Inside the Synod – Meet the Team!

Tonight during the premiere episode of Inside the Synod meet the international team of S+L producers who will host our  2014 coverage from inside the Synod on the Family.  This year, we’re pleased to bring you coverage in French, English and Chinese as we keep you up-to-date with the  latest developments. You can look forward to hearing from a wide array of voices: bishops, lay observers and various experts who are gathered to reflect on the pastoral challenges facing families today.

Learning from St. Thérèse


These days it’s easy to be discouraged reading the news about never-ending scandals popping up here and there, or about the shortcomings of various role models, or the interviews of well-known people criticizing one another, and so on. I’m sure that we all can think of examples and that we all recognize an overwhelming flow of negativism, criticism, egoism, a flow that at times becomes so strong that it’s easy to be carried away by it and to simply surrender without looking beyond the negativity, coming to the conclusion – and this is very subtle – that, at the end of the day, this is all normal.

A week or so ago, I decided to read something about Thérèse de Lisieux, I knew that she had died at a young age, that she is a great saint, that she is a doctor of the Church and an inspiration for many with her ‘little way’. I was impressed with what I read because I recognized a similarity between her personal struggle at the end of her life and this dark period that we seem to be going through.

I just want to highlight what struck me most, because it helped me to see things from another perspective, and it might help you too.

In the introduction to the book I found a quote of Joseph Ratzinger who said about Thérèse: “She was very kind and, apparently, of unassuming simplicity. Unexpectedly she finds herself immersed in the torments of doubt, a symbol of contemporary men and women, who unexpectedly catch sight of an abyss that opens beneath what seemed to be the solid ground of conventional truth, and the question becomes all or nothing: there are no other options.”

So Thérèse, from one moment to the next, finds herself in a situation of doubt. She cannot be sure whether all that she believes and all that she lived for is actually true. Her deepest convictions and, therefore, her relationship with God are put to the test. She describes her inner state as being in darkness without feeling the presence of God. And what is her reaction to this situation? She abandons herself immediately and totally to the will of God because she believes (even without seeing or feeling it in her soul) that everything is love from God.

This attitude of ‘transforming’ reality and seeing things from the perspective of the love of God – without ignoring or denying the events, which are very real – is what touched me deeply. Isn’t this an invitation to do the same, even today?

When Thérèse discovered her illness by coughing up blood (she died from tuberculosis), her reaction wasn’t: “I’m sick, I coughed up blood”, but “My Spouse (Jesus) has arrived”.

I think Thérèse here teaches us that each event carries with it two realities, a human reality and a divine reality. Personally I try to focus on God’s love first of all, and I realize that this gives me great inner peace and a feeling of optimism; it helps me to see the ‘bigger picture’, without getting trapped in a narrow and sometimes self-centered way of thinking. It actually helps me to discover the needs of others, to reach out to them and, if it’s the case, to reverse their tendency to think negatively.

The more I manage to recognize the love of God in both positive and negative events, the more I feel that the relationship between Him and me grows. And as this relationship grows, it becomes easier to recognize God’s love in everything that happens. And then it becomes possible to bear witness to God who is Love in daily life.

I’m very grateful to Thérèse. I’m sure she’s giving us a hand from above!

This post was originally published in 2010.

Taking up the challenge!

TCA1 - cropped Salt and Light Producers Cheridan Sanders and Sebastian Gomes review the script of an episode of The Church Alive, a series dedicated to Vatican II and the New Evangelization.  The 13-part series, was filmed at the CBC studios in downtown Toronto.

Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI was the last Bishop of Rome to participate in the Second Vatican Council during the 1960’s.  Fifty years after that historic event, the Catholic Church is undertaking a universal initiative called the “new evangelization.”  In September, 2012, only five months before his resignation, Pope Benedict told a group of visiting bishops to the Vatican that the new evangelization “started precisely with the Second Vatican Council.”  The two cannot be separated and any serious work of the new evangelization has to find its roots in the documents of Vatican II.  Salt and Light accepted this challenge produced The Church Alive, a series based on the themes of the council.  Episodes include: Catholic Education, Economics, Religious Liberty, the Media, and Ecology. This show is now available on DVD and is a great resource for teach for all who want to learn more about the Council.

Perspectives Daily – Vatican Secretary of State Addresses United Nations

Today on Perspectives, the Vatican’s Secretary of State addresses the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations in New York City and the Church in Hong Kong responds to the pro-democracy protests sweeping through the city.

