholic perspective.

This decision has sparked an animated conversation across Canada about religious freedom and the role of government, or as it’s traditionally known, the question of the separation of church and state.  One of my colleagues recently wrote on the proper role of the state in matters of religion and morals.  Here I offer the following reflection on another essential consideration, namely, the growing phenomenon of what we might call “confessional secularism,” that is, the transformation of a purely neutral secularism into a belief system; a faith.

A simple timeline of the six-year legal battle between Loyola and the Minister can be found at the end of this column.  For more background information visit Loyola’s website or read the Supreme Court’s decision.

Reading between the lines
From the outset, it is important to note that the dispute was not over the content or goals of the ERC Program.  Loyola does not object to the “recognition of others,” “pursuing the common good,” or promoting “openness to human rights, diversity and respect for others,” as outlined in the course.  On the contrary, these objectives are central to the mission of the school.  And historically speaking, the Catholic Church itself is responsible, in part, for embedding into modern society the fundamental principles of rights, equality, liberty and justice from which these goals originate.

The problem is the Minister’s insistence on the strict implementation of the ERC Program from a “neutral” perspective.  According to the Supreme Court, the Minister’s insistence suggests that, “engagement with an individual’s own religion on his or her own terms can be presumed to impair respect for others.”  In other words, the Minister made an irrational assessment of the Catholic perspective: that from a Catholic perspective it is impossible to teach children to respect others and promote dialogue and the common good, as articulated in the ERC course. (According to the Minister the perspective must be neutral, i.e. secular.)

The Court perceptively refuted this assessment of the Minister. In perhaps the most penetrating statement in the majority decision, the Court went beyond simply arguing that the Minister had violated the school’s religious freedom.  It also stated that preventing Loyola from teaching Catholicism from a Catholic perspective “does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives.”  This observation of the Court can form the basis of our consideration of “confessional secularism”.

Calling a spade a spade
As I understand it, confessional secularism is the result of transforming the fundamental tenets of secularism into a belief system.  It is one thing to promote a secular state that is neutral in matters of religion; it is quite another to promote a secular state that adopts secularism as a religion.  Confessional secularism is like any other religion insofar as a certain belief system is held to be true above other belief systems.

If we keep this in mind and follow the line of thought of the Supreme Court, we find the Minister’s insistence that Loyola teach Catholicism from a neutral perspective to be counterintuitive. We would expect to see the Minister uphold at all costs the integrity of the ERC Program.  Instead, we see the Minister insist on a strictly secular approach to religion and ethics that limits the religious freedom of a Catholic institution and thus undermines the very goals of the ERC Program, which were designed to celebrate openness and diversity.  How can this be?

I remember reading G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy for the first time, and being struck by a similar phenomenon. In the book, Chesterton reflects on the prevailing anti-Christian attitudes of the early 1900’s in Europe. Like many of his contemporaries he was open to new and progressive ideas, and traditional Christianity was largely seen by the intelligentsia as primitive and authoritarian.  The young and agnostic Chesterton celebrated these various critiques of Christianity, but then became alarmed by the inconsistencies he found in them.  At one point he wrote:

“It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with. What again could this astonishing thing [Christianity] be like which people were so anxious to contradict, that in doing so they did not mind contradicting themselves?”

We might pose a similar question to Quebec’s Minister of Education: What is it about the Catholic perspective on issues of religion and ethics that the government is so anxious to contradict, that in doing so it does not mind contradicting its own goals for the ERC Program?

I do not have a definitive answer to this question.  Nor is it the competency of the Court to try to answer it.  However, the Court did conclude that, “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

We must acknowledge the reality of confessional secularism in our society today.  Forceful expressions of it seem to spring more frequently out of Quebec, but it is not a stagnant phenomenon and certainly not isolated in Quebec.  The subtle leap from a purely neutral secularism to confessional secularism is one that more and more Canadians are making.  It is indeed a leap of faith.

The difficulty with confessional secularism is not that secularism has become a new religion, but that its proponents sometimes fail to recognize it as such.  The Loyola case proved this definitively.  If confessional secularists are willing to recognize their belief system as a belief system, then Canadians should do as they have always done: welcome with open arms another group into our pluralist society.  But if proponents of this new religion advocate a kind of official atheism in the name of neutral secularism, then Loyola vs. Quebec won’t be the last case of religious freedom before the Supreme Court.

Timeline of events
2008

  • Quebec’s Ministry of Education, Sport and Leisure introduces its Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC)
  • Loyola applies for an exemption from the course, asking the Minister to allow the school to teach the content and goals of the program from a Catholic perspective
  • The Minister refuses an exemption to Loyola

2009

  • Loyola takes the matter to the Quebec Superior Court

2010

  • The Quebec Superior Court concludes that the decision to refuse Loyola’s request was invalid because it assumed the content and goals of the program could not be taught from a confessional (Catholic) perspective
  • The Minister appeals the Court’s decision

2012

  • The Quebec Court of Appeal overturns the Superior Court’s ruling

2013

  • Loyola takes the matter to the Supreme Court of Canada

2015

  • The Supreme Court of Canada overturns the Court of Appeal and rules that the Minister infringed upon the religious freedom of Loyola

Digital Citizenship: Your Voice Matters

THiNK

Noel-BlogWelcome to S+L’s Weekly News Round-Up. As the Director of Marketing and Communications here at S+L, many interesting Catholic news stories and articles come across my desk on a daily basis. Some of them we’ll cover on our different television programs and others I’d like to share with you on this blog.

