Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Volume 1, No. 3


From Sea to Sea

by Raymond J. de Souza

Marching Backwards

Given sufficient patience, it would be possible to float down the St. Lawrence River from my home on Wolfe Island to the Island of Montreal. This spring, though, the short trip by train in early May seemed like a passage to a different world altogether. Staying overnight near Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, I wondered what this trip into the distinct society would bring. What would be the atmosphere of the nightly student protests, enormous in number, which at first seemed rather exotic, and then ominous as they turned toward violence and threats of same? In the end, the streets were as peaceful as the pews in the cathedral, not a peep to be heard, not a protester to be seen. The next morning I discovered that the nightly protest had been temporarily shifted to nearby Victoriaville, where the governing Liberal Party had hastily transferred its conference, fleeing downtown Montreal in fear of the protesters. Like so much the Charest government has done on this file, that decision came to grief as the protesters simply decamped to Victoriaville, stormed the conference site and staged a violent riot. While the rioting was going on, the government struck a compromise deal with the student leadership. The deal was summarily rejected by the students as a whole. The government responded by passing an emergency law putting conditions on the protests. That scheme, too, came to grief, as the protests only grew more numerous, attracting support from other civil society groups on democratic liberty grounds. The mass protests resulted in mass arrests and no apparent progress toward a solution. To the contrary, the nature of the problem to be solved became even more ambiguous.

It is hard not to take a harsh view of the protests. The supposed grievance was hardly civilization threatening: a modest annual increase of $325 in university tuition over a five-year period (later spread over seven), after which Quebec students would still be paying the lowest university tuition in North America. In fact, they would be paying, after the seven years of increases, roughly what Quebec students were paying in the glorious year of 1968, in inflation-adjusted terms. Hence the protests seemed driven by equal parts melodrama and self-indulgence. The harassment of class-attending students and the violence on the streets earned widespread and deserved condemnation outside of Quebec,and rather restrained criticism within Quebec.

On the other hand, melodrama and self-indulgence seem insufficient causes to explain thousands of young people on the streets, night after night, for more than one hundred nights. A generation marked by the short attention spans, lack of enduring commitments and passive entertainments of the digital age would be rather incapable of sustained social action absent some deep motivation. Nihilism and indolence may capture many souls, but they hardly fill the streets. The night of the Victoriaville riot, an agreement was actually reached between the education minister and the student leadership. Within days that agreement lay in tatters, the education minister resigned, and the protesters marched on in the name of social solidarity, the Quebec consensus, anti-capitalism, economic equality, higher taxes for corporations, and other sundry causes. Sometimes they marched clad only in their unmentionables, a silent objection to the hegemony of clothes. Sometimes they banged pots and pans, a noisy objection to... what exactly? Comparisons were made with the Occupy Wall Street movement and its ancillaries or the anti-austerity protests in Athens and other European capitals. But it all served to muddy the waters further. The question frustratingly remained—what then is being protested?

A general dissatisfaction with The Ways Things Are and with those responsible for bringing about this state of affairs is clear enough. But who are those responsible? An earlier generation that enjoyed lavish social services but refused to pay for them, leaving a legacy of constraining debt? The students' parents, who ought to have demanded higher tuition in the 1970s? Generations of Quebecers who, though paying the highest taxes in Canada, did not pay still more? The federal government, whose flood of equalization booty to Quebec should become a tsunami instead? The global financiers whose recklessness brought on the financial crisis? The International Monetary Fund, which, preoccupied with bailing out Greece and Spain, has neglected Quebec? It is hard to sustain that any of the above are responsible for the "crisis" of Quebec students paying marginally more for their own education.

Something though has unleashed a great moral energy on the streets of Montreal. Moral fervour is often admirable, but not always so. Moral energies, like all energy, natural and supernatural, can wreak havoc unless channelled properly. A crackling fire in the hearth is a good thing; one that burns down the house is not. The protests in Montreal are fuelled by a deep sense of unfairness and injustice, for which the tuition increases were merely the ignition. There is righteous anger among the protesters and their allies. (There is unrighteous anger, too, but better to attribute good motives when possible.) Somehow the world is taking a turn away from how things ought to be. An old order is passing away in favour of a new order, unlovely and undesired.

