“So how was your Christmas?” “What did you get up to over the holidays?”
These seemingly quite innocent questions linger in the air at this time of year in our schools, around the proverbial water cooler at work, in the university residences, and in all places where those of us filled with the good cheer of Christmas gather, picking up again the tools of our respective trades as we look inexorably forward to two, three, or four more months of a snowbound Canadian winter.
Once posed, the answers to this anticipated question come, perhaps as mundane as “Yeah, it was a good Christmas. Although we spent it mostly shuttling the kids to and from hockey tournaments.” or, “Yes, we had a lovely dinner on the 25th, but it’s too bad Uncle Neville, corpulent with rum eggnog, fell and broke his leg.” Or, there are those of us who might respond that Christmas is a humbug, often in response to our bronzed colleague who reports that he and the family had a lovely 10 days at the in-laws’ villa in Barbados.
But what if these questions elicited an entirely different response, one that is not understood by your colleagues, family, or friends; one that is downright subversive: “Oh, I spent the second half of my break joyfully celebrating and confessing the Nativity of Christ, the birth of the Incarnate Son of God with just shy of 1000 university students zealous for truth, meaning, authenticity, and integrity.” At that moment one’s friends and colleagues proffer the predictably Canadian “Oh. That sounds nice,” before politely writing you off as a religious fundamentalist, or worse a loon, whose opinion is not to be seriously considered again.
Well, I am that loon. I am that religious fundamentalist, and glory to God on high for that! The second half of my Christmas break, or the Octave of Christmas as we Catholic fundamentalists call it, was spent with over 750 Catholic university students, and a gaggle of religious priests, brothers, and sisters (average age 30, I would say) most of whom, if not all, wore the habits of their orders.
They were all gathered in Ottawa at Rise Up, the annual conference of Catholic Christian Outreach, known as CCO. CCO is the on-campus missionary movement of the Catholic Church in Canada. Founded in the autumn of 1988, some 30 years ago, in Saskatoon by André and Angèle Regnier, CCO is dedicated to evangelization and equipping students to live a public Catholic faith and in so doing to strive for the renewal of the world through Jesus Christ.
From the newly-married Regniers’ Saskatoon mission of 1988, CCO has grown into a movement of about 100 missionaries with campus missions at 14 universities from coast to coast. I would argue CCO is the greatest evangelical movement in Canadian Catholicism today. Why is this? Why does CCO continue to grow in a society and among a demographic, university-aged men and women, who according to the prevailing zeitgeist are supposed to be responsibly, appropriately, proudly, and abidingly secular and post-Christian? What led students across campuses last year to participate in over 1,900 CCO faith studies equal to more than 12,700 hours of time spent talking about God’s relationship to them?
What these students encountered was an assertion of unabashed, objective truth. What these students uncovered was integrity and authenticity bound in something that demanded something of them. What they found was meaning, meaning that led to reconciliation, reconciliation that revealed who they truly are, and in so finding themselves again they encountered God, and in God joy and peace.
How do I know that this is what these students experienced? I know because I know them. This Christmastide I got to know even more of them, their joy, their peace, and their love. To get hundreds of undergraduate students to “give up” five days of their Christmas break and travel at their expense to Ottawa, (which, for those of you not familiar with our National Capital, in winter a sun-drenched beach below the villa in Barbados it is not) there must have been some serious attraction. That attraction was faith. Not faith in a fleeting abstract philosophy or a mindfulness movement that has all of the salvific power of a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal, but faith in a person.
They have come for Him. They have come for the One who came. They have come for the uncontainable One who created the heavens and the earth and was contained in a manger.
My Cardus colleague Fr. Raymond de Souza, a great friend, champion of, and spiritual father to CCO, spoke to this family on what it means to live as a faithful Catholic in present-day Canada. He emphasized that Catholicism demands something of you, and that for the young Catholics to whom he addressed his keynote remarks much would be demanded of them if they wish to live their faith.
When a belief one professes demands something, it correspondingly means one has to act to live out the belief. Living a life of faith faithfully, in other words giving yourself fully to the truth of that faith, demands that you accept the authenticity of that faith and also the integrity of that faith and what it professes. Finally, in confessing such a belief as the Catholic faith and embracing its authenticity and integrity, the human person assents to it and rejects those beliefs, ideas, opinions, and fads that do not conform to that belief.
Such a posture runs so fundamentally counter to the notions of radical autonomy, self-sovereignty, and relativism that pervade our culture today. As one close friend of mine put it pithily “If you want to be a true hipster forget the beard, artisanal whisky, and the selvedge jeans…be a Catholic!”
The young university students whom I met, and fellow Catholics like me who have embraced religious life complete with mediaeval to late 17th-century garb, are joyfully counter-cultural. Yet we do not wish to exit the culture to embrace some sort of separatist, communal ascetical life rejecting what’s around us. No, that has never been the Christian way.
What these young Canadians, and those with them, have dedicated ourselves to is renewing our culture to call us back to our true selves, to rededicate ourselves to truth, justice, and mercy. We want to live our lives fully and freely, to embrace, not a sham freedom that has no boundaries, but a freedom that demands we control our appetites, we put others before ourselves, die to self in order to be truly free.
These students will all tell you that it’s a tough road. Fr. Raymond reminded them of it. Yet, they and many of us want the tough road. We want to sacrifice, and while we all know we will fail at our task from time to time, we persevere with joy.
I ended the Christmas Octave on January 1 with a full heart and with a vocation in life affirmed through my three days spent with these joyful young Canadians. They desire to live a public faith, a Christian faith that is out in the open.
I recently encouraged last June another group of under-35-year old Christians at our Faith in Canada 150 Millennial Summit to look to our Orthodox Jewish, Sikh, and Muslim fellow citizens who openly profess their faith and not to fear to live their Christian faith in the public square. In living out that faith we exercise our religious freedom and contribute to living a deep pluralism where difference is acknowledged and respected; the survival of our liberal democracy in Canada depends upon this pluralism.
May the students of CCO, and those other young people of whatever faith who live their faith openly and with authenticity and integrity, be a witness to us as we build our common life. Let us not fear the repercussions of living a public faith. Let us not be dissuaded by those who would oppose our faith or who would write us off, or worse, who would deny us opportunities at work or school because of our faith.
All too frequently it is those of us who are Catholics and Christians who fear this the most. We say to ourselves that a private faith is safer: “I cannot share my faith publicly. What might happen if I do?” Well, what might happen indeed? There just might be that one colleague or friend whose heart and mind are touched by a faith confessed, and while they are not religious they see in you a joy, a love of truth. Perhaps they perceive a quiet and peaceful zeal that reawakens in them a yearning to encounter their humanity anew and just perhaps to encounter the One born in a manger who revealed to us not only what it means to be God, but what it means to be truly human.
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