Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer living abroad and the author of two books, Ceremony of Innocence and Seraphic Singles.

Dorothy has an MA in English literature from the University of Toronto, an M.Div./STB from Regis College and spent two years in doctoral studies in theology at Boston College.

In  a bookshop at Harvard University I picked up a book by a Catholic theologian famous in the United States. The blurb on the back enthused that this theologian was at the top of her profession. My thought was this could not be true, as the woman was still alive. I am sure she would agree, as a Catholic theologian, that it is the saints, particularly the martyrs, who are at the top of her profession.

There are spiritual dangers in achieving financial success or fame as either a “professional Catholic” or a widely respected Catholic institution. I am thinking about Catholic universities in the United States founded to provide the children of Catholic immigrants with the means of social advancement while safeguarding their Catholic faith. Could the founders of Boston College, the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University ever have imagined that their schools would one day have so much worldly status? Or that they would honour pro-abortion politicians with pulpits and awards?

I think also of an American Catholic theology professor who often took phone calls from U.S. senators. When confronting thorny ethical questions, like the starvation of Terri Schiavo, senators would indeed consult this professor and others for guidance and blessings.  He told students about the general themes of these conversations; I was thrilled that some of the most powerful men in the world consulted my prof. Power is thrilling, isn’t it? 

But, as Psalm 146 warns, do not put your trust in princes. For many, power is a religion, and when your theology no longer serves the interests of the powerful, look out. We need look no further than the stories of the early Christian martyrs to see what can happen to those who merely try to live and profess their faith in Christ. We need look no further than the English-speaking Catholic martyrs of the Reformation to see what can happen to those who try to live and profess their belief in Catholic doctrine when those in power do not believe it themselves.

It can be difficult to identify with the earliest Christian martyrs. They lived so long ago that their stories can seem like fairy tales. These martyrs came from unfamiliar countries. They did not speak our language. It’s easier to identify with martyrs of the modern period, those martyrs who spoke English and dealt with systems of law and government that were parents to our own. I think especially of St. John Ogilvie, S.J. (1579-1615).

John Ogilvie could have been a powerful man. He belonged to a Scots family that was both politically connected — his grandfather had been the Treasurer of Mary Queen of Scots — and religiously correct — his family were now Calvinists. At a time when it was hard to get permission to travel to Catholic countries, John was permitted by James I of England (simultaneously James IV of Scotland) to get the continental education that would have made him useful to the King back home.

But in Europe John fell in love with the Catholic faith and took instruction at the Scots College in Louvain. His family cast him off; at the age of 20 he joined the Jesuit order. John was determined to rekindle the Catholic faith in his beloved Scotland, and after years of study, teaching and rejected requests, Fr. Ogilvie was permitted by his superiors to return to Scotland. It was as safe for a Jesuit to say Mass in the Edinburgh of 1613 as it would be for you to set up an RCIA program in the Tehran of 2012. But Fr. Ogilvie returned anyway, and within a year and a half he was dead. 

The strange twist to this story is that soon after his return, Fr. Ogilvie had an audience with King James himself. In fact, he may have done service to this Protestant king by working to secure the loyalty of Catholic subjects at home and abroad. Certainly the King gave Fr. Ogilvie a passport to go to France. But in 1614 Fr. Ogilvie returned to his Scottish mission and was soon arrested for treason. He was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured. Because he was a Jesuit and had said Mass, he could have just been banished. But because under questioning Fr. Ogilvie denied the power of the King over his subjects in spiritual matters and because he professed that the pope was Christ’s vicar on Earth, he was executed.

Despite his relationship with the King, John Ogilvie seemed to be under no illusions about his eventual fate. Unlike some modern Catholic institutions, he put no faith in princes. Indeed, by embracing the Catholic faith, John Ogilvie had lost the rewards princes had hoped to give him, and later offered him in return for giving up that faith. Instead he was true to the faith and died a horrible death in Glasgow. He had reached the top of his profession.

My husband Mark and I returned recently from a week’s holiday in Rome. We went every day to restaurants, munching seafood and slurping wine with friends, but what we enjoyed most was going to Mass.

We were in Rome for two Sundays, with Corpus Christi falling on the Thursday between. Both Sundays we went to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at Santissima Trinità dei Pelligrini, a church located near the Tiber, and on Corpus Christi we went to the Ordinary Form of the Mass outside the archbasilica of St. John Lateran.    

