Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
From Sea to Sea: Cruel Histories & Tender MerciesFrom Sea to Sea: Cruel Histories & Tender Mercies

From Sea to Sea: Cruel Histories & Tender Mercies

Our editor-in-chief bids farewell to legendary journalist George Jonas and ponders Pope Francis' call for a return to mercy that allows a return to sound judgment.

Raymond J. de Souza
19 minute read

George Jonas, RIP

The death in January of my fellow National Post columnist George Jonas meant the loss not just of one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals but of someone who had a great deal of wisdom to contribute on questions of identity, liberty and the threat of tyranny. Both by personal experience—he was a Hungarian Jew who survived Hitler and fled communism—and penetrating insight, Jonas was without peer in speaking truth not only to State power but also to the stifling effect of illiberal thinking (usually advanced by those who consider themselves impeccably liberal).

In last issue’s “Sea to Sea,” we looked at the politics of identity and religion in light of the recent refugee crisis. We’ll miss Jonas now, in particular, that immigration politics—in Canada, in the United States and in Europe—are at the forefront of public controversies, often expressed in a most disagreeable way, not untouched by the ugliness of racism. Jonas was too urbane and too liberal—classically speaking—to give in to racism or xenophobia, but he realized that pretending there are no problems with mass immigration only cedes the ground to those who exploit it for ignoble purposes. One of the last columns of his decades-long career addressed the issue in a manner only Jonas could. This is what he wrote last September in the National Post:

“Arab or Hispanic, legal or illegal, in North America or in Europe, the last 45 years have marked the emergence of a new kind of immigrant. He isn’t new to history, but he’s quite unlike the customary refugee, exile, asylum-seeker, settler or pioneer.

“The new immigrant demands an unearned share of the security and wealth of the developed countries. The new immigrant is an invader.

“The invader-immigrant appears in times of fundamental population shifts, the great migrations of history. Such migrations occur from time to time. They did, for instance, between the 3rd and the 5th centuries. Just as the invader-migrants of other historic periods could be of any tribe—Hun, Gepid, Lombard, Avar, to name a few—the invader-migrants of our times may be Asian, Levantine or Caucasian. They may be Muslim, Sikh, Christian or anything else. Invasion as a concept isn’t race- or religion-specific, though it’s usually tied to specific groups and cultures at specific points in time.

“Whatever their background, the new kind of immigrant doesn’t simply compete with the host population for economic opportunity and space (which can be shared) but for identity, which cannot. Immigrants can and do create jobs, but can’t create identities for the host population, only compete for the existing identity of a nation.

“This makes certain ‘small’ matters, often dismissed as merely symbolic—permitting turbans on construction sites, say, or ceremonial daggers in schools—actually more important than ostensibly hard-nosed economic issues. A flag—a piece of fabric on a stick—is just a symbol, but a demonstration in America conducted under an American flag is materially different from one conducted under the flag of Mexico. The first is a country trying to share a problem; the second, a problem trying to share a country.”

History’s cruelty and chance—the queue for asylum-seekers at the Canadian embassy in Budapest was much shorter than the one at the American embassy—led Jonas to share our country for most of his adult life. He ennobled it and us. Requiescat in pace.


On February 21, 2016, we will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Paul Comtois, the 21st lieutenant governor of Quebec. Actually, we won’t—and almost nobody remembers Paul Comtois—but we should. As we move toward the celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, Cardus has launched our Faith in Canada 150 project (www.faithincanada150.ca), which aims to tell the stories of faith in our history. The story of Paul Comtois belongs among them.

Perhaps John Diefenbaker had something of a preference for pious French Canadians. In 1959, he recommended to Queen Elizabeth that Georges Vanier be appointed Governor General, which Her Majesty assented to at a special meeting of Diefenbaker’s Cabinet held in her presence in Halifax. Vanier, who died in Canada’s centennial year, will be a major figure in Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations. Two years after Vanier’s appointment, Diefenbaker recommended the appointment of Paul Comtois, then a sitting member of Parliament from Quebec, as lieutenant governor. A long-time farmer and community leader from rural Quebec, Comtois represented the best of his generation of Quebecers. He was involved in his local caisse populaire, agricultural associations and religious fraternities, including the League of the Sacred Heart and the Knights of Columbus. Having run for the federal Conservatives in the 1930 election and been defeated by a single vote, he won a seat in the elections of 1957 and 1958. After three years in Cabinet, he took up his duties as lieutenant governor, which, by all accounts, he carried out admirably and with devotion.