The Great Saints (and Angels) of the Week

archangelsToday we celebrate the feast of the Archangels — St. Michael, St. Gabriel, and St. Raphael. Take some time today to look up  Scripture references to the different Archangels and meditate on the work of these heavenly messengers. For St. Michael flip to Revelations 12 (there’s also references in Daniel 10 and 12), St. Gabriel of course can be found in Luke’s Nativity story, and St. Raphael is featured in the Old Testament’s Book of Tobit (12).

stjeromeTuesday, we recognize on St. Jerome (c. 347-420), the great doctor of the Church perhaps best known for his for his translation of the Vulgate. A Biblical scholar, Jerome wrote in his Prologue to the “Commentary on Isaiah “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Here’s a reflection given by Pope Benedict during a General Audience on St. Jerome’s love for Sacred Scripture.

stthereseOn Wednesday we have a saint who has a great following, a heroic woman who though living as a cloistered nun has become patroness of missions — St. Thérèse of Lisieux. One of three female doctors of the Church, the Little Flower is an outstanding model of humility and her autobiography “Story of a Soul” is a must-have spiritual classic. Her parents, Louis and Marie Zelie Guerin Martin, joined her officially in the Communion of Saints when they were beatified on October 19, 2008.

GuardianAngelsOn Thursday we return to the Angels and recognize our Guardian Angels. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: “From infancy to death human life is surrounded by their [angels'] watchful care and intercession. ‘Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.’ Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God.” (CCC 336) It’s funny, we often pray to our favourite saints, but do we remember our Guardian Angel? Today is a good day to begin developing our relationship with our constant companion.

Though we don’t celebrate a saint’s day in the universal calendar on Friday, there is the popular First Friday devotion.

stfrancisThe Church celebrates another one of her favourite sons on Saturday, St. Francis of Assisi, namesake of Pope FrancisFrom reform to establishing religious orders, St. Francis’ contribution to Catholicism is vast and impressive. The Saint is associated very much with peace — from hymns to Days of Prayer in Assisi. While visiting Assisi in the summer of 2007, Pope Benedict reflected on the saint and peace — here’s his address.

Wow! It is truly a week of holy men, women, and angels! Why not make an effort this week to get to know some of this great pillars of our faith better?


This post was originally published in 2008.

The Secret of Thérèse


In her short life Saint Therese of Lisieux left us with three manuscripts that would become the Story of a Soul. Much more than a simple autobiography, her story has transformed many lives. This documentary retraces the steps of this young Carmelite from her days in Lisieux all the way to the hearts of those who welcome her into their life today. Watch this beautifully captured story on Salt + Light on Wednesday, October 1 at 9 pm. Watch live here.

Is your neighbor a Saint?


Historically speaking, the church had to take root somewhere. When in the early 30’s AD Jesus of Nazareth was executed, rose from the dead and sent his Spirit to be with his little band of disciples, Rome was the dominant political and social player. Peter and Paul brought the faith to Rome before being executed there, and the institutional church has been intimately tied with the city ever since.

Four hundred and fifty years later, the Roman Empire fell and the then predominant Christian religion became the last surviving bastion of Roman memory and culture. It’s with good reason then, that we call it the Roman Catholic Church. The natural result of this planting of the church in a particular city and country has been the ‘Romanization,’ and in modern history the ‘Italianization,’ of the Catholic Church.

Among other things, the Roman and Italian church has produced a huge percentage of our saints and blesseds – men and women held up as models of the Christian life. Many have been influential, not only in the development of the Christian faith, but also in the development of what we know today as the Western world. St. Francis of Assisi is arguably the greatest, and certainly the most beloved example.

Another dominant figure is Benedict of Nursia (“Norcia” in Italian), the founder of Western monasticism. Living some seven hundred years before Francis, Benedict sought refuge from the wild city life of Rome at a place called Subiaco in central Italy before moving to Monte Cassino where he established a monastery based on his Rule.

The vast influence of both Benedict and Francis is undeniable. And so it’s quite remarkable that they were born only a short distance from each other; it’s about 80 kilometers from Assisi to Norcia, through the hills and mountains of Umbria.

I recently made the trip from Assisi to Norcia to visit the birthplace of St. Benedict, and what struck me most was the proximity of the two cities. And, I discovered, Sts. Francis and Benedict aren’t even the only saints in the region! Coming from a country like Canada, where we have only a handful of saints, I was taken aback.

I spoke to the Franciscan Sisters I was with as well as a few of the locals and the question arose as to why Italy has so many saints; so many saints from so many small and peripheral cities! Almost every little Italian town or city, it seems, has its own saint or blessed, most of whom we’ve never heard of and are venerated especially in his or her hometowns.