What is being protested is the future itself. Quebec society has lived in the present for a long time– consuming for today and leaving the bills until tomorrow. The demographic crisis is part of this; Quebecers were so busy enjoying the pleasures of today that they opted not to accept the responsibility of making Quebecers for the future. Indulgent and undisciplined public policy and personal finance can extend the present moment, even as adolescence can be extended well into adulthood. But the future cannot be suspended indefinitely. The party can continue well into the next day, but eventually dawn breaks and the morning after is no longer after; it has arrived.

When I was studying to be an economist some 20 years ago, it was common to note that certain trends were unsustainable, particularly in regard to deficit spending. At some point present trends would have to bend to future reality. When the future would arrive was never quite sure, and there were always those who sang the seductive song that the future could be held at bay. The song can't be sung anymore. The future has now arrived. The argument on the streets of Quebec is between those who recognize that the future is really the new present and those who do not believe that the past is really past. That is why some student leaders argue not only against the tuition increases but also in favour of free tuition altogether. Those were arguments advanced in 1968, and if the past is not really past, why shouldn't the grandchildren try to live their grandparents' dream? There is something odd about the young revolting against the future in favour of a past that reigned before they were even born. The young in Quebec want the future to look more like the past, and seem willing to sacrifice their present education to make it so.

The student protesters in Quebec do not just favour the status quo. They are marching for the status quo ante—the way things used to be. It is easier to understand that Montreal's marchers are not just anti the present, as most marchers are, but that they are also pro the ante. They would hardly be pleased to be called nostalgic reactionaries, given that they are nostalgic for a time that prevailed before they were born. Yet they are just that, nostalgic and angry, insisting the future be more like the past.

It is tricky ground to stand on. Literally. The protesters marching on Sherbrooke had to be careful the day an enormous sinkhole opened in the road. That doesn't happen on Yonge Street or Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street, but it does happen in Montreal, and it seems somehow unremarkable, perhaps because it is less spectacular than the usual hazard of debris from an overpass crashing down on the traffic below. It is hard to find a better metaphor than that. The protesters stand their ground on ground that is unable to sustain those who stand upon it. It remains true that things that are unsustainable cannot be sustained indefinitely. The future will come. Young Quebecers simply assert that they don't want it to come today. All of which bodes ill for Quebec's future. After all, what prospects are there for a province where the most youthful and vigorous energies are directed toward rebuilding the past? If the protesters prevail, the future of Quebec will resemble that sinkhole on Sherbrooke—the legacy of the past swallowing up the present.

Old Wine, New Wineskins

If you are reading Convivium in the proper order, you will have already been delighted by the writers we assembled to commemorate the 10th anniversary of World Youth Day in Toronto—the largest single religious event in Canadian history. World Youth Day was the inspired genius of Blessed John Paul II, who thought it would be a grand idea to invite the youth of the world to meet with him in order to pray, learn about the faith, experience the mercy of God in sacramental confession, adore the Lord in the Eucharist, and camp overnight, keeping vigil for a massive outdoor papal Mass. His advisers back in the mid-1980s were aghast. What if the Pope invited the young, and nobody came? It would be terribly embarrassing and would confirm what everybody knew: faith in the late-20th century was indeed something for elderly widows. But he persisted, and the first few drew enormous crowds in Rome (1985), Buenos Aires (1987), Santiago de Compostela, Spain (1989) and Czestochowa, Poland (1991). Then he became truly audacious. John Paul chose to take World Youth Day to Denver, Colorado, in 1993. This time, even the American bishops were aghast. Had the Pope gone mad? Was he suffering delusions of grandeur after dismantling the Soviet empire? It was one thing to have World Youth Day in a Catholic country, where hundreds of thousands would show up no matter what the Pope was doing, or in famous shrines in Spain and Poland. But Denver?

