Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl

Robert Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.
February 6, 2013

Women’s time has come

When Ontario Premier-elect Kathleen Wynne is sworn into office next week, half the country’s provincial premiers will be women (in addition to the premier of Nunavut) and they will govern 87 per cent of the population.

About a decade ago, I was in Scotland and one person after another whom I met kept referring to me as an American, presumably because of my accent.

This New Year opened with a distinctly presidential flavour. First, I saw the two hit movies about U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. (Both I highly recommend, especially Lincoln.) Second, I received two fascinating books: The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson and The Words Lincoln Lived By from Lincoln historian Gene Griessman.

Fewer baby girls are gifted with Our Lady’s name nowadays

Earlier this month, Today’s Parent published its annual list of most popular baby names in Canada and I scanned, as I usually do, to see where my two children’s names are located.

It is very difficult to make sense of the latest violence in the Middle East. And as we embark on another Advent season, it makes one wonder about the long-term viability of Christian communities in the Church’s birthplace in the Middle East, whether Palestine, Israel, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the region.

Fr. Raymond Corriveau was one of the best

This week marks the second anniversary of the passing of one of the finest priests — make that people — I have had the good fortune to know, Fr. Raymond Corriveau.

Some readers may have known “Corry” through his work with the Redemptorists, but many readers probably don’t know the name. And that’s a shame. Not necessarily for Corry’s sake because he was remarkably humble for someone with such remarkable talent. But it’s a shame for the sake of the priesthood and the Church that he and others like him aren’t better known.

We hear all too often about the bad priests who have done notorious things, especially when it comes to child abuse. We hear the tasteless jokes about priests. We hear about the Church hierarchy’s ham-fisted handlings of past scandals. We hear all the bad stuff and it affects us all.

But we don’t necessarily hear about the really good priests — and there are many — who are quietly going about their business, doing good things day after day, and living up to the teachings of Jesus. Here is Corry’s story, or more rightly, a tiny slice of a life that was lived well with positive impact on so many.

Corry was born in 1936 near Woodstock, Ont., where he grew up until leaving to study to become a Redemptorist priest. He was ordained in 1962 and quickly made his mark for helping the poor and disenfranchised when he and two others started a pastoral ministry in a poor area of Montreal.

In the 1970s, he was appointed the Redemptorists’ “Novice Master” or mentor for young men interested in becoming priests. My brother, Michael, was one of Corry’s charges and they continued a close friendship, with the student counting on the teacher’s wisdom and guidance until Corry’s last day. It was in the 1970s that Corryentered our family’s lives on a regular basis, usually on a weekend afternoon for a drink with my father, an inevitable debate about some weighty matter, and dinnerwith us.

Two things stick out about Corry: his incredibly sharp mind with a depth of knowledge that seemed bottomless and his smiling eyes that could light up a room.

On the first matter, the good-natured debates with dad (who was no intellectual slouch himself) were both entertaining and educational for teenage ears and eyes. On the latter, Corry had this flawless ability to make everyone around him feel special. Later, in the 1980s when my mother was sick and the chemotherapy was zapping her energy, I can remember Corry dropping by the house and mom would literally light up and one could feel her rejuvenated energy, if only for that afternoon.

For such a smart person, it was natural that Corry’s career would thrust forward and move him up the ranks, eventually to lead the Redemptorists in Canada. But it was his pastoral caring at various parishes — from St. Patrick’s in Toronto and St. Alphonsus in Peterborough to St. Teresa’s in St. John’s and Holy Redeemer in Sudbury — that touched so many lives.

Corry had that ability to make you feel good, even if you didn’t really feel good. It was a wonderful gift which he freely gave.

Years later, when he was sick, I went to visit him at the Redemptorist headquarters in Toronto. I had not seen him for a long time. We sipped tea and sat and talked for well over an hour. I remember the length of time because my teenage son was waiting in the car playing an electronic game.

When I returned to the car, my son looked at me and said: “What’s so funny, dad? Why are you smiling?”

“I didn’t realize I was smiling,” I said. “I can’t explain it, but every time I see Corry, he makes me feel good, he lifts my spirits.”

Some months later, and only days before his death, I visited him in hospital with my brother. His eyes weren’t as smiling, but his mind was still incredibly sharp which surprised me because brain cancer was killing him.

