Faith, Politics & Community

Calgary is my hometown. My parents were part of that great migration from eastern Canada to western Canada in the 1970s. My father worked in the oil business, which brought so many to Calgary. I reversed course and now live in the Thousand Islands near Kingston, Ont., but my parents are still here and I'm always happy to be back.

It was somewhat nostalgic to be in the Stampede Corral for the rodeo last night. I remember being taken there to Rodeo Royal on a school field trip. That was 30 years ago; I think in Grade 3. As odd as it might seem for the son of immigrants, I became something of a rodeo fan and returned many times thereafter. The Calgary Flames played in the Corral when they first came to Calgary, before the Saddledome was built. It's good to be here at Stampede Park. Over the years, I have often been here for the rodeo and chuckwagon races, of course, but also for other memorable events. As a 19-year-old student curious about politics, I remember wandering through the Saddledome during the Liberal party convention that elected Jean Chrétien as leader in 1990. I remember in 1989 being one of tens of thousands on the grounds outside for the Stanley Cup parade. For our friends from Vancouver and Toronto: a parade is what you have after you win the Stanley Cup. Proper Albertan humility requires me to mention that if you have questions about Stanley Cup parades, you really ought to ask the delegates from Edmonton—as painful as it is for a Calgarian to say that! [Publishers note: Better yet Montreal, 24 Stanley Cups!]

I am proud to be from Calgary and feel qualified both to offer you a welcome and an apology—a welcome to this fine city and an apology for beginning this prayer breakfast at 7 a.m. It has long been an acceptable custom in Calgary commercial and community circles to have meetings that begin at 7 a.m. or even earlier. Calgary calls itself the "heart of the new west," and there are few places in Canada better to start a new business, advance a new idea or get a fresh start. But you are Conservatives and should therefore know that many new ideas are bad ideas, and the custom of meetings beginning at 7 a.m. is a Calgary custom of which I am not proud. Perhaps you could pass a resolution banning this practice.

Two years ago you were kind enough to invite me to address the first interfaith prayer breakfast at your convention in Ottawa. That initiative was sufficiently well-received that it was decided to replicate the event here in Calgary, and the organizers were kind enough to invite me again. I come in the same spirit as I did last time, namely as a priest and citizen not a partisan. I do not belong to any political party. We gather this morning as fellow citizens committed to serving the common good in Canada, and as believers and disciples to worship God not to advance a partisan agenda. That you make room in your party convention for a non-partisan time of prayer and reflection is commendable, and therefore I am pleased to participate again. I was also pleased to see that the Liberal Party of Canada had a time of prayer at their convention earlier this year.

Since we last got together, I started a bimonthly journal with my colleagues at Cardus, Canada's leading Christian think tank. It's called Convivium and is about literally that—our life together and the role of faith in that common Canadian life. It's a project that takes seriously that part of our common life that is politics, and I recommend it for your consideration. Earlier this year, I interviewed the Governor General for Convivium, and I was pleased that David Johnston echoed the same theme we discussed at the prayer breakfast two years ago: "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."

The Governor General is right—religion has been an important feature of our history and values. In 2011 in Ottawa, the prayer breakfast emphasized the essential contribution that the world of faith makes to our public life and, in particular, to our political life. My address that morning argued against those who would separate religion from public life and render religious believers second-class citizens.

This morning I would like to look at the same issue from the other direction. Do religious believers think of politics as a contribution to our common life worthy of their talents and energy? It is possible for religious citizens to be driven to the margins of our common life by the secular fundamentalists of our time. But it is also possible for religious believers to withdraw from our common life themselves. It is to that latter phenomenon that I want to speak this morning.

At this early hour, I am inclined to begin with the first antiphon of the Roman Catholic liturgy for today. It's November 1, the great feast of All Saints in our calendar, and the festive liturgy begins with this antiphon at the first prayers of the morning: "Come let us worship God, whose praises are sung in the assembly of the saints."

On All Saints Day, we praise God for all those who by His grace are in Heaven, not just the relatively few who are officially canonized. Today is the day of that vast number, beyond which no man could number, that are in Heaven, having been redeemed, saved and sanctified by the Lord Jesus, the Lamb once slain who will never die again. And so we "worship God, whose praises are sung in the assembly of the saints."

Politics is about assemblies—citizens in conversation, parties in convention and parliaments in debate. Should the assembly of the saints be interested in politics? Do the saints—and while we might blanch at the term, it is how the early Christians used to refer to one another—think that they should be active in politics? If the answer is largely no, might it be because it appears that there is little room for holiness in politics? What happens if sanctity is no longer evident in those who serve in public life?

