Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont.

In his first letter to Christian converts living at Corinth, St. Paul told them that death was “the last enemy” but, take heart, a defeated enemy. For two millennia the Church has proclaimed and pondered this message — but what does it mean? What happens to us after death?

The Catholic Church teaches that the selection by cardinals of a new pope is guided by the Holy Spirit. Despite this teaching, many pundits (including some Catholics who should know better) prepared lists of favourites, debated frontrunners, discussed the pros and cons of each and sometimes even proposed odds.

On hearing of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, my first thought was of some lines from the Tennyson poem “Morte D’Arthur,” which my father often quoted in unanticipated circumstances:

Late last year the National Post commissioned a survey on religious attitudes of Canadians. It will surprise no one that church attendance, both Protestant and Catholic, is dropping. What was surprising was how Canadians self-reported their attitude to religion.

Of those answering the survey, 65 per cent consider themselves “spiritual,” 50 per cent consider themselves “religious” yet 66 per cent said they believe in God. What to make of this?

First, contemporary mis-education has prevented many people from thinking clearly. If you believe in God, you are by definition “religious.” The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines religion as belief in a personal God “…entitled to obedience and worship.” So to say that someone believes in God but is not religious is to utter an oxymoron.

As for the 15 per cent who consider themselves spiritual (“concerned with sacred or religious things”) but not religious, well, they truly are remarkable human beings. They are like a self-described gourmand who never eats, or someone who professes to love travel but does not leave home, or a lover of theatre who has never seen a play that he enjoyed.
Of course, one might be spiritual and not go to church; that is possible. I suppose one might even be a Protestant Christian and never go to church. But one cannot be a Roman Catholic and refrain from attending church.

That’s because the catechism teaches that there is no salvation outside the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (published in 1994) expresses the point this way: “All salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His body.” Again, none can be saved “who knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it.”

Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass. One may attend Mass outside the physical structure of a church, but only a priest may consecrate the elements of bread and wine. For a Catholic to say that he is spiritual but not religious is what Dr. Johnson once called “nonsense on stilts.”

The priest who brought me into the Catholic Church never referred to the “obligation” to attend Mass. It was always, he insisted a privilege. And with him presiding, it always was. He prepared carefully for each service. His homilies were strengthening and he threw himself into every activity in the church with gusto. To my chagrin, I have discovered that this is not always the case.

Of course, I understand that one does not attend Mass because of the priest but rather for the opportunity to receive the sacraments. Still, it is difficult to be in a suitably receptive frame of mind to receive the sacraments when one is fuming inwardly at all that has gone on up to that point. Perhaps I am only now discovering the reality of what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote that one may suffer more from the Church than for the Church.

If the new statistics accurately portray Canadians’ religious attitude, what hope is there for the Church? Well, Pope Benedict XVI recognizes the problem; indeed he wrote extensively about this even before the year 2005 when he became Pope. He has called repeatedly for a “New Evangelization” with three components: (1) deepened personal faith; (2) renewed Bible study; (3) proclamation of the Gospel.

The Pope has said that it is the duty of every Catholic to proclaim the good news “with the same enthusiasm as the early Church” and he has taught that “the Gospel is not the exclusive property of those who received it, but it is a gift to share, good news to report to all.”

In this respect, buried in the statistics, is one nugget which allows for hope: 15 per cent of Canadian youth report that they are more committed to the faith than were their parents. Here is the potential spearhead of a new evangelization that can rescue the Church from the doldrums.

The new evangelization will not happen in parishes where the message is distorted, or where the priest is only going through the motions, or where the congregation trudge off content at having satisfied their obligation. But the message of hope from Pope Benedict XVI is that it can — and will — happen nevertheless.

 

The Gospels of Mark and John provide no account of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew’s Gospel gives an attenuated account, but it is from the physician-disciple, Luke, that we get the birth narrative that has come to dominate Christian iconography for 20 centuries.

The story is so familiar we can easily miss its wonder: the Holy Family’s exhausting journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the angels, the shepherds, the stable birth and the wise men, all narrated in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel.

There are three particular phrases in Luke’s account that fairly vibrate with authenticity and poignancy.

The first is “In those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus…” Always, everywhere, there are government decrees. This particular one was for the relatively innocuous twin purposes of census and taxation. How many decrees, before and since, have sent people packing on needless and dangerous journeys. And it is not just tinpot dictators but sometimes duly elected officials who dispatch people from their homes to a far country where no one knows their name.

