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Our Country, Our Gospel

At a prayer breakfast today in Markham, Ontario, Convivium’s Father Raymond de Souza serves a reminder that Canadian Christians should be as proud to share the Christian Gospel as they are to be Canadians. The reason, de Souza says, isn’t triumphalism but the pure joy of speaking God’s Word.

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Topics: Religion, Public Life, Community, Faith, Religious Freedom
Our Country, Our Gospel November 30, 2018  |  By Raymond J. de Souza
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I am eager to preach the Gospel to you who are in Rome.

So St. Paul writes to the Romans, and I might suggest that those words are suitable for any preacher at any time, including this preacher this morning in Markham. I thank you for the invitation to address the 21st Markham Prayer Breakfast, in which we gather to “pray for the leaders and people of Markham.”

Let me remind you though of what you already know, namely that an eagerness to preach the Gospel should be the mark of every Christian disciple.  All of us who have encountered the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus ought to be eager to share that good news with others.

After all, if you are eager to work together for the welfare of your neighbours, if you are eager to contribute to the common good, if you are eager to build here in Markham a better city, than how much more eager must you be to share with your neighbours the supreme good of eternal salvation? All your efforts to make this world better, as vital as that is for any Christian believer, should be secondary to the efforts you make for that entirely better world, the heavenly world which endures when all the good things we build are given over to death and decay.

I speak this morning as a Christian disciple and a Catholic priest. But to our friends in the room who are not Christian, I address the same word to you. Though we disagree on the path to salvation, we ought to agree on this much, namely that what we believe about what is most important should animate our contribution to our common life together. 

The key role that faith plays in our common life is the sign that religious believers wish to give the best of themselves to build Canada. What we deeply believe about what is most important is what we ought to bring to our nation. Indeed, we desire a better country, as the motto of the Order of Canada states, itself a quotation from the Letter to the Hebrews.

In 2012, together with my colleagues at Cardus, Canada’s leading Christian think tank, we launched a new magazine, now digital, precisely to explore the rich dimensions of faith in our common life. I would encourage you to check it out at Convivium.ca, where this morning the text of this talk will appear. But if you think that hearing it once in person is more than enough, let me assure you that you will find much more than my thoughts there!

Amongst what you will find there is a column from last week by our publisher, Peter Stockland. Peter writes about the research Cardus has been conducting for the past two years in cooperation with the Angus Reid Institute. It is the most comprehensive public opinion research on the reality of religion in Canada – as opposed to what we think we know about religion in Canada.

In research published only a week ago, the Cardus/Angus Reid research gives a different picture than what we are often told. Let me quote from the summary of results:

Using responses to 17 questions about their openness to faith in both their own life and the public square, researchers created a Public Faith Index and constructed three groups:

  • Public Faith Proponents (37% of the population), Public Faith Opponents (32%)
  • Uncertain (32%)

Notably, the results may challenge a traditional view of who Canadians within the Proponent group are. While one may assume this group is more likely to be made up of older and more Conservative voting Canadians, this study finds Proponents more likely to be younger, more highly educated, and largely Liberal-supporting.

Recent, reputable data show that more than a third of Canadians are proponents of “public faith,” and that this group is slightly larger than those who are “public faith opponents.” Perhaps that is news here in Markham; it certainly would be on the campus of Queen’s University where I work. There, the operating assumption is that faith is increasingly irrelevant to our common life, and its irrelevance is a welcome development. That’s not the “evidence-based” social analysis that is so prized on campus. 

So why is it that so much of what Canadians think about the role of faith in our common life wrong? Why do we consistently underestimate its importance in the life of Canadians – particularly new Canadians?

There are many answers to that question. Few social realities are explained by only one factor. I would only comment upon two factors. The first, the desire to powerful interests to drive faith to the margins of our common life. The second, the cooperation of religious believers in those efforts.

First, one cannot doubt that powerful forces seek to marginalize religious participation in our common life. 

Consider the Canada Summer Jobs program. If you are operating a crisis pregnancy centre, animated by religious beliefs in the sanctity of life and the obligation to provide practical assistance to young women in difficulty, the federal government will tell you that you may not apply for a grant to support hiring summer students. Moreover, when religious believers of all kinds protested this egregious violation of freedom of religion and expression, the federal government told them that the government knew better than they did what their religious identity and mission was. 