I began my studies in economics, and that discipline has an expression: "Bad money drives out good." It means that if a sufficient number of counterfeit notes are circulating, or that a critical mass of dubious securities is traded, then good money and honest investments flee. Everything is devalued, and only the "bad" remains as the environment becomes toxic for the "good." Is it possible that religious believers may come to view political involvement as too toxic an environment?

I recall that in June 2011, when we met in Ottawa, there was a rather euphoric spirit. The Conservative party was in good spirits after the May 2011 election. The spirit is rather heavier this time around. The fact that I am here again means that I am not a fairweather friend to those engaged in political service. I salute your work and desire to contribute to the common good, whether it be in happy times or heavy ones. You likely need encouragement more in the heavy times.

There is an old line, used for both preachers and journalists, that our mission is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I don't consider myself comforting the afflicted here, and it is not clear to me why we would desire to afflict the comfortable. It is the mission of both the preacher and the pundit to speak the truth; sometimes speaking the truth means afflicting the corrupt, but even then our desire should be conversion, not mere chastisement.

There has been a lot of attention to corruption in political life lately. My desire is not to comment upon municipal contracting in Montreal, the gas plant cancellation fiasco in Ontario or the Senate expense scandal in Ottawa, but to ask a more fundamental question: Is politics still seen by religious citizens as an endeavour suitable for the pursuit of personal holiness? Is the exercise of political power understood by people of faith as a means of serving the common good, of caring for the least of these, of pursuing justice, of obtaining a measure of mercy?

Put it in the words of the Sermon on the Mount. Does a young Canadian who desires to live the Beatitudes—to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to thirst for righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to make peace—think political life would be conducive? Or does such a young person, serious about his faith, take to heart instead the warning in Luke 9:25: "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?"

I don't ask the question as a matter of mere abstraction. Alongside my parish, my principal work is as a chaplain on Queen's University campus, working with students. In 10 years of doing this work, I have noticed something about our most active students in the chaplaincy, especially our leaders who are most committed to practising their faith and sharing it with others. With a few exceptions, they are not much interested in politics. They are energetic, generous with their talents and willing to sacrifice their time. In the early 1990s, when I was a student at Queen's, students like that were often interested in politics—both in student government and in the campus clubs of the political parties. I know because I was one of them. I was not alone. Students serious about their faith were inclined to think of political involvement as a way to serve the common good.

Indeed, as the Governor General pointed out in our interview [Convivium, April/May 2013], religious involvement in politics has been a critical contributor to our distinctively Canadian history. Here in Alberta, it is not possible to understand the political history of the province—and its contribution to Canada as a whole—without reference to religion. In Alberta, this has been more on the conservative side of the spectrum, but the Canadian tradition of religiously motivated involvement in political service is equally evident, if not more so, on the political left. That part of our tradition is also found in the Prairies in the work of the preacher-politicians who gave rise to the CCF and the NDP. Not for nothing did the first issue of Convivium include an essay by fellow Westerner Bill Blaikie on the social gospel tradition. The great global liberation movements have been essentially, but not exclusively, religious movements. Consider the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement and, most impressive, the defeat of totalitarian communism. This month our American friends mark the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" and his speech at the March on Washington. It is not possible to understand those history-changing words without reference to the religious ideas that inspired them.

So what happens to this tradition, both in Canada and abroad, when religious believers, especially younger ones, no longer see political service as a forum friendly to the assembly of the saints? Or even more grave, if they consider political service as not a noble vocation but a frequent occasion of sin, something to be actively avoided?

This is a worry beyond Canada. Consider the words of Pope Francis from a few years ago. In 2010, while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio published a book-length conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka. It has been translated into English under the title On Heaven and Earth (Image, New York). Permit me to quote from his assessment of the situation in Argentina: "A few years ago, the French Bishops wrote a pastoral letter whose title was ‘Rehabilitating Politics.' They realized that they had to restore politics because it was losing all credibility, and I believe that the same is true for us. The loss of credibility in the political arena must be reversed because politics is a very elevated form of social charity. Social love is expressed in political activity for the common good."

Those were the words of a septuagenarian Catholic cardinal. Is such an estimation only to be found among the elderly and the professionally religious? I fear that few of the young people I minister to on campus share that lofty estimation of the political vocation, that politics is an elevated form of social charity. I fear that young Catholics—to speak of the group I know best—would not see things as Cardinal Bergoglio saw them. They would prefer to devote their considerable energies to direct evangelization, building intentional Christian communities, and engagement with the popular culture of music, movies and sports. But not politics. Is this also true for other young Christians? For young Jews and Muslims? For Hindus and Sikhs and Buddhists and other believers? I don't know, but I suspect it might be.