The Extraordinary Form is beautiful no matter where it is said, if said well, but it is especially beautiful at Santissima Trinità in Rome. The priests and servers are meticulous and graceful, the schola incredibly talented, the acoustics a miracle of perfection and the church marble. I don’t know who first came up with the absurdity that it doesn’t matter if a church is plain or pretty, or that the choir is bad or good, or that priests say Mass heartily or reverently. Of course it matters.

I met a young man who habitually goes to Masses said by priests of the Society of Saint Pius X. It may surprise many that he lacked horns and a pointed tail and refrained from making anti-Semitic remarks. He was just a nice, dark-haired young man in a cable-knit sweater, a British soldier between tours of duty in Afghanistan. 

I think of this nice young man every time I read yet another article in a Catholic newspaper or on a Catholic blog about the supposed anti-Semitism of the Society of St. Pius X. I think of the anti-Semitic comments I have heard in my life, none of which were uttered by members of the SSPX.

The first week of May is not usually warm and sunny in Poland, but it certainly was this year. I spent its Saturday morning bicycling around the countryside south of Warsaw with my friend Weronika. The roads, dirt or tarmac, were almost innocent of traffic, and I got off my bike at almost every crossroad to take yet another photograph of yet another roadside shrine.

“You’re supposed to pray at them, not photograph them,” scolded Weronika.

“Oh, yes,” I said shamefacedly and said a short prayer.

I’ve been invited to give four talks to Polish women on retreat at the Redemptorists’ retreat centre in Krakow, Poland. One of my topics is “John Paul II and Mulieris Dignitatem,” and if you are wondering if the thought of giving a talk — in English — to Polish women in Krakow about Blessed John Paul II is intimidating, the answer is “Yes.”

Canadian Catholics know how beloved John Paul was and is to his fellow Poles. What we might not remember is how much respect he had for women. When I was a child — and a teenager and a young adult — I constantly heard muttering of how John Paul II didn’t like women. Even Catholic women complained about the Pope’s lack of concern for women. This usually meant his refusal to magically declare that it was now okay to ordain women priests. Thus, when I finally got around to reading John Paul II’s theology of women, I was blown away by how radical it really is.

As a German philosophy student, Edith Stein (1891-1942)  was passionate about  feminism. Her interest waned, however, as she concentrated on her philosophical work and explored Christianity. It was not until she had been baptized and had given up her academic career to teach in a convent school that she revisited the “Woman Question.” Her speculations formed part of a series of lectures that she gave to Catholic groups around Germany in 1931 and 1932 and decades later influenced the thought of a Polish philosophy professor named Karol Wojtyła. As Pope John Paul II, he promulgated an encyclical called Muleris Dignitatem, “On the Dignity of Women.”

“When I saw all the hair, I knew it was you,” said an elderly friend. “Come in. Are you pregnant?”

“No,” I said. “Are you praying?”

“Are you praying? You should be praying to St. Gerard. How old are you?”

I told her how old I was. There was a pregnant pause.

Another airplane. Another airport. Another customs official. This one asked questions. European ones rarely do.

“Where have you come from?”

“Glasgow, but I started in Edinburgh.”

“You might find this interesting,” wrote a reader, sending me a link. “In Toronto, no less.”

So I clicked on the link and found the story you may have read in the Toronto Star or the National Post about the student at Archbishop Denis O’Connor Catholic High School in Ajax, Ont., who wrote a speech about inner beauty to the girls of his high school.  Seventeen-year-old Paul Gomille had earlier spoken to his principal about his address, and she had thought it a good idea — if he made revisions. Apparently she wanted him to take the “judgmental” parts out. 

This Gomille neglected to do. Instead he distributed his version in the cafeteria. For this he was given a two-day suspension, media attention and a good chunk of fame. 

It takes about an hour and a half to get to our little wooden church. We walk through woods to catch a bus and then ride through busy streets to a river path. Technically, we could get off the bus sooner and stride up an elegant Georgian avenue, but my husband prefers the river walk.

The serpentine corridor of trees, grass and water cuts through Edinburgh, giving the impression of countryside at the heart of the city. Although heavily travelled, the path can be very perilous in times of ice, snow and flood. One winter Sunday, we descended the slippery stairs to discover, midway, that a stretch of path was underwater. But the path is undisputedly a messenger of the natural world. As the colours, readings and prayers of Mass follow the liturgical year, so the river walk celebrates the Earth’s progress around the sun.