This blog column is where I’ll point out some of the more interesting news pieces that I’ve come across over the past week! Enjoy!

This week on the Weekly News Round-Up, I thought I might do something a little different than the usual headlines I showcase. I’ll get back to that next week.

Instead, I thought I might share my experiences from an event that I had the great honor to speak at.

Yesterday, I was invited to speak to over 150 students from the Calgary Catholic School Board at their annual Digital Citizenship Conference, this year titled Your Voice Matters.

At this event, I was greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of junior high school students (grades 7-9) and their teachers at the Conservatory building of the Calgary Zoo, where I was asked to talk to them about Promoting a Catholic Presence on Social Media.

What a fantastic reception! The kids were engaging, funny and all around enthusiastic about their faith.

I was very appreciative of the kind hospitality the organizers Charmaine Monteiro, Stephanie Proctor and Andrea Gillier gave me and the many others who made my visit and stay a trip to remember!

What follows is my text of my speech. I hope you enjoy!

Thank you for the amazing and warm introduction! I’m very happy to be here to talk to you all. I love Calgary.

So earlier today, I had a chance to listen to both Julie and Paul. And I have to say, what wonderful speakers.

You are very lucky to have such great and talented speakers to help you navigate through this webspace we call the Digital Continent.

Before we begin, I’d like to ask a few questions…

First of all, can I get a show of hands…

  • How many of you out there are Catholic or Christian?
  • How many of you out there are on Facebook?
  • On Twitter?
  • On Instagram?
  • How many of you follow Pope Francis on Twitter?
  • Finally, how many of you have actually retweeted, shared, or liked a post by Pope Francis?

Very interesting indeed. Well, I’m happy to say that you’ve all passed and after this session, you can go see your teacher to redeem the extra bonus marks!.

Ok, in all seriousness, I’m here to take you along a different tangent from this mornings talks and talk about 4 main things:

  1. Why put yourselves out there as Catholics?
  2. What’s in it for you & what can you expect by doing so.
  3. I want to show you some great and fun sites you can share content from.
  4. Introduce you to one of the greatest communicators in recent history.

And to kick off this session, I’d like to say we’ve done it. My television station, Salt and Light TV, which broadcasts all over Canada, the US and now in Europe, have been doing it for the past 12 years.

We’ve been putting ourselves out there and now we’re in over 3 million homes and growing. Have a look:

Session 1 – So why put yourselves out there as Christians

And by “putting yourselves out there,” I mean: WHY

  • make a public statement of your Catholic beliefs on line?
  • share posts and pictures that promote your faith’s value?
  • follow the Pope and other Catholic speakers and figures?
  • be virtuous, thoughtful and positive with your comments and activities online?

And the answer to the “why” question is in this video.

This is what happens when you put yourselves out there.

Have a look:

Now when you do that, keep in mind that you will get criticized, sometimes laughed at, maybe called names like a bible thumper, holy-roller, Jesus Lover… or whatever, AND you may even lose the respect of some friends.

Be prepared for hostility for your beliefs, no matter what they are. That kind of sucks right?

BUT consider this. Consider what’s in it for you!

  • You’ll soon realize that you’re not alone in your beliefs.
  • You’ll gain new friends who share the same beliefs and struggles.
  • You’ll be part of a global movement, a global network of young Catholics.
  • You’ll be part of the solution not the problem.
  • You’ll connect with like-minded friends.
  • You’ll be exposed to experiences and people that you’d never have known if you didn’t
  • You become part of a world-wide posse of people who share the same values and will support you.

So consider this thought. The first person that benefits by putting yourself out and affirming your Catholic beliefs there is you. The second person that benefits is everyone else around you.

In essence, you become the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World EXACTLY what St. Pope John Paul II specifically asked us to do.

Let me ask this:

  • Who loves junk food? – Show of hands
    • Who loves fries, chips, burgers, pizza?
    • What happens when you consume that kinds of food every day, day in and out?
    • Whats happens to your body? Anyone?
    • Who out there body-builds and hits the gym and exercises?
    • What kinds of food to you consume?

The reason I bring this up is because 90% of the content on the internet is like junk-food of various degrees but junk food nevertheless

Seriously. Fake, cheap, junk, filled with negativity, criticism, hate, abuse, bullying. IF you consume that crap day in and out, your mind will conform to those values and attitudes, then you become part of the problem.

However, if you are careful of what you put in your body, like a body-builder, you become different, strong… in your mind and attitude. You are what you consume and that saying doesn’t just apply to food. It applies to everything you consume, so be careful with what you consume for your mind.

Has anyone heard of the actor Mark Wahlberg, from Transformers? He really came out about his catholic faith on CNN. Check it out:

Now that is brutally honest. He took a lot of heat for that online.

There are many other high profile celebrities and hollywood A-listers that are putting themselves out there on social media because of the reasons we spoke about. Yeah, they’re not always be perfect but neither are we. They have the same struggles as we do, if not amplified, by their celebrity status. Celebs like Mel Gibson, Stephen Colbert, Martin Sheen, Jim Caviezel and so many others are proclaiming themselves Catholic/

And the reason why they are putting themselves out there as Catholics can be summarized in this little clip. Have a look:

Session 2 – How

In this session, I’d like to talk to you about how to put yourselves out there as good Catholics. And to begin, the easiest way is simply to like, post and share good Christian/Catholic content on whatever social media platform you use. It’s that simple.