We heard this morning the great hymn to love from Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. The description there of the "still more excellent way" of love would strike most ears as being rather distant from how we think of a life in politics. What if increasing numbers of Christians were to read Corinthians 1:13 and think that the life being proposed there, like in the Beatitudes, would be threatened by political involvement? That the pursuit of love—divine and human—that marks the path of the Christian disciple is not compatible with political service? That the "social love" of which Pope Francis speaks is not really possible?

The result would be a withdrawal from political life by those who take their faith most seriously. That might be welcomed by the extreme secularists in our midst, a not insignificant force in our common life. I would like to think that most common-sense Canadians would see that withdrawal as a serious impoverishment of our public life. We know consistently from reputable surveys and detailed census data that the religiously observant tend to exhibit considerably higher involvement on indices of public-spiritedness. What happens if those public-spirited citizens withdraw from politics?

Those of you who are kind enough to follow my writing know of my immense admiration for Canada's first French-Canadian governor general, Georges Vanier. I would be happy to enlist the more influential among you in my campaign to have the tomb of General and Madame Vanier at the Citadel in Quebec City made more accessible to the public. It would introduce one of the greatest Canadians in history to a new generation, and would be a fitting tribute as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Royal 22e Regiment—the Van Doos—in 2014.

Just a month ago, the Prime Minister visited the grave of General and Madame Vanier, and I was able to do the same, by happy coincidence, a few days later. It was a very moving experience for me, to pray there in the simple but noble memorial chapel. I was struck by the words that are inscribed on the walls of the chapel, taken from our national anthem:

Car ton bras sait porter l'épée Il sait porter la croix! (As thy arm is able to wield the sword, It also knows how to carry the cross!)

Those late 19th century French verses could serve as an outline for the heroic and holy life lived by Georges Vanier. As a decorated military man, he knew the sword. As a devout Christian, he knew the cross.

We can think of the sword in broader terms than just military force. It can represent the entire world of political power, for it is to the State that we grant a monopoly on wielding the sword, on the use of force. General Vanier knew better than most how to wield that sword, and not only in war, for he was accomplished in diplomacy and rose to Canada's highest public office as Her Majesty's viceregal representative.

The long Christian tradition, inherited from our elder Jewish brothers and shared with other faith traditions, is wary about wielding the sword, for power can be put to any number of ignoble purposes. At the same time, the sword is not exclusively the instrument of evil. The sword of political power does not belong exclusively to Pharaoh in ancient Egypt. It can be wielded, too, by Joseph, who saved his people with his prudent leadership. The sword belongs not only to Saul but also to Solomon, who employed it to creative effect in deciding between disputing mothers. The sword does not belong only to the henchmen of Herod, bloody after the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem. It is wielded, too, by the centurion whose faith Jesus praised as being greater than what He found in Israel. Biblical faith is wary of the sword, but it is also able to celebrate its proper use, as when David delights in wielding again the sword he took from Goliath.

Exactly one week ago today was the 20th anniversary of the 1993 federal election. I am not sure if the Reform Party alumni among you celebrated the occasion, which brought Preston Manning and Stephen Harper to the House of Commons, but I am reasonably sure that the Progressive Conservative alumni among you did not. Likely you celebrated the 25th anniversary this month of the 1988 federal election instead. There are anniversaries for everyone. In 1993, with the arrival in great numbers of the Reform Party, an important debate about the nature of political power came to the fore. In a populist party, what ought to be done when the people desire something that is not consistent with the common good? If you read the history of the time, you see that Mr. Manning and others—some of them present with us this morning—took guidance from the desire of Israel for a king to be like the other nations. We find the story in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 8. Recall what Samuel, the Lord's anointed, tells the people about their desire for a king:

"So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking a king from him. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots…. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. He will take your manservants and maidservants, and the best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day.' But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; and they said, ‘No! But we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.' And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Hearken to their voice, and make them a king.'"

God, through Samuel, warns the people that the king will turn out to be what modern political philosophers call the Leviathan state. Conservatives, perhaps more than others, hearken to this warning about the Leviathan. Power has a logic of its own, and that logic tends not to be godly. It tends to corrupt the lives of individuals and of nations. Biblical faith is suspicious of the Leviathan and its logic of power. For the purity of Israel's faith, Samuel warns them against having a king, to be like the other nations. But they demanded a king, and God relented. He sent them a king, and in time, brave and wise kings in David and Solomon, though even those were not immune from the corrupting logic of power. The principal danger of the sword is not to the physical well-being of those under it but to the moral health of the one wielding it.