If you have a small landscaping business and wish to take advantage of the Canada Summer Jobs program, you must tell the government that you agree with its positions on contested social issues, abortion prime among them, even if your lawn-mowing business never thought to take a position on such questions. 

Contrariwise, if you have a small marijuana business, and want to hire a student to help with summertime marketing of weed to 19-year-olds, the federal government would be happy to help. 

My purpose this morning, in this hall, at this prayer breakfast, is to emphasize the second factor rather than the first. It’s bad enough when our leaders attempt to drive faith out of our common life; it’s worse when religious believers cooperate in that.

Regarding the Canada Summer Jobs program, there were many Canadian small businesses and charitable groups that refused to participate in a violation of their constitutional rights. But there were many who did exactly as the government instructed them to do. They checked the box and took the money. Not a few of those were religious believers.

Let me share with you my experience from fifteen years of working in campus ministry. The campus environment, both inside the classroom and outside of it, is not friendly to the practise of faith. When I was a student at Queen’s in the early 1990s, the campus culture was, at best, indifferent to religious practice. More than 25 years later, my students confront a culture that is actively hostile. 

A young woman on campus would not have to make excuses or hide that she planned to go out and get staggeringly drunk. She would like have the encouragement and companionship of others. 

A young man would not have to make excuses or hide that he watches porn and heads out to a bar with the intent of coming home with a stranger to sleep with. 

A young student on campus might well feel the need to hide that he or she goes to church; more students “sneak” out to church than ever feel the need to sneak out to do anything else. 

Yet in this environment, I daily work with students who are courageous enough to live their faith openly and to invite others to do the same. They are certainly bolder than I was on the same campus nearly 30 years ago. I admire them and am inspired by them.  

They live daily what St. Paul writes to the Romans: I am not ashamed of the Gospel! The young Catholics at the chaplaincy, like so many other religious believers on campuses around the country, know well that others want to push religion out of our common life. They refuse to lend their assistance to that project. 

We can ask ourselves that question, even if it makes us feel a bit awkward. Indeed, we should ask it especially if it makes us feel awkward. Am I ashamed of the Gospel? 

Or perhaps more to the point, do I sometimes act like it, pretending to agree when I don’t, keeping silent when I should speak up? Am I content to let those in church know that I am a disciple, but ensure that no one at work knows that, or in the classroom, or at city hall?

Last month, the National Post marked its 20th anniversary – an impressive achievement for a new publication in the internet age. We have been on the brink of collapse for most of that time according to those who wish that we would go away. To their chagrin, we have not cooperated in our own disappearance. 

I have been with the Post since the first month, and have had a weekly column there for nearly 15 years. And the question that I get most often when I travel around the country is: “How do they allow that?”

The “they” is those who are powerful. And the “that” is an obvious religious figure, a priest, allowed to appear in public as it were, without pretending to be something he is not. 

I answer with a question of my own: Why should “they” not want a columnist who speaks in a language that millions of Canadians speak? If we can have columnists on haute couture, or automobiles, or travel, or numerable ones chronicling whatever happens at Queen’s Park, then why should it strike anybody as odd to have a columnist who, while most often not writing on religious subjects, looks at the world from the perspective of his Christian faith? It is not odd. And religious believers, least of all, should find it odd. 

We are not strangers in our own country. We should not act like it. We are not ashamed of the Gospel. We should not act like it.

Today the Christian liturgical calender celebrates the Feast of the Apostle Andrew. It’s a feast of particular importance to the Orthodox, who celebrate it as their patronal feast. He is also the patron saint of Scotland, which is why so many Presbyterian churches are named after him.

St. Andrew was the one who told his brother Simon that he had found Jesus. It turned out to be one of the more important introductions in salvation history. If St. Paul preached the Gospel to the nations, St. Andrew began with his own family. On his feast day, his model is a good one for us. If we have, like Andrew, found Jesus by God’s grace, we should not hesitate to tell people about Him. 

Indeed, we should be eager to do so. It’s the best we can do, it’s what is most important to us, and it’s the best was can offer to build up our common life. May our prayers this morning increase that eagerness, hear in Markham and across our blessed land.

God bless you.


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