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A Conversation with David Johnston

At the Parliamentary Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Governor-General David Johnston gave profoundly moving remarks about the power of religious faith as exemplified by Queen Elizabeth, and in his own life. We're seeking a transcript for Convivium readers, but for this Victoria Day weekend we're reprising Editor-in-Chief Father Raymond de Souza's 2013 interview with the Queen's representative in Canada. .

8 minute read
A Conversation with David Johnston May 19, 2017  |  By Raymond J. de Souza and David Johnston
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On the eve of Pope Francis’ initial Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, Convivium Editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza talked with Governor General David Johnston, who was in Rome leading the Canadian delegation. Following is their conversation.

Father Raymond J. de Souza: Your Excellency, obviously there are lots of international presidents, prime ministers and so on who are installed, inau-gurated... You don’t attend all of them. What is the significance of your being here for the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis?

GG David Johnston: Well, it’s very special. I am here with a substantial delegation from Canada, parliamentarians, people representing the Church and people representing a lay interest in the Church. We come as a body. I’m so delighted we come with that strength of representation. I think it reinforces the respect that Canada has had for the role of the Roman Catholic Church over so many centuries. It has been so prominent in so many ways. We come here to Rome, to the Holy See, at a time of renewal, at a time of new beginnings with great hope at the installation of a pope. It’s so appropriate that Canada is represented to witness this and to reinforce the good things that we expect to come from this new papacy.

RJS: From the view to history, when Pope Pius IX was elected in the conclave of 1846, the British newspa-pers said it was the last papal election. There were supposed to be no more papal elections even before Canada was a country. What do you make of the history of this office?

DJ: Well, it’s 2,000 years [old] and that’s a pretty good record. [Laughter.] When you tell that story, I think of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1896 or thereabouts with the great splendour of modern science and technology and innovation. The com-missioner of patents for the United States allegedly said at that World’s Fair that ‘virtually everything that could be invented has been invented and much of it is on display here and we can probably close down the U.S. patent office within a decade.’ So I think that we’re not seeing the termination of something. We’re seeing the opportunity for some interesting new beginnings.

RJS:You mentioned the role of religion in Canadian public life. How do you see the role that religion contributes to our common life in Canada?

DJ: I’m a person of faith myself. The role of religion has been important in my life and in my family’s life. It’s been such an important feature of both Canadian history and establishing the particular values that are Canadian. The influence of the Church has been very important.

RJS: The Canadian government has announced the Office of Religious Freedom as part of the foreign policy of Canada. An increasing, if not the, top priority of the Holy See is international diplomacy and the question of religious liberty. Does it surprise you that in the early 21st century religious liberty has come to the fore when it may have been thought to be a resolved issue?

DJ: The optimistic part of me says ‘I’m surprised.’ I thought, having a progressive view of history, that these issues would be largely settled and taken as a given. That clearly is not the case. In many respects, it’s more threatened now than in other periods. So, there is surprise and disappointment that those battles continue. To link it to the Office of Reli-gious Freedom, of course, is part of an abiding concern Canadians have for human rights. I expect we will see the particular efforts Canadians make for greater tolerance in the world will be pursued through this particular avenue as well as others.

RJS: Most of your life was as a professor and a teacher. You’ve talked about all the different campuses you’ve been on. My principal work is as a university chaplain and professor. What’s your assessment of the situation where, for most of our students, the things of God, or of the spirit more broadly speaking, are absent from the modern university campus? Does it concern you?

DJ: Compared to 50 years ago when I was on a university campus, things have certainly changed. But I think the essential search for meaning in life is at least as present on university campuses today as it was when I was a student. That presents both a challenge and an opportunity as to how one relates to a younger generation who are looking for a compass for their lives, a foundation for their lives, and for whom finding that within faith-based movements is a challenge. But I would not say young people lack curiosity or interest. I think it is in many ways stronger than ever because the complexity of the world is so much more evident.

RJS: How would a pluralistic university that prides itself on diversity present that cultural patrimony—part of which is philosophical, part theological, part religious—to young people?

DJ: I’ve often thought about this question and had many discussions with young people about it. First of all, the search for truth is at the very essence of the university. My first university’s motto was veritas, truth...

RJS: That was Harvard...