Yet Israel objected. It may be good to be pure, but if the nations have a king and it didn't, they would suffer at the hands of their enemies. To update the situation for today, if the faithful believer refuses to take up the sword of political power, will it not be less likely that justice will be established and the good promoted? Or, as I put it earlier, what happens when the most public-spirited citizens withdraw from political life, leaving the field only to others? We confront, then, a problem that is both ancient and contemporary and, I would suggest, growing more urgent. There are many who consider it wise to withdraw. If they are to be persuaded otherwise, they need not only arguments against withdrawal but the compelling witness of faithful engagement. I will not embarrass them by mentioning their names, but I am proud that my hometown of Calgary has produced such witnesses. We need to have Canadians of faith bold enough to exercise political power, confident that their faith will protect them from that power's corrupting tendencies. We need those who can wield the sword and carry the cross. We need more like Georges Vanier, a general in the assembly of the saints.

I encourage you, therefore, my fellow citizens and religious believers, to be faithful to your communion in the assembly of the saints, even as you are active in the assemblies of politics. The young people I accompany need good models lest they turn away from political life altogether, leaving the field to those who know only the sword and nothing of the cross. As we pray this morning for Canada, may it be the case that those who desire to live Paul's hymn to charity, or to follow the path of Jesus in the Beatitudes, consider it possible, and even noble, to do so in politics.

May God bless this land, where He holds dominion from sea to sea. May God bless all who live here, drawn together from every land and people and nation, from the rising of the sun to its setting. May God keep our land glorious and free. God bless Canada!

The Mayor's Friends

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The Toronto Sun was not playing a Halloween trick. Rather it had something of a treat to offer a rare extra evening edition of their paper for October 31. Or maybe it was a trick, for the reading was certainly no treat—a special 24-page spread devoted entirely to Mayor Rob Ford. The chief of police, Bill Blair, had revealed earlier in the day that his detectives had found the infamous video, and what they saw was "consistent" with the spectacular revelations in the spring that the mayor was smoking crack cocaine with a rather insalubrious set. The chief's revelations accompanied the release of court documents filed by the Toronto police in relation to the arrest of Alexander Lisi on marijuana and extortion charges. Lisi was subject to rather extraordinary surveillance last spring and summer—followed by car and by air, his phone records monitored, and his comings and goings photographed. The surveillance revealed that he was in constant and curious contact with Rob Ford. Even independent of the crack video business, the 474-page affidavit showed the private life of the mayor to be equal parts reckless and pathetic. Even without the crack allegations, a mayor furtively meeting dubious and criminal characters in parking lots, gas stations, public parks and clandestine locations is shockingly unhinged and more than a little creepy.

"What [the affidavit] captures better than anything else are the low, diminished lives of the alleged drug user and his alleged connections," wrote my National Post colleague Christie Blatchford about Lisi (November 1, 2013). "The documents don't detail glamorous high flyers. These are sad, small people, Mr. Ford included."

Despite all the odd behaviour, consistent with drug trafficking but not in itself proof of it, the police chief made it clear that the mayor was not being charged, and there was nothing in the video to justify a charge. The affidavit was about Alexander Lisi's allegedly criminal life. The mayor just had a recurring role in it. One is gobsmacked not so much at what the mayor did but by whom he was doing it with.

All of which brings to mind a lesson I try to teach my students on campus, and which is evidently a lesson some men do not learn on campus or even at city hall. Perhaps the most important decision that they will make at university, I tell them, is their choice of friends. There are many important decisions to be made about their future professions, about their current studies, about what activities they will devote their time to, about whether they will follow their parents' example or choose another path, and where all of this will fit into their relationship with God. Yet all of those decisions depend greatly on who their friends are.

Good friends of admirable character make it easier to make good decisions and to become admirable oneself. Friends of weak character make poor decisions for themselves and help their friends do the same. It is possible in theory to be a good man with bad friends, but nearly impossible in practice. In fact, when a young person undergoes a conversion of heart and of life, the test of its likely endurance is whether he drifts away from bad influences and acquires good ones. A new life requires new friends, for we are not meant to be good citizens, good students or good disciples alone.

Rob Ford chose bad friends. He should have realized that a new job—being mayor of Canada's largest city—required a new set of friends, if not for the sake of his own dignity, then for that of his city. Being mayor is an advantageous position from which to meet good people, for while there are plenty of the self-seeking and the slippery out to game the system at city hall, municipal government is also full of self-sacrificing souls who literally feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and tend to the sick and the lonely. With such options available to him, that the mayor would choose Alexander Lisi and his band of small-time losers is a greater indictment of Ford's judgment than anything else.