You don’t need to make grand proclamations, you don’t need to be on CNN or make video clips to post on Youtube. Simply like, post and share good Christian/Catholic content that represents your faith, content that is positive, hope-filled and optimistic.

As a digital citizen, you have an opportunity to take a stand on issues and truly define yourselves to the world.

So I thought it would be kind of cool to have a look at some of the sites I personally like and some that we use at Salt and Light TV.

Here are a few of my favourite ones:

Session 3 – St. John Paul II

In this final session, I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about one of the greatest communicators of our time, of my time. Someone who by the very nature of his heart, and not by his job, put himself out there, in a way that none of his predecessors have done so in the past.

He did this at a time where the global and political environment was harsh against religion; at a time when being religious, let alone Catholic, could mean imprisonment or even death.

He was great not because it was his job to be great, but because of the suffering he endured throughout his life. He was renowned for NOT being bitter or harsh, but for courage and optimism in the face of evil, and the light of hope he spread in this world.

This person personally reached out to the youth of the world and hence started what has become one of greatest youth gatherings in the world. It happens every 2-3 years: World Youth Day.

The person I’m talking about is none other than Pope John Paul II or St. JPII. Have a look:

Be Not Afraid was his message to you, the youth. Be the Salt of the Earth and the Light of the World.

When you stand up for your beliefs, no matter WHAT they are, you’ll be criticized, antagonized, laughed at and, in some cases, villainized?

But. Be Not Afraid.

When you stand up to be a shining example of what’s good in the world, of what’s right in the world, of what’s just in the world, haters will try to extinguish that light with negativity and cruelness, especially in the digital world.

But dont worry. St. JPII reminds us that You are not what they say you are. Let me remind you who you are.

As the next generation of young, dynamic Catholics, we need to be present and available where people are spending much of their time – online. We have to take JPII’s call to evangelize on the digital continent very seriously and why?

Because YOU are the hope for the future. You are the beacons of light and hope that generations before and generations ahead will look to.

We have to stand up and freely and openly state: We Are Catholic!

Finally, to wrap up my time with you, I’d like to show you one last video.

If Social Media existed during the time of Jesus this is how things may have looked:

Now take that message, your message, and spread it with hope and joy throughout the world. Your world – the digital continent.

Thank you!

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Freedom from Religion – The Canadian Edition

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Freedom of religion, it is something that generally speaking, Canadians take for granted. You can wake-up on Sunday mornings, and drive/walk/ride to the local parish. The music plays, the congregation prays, the priest offers the sacrifice of the mass. For most, the conversation ends right there, freedom of religion delivered, your social contract with the state lives to see another day. However there is so much more to it than that. Faith is so much more than being able to assemble. Challenges to those rights are not always as overt as the violence and discrimination faced by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.

Cue up 2008, Montreal, Quebec: a private Catholic Boys’ High School called Loyola, takes issue with the new provincially mandated Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program. In the wake of doing away with religious schools, the government created a secular ethics program, which seeks to give students a “balanced” look at different faiths. Loyola being a private institution, applied to the Ministry of Education for an exemption. While not objecting to the bulk of the program, the school felt that it could not and should not have to teach Catholicism from a “neutral” or “unbiased” point of view. Administrators argued that it would be impossible and simply not right for teachers to have to leave their faith at the door for a period of each day.

With the government not willing to back down and Loyola not willing to compromise their beliefs, the battle went the way of the courts resulting in a ruling in Loyola’s favor. The government appealed and won, setting up a highly touted main event in the Supreme Court. Ultimately it was Loyola’s day, as just last week, the highest court in the land ruled that the provincial government had indeed infringed on the religious freedoms of the school.

There is no shortage of important points to be unpacked from this case, but the one that stands at the forefront, is the overarching reach of the state. The Government of Quebec has argued that it must equip young people for the future, for the secular society of which they are supposed to be productive members. They also believe that they have a vehicle in the form of the ERC to do so and that it belongs in Catholic private schools. However at what point did the state assume the powers of parents, families and Churches? It is not the job of state to teach people how to be moral. Certainly the state must legislate and enforce laws, however morality has rarely been the forte of governments throughout history.

The state cannot and should not have to try to protect people from themselves. This move, which follows the abolition of religious schools in the province, is at the very least, the tacit admission that faith plays an important role in forming people’s moral compass. However it isn’t the government’s job to mould society or its people. All of that comes organically through formation delivered by families, as well as the Churches and communities they are a part of. The government’s role in all of this is to preserve freedom. That freedom gives parents the chance to foster children in what they believe to be an appropriate environment, allowing them flourish and become their own person.

Yet in the case of Loyola, we have seen the opposite transpire. The government has de facto abdicated its responsibility as the guarantor of such an environment and in fact become the culprit. How sad, that this pivot comes as we make such incredible advances in the sciences and the arts. With all of this great knowledge there are those who argue that they must protect people from themselves, from what their faith may teach them. All of this to ensure, that people grow up to be productive members of an increasingly self-secularized society.