Of the fathomless depths of human misery, how much is attributable to Caesar? Who knows? But it is to government decree that we owe the wrenching phrase “displaced person,” which is how Luke portrays the Holy Family on that first Christmas — displaced persons abandoned by everyone but God.

The second phrase comes after the Holy Family arrived in Bethlehem: “(Mary) laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” When one reads this, the first response may be indignation. That dastardly innkeeper — how dare he turn them away! No doubt if there had been an Occupy Judea movement, protests would have been made, a tent city might have sprung up outside the inn and we would have heard talk about the one per cent and the 99 per cent.

The birth of Christ occurs in anonymity, outside the city, outside respectability, in a manger of hay or straw. Now, flash forward about three decades to Christ’s crucifixion: another barren place, Golgotha, “the place of a skull,” outside respectability, outside the city.

There was no room for the birth of Christ in a Judean inn and there seems little room for Christ in contemporary Canada. He has been tossed out of the schools and the public square is kept resolutely secular.

Christians maintain that on that first Christmas God clothed Himself in the lineaments of human flesh. Yet it is difficult to catch a glimpse of Him today. Not at the United Nations nor in the corridors of power. Certainly not in television studios or the echoing halls of academia. He is not to be found seated among the powerful.

Back then it was shepherds, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (in the King James language) who first realized something unprecedented was happening. Not many shepherds, then or since, acquire celebrity status, and certainly not these. Their first reaction was fear. Then fear gave way to curiosity, and they decided to go to Bethlehem “…to see this thing which has come to pass.” And what did they find? Not Caesar’s laurel crown but a baby.

The third tingling phrase in Luke’s account is found in chapter one. It’s a phrase that tries to make sense of all that will follow, to answer the shepherd’s question before it was posed: “Through the tender mercy of our God whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us.”

This is the biblical definition of the Incarnation. Many books and treatises clutter the shelves of theological libraries seeking to explain this phrase, but there it is, the actual biblical definition.

It may be that dates and details are a bit off. Perhaps the three wise men who came were more or less than three (although in the absence of a Judean affirmative action program, the modernist contention that it was actually three women seems a bit far-fetched!). But the message transcends detail. The message is that at a specified point in human history, God became man, took upon Himself human flesh, so that man might more intimately relate himself to God.

So what did happen that first Christmas night? Well, it is not St. Luke but St. John who gives the answer that I find most satisfying: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

That is good news. May the presence of the incarnate Word bring all of us a Christmas filled with joy.

Even the most biblically illiterate person knows — or thinks they know! — the story of Jonah and the whale. Unfortunately, what they know is likely dredged up from school memories and is likely to be either trivial or wrong.

In my own upbringing, the story of Jonah and the whale was a kind of litmus test of the authenticity of your faith. If you swallowed Jonah, as it were, you were a true believer; if not, well, we will continue to pray for you.

The Book of Jonah begins starkly: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah: Go to the great city of Ninevah, go now and denounce it for its wickedness…”(v. 1).

Ninevah was an enemy of Israel and it was about the last place on Earth that Jonah wanted to go. Jewish belief at that time was exclusivist. God loved Israel but no others. Jews were the chosen people of God. Ninevah was full of wicked gentiles, infidels; why should Yahweh concern Himself with them?

When the word of the Lord came to many patriarchs, they tried to play deaf: Moses, Amos, Jeremiah. But Jonah’s hearing was acute. So he boarded the first available ship sailing in the exact opposite direction to Ninevah. “It was going to Tarshish.” Tarshish was the land beyond land, the furthest extremity of the universe, the place beyond the reach of God. Jonah made off, we are told, “…to escape from the Lord” (v. 3).

In open seas, the ship was battered by a hurricane. The crew was terrified and began to jettison cargo. Jonah was asleep in the hold, until the captain found him and demanded of Jonah: “Call on your God, perhaps He can save us” (v. 6).

But Jonah could not pray. Perhaps he imagined that his disobedience had rendered prayer impossible. Perhaps he was too stubborn or terrified. Then the sailors cast lots to determine who was to blame for their predicament, and Jonah pulled the short straw. He confessed that he was on board to escape from God, and then Jonah offered himself as a sacrifice for the others, prefiguring a later and greater biblical figure who would offer Himself as a sacrifice for all.

“Take me, throw me overboard,” Jonah said, “and the sea will go down.” The sailors readily agreed. Jonah was pitched overboard, and then swallowed by “a great fish” (v. 17).

In the maw of the great fish Jonah suddenly discovered that prayer came, if not easily, then eloquently.