Such was his devotion to his Catholic faith that he requested permission from the Cardinal Archbishop of Quebec to have the Holy Eucharist—Catholics believe that the consecrated hosts are the real presence of Jesus Christ—kept in his chapel at the official residence, Bois-de-Coulonge, in Quebec City. The cardinal was initially reluctant, as such permission is not usually given for private homes, but he eventually granted it, asking Comtois to personally ensure the proper custody and care of the Eucharist. Comtois’ daily routine included family prayer, and he ended his days in the chapel before the Eucharist.

On February 21, 1966, the Comtois family and their guests returned to Bois-de-Coulonge after an evening event. Retiring after midnight, they were soon awakened by a raging fire that had started in the basement of the century-old house. Soon the entire building was in flames. The tale is told by Andrew Cusack.

“As soon as the fire was noticed, the governor immediately took charge, guiding his wife and children out of the house into the cold winter’s night outside. His daughter Mireille, however, noticed her father would not yet leave the tinderbox house.

“‘As I was racing through the building to escape from the fire, I came upon my father in the chapel. As I was going to run to him, he firmly ordered me to jump from a nearby window and I did, wondering why he did not do likewise. The last I saw of him, he was standing under the sanctuary lamp in his pyjamas and wearing around his neck the souvenir rosary from his father, which he said every night and wore to sleep.’

“Having been assured that all his family and guests had escaped the inferno, the seventy-year old Paul Comtois returned to the private chapel in which he visited the Lord every evening before bed to save the Blessed Sacrament [Eucharist] from the desecrating fire. He reached the chapel, already engulfed in flames, but managed to make it to the tabernacle and remove the pyx containing the Body of Christ. Leaving the chapel, he descended the staircase, which collapsed about him, and the lieutenant governor was burned alive in the inferno. The fire in which Paul Comtois died was so hot that the first firemen on the scene could not approach within a hundred feet of the building.

“‘I was told,’ Mireille continues, ‘that when they found him, his body was badly burned and his arms were no longer intact; but my father was a big stocky man and under the upper part of his body they found the pyx used to carry the Holy Eucharist. His body had saved it from the flames.… I can still picture him standing there in the light of the sanctuary lamp.’”

If you are unfamiliar with the story of the faith-filled death of Paul Comtois, it’s not because you forgot. He died at the height of the Quiet Revolution, when Quebecers themselves were enthusiastically putting a torch to their religious heritage. The secular inferno was such that the mainstream press simply did not report the circumstances of the lieutenant governor’s death, and the Catholic press was embarrassed by it. So an act of heroism was treated as something to be hidden. And it was.

Too much of the history of faith in Canada is similarly buried. Faith in Canada 150 aims to change that. It’s hard to imagine in 2016 that the drama of February 1966 could take place in a viceregal residence. But it did. And we should remember it. The Honourable Paul Comtois, requiescat in pace.


At the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the national primates of the Anglican Communion met at Canterbury Cathedral in January to see whether the Communion might be preserved. After more than a decade of wrestling over homosexuality, the primates had to decide whether the Anglican Communion, famous for hosting within itself competing and mutually contradictory teachings about the Eucharist, the priesthood and the structure of the Church, could do the same on homosexuality. Could it be that what would be considered gravely sinful in one part of the Anglican Communion might be considered sacramental in another?

The primates, in the end, decided to affirm the traditional doctrine and to suspend the Episcopal Church of the United States from the Anglican Communion for three years. A task force will be set up to see if the American Episcopalians—who have decided to celebrate gay weddings—can somehow be reconciled with the traditional teaching. Given that the Anglican Church in Canada and other nations are on the verge of following the Episcopalians, it is likely that resolution of the matter is not at hand, and the final decision on the Communion itself will simply be postponed. At the end of the primates’ meeting, Archbishop Welby announced that in 2020 there would be a Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Communion’s principal “instrument of unity.” The last Lambeth in 2008 was boycotted by hundreds of Anglican bishops, largely from the southern churches. Whether 2020 will be better, or whether the Anglican Communion will even get to 2020, remains an open question.