Canadians can be grateful that the justice system has fulfilled its mandate and upheld the laws of the land. However it is unlikely to inhibit such attempts curtailing the religious freedoms people of faith hold so fundamentally close to their hearts. If this case has taught Catholics anything, it is that they must be thankful for and respectful of the rights and freedoms of all. These come from God, the creator, whose authority and age, outstrips and predates any piece of legislation conceived. These freedoms are great and powerful and as with any great powers, come great responsibilities. Faith must be used to build a better world, to create a more just society and ultimately inform and inspire people to lives of virtue.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 4

Baptism_Lent

So far in part 1, we looked at questions people have regarding fasting and abstinence, in part 2 we looked at suffering and in part 3 we looked at what Scripture has to tell us about why Jesus had to suffer.  I think when people think of Lent, that’s what they think about: fasting, abstinence and suffering. Add to that penance.

It is true that Lent is a penitential season, but do you know that the word “Lent” comes from the old English word, “lencten” which  was the word used for “Springtime?” It comes from the old Germanic: “Lengen-tinza” which literally means “long days” (think of the English word “lengthen,” to make long – that’s the same root as the word Lent.) So the word ‘Lent’ refers to the lengthening of days; to the light that is defeating the darkness.  I think most of us think of penance and fasting when we think of Lent, but Lent is also about light defeating darkness. That’s what we see in the fourth Sunday of Lent this year. (On 4th Sunday in Cycle B with Jesus speaking with Nicodemus and also in Cycle A with the story of the man born blind).

How many of you, when you think of Lent, think of Baptism? (I would hope that those preparing for Baptism are thinking of Baptism during Lent; but the rest of us?) Recently, I received a book by Jerry Galipeau titled, You Have Put On Christ: Cultivating a Baptismal Spirituality. In it, he says that Lent is a baptismal time. He quotes the Second Vatican Council Document Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #109:

“The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God ad devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.”

 And so, Lent has a two-fold character; two equally important strands: a baptismal one and a penitential one – we tend to over-emphasize the penitential one.  Traditionally, those preparing to be baptised or received in the Church do their final preparations during Lent. They are called Catechumens and we do see a special baptism emphasis for them during Lent, but all of us should be recalling our Baptism. At the Easter Vigil we will all be renewing our Baptismal promises.

I interviewed Jerry Galipeau for the SLHour for the first week in Lent and afterwards I decided that this Lent I was going to pay extra attention to the readings and prayers and look for all the baptismal themes. I was not sure as to what I was going to find. Then I came to the readings for the first Sunday in Lent. There are Baptismal elements in all the readings all throughout Lent, but let me use the first Sunday, Cycle B as an example:

The first reading from Genesis 9:8-15 takes place just after the flood. God is establishing a Covenant with all Creation; He will never again destroy with a flood. The flood was a cleansing, but also an opportunity for a new life, a regeneration. St. Peter, in the second reading (1 Peter 3:18-22) , tells us that the flood and the Ark prefigure Baptism. That’s what happens at Baptism: it is a cleansing and also an entering into a new life, a new life in Christ.

But the first reading is not directly about the flood; it is about God establishing a Covenant. Guess what I found: The YouCat (the Church’s youth catechism given to us by Pope Benedict XVI.) It says that “Baptism is a covenant with God” because “the individual must say Yes to it.” (YC#194) That makes sense since every Sacrament involves our action and God’s action: We do something and God does something – that’s a covenant. In Baptism, we do something: the prayers, the ritual, everything with the water, the oils, the white garment, the candle – that our part. Then God does his part; He sends us his Grace. In Baptism, we primarily receive two Graces: We are freed from sin and we are reborn as children of God (CCC#1213).  By going through the waters of Baptism, literally plunging into the waters (the word baptism comes from the Greek baptizein, which means “to plunge”) just as the people in the time of Noah went through the flood, we die to sin, all sin is buried in the waters, and we come up on the other side, reborn into Christ. Baptism is a death and a resurrection. St. Paul says that all who are baptised are baptised into the death of Christ, we are buried with him, so that as Christ is raised, we too can walk in the newness of life (Rom 6:3-4; Col 2:12). In Baptism, we are freed from all sin and we become children of God, no longer slaves to sin, but as adopted sons and daughters of God, who now have access to God’s very life, to the life that Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden. We must say yes to that. God does his part and we must agree. That’s what makes it a Covenant.

Now, the Gospel from the first Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus going to the desert. It’s easy to look at Mark’s version (1:12-15) and focus on the fact that Jesus goes into the desert – that’s very Lenten, very penitential. But what happens just before Jesus goes into the desert according to Mark? He is baptised! Then all Mark says about Jesus going to the desert is that “he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness” and in the desert he overcomes temptation; he overcomes sin and he is among wild beasts and the angels minister to him. Who else lived among wild beasts and the angels ministered to them? Adam and Eve. So according to Mark, Jesus going into the desert is an analogy to what happens at baptism: We are freed from sin (Jesus never sins; he overcomes temptation), no longer slaves to sin but having all the benefits that come with being children of God, the Communion with God that Adam and Eve had.

And then what does Jesus do? He begins his ministry. And that’s what we forget about Baptism. Baptism is not the end of the journey, but the beginning. Baptism is the door to Faith and to ministry in the Church. God establishes a Covenant with us and we have to do our part.