From the tranquillity of Wolfe Island, it is not necessary to follow Toronto politics closely, and I don't. Yet from a distance I was initially pleased with Ford's election. I was attracted viscerally to the flip-side of the advice I give to my students. I thought the new mayor had all the right enemies. You can judge a man—not perfectly, but partially—by the enemies he earns as well as the friends he makes. Ford had the right enemies, led by the condescension of the CBC, which seemed exercised from the beginning that the mayor coached high school football. He was loathed by the Toronto Star, which seemed exercised from the beginning by the mayor's existence, period. But it is a mistake to judge a man wholly by his enemies.

There is the matter of football. That the mayor coached football at Don Bosco High School, where many of the boys were underprivileged, spoke well of him. The Star would get lathered up when the mayor skipped city hall meetings for football practise, but it endeared him all the more to me. After all, it was likely that more good would actually be accomplished on a football field than in yet another bureaucratic meeting. Plus football is football, and I rather like the idea of Toronto having a mayor who prefers to be at practice, with his team, than with his fellow politicians downtown.

The only time I met Rob Ford was at a football game where he had a done the ceremonial kickoff. He was wearing his team football jacket, and seeing a priest on the sidelines, the Don Bosco coach made a special point of coming over to say hello. All of which made me rather angry to discover that Ford was introduced to the unsavoury Lisi by another coach on the Don Bosco team, himself a man in the shadows of the law. I thought it spoke well of Ford that he gave his time to help boys—many of whom lack good male role models—discover the discipline, achievement and sense of belonging that football can provide. If, instead, he was bringing disreputable characters around his young men, then all the more is the shame. Perhaps he will survive as mayor. The Catholic school board fired him as coach last spring. I hope part of the reason was that he was not a good model for the young men of how to choose friends wisely.

A magazine entitled Convivium takes friendship seriously. Our life together depends on the friends we have, who can make our joys sweeter and our sufferings less severe for being shared. Rob Ford struck many as a convivial guy—always ready for a conversation, a phone call, and a beer at a football game. Yet convivium is not just about being together; it is about being together with good people for good purposes. Otherwise, convivium is mere connections, which can be corruptions. The sad tale of Rob Ford the mayor will be over sooner by resignation, or next year at election time. When the end comes, I hope he finds a good friend or two. He needs them.

Friends At The Stable

Is it in Mark or John that we learn about the ox and the ass in the stable where Jesus was born? Trick question—neither Mark's gospel nor John's speak at all about the infancy of Jesus. So it must be in Matthew or Luke? Tricked again. They do tell us about Jesus' infancy, and we read about the manger (Luke 2:7), but there is nothing about the ox and the ass. We are told that Jesus was born in an unusual place because the inns were full of census travellers. Perhaps the stable or cave was quiet and suitably private for a most unusual birth, and the presence of animals may have provided some heat for Mary and Joseph as they awaited the delivery of Jesus.

The tradition of nativity scenes is one of the loveliest Christmas traditions. It was an innovation of Saint Francis. The poor man of Assisi has attracted much attention this past year, with a new pope taking that name for the first time and making a pilgrimage to Assisi for the saint's feast day on October 4. Saint Francis is so popular because he had a gift for bringing the gospels alive in his simplicity of life and the boldness of his gestures. The nativity scene is of a piece with his whole life, a dramatic presentation of the Gospel, focused on Christ in the simplicity of the stable.

Why did Francis add the ox and the ass? Where did he get that idea? He was famous for exhorting his brothers to preach the Gospel always, "using words if necessary." The ox and ass show Francis' understanding of the whole of scriptures, and how in the nativity scene he wished to preach. The animals are present because the prophetic book of Isaiah says, "The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand" (Isaiah 1:3). By putting the ox and ass near the manger, Francis was teaching that the Christ Child is the fulfillment of the prophecies and that we often don't recognize Him when He comes. The same truth is taught in the prologue of John's gospel, that the Word came to His own, and we did not recognize Him.

May it be for us this Christmas to recognize Him, to be, as it were, among those first friends of the Lord around the manger, including the ox and the ass. They bring to my mind another connection. Saint Thomas Aquinas, large and lumbering, was given the nickname "the dumb ox." Saint Francis, legend has it, on his deathbed thanked his donkey for the services it had given him, and the donkey apparently wept. The friends of the Lord, the ox and the ass—perhaps they stand in for the saints. May we be counted in their number.