Convivium’s old friend Michael Coren weighed in on the matter. The last time we checked in on Coren was last spring when “Sea to Sea” looked at his conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism, motivated by his change of perspective about gay marriage. We didn’t plan to get back to Coren until after his book on his conversion comes out in April this year, but his comment in the National Post on the primates’ meeting was noteworthy.

“[T]here is now a severe risk of a formal break between the Western churches and many of those in the developing world. In other words, this decision will disturb many people and what has traditionally been a loose but warm collective could become an absolute separation.

“The arguments in favour of full gay equality in the Christian churches are many and, I believe, totally compelling.… But at heart, what should matter most to all Christians is that the gay issue should not be considered an essential point of belief and certainly not be allowed to break a historic and vital Christian institution.”

Which is an odd position, because Coren himself thought the issue sufficiently important to switch from the Catholic Church to the Anglican Communion. Now, he appears to think it less important which side you are on. But if you are going to choose a side, Coren has no doubt which one is the winning one, at least in sociological terms.

“Perhaps most regrettably, it will convince the anti-gay churches that they have won, when in fact it merely allows them to travel the short and bumpy road to irrelevance—a pyrrhic victory if ever there was one,” he wrote.

Innovations in favour of gay clergy, gay marriage and other accommodations to the sexual revolution have not proved terribly successful either, one might observe. During the primates’ meeting, data was released that showed that attendance at Church of England services dropped below one million people for the first time, less than two per cent of the population. Theology is not a numbers game but one of truth, so I am reluctant to resort to statistics. However, it does seem that if resistance to theological innovations in favour of homosexuality is the “short and bumpy road to irrelevance,” then accepting them is the “short and smooth road” to the same.


At the beginning of February, I was in Houston for the ordination of the bishop of something called the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, which is rather a mouthful. It’s a new structure within the Catholic Church, analogous to a diocese, in which former Anglicans who wish to become Catholic but desire to maintain their “Anglican patrimony” can do so in a corporate manner. They are fully Catholic, in communion with Rome, but their worship is in an Anglican key—plenty of “vouchsafes” and a more traditional style of worship in terms of posture, vestments and ritual. And, of course, the music, which for a certain type of Anglo-Catholic, is more important than doctrine.

I regard the whole thing as rather splendid, having developed an affection for the high-church style of Anglican worship during my student days at Cambridge. I find the more elevated sacral language for worship pleasing and think Catholics as a whole could benefit from the influence of the “personal ordinariates” of former Anglicans, even if they are a tiny reality within the Catholic Church. (There are single parishes in, say, Guadalajara that have more members than the personal ordinariates have worldwide.)

Consider, for example, the Confiteor of the Catholic Mass. This is what the congregation usually says: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.”

It’s admirably straightforward and literate. It gets to the point but is not banal. The Anglican patrimony, though, contributes a rather different approach to the same prayer:

“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, maker of all things, judge of all men; we acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed, against thy divine majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us. We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy upon us, have mercy upon us, most merciful Father; for thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive us all that is past; and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life, to the honour and glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I think that far superior, though there are many who might judge it rather too rhetorically lacy, a bit like a Cardinal Newman sentence, with subordinate clauses aplenty and a highly refined sensibility. It won’t surprise you to know that I like Newman, too—the father, one might say, of Catholic worship, especially preaching, in an Anglican key.

The reality of the worship formerly known as Anglican incorporated into orthodox Catholic liturgy is a remarkable development from an ecumenical point of view, to say nothing of the history of religion. It is a small development that ought to have a large impact. The former Anglicans who constitute the personal ordinariates left the Anglican Communion for many of the reasons that divided the primates’ meeting. That they do not have to leave behind a certain richness of sacred worship is a blessing that they did not expect but greatly treasure. It is a treasure that they are eager to share.


The release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the residential school system spoke of the need to move from “apology to action.” There was apparently some unfinished business though on the apology front, as the TRC called upon the “Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children… to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

It is puzzling why the commissioners think an apology would be a good idea. Or, more precisely, why they think it would be a good idea again.

On April 29, 2009—before the TRC got going, it should be noted—Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of Aboriginal Canadians he had invited to the Vatican at the request of the bishops of Canada. Regarding the residential schools, Benedict expressed “his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” according to the Vatican press summary of the meeting.