So Lent is a time to remember and reflect on our Baptism. For most of us, we were baptised many, many years ago – we don’t remember it – some of us don’t even know when we were baptised or where. Some don’t have a relationship with their Godparents. We should know, at the very least when and where we were baptised. I was baptised on February 8th, 1969 at San Francisco de la Caleta Parish in Panama City, Panama. I know who was there, I have photos and I know who my Godparents are. Do you? Your baptism is where it all began. I would not be here today, as a Deacon, working at S+L and writing this, had I not been baptised. Most of you would not be reading this and would not be in Church every Sunday had you not been baptised – and I don’t mean Catholic baptism; I mean all Christian Baptism, because it’s all the same. We believe in one Baptism. If you are baptised in any Christian denomination, you are baptised – you’ve been freed from Original Sin and you have become a child of God. But we forget and don’t give Baptism the importance that it requires.

I used to think that since I was so young at my baptism and still very young at my Confirmation, there should be a second Confirmation – around our 30s when we truly accept, with full knowledge that we want to be Catholic followers of Jesus Christ – when we would renew our baptismal promises with full consent and knowledge. Most of us have forgotten our baptismal promises. But we don’t need a second Confirmation. At every Mass, when we pray the Creed, we are renewing our baptismal promises, and it is done with special importance, as a community during the Easter Vigil, at the end of Lent. So Lent is a time when we remember and reflect on our Baptism, so that at the Easter Vigil we can renew with vigour our part of the Covenant. God does his part; let’s prepare during this Lenten season so we can do ours.

Come back next time and we’ll deacon-struct Holy Week.

Freedom to Not Have Conscience

Stefan_Blog

On Friday March 6, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario issued a press release confirming that they had dispensed with the conscience rights of their members in the province. Of course, it would be very difficult to initially conclude that, given the PR friendly title of the release: “College Council approves new policy that safeguards human rights and puts patients first.”

No amounts of spin-doctoring or media abdication of the topic can soften the thorny reality for doctors in Ontario who object to certain legal medical practices. This is of particular concern to those in the medical profession who would have objections based on their religious beliefs. No longer can they on grounds of faith or morality, refuse to give a particular prescription; no longer can they refuse to give a referral for a procedure they think is ethically wrong.

It is a dangerous precedent to set, shuffling aside the conscience rights of one individual, in order to extend some sort of privilege to another. This is especially critical when we are talking about forcing someone to do something they believe is morally and ethically wrong.

The implications are particularly worrying when you begin to think about doctors for whom faith plays an important part in their life. Canada is a country where the freedom of religion is enshrined as a pillar of society. This great tradition is a bedrock of the western world, and has allowed for the peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths. However this decision in Ontario follows a sad and increasingly common trend of freedom for some, at the expense of someone else.

There was once an understanding that pervaded society, whereby it was God that giveth and God that taketh. This is very notably associated with the rights of people, such as the right to freedom of conscience, indicating that our creator endows those rights. However the narrative today claims such powers reside in and are endowed by temporal authorities, that both giveth and taketh. Doctors in Ontario are the latest victims of this increasingly common trend.

Physicians were once required to take the Hippocratic oath, which was for centuries, the very essence of what it meant to be a healer. Today we see another hallmark of medicine fading into the winds of history. A person’s conscience and a person’s faith are undoubtedly at the core of their being. In something as critical to the care and survival of society as medicine, we must truly ask what we are giving up?

Doctors in Ontario now journey on an uncertain path, where their professional life may well come into conflict with the faith life. This is a matter where all elements of society need to engage in an honest discussion on just what that means. As people of faith, it is important that we always include ourselves in the public discourse. We can never forget our call to be a part of a culture of engagement.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 2

suffering

Now that in part 1 we’ve taken care of questions regarding fasting and abstinence, let’s focus on the meaning of Lent.

We all know that Lent is the 40 days leading us to Easter. But what really is Lent?  Why are penance and suffering associated with Lent? What is the value of suffering? Let me tell you the story of my friend Eileen.*

Eileen has a great husband and a beautiful daughter. They have a nice little house in a good part of town. Her husband Paul* has a good job. They have a car. Her daughter Melanie* goes to a good school.  They are a good Catholic family. They go to Church and they’re involved in their Parish. Eileen has Multiple Sclerosis, but she’s doing very well. It is not advanced. Life is good and full of many blessings.

One day, when Melanie is about 13, Eileen finds out that Paul has been cheating on her. In a second their life has changed. Eileen can’t live with this betrayal. She leaves Paul.  Instantly, Melanie’s life has changed completely: from living in a nice house, with a car, in a nice neighbourhood – to living in a two-bedroom apartment with her now, single Mom, in a not-so-nice area of town and having to take public transit. Eileen’s MS starts to advance. Now, Melanie has to spend more time at home, helping her Mom. She is now 15, a time when she would rather be spending more time with her friends. But she is coping. Life for Eileen is getting harder and harder: divorce and disease, but still, life continues; they make the most of it; they’re still involved in their parish. There is still contact with Paul, who spends time with Melanie and visits occasionally. Then one day, when Melanie is 17, just a few days after Christmas, she is driving home after going out to a friend’s birthday. No one has been drinking and there is no speeding. The weather is not bad. Melanie changed cars to be with a friend who was going to be driving alone. The car hits a patch of ice, spins out into the opposite lane into an incoming vehicle – that is not speeding, just going the legal 60km/h – but hits straight onto the passenger side where Melanie is sitting, effectively crushing her. She is unconscious and shortly after she reaches the hospital, dies. 17 years old.  Divorce, disease and now death. I heard the news of Melanie’s death shortly after I heard about the Tsunami in South Asia. Divorce, disease, death and disaster….