The fact that the church has been established in Italy for so many centuries was the obvious answer. But then the idea of a simple and practical sanctity arose, and the fact that historically, the Italian people may have a gift for recognizing holiness in others. This, I thought, was a great topic and lesson for those of us from some of the “younger” parts of the world.

Imagine, the ability to see a simple and perhaps a common holiness in the people around us. I immediately recalled those wonderful words of Pope John Paul I, the smiling pope who was known for his simplicity and humility: “Lived holiness is very much more widespread than officially proclaimed holiness… Coming into Paradise, we will probably find mothers, workers, professional people, students, set higher than the official saints we venerate on earth.” (Omnia opera, vol. VI)

There are many things we can do on a daily basis to become better Christians, and the church certainly provides good examples for us in the lives of the saints. Do we need, perhaps, to spend a bit more time recognizing the saints around us: people in our parish, coworkers, community activists, parents, teachers, family members? Could holiness really be an inclusive rather than an exclusive quality? There certainly is a case to be made, as Pope Francis has said, “I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.” (The Jesuit Interview)

Deacon-structing: Natural Law- Part 1


I was struck this past June when I read the Instrumentum Laboris, or working document for the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place from Oct 5-19, 2014. The Synod, or meeting of Bishops, will focus on “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation” which is why everyone refers to it as the “Synod on the Family”. About 100 participants, including the presidents of all Episcopal Conferences, will attend the extraordinary synod.

There actually will be two Synods: After the “extraordinary” or “preparatory” one this year, there will be an “Ordinary” General Assembly October 4-25, 2015. The goal of this year’s Synod is to set the agenda for the big synod of 2015. The theme for next year’s synod is “Jesus Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the family”. This second synod, will also include experts and above all else, families.

The working document the synods was put together by the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops and, for the first time, came as a result of a questionnaire that was released in Nov 2013, as part of the preparatory document, which included 38 questions on various topics ranging from the Church’s teachings on family, natural law, and pastoral care to difficult marital situations, unions of persons of the same sex and irregular marriages. The intent of the questionnaire was to get grassroots feedback on these issues and although delivered to local bishops, religious congregations and Catholic groups, many bishops, as in the diocese of Austin decided to post the questions online in order to receive feedback from their faithful.

The result is the above-mentioned Instrumentum Laboris, a fairly complete document that is divided in three parts:

  1. Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World
  2. Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges and
  3. An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing.

This document will provide a guide for the conversations that will be taking place during the synod this October.

What struck me was in the first section, chapter 3: The Gospel of the Family and the Natural Law. I was amazed by what I read, constructed presumably based on the feedback received from the questionnaire. The section begins:

“Speaking of the acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family necessarily involves the subject of the natural law, which is often quoted in the Church’s magisterial documents and poses difficulties today.” (20)

The next paragraph reads:

“In a vast majority of responses and observations, the concept of natural law today turns out to be, in different cultural contexts, highly problematic, if not completely incomprehensible. The expression is understood in a variety of ways, or simply not understood at all.” (21)

In paragraph 22 I read,

“The responses and observations also show that the adjective “natural” often is understood by people as meaning “spontaneous” or “what comes naturally.” Today, people tend to place a high value on personal feelings and emotions, aspects which appear “genuine” and “fundamental” and, therefore, to be followed “simply according to one’s nature.”


“…the natural law is perceived as an outdated legacy. Today, in not only the West but increasingly every part of the world, scientific research poses a serious challenge to the concept of nature. Evolution, biology and neuroscience, when confronted with the traditional idea of the natural law, conclude that it is not “scientific.” (22)

Further down:

“If some responses refer to a lack of proper understanding of the natural law, several Episcopal conferences in Africa, Oceania and East Asia, mention that, in some regions, polygamy is to be considered “natural,” as well as a husband’s divorcing his wife because she is unable to bear children — and, in some cases, unable to bear sons. In other words, from an emerging point of view, drawn from a widely diffused culture, the natural law is no longer to be considered as applicable to everyone, since people mistakenly come to the conclusion that a unique system of reference does not exist.” (25)

The document continues:

“The demise of the concept of the natural law tends to eliminate the interconnection of love, sexuality and fertility, which is understood to be the essence of marriage. Consequently, many aspects of the Church’s sexual morality are not understood today. This is also a result of a certain criticism of the natural law, even by a number of theologians. “(26) and “Other complaints against the natural law come from the poorest areas and those least influenced by western thought — especially some African states — which cite the phenomena of machismo, polygamy, marriages between teens and preteens, and divorce in cases of sterility or a lack of a male heir, as well as incest and other aberrant practices.” (27)

It was a surprise to me that when speaking about natural law, there is so much confusion. When the idea of natural law was explained to me, it was very clear and I understood it as a very practical, concrete concept. But maybe I’m in the minority. Before I continue, let me ask you: What do you think natural law is? Are you also confused by what the Church means by Natural Law?