The great fish then spewed bedraggled Jonah up onto dry land. As American theologian Frederick Buechner wryly observed, Jonah’s relief at being out of the whale was probably exceeded by the whale’s relief at being relieved of the troublesome Jonah.

Now the word of God came to Jonah a second time: unfortunately, same instruction. Go to Ninevah. This time Jonah went. Who wouldn’t?

A miracle occurred. Not a great fish, but a great revival. The Ninevites listened. They repented. And Jonah was furious. God was saving Israel’s enemies. Jonah wanted fire and brimstone to rain down on the heads of the Ninevites. Instead there was nothing but grace, forgiveness and reconciliation.

What a marvelous story! Whimsical, perceptive, funny — full of grace and truth. It tells us that there is no Tarshish, no sanctuary safe from God. It tells us that even cowards sometimes sacrifice themselves for others. It tells us that nothing we do, nothing we are, can put us beyond the reach of God’s salvation.

If Jonah can be heard from the belly of the great fish, our forlorn prayer, whether it originates from a psychiatric ward or a prison cell, can likewise be heard. Best of all, it tells us that God’s boundless love extends to all, even to Ninevites like us.

How sad that some Christians miss the point of the story of Jonah. It is not history; it is something more important — truth.

To reduce the wonderful story of Jonah to the know-nothing question of “do you believe that the whale swallowed Jonah and that he survived three days?” is to stunt human imagination and understanding. It is to make reason a stumbling block, rather than an aid, to faith.

On Oct. 7 Dr. Edward Norman was received into the Roman Catholic Church at Our Lady of Walsingham in England. In itself, this might not seem remarkable, only another former Anglican to take advantage of the door so generously opened by Pope Benedict XVI in his November 2009 invitation Angicanorum Coetibus. But when you learn who Norman is, his late conversion is remarkable indeed.

Born in London in 1938, Norman was educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge. His specialty was church history, which he went on to teach for two decades, much of that time as Dean of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In 1978 he was chosen to deliver the BBC’s Reith lectures on the theme: “Christianity and the World.” In addition to academic appointments and honours, Norman served as a priest, dean and chancellor of York Minster. It was not uncommon to hear his name discussed as a potential Archbishop of Canterbury. He is the author of more than 20 theological books.

As the title suggests, Norman’s 2004 book Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors was a scathing indictment of modern Anglicanism. It provided clear evidence of how uncomfortable Norman had become in the Church of England. When it was published, he told an interviewer: “There is a big hole at the centre of Anglicanism — authority. I don’t think it’s a Church; it’s more of a religious society.”

As an insider, Norman knew how the Church of England functioned and he pulled no punches. Of General Synod, he wrote: “Every disagreement, in seemingly every board and committee, proceeds by avoidance of principled debate.

Ordinary moral cowardice is represented as wise judgment, equivocation in the construction of compromise formulae is second nature to our leaders.”

Is the situation different or better in the Anglican Church of Canada? Based on my three-plus Anglican decades, I would say no — although my view is that of a parishioner since I never aspired to any ecclesiastical office. This is not to say that there are not fine people and committed Christians within the Anglican Church. There are. But they tend to be in the pews and they are repeatedly let down, in my experience, by the ostensible leadership. In any case, the primary occupation of a Canadian Anglican bishop today is arranging the closing of churches. The rate of decline is such that the lights should go off in the last standing Anglican church in just a few decades.

Despite his criticism of the Church of England, Norman remained in the Church for eight years after the publication of Anglican Difficulties. It can hardly be imagined or overstated how difficult a decision it must be for a minister or priest to abandon the denomination in which he was ordained and to which he has dedicated his life.

What was the final catalyst for Norman? From the outside, who can know? Even the convert often finds it difficult to express all the subtleties, the twists and turns, of his pilgrimage. What he told the Catholic Herald at the time of his conversion was this:

“The Church of England provides a masterclass in equivocation; it also, however, is the residence of very many good and faithful Christian people who deserve respect — for their perseverance in so many incoherent spiritual adventures. To leave their company is a wrench; to adhere to the Catholic faith is to join the encompassing presence of a universal body of believers in whose guardianship are the materials of authentic spiritual understanding . . . I have immense gratitude.”

Norman is the latest in a long, distinguished line of converts: men like G.K. Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene and Malcolm Muggeridge. His conversion is further proof that even amidst the dark seas of postmodernism, St. Peter’s barque still searches out and rescues the drowning.