And so I spent my Christmas season trying to make sense of this; trying to see why suffering exists; why is it such a part of our lives?

We are told that suffering glorifies us. Suffering sanctifies us. That means that suffering makes us Saints. This seems completely ridiculous to me. However if you look at the Middle Ages – a time in history that is not well-known for technical or scientific advances and not well-known for great Church leadership – this time produced many Saints; Saints that took suffering seriously. There’s Saint Rose of Lima (1586 –1617) who wore a cilice, a belt with spikes on it, wore a hair shirt and rubbed pepper on her face so she wouldn’t be attractive. There are so many others. I guess I don’t need to tell you about all the people who willingly gave up everything to be poor; who made strange choices like choosing to walk barefoot, even in winter! Look at St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). Did all these people become Saints because of their suffering? I don’t think so. Certain suffering may sanctify us, but that doesn’t mean we have to go looking for suffering!

If I were to ask you why there’s suffering in the world, maybe you’d tell me that it’s because suffering makes us better people; because we learn from our suffering; it makes us stronger; it helps us understand those who are less fortunate and it gives us an opportunity to be compassionate to others and to realise that we need God. I guess that’s why we have so many clichés about darkness preceding light.

A cliché is an expression or phrase that expresses a stereotype. Like: “It has to be dark for you to see the stars.” Or “in darkness is when the stars shine brightest.” Or, “It has to be raining for you to see the rainbow” or, “you have to climb through the thorns to get to the rose.” These are clichés. But they are clichés because they are true. Here’s another one: “Winter has to come before the Spring.” They all mean that we need to go through suffering in order to experience the good stuff. Suffering makes us better people. That’s the way it is. There is something about this created world (and fallen world) that simply is that way. But why?  Why does it have to be that way?  God is God; God could have had anything make us better people. Anything could sanctify us. Why would salvation depend on suffering? Why can’t it be something else? Why can’t salvation depend on partying? I would say that those clichés are true also in that they point to something about the essence of God.

God became a human being and lived on earth as a human, with all the human things: born in a stable, got lost in Jerusalem, had to go to school and make friends; had to work hard – life in those days wasn’t easy.  Then he was arrested, tortured in the most horrible way and killed in the most horrible way.  That’s the God we believe in: A God who is arrested, tortured and killed.  A God who reigns by hanging on a Cross. It makes no sense. That’s why St. Paul says it’s a folly (1 Cor 1:18-25). I don’t get it but I don’t think we have to understand it. That’s why St. Paul also calls it a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:23).  But God doesn’t ask me to understand. That’s the story of Job. Job goes through incredible suffering and God never tells him why. Jesus goes through incredible suffering and God is absent (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34). [I wrote a reflection on the Cross a few years ago and explored many of these themes.]

But we know that suffering can be redemptive. There are people who suffer for no reason; that suffering has no meaning. But there are people who suffer out of love. There are people who offer their suffering because of love. That suffering becomes redemptive. That’s the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. That’s why His suffering is redemptive. That’s the suffering that saves.

I may not understand why we have to suffer**, but I know that God is a God who suffers with us. That acceptance is also redemptive. Lent is a great opportunity to remind us of this love. Our small acts of penance are a reminder of this love. Lent encourages us to offer up our suffering out of love.

Come back next week and let’s see what Scriptures have to say about all this.


*Not their real names.
**For a real good in-depth look at suffering, you may want to watch In Your Faith, Season 1; Episode 2, (If God is a God of Love) Why do Bad Things Happen?
You may also be interested in Fr. Rosica’s Lenten and Easter Reflections, available now on DVD.

Deacon-structing Lent: part 1

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I wanted to start out not just “deaconstructing” Lent but more so with a reflection on Lent, in order to help us understand the meaning of Lent. But in the last week I’ve had so many questions about fasting and abstinence and about what we can do and can’t do in Lent that I would like to address some of these issues first.

Lent seems to be the one time of the year when Catholics get legalistic about our faith. “Can I eat meat today?” is a question I get all the time. A friend who just moved to Canada asked me if in Canada it was required to not eat meat on Fridays. Another person asked me if pork was considered red meat. Add to that the confusion between the difference between fasting and abstinence (“isn’t fasting a kind of abstinence?” is another question I get asked).

To my knowledge, the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not say anything about fasting or abstinence as it pertains to the Lenten season except in the context of “the Precepts of the Church” (what the Baltimore Catechism called “the Commandments of the Church.”)

“The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour.” (CCC#2041 emphasis my own)

The fourth precept has to do with fasting and abstinence. The Catechism says that this precept, “ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.” (CCC#2043)

The “rule” regarding fasting and abstinence is in Canon Law (again, all emphasis is my own):

Canon 1249 – The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

Can.  1250 – The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.

Can.  1251  – Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesdayand Good Friday.

Can.  1252 – The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.

Can.  1253 – The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.