John Paul wanted to test his evangelical intuition that the Gospel could find a response even in a secular city with no history of religious pilgrimage. He wanted to show that the Gospel had not lost its power to attract the hearts of the young, and the place to demonstrate that was in Denver. After all, the late Holy Father said over and over again, young people the world over had the same questions motivated by their high ideals, and he wanted to propose to them the same answer: Jesus Christ.

Denver proved a smashing success, and World Youth Day became, alongside the Hajj, the largest regular human event in the world, bigger (though far less costly) than the Olympics. Cities eagerly bid to host it. Manila, Philippines, in 1995 was the largest gathering in the history of humanity, upward of five million; Paris, 1997, opened the eyes of a France that had forgotten its faith; Rome in 2000 was a Jubilee-year homecoming; and then came Toronto in 2002—a secular, self-consciously multicultural city would be conquered by the joyous faith of Christian youth.

World Youth Day succeeds because it addresses the contradictions of modern life felt acutely by young adults—and World Youth Day is for them, rather than teenagers. Travel has never been easier or cheaper, but the sense of a purposeful journey, let alone a pilgrimage, is elusive. Communication is ubiquitous, but authentic community is in short supply, resulting in teeming cities full of lonely people. Information is abundantly available, but preachers of the Truth are few and far between. World Youth Day is a pilgrimage that creates a community rooted in the truth of the orthodox Christian faith, convened by the papacy, the oldest religious office in the world. How could young people, who tire more quickly of empty novelties than do their elders, not respond to that in massive, life-changing numbers? Blessed John Paul demurred from taking credit for World Youth Days, saying the "young people themselves invented them." That was largely false, but partially true. After all, Pope Benedict XVI, a far different personality, has presided masterfully over the last three World Youth Days, demonstrating that the phenomenon is larger than even the Pope who founded them.

The year 2002 was one of the Lord's favour for me. I was ordained a priest on July 20 as part of our preparatory World Youth Day celebrations in Kingston, Ont., and then attended World Youth Day a few days after. My priesthood—and my life as a newspaperman, thanks to a fortnight of daily columns in the National Post—were stamped by World Youth Day from the beginning. I learned confidence that the Gospel could be proclaimed in the public square—on University Avenue in Toronto, no less—and that the secular ears of the young could hear the ring of authentic truth. The World Youth Day intuition shaped my pastoral approach to campus ministry, which has been my principal work since then. We try to convince young students that life is a pilgrimage, with an origin and destination, not simply a wandering. We create a community where young Catholics take courage from the realization that they are not alone, and find companions for the journey, for we are not meant to be disciples alone. We teach the orthodox tradition, putting the old wine into new wineskins, to vary the Biblical image. My students prefer the old faith to the novelties on campus, just as Jesus said they would. And we try, at all times, to be cheerful and have a lot of fun. Multiply my experience by thousands of "World Youth Day priests" like me across the world since 1985, and it is not too much to say that World Youth Day is the pattern of youth and young adult ministry in the Catholic Church for the 21st century. Toronto was an essential part of demonstrating that.

World Youth Day also had something to teach Canada. The secular fundamentalist story is ceaselessly told, making up in vigour in the retelling what it lacks in truth. World Youth Day Toronto demonstrated that faith is very much part of our common life, and not just our past but also our future. Canadians saw what sensible people already know, namely that religion is a force for good. Crime was down. Laughter was up. Toronto's dreary subways and gloomy streetcars were filled with smiles and songs. The young people who haunt the urban imagination as profane and dangerous were replaced by Christian pilgrims who reminded us that young people are naturally, or perhaps supernaturally, cheerful and enterprising not sullen and jaded. Finally, in a city that endlessly bleats about multiculturalism, people finally saw what a real multicultural institution looks like, where unity is not enforced by law but is the organic fruit of a universal faith.