That doughty old warrior, Hilaire Belloc, wrote to a friend that the Catholic Church was like a landfall, at first glimpsed hazily and only through the mist:

“…but the nearer it is seen, the more it is real … The metaphor is not that men fall in love with it: the metaphor is that they discover home.”

Welcome home, Edward Norman.

More than a decade ago a Catholic friend gave me a copy of the then recently published Catechism of the Catholic Church. I read it and was impressed by the depth and eloquence of its proclamation of the Catholic faith. This was the faith I affirmed, but which I considered that my own Anglican Church no longer did.    

In 2004, I moved with my wife Norah from London to St. Thomas, Ont. In the spring of 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying, I first came to Holy Angels Church to pray for him. He died on Saturday, April 2, 2005, and there was an afternoon Mass that day so I came. The grief among the congregation was palpable. But to my astonishment, the priest carried on as though nothing had happened. Only when he came to the prayers of the faithful did he mention the Holy Father had just died, therefore we would skip the usual intercession for the Pope.

Not a word to assuage the shared grief of the congregation. We were dismissed, orphaned and bereaved out into the night.

I was not then a Catholic. But I considered John Paul ll the brightest light in the dark times through which I had lived, and on that day I expected more. “Never again will I enter this church,” I muttered on my way out the door. But, as often happens, God had other plans.

This brings me to November 2005. I had not been attending any church when suddenly the conviction overwhelmed me that I could not celebrate Christmas if I did not worship somewhere during Advent. So, on the first Sunday of Advent, I trudged along to Holy Angels, rather expecting to be disillusioned again, to be perfectly frank.

To my surprise, there was a new priest. He was Polish and it soon became evident that he had been shaped by John Paul the Great. To my even greater surprise, the new priest’s homily was directed straight at me.

Fr. Adam Gabriel’s topic was “Come out of the wilderness.” I recall that he said something like this: “People experience many kinds of wilderness. There may be someone here who is in a church wilderness, someone who cannot find a church to belong to, or perhaps who has found the church but it is the church to which he cannot belong. To that person Jesus says this morning: ‘Come out of the wilderness.’ ”

The next day, without calling in advance and without an appointment, and never having met the priest, I knocked on the rectory door and told Fr. Gabriel that I was that person in the wilderness. He listened to my story and told me about the RCIA program. I told him we had tried the RCIA program in a London parish and it had been a disillusioning experience. He said that he regretted that he could not give private instruction, because Holy Angels is a large and busy parish and he was the only priest and there was simply no time.

Then, noticing I had brought my copy of the catechism, he asked if I had read it. I said that I had. Then he said: “Okay. If you are serious enough to have read the catechism, I’ll make the time to give you instruction.” And so, over the next year, he did. On July 2, 2006, at the altar of Holy Angels, I was received into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church. Norah was received at Easter one year later.

I told that story at a recent farewell party not to draw attention to myself, but to illustrate my own immense debt to a priest who later became my friend. For seven years Holy Angels was the recipient of prevenient grace. Fr. Gabriel was our priest, our shepherd, our pastor, our confessor and our friend. He did everything with energy, infectious enthusiasm and dedication.Words do not adequately convey the sense of gratitude, commingled with loss, we felt when he moved to St. Teresa’s in Etobicoke, Ont.

“Not to be served but to serve.” How often we heard him say that. But he didn’t just say it — he lived it!

He brought me out of the wilderness and for that I will be forever grateful.

What makes Premier Dalton McGuinty’s treatment of Toronto Archbishop (and Cardinal) Thomas Collins over the gay-straight alliances particularly distressing is that the Church asked for so little and wound up with nothing. To go down fighting in defence of core teachings of the Church would be one thing, but to get a dismissive backhand from the premier when the Church had already accommodated almost every item of Bill-13 and when all that was left is nomenclature, well, that is truly humiliating.

Of course, Cardinal Collins was betrayed by many of his putative allies. OECTA, the Catholic teachers’ union, made it clear that they sided with McGuinty and not with the Church from which they derive their raison d’etre. Quislings too, publicly or privately, were many Catholic school trustees. With allies like these, how could anyone confidently go into battle?

For 500 years the Anglican Church has made an indelible contribution to Christianity. Particularly in liturgy and music, Anglicans have offered up the best that human inspiration and expression could achieve. So it is sad to watch the worldwide Anglican Communion drift further into schism.

Dr. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has announced his retirement at the end of 2012. The position of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Anglican tradition is not comparable to the Pope in the Catholic Church; nevertheless the Archbishop remains primus inter pares, first among equals, in the Anglican hierarchy. 

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