Canon Law is very clear that each Episcopal Conference has the final word on the practice that is to be observed in a particular country. In Canada, the obligation is that we should fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and that every Friday in Lent is a day of fasting. On top of that, Fridays are days of abstinence from meat, but Catholics may substitute special acts of charity of piety on this day. (From the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops)

It’s clear to me, first, that from these paragraphs, there is no distinction or definition of what “abstinence” and “fasting are.” (I’ll get back to this later)

A few other things that I take from these paragraphs from the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law (and let me make clear that I am not a Canonist, I am a Deacon and so I tend to take the Pastoral bend on all these issues):

  1. The Catechism calls these Precepts “positive laws.” In my book we shouldn’t look at them as “laws”; that’s why they are “positive laws.” It may not be completely appropriate to call them suggestions or guidelines, but the bottom line is that we shouldn’t follow them because they are laws; we follow them because of love. You can’t legislate love. The point of these precepts is “to grow in love of God and neighbour.”
  2. Because of love, we are bound to do penance each in our own way. That is key. As with the Liturgy, the Church has us do certain things at the same time or in the same way “in order for all to be united (…) by some common observance…” This is why in every Church we have the same readings at Mass; why we all stand and sit and kneel at the same times during Mass; why there are Liturgical Seasons; and why the Church suggests that every Friday of the year is to be considered a day of penance.
  3. Abstaining from meat (not just red meat) is a suggestion. We can abstain from any other food, if appropriate. If you are a vegetarian or live somewhere where all you eat is fish; giving up meat doesn’t make sense.
  4. Children can learn the meaning of penance by participating in the discipline of fasting and abstinence; the tradition of giving up something for Lent comes out of the need to teach children the importance of penance.

And now to the difference between fasting and abstinence: Canon 1251 defines abstinence as “abstinence from meat or some other food.” Abstaining means not eating that particular food. I have not however, found a definition of “fasting”anywhere in the Catechism or in the Code of Canon Law (maybe someone can help me out).  The idea that the Church defines fasting as “one meal a day, and two smaller meals which if added together would not exceed the main meal in quantity” is from the Third Baltimore Catechism.

Baltimore Catechism #3
Q. 1337 What do you mean by fast-days?
A. By fast-days I mean days on which we are allowed but one full meal.

Q. 1338. Is it permitted on fast days to take any food besides the one full meal?
A. It is permitted on fast days, besides the one full meal, to take two other meatless meals, to maintain strength, according to each one’s needs. But together these two meatless meals should not equal another full meal.)

[Maybe someone who knows more can clarify if this definition of fasting comes from anywhere else in Church teaching.]

Growing up I was taught that fasting is not eating at all. Some people eat only bread and water on the days they fast. If the least you can do is one full meal and two smaller meals, then that’s the best you can do – I would suggest that if you are truly going to fast, then don’t eat anything (water is OK). Based on who you are, what your circumstances are, I suppose you can choose the appropriate balance between these two. (For a really good reflection on fasting, read or watch Fr. Rosica’s Reflection for Ash Wednesday.)

But don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that we don’t have to fast or abstain. What I am saying is that these are disciplines to help us in our spiritual journey. We don’t observe them because they are laws. Fasting and Abstinence are not ends in themselves.

If you tend to have a legalistic approach to giving up meat on Fridays of Lent (or to any aspect of our Faith), I think you’re missing the point. Lent is a time when we are supposed to get rid of the stuff that gets in the way between us and God. Fasting, prayer and alms-giving are disciplines that help us focus on what’s essential. Jesus went into the desert because in the desert is where we have the bare minimum; we get rid of the stuff we don’t need, the extras, so we can focus on the essentials (which may mean not just giving stuff up, but also doing things you don’t normally do); so we can focus on our relationship with God.

Isaiah tells us:

Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.” (Is 58:6-8)

It’s not about eating meat or not eating meat. You should give stuff up; and it should be a sacrifice; it should hurt a little – if you can’t come up with anything better or that is specific to where you are in your spiritual life, then the Church suggests giving up meat on Fridays (and so we can be united in our penance). But maybe you need to come up with something else that will help you specifically, get closer to God.

Besides, we should be focusing on our relationship with God all the time – this is why Canon 1250 says that every Friday of the year is a penitential day. I would add that prayer, fasting and alms-giving is a year-round discipline. Remember Psalm 51: “You do not delight in sacrifice; The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart.”

If you’d like to explore these ideas further, take a look at a Weekly Edition of Perspectives panel we had on Fasting and Abstinence and come back next week so we can begin looking at what Lent really is.


CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Statement from Cardinal Thomas Collins re: Supreme Court of Canada decision on assisted suicide

Collins Cardinal Thomas

By Thomas Cardinal Collins, February 10, 2015

“For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.” Psalm 31

In our days, as in the days of the psalmist, so many years ago, people can suffer grievously during their journey through this “valley of tears,” and may even be tempted to request assisted suicide. The Supreme Court has now allowed that, and at first glance, it may seem to be the compassionate thing to do.

There is certainly no need to take extreme measures to extend the length of life. When people are dying, we should surround them with love as they enter into their final experience on this earth, and relieve as best we can any suffering they endure. We need as a society to make effective palliative care more available. But there is a profound difference between compassionately journeying with someone who is dying, or who is suffering when not in danger of death, and killing that person, or helping that person to commit suicide. No one has a right to do that, and it is simply wrong for the state to allow or to encourage that.