At one point, a third priest entered the room and a deep theological discussion began. For me, they might as well have been talking in Aramaic because the topic was so over my head, but for Corry it was no problem to follow along and add insight to the discussion.

A few times, he would break away from the talk and pray, urging God to take him because he was ready. His faith was so deep; he was so dignified in his submission to God’s will. I can only hope I have a modicum as much when my time comes.

Telling Corry’s story in no way erases past crimes by other priests. I cannot even imagine the pain their victims live with each and every day. These “preying priests” will be punished on Earth and beyond. But telling Corry’s story, I hope, shows that the priesthood as a whole should not be painted with one brush and mocked with tasteless jokes. There are many other “Corrys” out there right now doing good deeds; true praying priests who deserve our support.

Too often it can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity

The three front-page stories in a national newspaper the other day really caught my eye. One was about technology giant Apple Inc.’s impressive financials, the second was about a conference in Montreal on how technology makes life better, and the third was about a massive study of Canadian workers that found we’re overworked and getting more sad all the time.

There seemed to be a thread tying these stories together. Every day we’re bombarded about the virtues of technology, but we rarely take time to think about some of the downsides. For example, we’ve been told for decades that technology makes us more productive and frees us up for more leisure time. Not so, according to the 2012 National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada, in which 25,000 workers were surveyed. We’re working longer hours (the vast majority of people are now working more than 45 hours per week) and technology tethers us to the boss and clients on evenings and weekends, once the sole domain of family time.

As I was thinking about technology’s impact, an interesting e-mail dropped in my box. The subject line was “Einstein was right.” Perhaps you’ve received it too, or seen it race around the social media circuits?

It is pictures of young people, each with his or her smartphone in hand, in restaurants and museums, on the beach and in cars. All the pictures show the young folks glued to their screens and ignoring nearby friends.

The caption after the pictures is a supposed quote from Albert Einstein: “I fear the day when technology overlaps with our humanity. The world will only have a generation of idiots.” I say “supposed quote” because I searched long and hard and couldn’t come up with that exact quote.

The closest I could find from the great scientist was: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Whether the originator of the e-mail took liberty or not with Einstein’s words, you get my point: technology is not pure panacea.

If you have teenage kids, you’ve seen them tap away not hearing a word of what you’ve said. When I was a teenager, I wasn’t the greatest listener either, but today’s teens take it to a whole new level. And it’s not just teenagers. Almost all of us pay way too much attention to our handheld devices, sometimes even in church.

Social media (ie. online relationships through Facebook, Twitter and others) have restructured human relationships. What once was the dynamic experience of having a real-life conversation became selecting from a bunch of dropdown boxes to describe ourselves and our likes. As we become digital, our interactions are dumbed down so that they play nice with technology. We don’t even have to articulate why something makes us happy any more, we just click “Like.”

Things are changing so fast with smartphones and computers for the purpose to entertain us that it gives me an eerie feeling we’re losing some of our humanity as we reach to connect online instead of connecting one-on-one or in real-life communities. Will this lead to a less caring society? I hope not.

But as Christians, we need to think about these things because the teachings of Jesus are about our relationships — with family, friends, strangers, even enemies and, of course, our relationship with God. One need only re-read the beautiful Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) to understand this.

I realize Pope Benedict has urged Catholics, particularly younger ones, to embrace the digital world and the Vatican has even given its approval to an iPhone app that can help us with Confession.

But the Pope also said: “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

At that technology conference in Montreal, according to the Globe and Mail, an entrepreneur from Kenya talked about a game he had developed in which players protect trees from illegal loggers.

This, apparently, has helped to change people’s views of the practice in the real world. And that’s a good use of technology; first by helping the environment and second by offering hope and opportunity to bright minds in parts of the world not as wealthy and privileged as we in North America.

But technology can enslave us and strip away parts of our humanity, if we let it. We should remember that the next time we’re sending the boss an update on a Sunday while our family is nearby.

Thanksgiving is always special because it is the day my parents were married many years ago and I take time to feel thankful for them, though they are both long departed. And this Thanksgiving weekend was extra special because we celebrated the 80th birthday of my wife’s mother.

Though my own mother and my wife’s mother met only once, I have always felt a bond between them. They were raised very differently (one in the city, the other in the country) and they married men with polar opposite personalities. But the two women were similar in many ways; namely, they always put others first.