DJ: That was Harvard, yes. I guess that was the question that Pontius Pilate put to Jesus—‘What is Truth?’—and certainly Jesus had his own interpretation of that truth. In my own upbringing and my search for truth in life, a faith-based answer has been very important to me. When I have these discussions with young people, particularly young people who have come up in a background that is faith-based and are suddenly confronting these very challenging questions, I say to them: ‘Be very careful about overthrowing what has made you the person you are, and as you examine new interpretations of truth, recognize that the values that have brought you here and that have made you the person you are, are very precious. In your examination of who you are and what you want to be, respect your traditions as well new opportunities.’

RJS: Pope Benedict, now retired, spoke on the eve of his election about the contest between proposing Christian truth and the dictatorship of relativism, and he spent most of his life on university campuses before he came to the Holy See. So that question of the existence of truth is at the heart of the university....

DJ: That debate will continue, and the new pope will bring his own particular influence to it.

RJS: It’s been very much commented upon that [Francis] is the first pope from Latin America. Those of us from North America have been stressing that he is the first pope from the New World to get our claim on him. Do you see significance in that?

DJ: I thought one of his first statements was so significant and showed the humour and thoughtfulness of this remarkable individual. He said ‘my colleagues have searched for a new pope and they’ve gone to the far end of the earth to find one.’ It is so interesting to see the Western Hemisphere and Latin America featured this way. I think it is a wonderful development for the Church to recognize it is global, and to reach out to the fastest growing part of the Catholic faith, with 40 per cent of regular worshippers coming from that part of the world. I give great credit to the 115 cardinals for extending their reach to the far ends of the earth.

RJS: What did you make of the excitement in Canada about Cardinal Ouellet?

DJ: How wonderful for Canada that we produce people of the quality and stature that would be considered for a position that has been so unique and so remarkable for 2,000 years. The excitement was warranted. I, as a Canadian, was delighted and excited to see that happening.

RJS: What are some of the most relevant contributions to Canada that Catholic missionaries have made in the course of our history?

DJ: It’s one of the things that has made us a pluralistic nation. The presence of the Catholic Church was so important in establishing the dominant French presence for the first 150 years of our existence. Thank Heaven that when a European war was fought on Canadian soil midway through the 18th century, in our unique Canadian way, we could find a pluralistic, tolerant solution and permit different traditions to continue in some degree of harmony. A unique feature of Canadian life today is that we really are a pluralist country that respects the ideas and traditions and values of others, including religious freedom. That’s the great promise we offer to the 21st century.

RJS: What is the significance of the diplomatic relations between national interests, which every country has, and then this diplomatic curiosity of the Holy See, which speaks not with national interest but as [a voice] for moral and spiritual values?

DJ: What a profound question. We’ve had diplomatic relations with the Holy See since 1969, and they have been very fruitful and important. Diplomacy has, or should have, many branches to deal with prob-lems as fundamental as world peace, human rights and even trade relations. Relations with the Holy See give us a set of diplomatic channels that are very helpful in things like human rights, tolerance for difference, the crusade for peace. It’s particularly important for a country such as Canada that’s a middle power in the world, that doesn’t see all things through the barrel of a gun or a particular balance of trade, to strengthen those relationships so they work very well. For 2,000 years, Rome and the Vatican have been a kaleidoscope thatbrings together so many different traditions, understandings and so on. One would be pretty impoverished if one were not part of that constellation of ideas.

RJS: There is a way of thinking about diplomacy that is hard power versus soft power. What about spiritual power? When we look at the world, the realm of the spirit has a great impact. What does it mean for a country like Canada whose self-understanding is pluralistic and secular?

DJ: One thing is to reinforce the spiritual life of Canadians: Canadians of Roman Catholic persuasion, other Christian persuasions and the persuasion of other spiritual values coming from the other great religions of the world. The second is the dimension of life that helps us to deal with some of the fundamental problems we have: poverty, for example. I expect this new pope would have some clarion calls on our attention to the poor of the world. The spiritual dimension of life helps us have both a better understanding of those challenges and also some more effective solutions.

RJS: If that clarion call comes from Pope Francis, it might bite a little bit against the way we live in Canada. Should we welcome that?

DJ: I think bites are helpful from time to time. They certainly capture our attention. Because we’re so blessed in Canada, we have a tendency to complacency, and it’s very appropriate that our attention is called to fundamental things like poverty, like failure to respect human rights, like the absence of freedom of religion in various parts of the world. So I’ll welcome the bites that will occur.

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