Suicide is already a sadly common tragedy in our society, as persons facing what at the moment they feel to be intolerable suffering of some kind, decide to end their life. We all need to reach out compassionately to anyone contemplating suicide, and to offer whatever help we can to alleviate their pain, be it physical or psychological, so they can appreciate the value of their life, and know they are loved. But for anyone actually to assist them not to escape but to commit suicide is wrong. It is a perversion of the vocation of physicians to have them engaged in helping people to kill themselves. Physicians are called to be servants of healing, not agents of death.

Assisted suicide is the deceptively attractive face of euthanasia. The most compelling cases grip our attention and sway the debate, and so the Court opens the door to assisted suicide, all the while seeming to do less than it actually has done by surrounding its action with a set of limiting conditions, seeking to guarantee informed consent, as if that were the key issue. But the state is authorizing the killing of an innocent person, whatever controls are in place, and even those limitations can over time be swept away, leading to the more widespread practice of euthanasia. We have only to look at some European countries to see what lies ahead. We Canadians patriotically believe our country is special, but it is not so special as to be immune to the dynamics of increasing access to medical killing, as individualist rationales make persuasive the argument for that in more and more cases.

The court, recognizing that many physicians, faithful to their healing vocation, will not assist people to kill themselves, makes some very slight room for freedom of conscience. It trusts local Colleges of Physicians and other such groups to deal appropriately with the conscience issue.

This trust is misplaced. Currently the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is proposing a draft conscience policy which states that physicians who refuse to perform a procedure to which they morally object must arrange that the procedure gets done by someone else. In other words, they are compelled to become accomplices. I urge the College not to go through with this unjust policy, and I urge Ontarians, especially physicians, to speak up against it. First the politicians; now the physicians: the assault on freedom of conscience steadily advances in our country.

We all are on the way to death and should gain wisdom from contemplating that inescapable fact, so that we use each present moment to prepare for the moment of our death by living well. We should provide all who are suffering with the best medical assistance we can offer, especially in palliative care for those who are coming to the end of life. Most importantly, we should accompany each person with love, especially those without friends or family. But any society that authorizes killing people through assisted suicide and euthanasia has lost its moral compass.

When death is at the doorstep: martyrdom and euthanasia in the Church

OscarRomero

It’s always difficult to say something about a subject that has not affected you in a particularly personal way. Nevertheless, death is a subject that is before us these days as a community of faith and as a society as a whole, and therefore warrants some reflection.

I’d like to comment on two recent events in particular. On February 3, Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero, the beloved Salvadoran archbishop, a martyr for the Catholic faith. A few days later on February 6, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that physician-assisted suicide is permissible, thus overturning the law prohibiting such deliberate medical action.

From within the Catholic Church came radically different responses to these two developments. To the news of Romero’s official martyrdom, Catholics everywhere rejoiced. The man who so many already considered a saint because of his heroic stance in defense of the dignity of the poor expressed in defiance of a tyrannical right-wing government, will be recognized in death for his Gospel witness.

In stark contrast, the news of the Supreme Court’s ruling sparked a unified outcry from the Catholic community in Canada and beyond in the form of a categorical defense of life, even of those suffering from “grievous and irremediable medical conditions.”

The people of our time may perceptively wonder how it is possible for such opposing responses to be reconciled in a single creed. Was not Archbishop Romero conscious of the likelihood of his death in speaking out against the Salvadorian government, and thus, in a way freely welcoming his own death? How is that different, they may ask, from a person who is suffering from an irremediable state of life, often in similar and sincere contemplation of their very existence, choosing to die and receiving medical assistance to do so?

It is a profound and difficult question, but not one that has escaped the mind and heart of the Catholic Church over the course of history. After all, martyrdom for the faith has been a reality from the beginning of the Christian movement. In Luke the Evangelist’s portrayal of the 1st century martyrdom of St. Stephen we find many similarities to the story of Romero twenty centuries later.

Of martyrdom the Church officially states that it is, “the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death.” (CCC, 2473)

But to look specifically at the question posed, namely what accounts for the difference between the Catholic responses to Romero’s death and the court decision to legalize euthanasia, we must attempt to explain the principle of paradox that has been infused into the Christian message from the very beginning.

In one sense, the person today who suffers from an irremediable state of life and wishes to end it is expressing a belief that the negative consequences of choosing to endure—prolonged suffering of all kinds or financial pressure on family members, for example—outweigh the prospect of living. It’s impossible to imagine the weight of such an examination of conscience, but people have done it and made the decision to die.

From the Catholic perspective, as witnessed to by the lives of the martyrs, the willingness to die comes as the result, not of a conviction that death is the better choice, but that rather that life is. And this is the paradox. The martyr is not a person who chooses death because it is an option, but one who will endure death for the belief that life is the only option. In Romero’s case, he chose life for the poor people of El Salvador so vehemently that he paid the price with his own life.

Now that the Supreme Court has made its decision, the Catholic Church must voice its opposition to the law in favor of the dignity of all life. At the same time, it is essential that the Church do everything in its power to accompany—as Pope Francis would say—those struggling with such decisions and avoid an attitude of judgment that would not do justice to the Church’s insistence on the dignity and respect for every human being. Whether they are struggling with the decision to end their life or struggling for survival from a tyrannical dictator, the dignity of each person and the respect for the conscience of each person must be the priority of Catholics if we are to be faithful to the Gospel.

CNS photo/Octavio Duran