Toronto lusts after global events, and is not fussy. It will host the Pan American Games in 2015, one of those rare events that is forgettable even in anticipation. The city is exploring bids for Expo 2025, and now the usual noises are being made about bidding (again) for the 2024 Olympics. It is deeply galling to Toronto that Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver have played Cinderella at the Olympic ball, while Canada's largest and most desperate city has remained the ugly stepsister. Toronto should pull itself together. It has already had what is bigger than the Olympics. The list of World Youth Day host cities is more prestigious; World Youth Day has been to Buenos Aries, Manila, Paris, Rome, Cologne, Sydney, Madrid, and next year Rio de Janeiro. World Youth Day 2002 was Toronto's finest hour. Better than the Olympics. It was indeed the year of the Lord's favour.

Domestic arrangements in foreign capitals

France has a new president. Not Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who would have been the Socialist candidate had his candidacy not crashed amidst chambermaids and prostitutes. The French pride themselves on being indulgent about such matters, but some standards have to be kept. And after Silvio Berlusconi debauched his way through Italian politics, European voters likely tired of the novelty of a world-class lecher as head of government. Years ago Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was roundly lambasted for skipping out of a First Ministers' meeting to amuse himself at the local casino. With Berlusconi's resignation and DSK's implosion, G8 advance teams are spared the bother of securing moderately discreet prostitutes for the servicing of the summits. Though if discretion is not absolutely necessary the procurement of same could be entrusted to the American Secret Service.

Not that the new French president, François Hollande, doesn't have something to offer in the innovative family morals department. Taking up residence with him in the élysée Palace is France's first nonmarried first lady. This is not trivial. With marriage and family life in dire straits in Europe, it matters what models of family life are held up by civil and cultural leaders.

When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected back in 2007, he was a few months away from divorcing his second wife. The following spring he married his third, Carla Bruni, acknowledging the general preference for marriage over more laissez-faire alternatives in the presidential residence. Canada knows something about this, with not one but two recent governors general admonished to marry their live-in paramours before setting up house at Rideau Hall. Concubinage in the same vice-regal residence where once the Vaniers installed a private chapel for daily Mass is thought, at least, déclassé.

Yet progress marches on smartly, and public figures who wish to be exemplars of the new order have to keep up. Few could keep up with M. Hollande. For 30 years he kept company with Ségol ène Royal, with whom he had four children. They did not marry, considering it to be too bourgeois. In 2007, Mme. Royal was the Socialist candidate for president, losing to M. Sarkozy. Soon after the 2007 election, Hollande and Royal announced their separation. M. Hollande then moved in with Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist with Paris Match, with whom he had been having an affair since 2005. Mme. Trierweiler covered Socialist Party politics during the period when Mme. Royal was running for president, despite the fact that she was sleeping with her... what exactly? What does one call a commonlaw husband in a civil code jurisdiction? Mme. Trierweiler was married to her second husband—an editor at Paris Match—when she took up with M. Hollande, divorcing him in 2010, just in time for M. Hollande's 2011 run in the presidential primary. Mme. Royal also ran in the 2011 primary. M. Hollande defeated her and went on to succeed where she failed by vanquishing M. Sarkozy.

Nothing daunted, Mme. Royal moved on to seek a seat in parliament. The new President gallantly campaigned for the mother of his children; meanwhile the woman he left her for, Mme. Tr ierweiler, endorsed Mme. Royal's opponent. Tension at the élysée? Perhaps not. It's hard to keep track of loyalties when they are constantly being betrayed. M. Hollande's children do seem to be keeping track of who is betraying whom. All four of them skipped their father's swearing-in as President. His children seem ashamed of him. The real shame is that France is not.

