In the last week of May I welcomed 13 young Catholics to my parish on Wolfe Island for a seminar on Catholicism in our common life.
Over seven days of formation and fellowship together, these young people inspired me by their commitment to witness to the transcendent dignity and destiny of the human person in every sphere of society, from arts to education, politics to literature.
For years, I have considered organizing a summer seminar in Canada to study the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Twenty-three years ago, my attendance at a similar seminar in Kraków, Poland, broadened my worldview by placing my academic background in economics within the larger moral drama of human freedom, a freedom founded on the human person’s creation in the image and likeness of God. To a certain degree, the story of my priestly vocation would be incomplete if I had not studied Centesimus Annus and befriended Michael Novak, George Weigel and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus at that seminar, as I have recounted elsewhere.
Canada’s 150th anniversary this summer provided the perfect opportunity to introduce such an initiative to Canada, and the Glorious & Free Seminar on Catholicism in Our Common Life was born.
It was a modest pilot project, attempting to provide a small group with intense – and convivial! – formation. The good experience of this year bodes well for the future. Moreover, while our Glorious and Free Seminar was explicitly aimed at Catholic participants, its success points to similar possibilities for broader audiences, especially, I hope, the young people who follow our activities at Convivium.
Our participants travelled from Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and as far away as Edmonton, most of them studying the humanities or social sciences at university and others having recently entered the workforce.
We began each day with Mass, followed by two lectures by our guest faculty. Afternoons were free for recreation and for participants to explore Wolfe Island and Kingston, before we regrouped for small-group discussions, Vespers, home-cooked dinner, and casual conversations with faculty at our cottages on the St. Lawrence River.
It was not a summer holiday; the academic formation was serious and underscored some key lessons.
The first of these is that a Catholic understanding of our common life begins with the human person, and the truth of his inherent dignity and eternal destiny. Principles in Catholic social teaching of freedom, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity are all based on the dignity of human persons and the families and other societies they form. St. John Paul II wrote that the fundamental error of 20th-century totalitarianism was in its misunderstanding of man himself and his transcendent destiny. By contrast, the Church’s main contribution to the social order is its understanding of the human person.
Another key principle is the centrality of culture in our common life, at the heart of which is a society’s attitude towards the mystery of God. A Catholic approach to our common life is not primarily about public policy, because culture precedes and guides both politics and economics.
That is why, although Andrew Bennett – a Cardus colleague – lectured on the theology of law, Garnett Genuis talked about the vocation of politics, and Brian Dijkema – another Cardus colleague! – discussed the Church’s understanding of work and markets, much time at the seminar was devoted to seemingly unrelated topics: cultivating wonder in early-child catechesis (Anna Boyagoda), the sacramental imagination in religiously-serious literature (Randy Boyagoda), and a testimony by Natalie MacMaster about the beautiful interplay of faith, family, and music in her own life. One of our participants remarked that this breadth of subject matter encouraged her in her artistic vocation, strengthened her understanding of economics, and cleared up uncertainties about the compatibility of Christian witness and political engagement.
A third principle is that Catholic social teaching is part of the Church’s evangelical commission. As Angèle Regnier shared in her lecture, quoting passages from Scripture and the Magisterium, evangelization is the deepest identity of the Church. The Church exists to bring people into a transformative encounter with God, and the primary role of Catholics in the public square is to be missionary disciples of Christ, proclaiming his sacrifice on the cross in the joy of the resurrection.
While the academic formation was challenging and broad, students remarked to me that their fellowship during free afternoons and evenings led to the most fruitful conversations of the week. Participants experienced the joy and laughter of new friendships, encouraged and challenged each other on questions they faced at work and on campus, and continued to engage lecturers over dinner and around our campfire. Community dinners, cooked by students and alumni of our Newman House chaplaincy at Queen’s, were excellent, and reminded me that the Latin word “convivium”, which we translate at this publication as “living together”, also denotes a “banquet”.
Above all, we were formed and united at the seminar by Christ’s presence in the sacraments and the liturgy. Our daily activities were framed by the Holy Mass in the morning and common prayer of Vespers in the evening, and students had opportunities to receive the sacrament of reconciliation throughout the week.
At the end of our seminar, we prayed a Holy Hour in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and offered the merits of our seminar to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the patroness of my Wolfe Island parish.
The Glorious & Free Seminar on Wolfe Island was not an exercise in nostalgia, but forward-looking mission. It is my great hope that the participants of this year’s seminar may persevere in knowing that they are not alone, that our culture yearns for the truth about man’s dignity and destiny, and that, with God’s grace, they can act in such a way that others may see, through them, Christ.
God keep our land glorious and free!
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