The delegation was led by then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, a former residential school student himself. Calling the meeting the historic “final piece” of the confession of sin by the various churches, he told CBC News that it should “close the book” on the issue of church apologies.

The TRC has apparently decided to re-open the book. It wouldn’t be difficult, of course, to have Pope Francis offer an apology. Indeed, papal apologies are not hard to come by at all. Luigi Accattoli, a long-time Vatican correspondent, wrote a book in 1998 entitled When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II. He counted 98 such requests for forgiveness, and that was more than 10 years before the Benedict-Fontaine summit. So, another apology could certainly be issued, but that is precisely the problem. If the 2009 meeting, carefully prepared as it was after long collaboration and consultation, didn’t mean what everyone thought it meant, then why would a repeat achieve anything significant? To the contrary, a repeat would seem perfunctory and given under pressure; and the sincerity of the original would be called into question. Reconciliation requires that apologies be offered. And that they be accepted.

To ignore the 2009 apology is a shame, for on that occasion Fontaine delivered a magnificent, moving and magnanimous address to the Pope that stands as a model for thinking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to Aboriginal Canadians.

“The Catholic Church has always played a significant role in the history of our peoples. Priests and nuns were some of the first Europeans to arrive on our shores....

“They acted as intermediaries in treaty negotiations and interpretation and often expressed their serious reservations about the federal government’s intentions in the implementation of the treaties.

“Many embraced our languages with enthusiasm, wrote them down and created dictionaries, Bibles and books of prayers that we still use to this day. The Catholics recognized the deep spirituality of our peoples and introduced a faith to which many indigenous people devoutly adhere.

“What brings us here today, however, was the failure those many years ago, by Canada and religious authorities, to recognize and respect those who did not wish to change—those who wished to be different.

“…those at the highest levels of authority in Canada came to believe that our indigenous cultures, languages and our ways of worship were not worth keeping and should be eradicated.…

“The Catholic Church entities thus became part of a tragic plan of assimilation that was not only doomed to fail but destined to leave a disastrous legacy in its wake….

“We suffered needlessly and tragically. So much was lost for no good reason.

“The Catholic Church, too, was harmed by the residential school experience. Many good and decent men and women of faith were tainted and reviled because of the evil acts of some. The hundreds of years of good will and hard work by courageous and committed missionaries were undermined by the misguided policy Catholic priests and nuns found themselves enforcing. The reputation of the Catholic Church was impoverished. This, too, was tragic.

“But today is a new day. We are here at the Vatican in your presence Most Holy Father, to change this sad history.”

As for papal visits, which in the usual course of events are not demanded, Fontaine recalled at the Vatican John Paul’s historic visit to Fort Simpson in 1987. In 1984, John Paul’s planned visit had to be cancelled due to bad weather. He said he would return. He did.

“We will never forget the visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II when he came to the Canadian North to visit our people, after bad weather prevented his first attempt,” Fontaine said to Benedict. “He celebrated Mass in our house—a giant teepee—and he prayed with the scent of sweet grass and the sound of beating drums in the air. The reverence and respect he showed for our culture gave us the hope and strength we needed to pursue our goals, including those that have brought us here today.”

The papal encounters of 1987 and 2009, in Canada and in Rome, respectively, were truly historic. In the service of both truth and reconciliation, they should not be forgotten.

It is likely that at some point another formulation will be found to express what Benedict did in 2009, though it seems unlikely that there will be a papal visit to Canada. When it happens, it will make more difficult actual reconciliation, as it will have become just another step in a journey that apparently will continue without end. A better idea might be, as it seems to have been forgotten, to remind people of the 2009 encounter, perhaps on its anniversary each year. That way, the importance of the encounter will be recognized—and extended anew.


“Sea to Sea” noted last issue the special Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Catholic Church, taking Star Wars as an entry point to the examination of mercy. For those who found that lacking, a new book by Pope Francis might prove rather more satisfactory.

While papal books, including interview books, have become rather routine since 1994’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the latest entry in the genre, Pope Francis’ The Name of God is Mercy, is singular. It’s not a survey of the state of the Gospel in the contemporary world, nor is it an examination of various pressing issues within the Catholic Church. Rather it’s a brief book about one important thing: revitalizing the sacrament of reconciliation, or confession as it is more commonly called. It was once such a distinctive part of Catholic life that the priest in the confessional was a staple part of Hollywood’s Catholic imagery. Today, there are parts of the Catholic world where you would be better off going to the movies rather than a Catholic parish to see a confessional in use, so much has confessional practice declined.