Michael J. Fox changes course

Many Canadians have prospered in the American entertainment industry; few have been as politically successful as Michael J. Fox, the former comedic actor who championed State-funded embryonic stem cell research when it was a hot political issue in the 2004 election. Thanks to Fox and the efforts of his foundation for Parkinson's research, major victories were won at the State level, securing billions in public money for stem cell research, which requires the destruction of embryos. Fox was the leading advocate that "science" should decide these matters, portraying ethics and moral reflection as a sort of special lobby whose influence needed to be kept at bay. Well, the "science" has decided. Embryonic stem cells have been a massive bust, resulting in not a single successful human therapy. Not one successful case, and many adverse results. There have been thousands of successful stem cell cures, but they employ adult stem cells harvested from bone marrow or umbilical cords, for example. Moreover, promising research suggests that adult skin cells can be reprogrammed, as it were, to act like pluripotent stem cells, which is what embryonic stem cells are. So the science is absolutely clear—embryonic stem cells are a literal dead end and are not necessary any more. Mr. Fox's foundation—the largest private funder of Parkinson's research—has taken note. As he told Diane Sawyer of ABC News, his foundation has shifted its work away from embryonic stem cells. The titanic battle of less than a decade ago is over, with defeat conceded by the apparent champion. Mr. Fox does not regret the time and money spent on the campaign to destroy embryos for their stem cells. It was about freedom of research, he still insists. Fruitless research. Ethically compromised research. In fact, it was never about the science. It was about further establishing in public policy the principle that embryonic life ought not to have any protection. Michael J. Fox and his allies achieved that to be sure, but precious little for Parkinson's patients.

Grand old dames

Ottawa's Château Laurier celebrates its centenary this summer, and the RitzCarlton in Montreal will hit the century mark on New Year's Eve. The Château has had the better of it, lying at the heart of the capital's cultural and political life without interruption since 1912. The Ritz-Carlton in Montreal has had a rougher go of it, having shut down some years back, and only now reopening after a major renovation. If Mordecai Richler were still alive he would know what to write about the latter; then again, if he were still alive, his bar tab might have single-handedly kept the place open. At the Château, one wishes that the late Yousuf Karsh were available to photograph something or someone in his former home. Perhaps the hotels are captured by their most famous patrons—Richler was more important to Montreal, Karsh to Canada and the world.

Indeed, I have never been to the Ritz-Carlton, despite various trips to Montreal over the years. Yet when I first travelled to Ottawa as a teenager I was keen to visit the Château Laurier, doing what people who can't afford to stay there do—sit in the lobby and wander the corridors, looking at the photographs of the historic events hosted there. It's a Canadian landmark even before it is a hotel. For the Canadian imagination, the Château Laurier and her sister hotels in the Fairmont chain are essential.

Originally the great "railway hotels" of the Canadian Pacific, the grand old dames profoundly marked the character of Canada's westward expansion. The railway went west—a government project, orderly and ambitious at the same time as it was bureaucratic and corrupt—and the railway hotels followed. The Canadian frontier was not a place of disreputable, lawless towns, but of the Northwest Mounted Police and a chain of hotels fit for royalty itself.

"Literary theorist Northrop Frye described Canada as 'a country that has made a nation out of the stops on two of the world's longest railway lines,'" writes Giller Prize-winning author Vincent Lam, who considers the railway hotels not just adornments to those stops, but anchors. "In the young Canadian cities, stately hotels were built as part of the same continent-spanning project, edifices that were often considered nothing less than bastions of 'civilization' in a new country."

The transcontinental railway no longer impinges upon our daily life, as it makes little sense to ride the rails for days when a few airborne hours are cheaper. The ribbon of steel no longer binds us; yet a sense of elegant unity across the country is maintained by the distinctive copper roofs linking one city to the next—from Quebec's magnificent Château Frontenac to the Empress Hotel in Victoria. It is a sort of "green" travel, suited to our continental land mass, for those patriots disinclined to camp. There is the Royal York in Toronto, the tallest building in the British Empire when it went up in 1929. Likewise the Queen Elizabeth in Montreal sits right upon the railway station, which would also be the case in Ottawa had the railway station not been foolishly moved to the suburbs. Then there are the mountain jewels in the Rockies, the Chateau Lake Louise and the Banff Springs Hotel. The railway might be gone from the experience of most Canadians, but the railway hotels are not. They animate the city centres as much as the somber courthouse or the soaring cathedral. Relatively few may have the means to stay in them, but they are part of our common life in a way that a Holiday Inn is not. That's why vast numbers, including those of modest means, visit to take high tea, have a drink, or simply linger in the lobby awaiting the airport bus. They are Canadian ports of call, part of the public architecture and imagination of our country. Is it any wonder that the 1982 constitutional accords were worked out at the Château Laurier? An impish spirit might observe that the hotel itself is rather more Canadian than the Charter cooked up in its kitchen.

