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The Year of Our Lord 2017 has been rather full of notable anniversaries. Five hundred years since the Reformation, something that reminds us that our work across confessional lines at Cardus, Catholics and Protestants together in a common mission, is a blessing not to be taken for granted. We are spending a great deal of time and energy on Faith in Canada 150, which reaches beyond the Christian Church and back to the earliest days of faithful presence in our country.
For Catholics, 2017 marked the centennial of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Portugal, which significantly shaped the Catholic view of Providence in history as well as Catholic piety. The addition of the “Fatima prayer” to the Rosary means that millions of Catholics who pray that devotion simply, but insistently, ask Jesus to “forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy.” Hard to beat that for a summation of the mission the Redeemer.
For me though, 2017 has brought twin centennials closer to home. Though Convivium readers know me principally from this journal that Peter Stockland and I established at Cardus, my days are mostly occupied with my priestly work.
That takes two principal forms: Being the pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary parish on Wolfe Island in the St. Lawrence River near Kingston, and being chaplain of Newman House, the Catholic chaplaincy at Queen’s University. While the parish on Wolfe Island goes back 170 years to 1847, our magnificent church was built 1916-1917, with the first Holy Mass offered at Christmas 1917. We are looking forward to this Christmas then with particular enthusiasm!
The Catholic chaplaincy at Queen’s University was established on this day, Oct. 26, in 1917, so we are marking our 100th birthday. It was called the “Newman Club” back then in honour of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great 19th century English theologian and man of the university. Though he had died only 27 years previous, Newman’s name was already associated with Catholic chaplaincies on campus. The University of Toronto had a Newman Club for Catholic students, and Catholic students at Queen’s, then a Presbyterian-founded university of only a few hundred students, wanted the same.
The catalyst came at the spring convocation in 1917, where the controversies over the Great War were addressed by the convocation speaker, a visitor from England. He was none too impressed with the peace initiatives of Pope Benedict XV, which he considered favourable to the Germans. He referred derisively to Benedict XV as the “Kaiser’s puppet.”
“All the Kaiser has to do is push a button on his desk, and his jack-in-the-box in the Vatican pops up to say ‘peace’!” snorted the speaker.
That galvanized the Catholic students who petitioned the principal for an apology, which they received. Energized by the occasion, the momentum led to the formation of a chaplaincy for Catholic students on October 26 1917. God writes straight with crooked lines.
A hundred years on, I would welcome an anti-Catholic outburst at convocation that would provoke the principal to apologize. Today on campus, direct attacks on Jesus Himself are daily fare in the classrooms, and anti-Catholic remarks are common enough from professors, to say nothing of a campus culture hostile to any Christian practice.
The intellectual environment at Queen’s – not unlike other Canadian universities – is dominated by secular fundamentalists far more extreme in their “orthodoxy” than the Presbyterian elders who founded Queen’s ever were. And the moral ecology of campus is both entitled and debauched.
The university officially has little to say about any of this, save for annual lamentations of bad behaviour at Homecoming. But that is a safety and public relations matter, not one of character formation.
All that said, I regularly tell my brother priests that – provided you enjoy working with 20-somethings, even teenagers, which I certainly do – being on campus is about as much fun as a priest can have today. It is truly a missionary adventure, as the campus is now populated with what American data illustrate is the “most unreligious generation” in our history. Canada is no different.
The Christian on campus – especially one who proposes the Christian faith to others as true – is therefore not unlike the first Christians, who were considered dissenters from the reigning orthodoxy, even “atheists” because they refused to worship the official gods of the Roman empire. If you find the Book of Acts stirring, the contemporary campus is the place to see that the Gospel has not lost its power. There are conversions of heart and conversions of life, and the courage of Christian students on campus today is inspiring.
For the chaplain – and in my case, as a chaplain on the same campus where I was in student in the early 1990s – it is a continuing marvel to see young Catholics do today what I never would have thought possible when I was in their shoes. They are far more bold in living their faith and sharing it with others, an invitation that I would have been reluctant to make when I was their age.
When I first began work on campus, I had in mind as the model the work that St. John Paul II did as a young chaplain for university students in Krakow. The great pope of our time taught the Church the contemporary art of pastoral accompaniment – of students, of young couples, of families. The young Father Karol Wojtyla entered into the lives of those Cracovian students, and what he learned later bore fruit for the universal Church in the massive phenomenon of the World Youth Days.
As John Paul himself would testify, it was not only a matter of him giving to the students and the students receiving from him. They gave him the gift of spiritual fatherhood, which is a far broader and deeper thing than natural fatherhood. Natural fathers are also called to be spiritual fathers; alas, natural children often do not permit their natural fathers to be spiritual fathers. Natural fatherhood is involuntary; the father begets the child and the child is by that fact his father’s son or daughter. Spiritual fatherhood requires the child to accept that fatherhood, to constitute in a sense the spiritual father. For that reason, spiritual fatherhood is always a gift, a precious gift that university chaplains experience more than most.
While we mark a century since our founding, it has not been a continuous 100 years. For four years in the 1920s the Newman Club was suppressed on grounds of treason. Yes, treason. Apparently the Newman Club had invited a guest speaker who spoke vigorously on Canadian unity. The person thanking the speaker ventured the opinion that so marvellous and sturdy a thing was this new dominion that it no longer needed the British Crown. In the city of Sir John A. Macdonald – “A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die” – this did not go over well. The Newman Club was shut down by the student government: treachery was not to be tolerated at a university named after the Queen. Four years later, all those involved had graduated, and the Newman Club was revived. We are loyal to the Queen today.
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Yet we remain, in a certain sense, traitors. Our allegiance is not to the fierce gods who rule over campus – radical autonomy, extreme relativism, identity politics, sexual libertinism, philosophical materialism and authoritarian liberalism – but to another, to Another. The second-century Letter to Diognetus, applies to Christians in every age, and certainly to our own:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven.
That would be, as is said today, a good mission statement for the Christian on campus. The joy of being on campus is to encourage young Christian disciples to be just that, and all that – and to see them succeed.
The Letter to Diognetus continues:
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Enjoyments falsely understood, and perhaps all the more intensely clung to for that reason. One hundred years after our founding, Newman House at Queen’s is, relative to university around it, small. Very small, to be sure. But then how big is a soul?
Ad multos annos!
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