The last paragraph of this section offers some suggestions. It is titled: “A Call for a Renewal in Terms of Language”

It reads:

“The language traditionally used in explaining the term “natural law” should be improved so that the values of the Gospel can be communicated to people today in a more intelligible manner. In particular, the vast majority of responses and an even greater part of the observations request that more emphasis be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and recommend greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives. In this regard, respondents propose bringing the issue to public discussion and developing the idea of biblical inspiration and the “order in creation,” which could permit a re-reading of the concept of the natural law in a more meaningful manner in today’s world (cf. the idea of the law written in the human heart in Rm 1:19-21; 2:14-15). Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.” (30)

This paragraph also surprised me. I would not propose that the language is renewed, but merely that we learn to explain the term better (maybe that’s the same thing). And the idea of placing more emphasis on the Word of God is very sensible, but not exclusive to natural law. The way natural law was explained to me, it aligns perfectly with what is found in Scriptures.

Last July I attended a series of lectures in Toronto, Faith in the Public Square. While none of the topics had to do with family or sexual morality specifically, I was amazed that the first two speakers, Dale Ahlquist and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia mentioned natural law. But each defined it in a fairly different way.

Dale Ahlquist said that natural law was common sense. Archbishop Chaput said that it’s in your heart. I have difficulty with both those explanations.

I heard this having just read the Synod’s working document. I had also just interviewed Philosophy Professor, John Hittinger at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, for our documentary series, Creation. In my conversation with Prof. Hittinger the topic of natural law came up. He said that according to St. Thomas Aquinas (who came up with the term “natural law”) “natural law is precisely the participation of rational creatures in eternal law.”

Prof Hittinger continued by saying that “Thomas contrasted humans with other animals whom he said, “Obey eternal law by an impressed instinct or law, by which they behave according to this pattern for the good, but they don’t stop and reflect on the good. Human beings have conscience. We must stop and ask, “Is this good? Or will it catch up with us if we do evil?” This is why the two definitions I mentioned above, I think, fall short. We have conscience. We think about these things. We rationalize. So the perception of what’s “in my heart” can be very different than what’s in your heart or what’s common sense for me may be very different from what’s common sense for you or for someone living in a polygamous relationship in Africa.

No wonder people don’t understand natural law and have a difficulty making sense of it.

But natural law is commonly used to explain morality. Can we explain morality without using the natural law argument? I think we must.

I’d like to propose a different way of looking at natural law. I learned this from Prof. Janet Smith in her famous talk “Contraception: Why Not”.

I use this explanation of natural law every time I do a marriage prep class on sexuality. I use it every time I need to explain sexual morality of Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage and relationships. I have also used it to explain any moral teaching of the Church. No one has ever told me that it’s not clear. In fact, every time, everyone nods as if this was the most basic obvious thing in the world.

Join me next week as we look at a real practical way to explain natural law.

On a separate note, a Day of Prayer for the Synod was held today Sunday September 28 in the Salus Populi Romanii Chapel in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Perhaps you can say a little prayer today and every day from Oct 5-19th for the success of this Synod.


Prayer to the Holy Family

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer!


Witness: Dale Ahlquist


Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), better known as G. K. Chesterton, was an English writer, lay theologian, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, literary and art critic, biographer, and Christian apologist. He is often referred to as the “prince of paradox”. Art? Politics? History? Literature? Philosophy? Faith? You name it. Whatever it is, G.K. had something wonderful and witty to say about it!

In this WITNESS interview, meet Dale Ahlquist who will help you unpack the wisdom of Chesterton to explain why modern man has lost his ability to think clearly. Dale is one of the most respected G.K. Chesterton scholars in the world, and is President of the American Chesterton Society. Dale received a B.A. from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and M.A. from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He and his wife Laura have six children and live in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA). Dale has edited eight books of Chesterton’s writings.

Celebrating Consecrated Life

Nuns hold candles as pope celebrates Mass at Vatican

In 1997 Pope John Paul II established The World Day for Consecrated Life. It’s a wonderful opportunity to give thanks for the invaluable witness that consecrated religious give to the world. We’re all greatly indebted to those men and women who have proclaimed the gospel in a variety of contexts around the globe, throughout the ages. These men and women have almost always been at the forefront of evangelization, and it is no different today as we embark on the New Evangelization. In episode eleven of The Church Alive, we  examine the challenges facing religious communities today. Worth checking out!