A great hotel is a private building with a public purpose. It channels commercial energy toward strengthening community. It is not as open to all as a church, but neither are its spaces limited only to paying guests. Its lobby and bar and restaurant are akin to a private club with public access. The wedding reception, the graduation dinner, the gala fundraiser—all these insert the hotel into the community, and if the hotel is venerable enough, insert the community into its own history. If a neighbourhood pub is like meeting an old friend at the end of a day, a historic hotel is like a beloved great aunt who lends both warmth and gravitas to an important occasion. She keeps the family stories and traditions alive. She is, in fact, the history that she personifies. At her best, a great hotel is all of that. Canadian unity is the work of many hands, and the railway hotels, like grand old sisters from sea to sea, have done their share and more.

Are we there yet?

Our Cardus colleague, Milton Friesen, his wife, Michelle, and their four children are unlikely to be checking into one of the Fairmont hotels this summer. But they will be on the road, exploring our vast country and learning what it means to be a family at the same time. In an essay on the family road trip, they write that summer "road trips are inextricably woven into what it means for us to be a family." As anyone who has ever been on such a trip knows, the destination is not as important as the journey. In life, destinations are critical. In family life, the journey is often more important.

"There are so many good things that happen when you only have each other to talk to, only each other to share experiences with, and only each other to try and figure out," the Friesens write. Which is an awfully sunny view to take when the first "are we there yet?" is at the 45-minute mark of a 10-hour drive. The family road trip is an experience that ages well. Perhaps distance from the actual event makes it seem less mad to have spent three weeks away from a perfectly serviceable house and backyard to live alternately in a minivan and large tent. To have driven two days to arrive amidst the splendour of a great national park only to spend an entire afternoon watching squirrels, which are abundantly available around any city dumpster. This is something only parental love can do, repeatedly.

My days of the family road trip are in the past. My parents were ambitious. We drove from Calgary to the West Coast, throughout Saskatchewan, and as far south as San Diego. We had a station wagon and—bliss—no seat belt laws, so we could play in the back or, even better, put the back seat down and have something of a makeshift playroom.

I feel sorry for today's children, strapped in like inmates being transported from a maximum security prison, forced to watch videos for hours on end. With everyone locked down, whatever has become of the ancient torment of every child: "Mom, he's touching me!"? Mom's iPod may have banished entirely the soundtrack of the family trip: the wailing complaints of children.

Perhaps it was better then, when we had to make our own fun and were free to move around enough to do so. My parents put a priority on literary development, so they would get Roald Dahl books on tape, and we would listen to Fantastic Mr. Fox and Danny, the Champion of the World, his more exotic works complementing what we had already read at school, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I don't think a movie on DVD is quite the same thing, but that is likely just nostalgia. There are fine videos, and there is nothing inherently superior about a book on tape. Or is there?

There were the games—20 Questions was our favourite—that sharpened wits, both young and old. We would pray the rosary, too, sanctifying our car as our parents taught us to sanctify our home. And then we would talk, which in our family is a capacity sufficient for any trip, no matter how long. Of course there would be time for sleeping—and the inevitable complaint, "Mom, he's touching me!"

As a celibate priest, I still enjoy a summer road trip. I can't say that I have ever desired to have a vehicle full of children along with me for the ride. I don't like camping and I don't like squirrels. But then parents don't hit the road because of the camping or the squirrels, but because life together sometimes requires life together somewhere else; and in the going and the getting there, more is learned about life by being alone together, on the road.


 

About Raymond J. de Souza

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the Editor-in-Chief of Convivium, chaplain at Newman House (the Roman Catholic centre at Queen's University), a parish priest, and a Cardus senior fellow, in addition to writing for the National Post and The Catholic Register.

His columns can be found at www.fatherdesouza.ca.