My mom was a saint and my dad a character. It may not have been a marriage made in heaven, but it was certainly a love story lived on Earth that I am sure continues in heaven.

In many ways, my parents were so different. She was a worker bee who wanted to get the job done (whatever the job), behind the scenes, away from the limelight. He was a free-spirit who loved the attention and often put a job around the house off until tomorrow. But he loved his wife beyond anything; even more than the racetrack, golf course or poker table. She died way too young at age 56. Her death was 15 years before his at age 73. Though he had some good years after her, he really was never the same on his own.

In his later years, he once told me the best thing I could give my children was to love their mother above all else. I said, “Dad, of course, I do.” With an unfamiliar serious look on his face, he said, “Always put her first. Your love of her reflects to them.”

On Thanksgiving, as I thought about my parents, I couldn’t help but think that he got to have more fun than she did. In some ways, he was a product of the times and a swashbuckling journalist in the 1950s and ’60s.

There was a story when he was in Manhattan at a party at a swanky nightclub and he danced with Liz Taylor. The next morning, he called home to tell mom about the evening but she was scrubbing floors so my oldest brother had the conversation with him on the phone. He was about eight years old and he relayed the story to mom and then looked at her on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor, and said, “Mom, you’re just like Cinderella and daddy was at the ball.”

In our family, given who our father was, teasing was a sport. Once, when I was upset over being teased, mom consoled me by saying it is okay to be teased because it means that person isn’t teasing someone else. A very Christian attitude that, unfortunately, I sometimes forget. Long ago, at Sunday dinner mom was getting teased by several of her seven children and she exasperatedly said: “How come women at the CWL, or at the beauty salon or our friends in the bowling league all like me but you guys treat me like this?”

I was about 10 years old and I blurted out: “Mom, they just don’t know you like we do!” They say there is a grain of truth in any joke, but she knew there was no truth in that one and she smiled. Later, I heard her tell that story on more than one occasion.

This brings me back to this past Thanksgiving weekend. It started with a birthday dinner for my wife’s mother with her children, grandchildren and her brothers and their wives at the table. Then the next night she took 10 of her family to the production of War Horse and also paid for the dinner at a fancy restaurant. We tried to pay but she just shook her head and said: “This is my birthday present to myself. I am paying.”

She has done things like this regularly for the 30 years I’ve known her and it is just another example of how she puts others first, just like my mom did. And it’s one of the reasons I have never, ever referred to her as my “mother-in-law” because of the negative connotations associated with that phrase. She is my second mother, period. And how many people are lucky enough to have two fantastic mothers in one lifetime? That’s why Thanksgiving is a second Mother’s Day for me.

Though we are under the watchful eye of the Beer Czar

When it comes to the NHL lockout, it proves adult men can be ridiculous and greedy. When it comes to our weekly pickup hockey games, it proves adult men can be silly and generous.

This year’s hockey “draft party” was extra special because we played a pre-season game at the Leafs practice facility at the MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke before the draft. (It’s not like the Leafs were in any need of the ice.) One of our regulars bought the ice time for his pals at a charity auction and another player donated his home (along with beer and burgers) for the party.

The intent of the annual party is to “draft” teams and make them as even as possible so that games are competitive and fun, week in and week out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way because we have players of vastly different skill levels ranging in age from early 40s to early 60s.

But I like to think that we follow some of the rules for sport and sportsmanship that Pope Benedict mused about in September to members of the International Federation of Sports Medicine at their world congress in Rome. He talked about fair play, the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs and a culture too much about winning at all costs. That didn’t apply to us middle-aged, middle-bulging men, but this did: “Just as sport is more than just competition, each sportsman and woman is more than a mere competitor: they are possessed of a moral and spiritual capacity which ought to be enriched and deepened by sports,” the pontiff said.

Our gang has played hockey together weekly for more than a decade. And friendships have been forged and skins thickened from the dressing room banter.

At the “draft” party this year, before teams were selected, there was a motion put forward that air-tight rules had to be laid out for post-game beer in the dressing room. The general rule has been that each dressing room has one player assigned the task of bringing a dozen cans. A schedule comes out before the season so you know which two dates are your “beer nights.”