Pope Francis has three principal themes for his pontificate: the essential missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, radical solidarity with the poor and suffering, and the primacy of mercy in our encounter with God. The Name of God is Mercy is an extended interview with Andrea Tornielli that focuses on that third theme, and not even on the nature of mercy as an attribute of God, which is an interesting theological question. (How is mercy an attribute of God given that there is no sin and, therefore, no forgiveness, in the Trinity?) Here, rather, the Holy Father restricts himself to our experience of mercy in the forgiveness of sins.

More than anything, the book reads like the notes of a gifted retreat master exhorting his retreatants to make a good confession. If the Jubilee Year of Mercy is thought of as the Holy Father taking the Catholic Church on a retreat, this book is the conference given before the time when confessions are available—complete with practical advice for both confessors and penitents.

There is a striking rhetorical shift here from the Holy Father who customarily lambastes priests in sharp language for poor confessional practice. Instead, the book opens with the Pope recalling several heroic confessors and reflecting on what he has learned in the confessional. For penitents, Francis assures them of the superabundance of God’s mercy, but he also cautions them against using the confessional like a “dry cleaner,” where stains are routinely removed but there is no conversion of heart and behaviour.

The target audience of this book is those who are aware of their sinfulness but distant from the sacraments, perhaps apprehensive or even fearful about returning. This book will give them encouragement and assurance; a worthy jubilee year project would be to get the book into the hands of such people. The interview, at 100 generously spaced pages, can be read in one sitting—a few hours at most—so it is not burdensome.

As Francis repeatedly draws upon his personal experiences, it highlights a fundamental aspect of how the Holy Father looks at the world. “Humanity is wounded, deeply wounded,” Pope Francis says in response to a question about why humanity needs mercy. “Either it does not know how to cure its wounds or it believes that it’s not possible to cure them.”

That is absolutely foundational to the Holy Father’s thinking. A wounded humanity, despairing over its wounds, needs, above all, a Church that “binds up the wounds.” That’s why Francis proposes the image of the Church as a field hospital that approaches the bleeding where they lie, weakened by their wounds, and administers the first aid that is so urgently desired.

There is an alternative view. There is the possibility of a humanity that does not consider itself wounded at all and regards its wounds not as wounds but as marks of strength. Such humanity does not welcome the doctors of the field hospital on the battlefield but resents the intrusion of a judgmental fitness trainer in the living room where everyone is playing video games. Pope Francis acknowledges this possibility in a passing remark that invites further questioning, only Tornielli does not pursue it.

“Pius XII, more than half a century ago, said that the tragedy of our age was that it had lost its sense of sin, the awareness of sin,” Pope Francis says. “Today we add further to the tragedy by considering our illness, our sins, to be incurable, things that cannot be healed or forgiven. We lack the actual concrete experience of mercy. The fragility of our era is this, too: we don’t believe that there is a chance for redemption; for a hand to raise you up; for an embrace to save you, forgive you, pick you up, flood you with infinite, patient, indulgent love; to put you back on your feet. We need mercy.”

The drama at the heart of the jubilee year, and by extension his entire pontificate, is just that: Pope Francis believes the Church lacks in offering mercy to a world desperately in need of it, while the world thinks it doesn’t need it at all. It would have been fascinating to explore this contrast more deeply, especially in light of Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit precisely to “convince the world about sin and judgment” (cf. John 16:8).

In purely secular environments, Pope Francis’ call for mercy has been interpreted as a suspension of all moral judgment, whereas mercy follows the rendering of a judgment that something is lacking, is broken, needs restoring, needs mercy. The Pope’s pastoral intuition is that people flee from judgment because they fear that there exists no remedy to an adverse one. If there is no mercy, then better not to judge at all. This is a problem that, to be frank, the “who am I to judge?” pope has contributed to. Yet Francis is unshaken in his belief that if people were genuinely convinced that God’s mercy is superabundant, they would no longer fear His judgment. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the Scriptures tell us. The beginning, not the end. At the end of wisdom is that perfect love that casts out fear, as the Scriptures also tell us, that love that we receive as mercy.

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