Unfortunately, sometimes guys have not shown up on their beer night or forgotten to bring the beer. This problem was pretty much taken care of last year when a “Beer Czar” was appointed. The morning of the game, he e-mails our group of 30 guys naming the two beer guys that night for all to see.

Only one guy forgot his beer last year, a lawyer who claimed he was in court and didn’t read his e-mails. A lousy excuse and he is reminded of the faux pas constantly. All in all, the Beer Czar’s record was pretty good so he was re-appointed for a second term at the draft party.

Over a debate approaching one hour (yes, Canadian guys can debate the issue of beer that long), new rules were adopted and justice served when the moniker of “warm beer guy” was lifted from one player who held that epithet erroneously for almost a decade.

The new rules spell things out clearly: the beer has to be packed in ice, not freezer packs, and the cans have to be tall boys, not regular size. The Beer Czar, who seems to enjoy his work, inspects the cooler bags before we take to the ice each week.

And if there is a violation, the offender will be made to play that night’s game wearing only his skates, shin guards, protective cup, gloves and helmet.

In our wives’ eyes, all of this is pure silliness. And they may be correct. But it’s all done in a spirit of friendship and — like millions of other Canadians — it is an expression of our love for the game; unlike owners and players and their love of money. When they’re fighting over a few hundred million dollars here and there in a $3-billion business, I will take our silliness over their ridiculousness seven ways to Sunday.

My wife and I were at a wonderful wedding on the Labour Day weekend.

The weather was superb. The setting in Muskoka was spectacular. The love emanating around the happy couple was undeniable. And the sermon during the ceremony on the shores of Lake Rosseau was thought-provoking. So much so, that I am still thinking about it.

Maybe I am thinking about it because we’re celebrating an anniversary on Sept. 24. It is our 24th anniversary: 24 on 24. How special is that for a red-blooded Canadian guy? Women may expect jewelry or other trinkets on milestone anniversaries like five, 10 or 20 years, but celebrating your two-four on the two-four? (I digress, even though the perfect gift from her would be a lot less expensive than most of the anniversary gifts I’ve bought her over the years and it comes in bottles or cans.)

But getting back to the wedding, it involved the daughter of two very close friends and it was the first wedding we’ve attended of friends’ children. So, we’ve officially moved into the next generation: the “parents’ generation.” Age certainly does creep up on you and years meander past.

The pastor who delivered the sermon is the bride’s grandfather. How cool is that having your grandpa take you from his lap not that long ago to presiding over your wedding?

So, of course, an emotional sap like me was set up for a head-spinning afternoon right from the get go.

The pastor spoke about the word love and that in English we use it so many different ways, such as “I love you” or “I love ice cream” or “I love that car.” Love is such a complicated word in English, he said, because it means different things. One does not love ice cream the same way one loves her children, or one does not love a car the same way one loves his wife. (Well, if he does, you know such a marriage is doomed.)

But the Greeks, he said, figured it out when it comes to love. The Greek language uses different words for love depending on which type of love.

Eros, or the more modern erotas, is a love of passion, romantic love. However, eros does not necessarily have to be sexual. (Plato redefined the word and that’s where “Platonic friendship” comes from.) But it is a very deep sense of love between humans.

Then there is philia, which applies to friendship, family, community. Philia is about kinship and camaraderie. Hence, Philadelphia (from Greek words) is called the city of brotherly love, even if it doesn’t feel that way at sporting events.

The third Greek love word is agape, which is used 250 times in the New Testament. Agape is love which is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself. As John writes in his Gospel: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God does not merely love; He is love itself. Everything God does flows from His love.

As I sat there at this wedding, listening and thinking, it dawned on me that God’s love is not sappy or sentimental, even if I am sappy and sentimental. It is something so much deeper.

We’ve all been to weddings with sermons like this, but this one really stuck with me. Perhaps it was because it was my friend’s dad talking, maybe it was because our anniversary was coming up, or maybe it was because I had a life-threatening scare recently. Whatever the reason, I thanked God for the love I have in my life and remembered a story, often attributed to Winston Churchill, although I am not sure it was he who came up with it originally. A man was asked on his death bed whom would he choose to come back as if given the chance to return to Earth. He answered quickly and unequivocally: “As my wife’s second husband.”

Eros and philia may be reasons he chose that response, but surely agape played a role.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca.)