Friday, June 29, 2012

Who is my Neighbour?

Dear Theophilus,

Earlier this week, as a part of my Religious Education course, I had the unique experience of taking a walk through downtown Toronto with Patrick Sullivan, who works out of the Sanctuary Mission. The point of the evening was to become more aware of life on the streets; what brings people to the street; and what they have to do to survive. Although I already had a naïve awareness of homelessness and prostitution in the big city, it was something I’ve preferred to let the more courageous deal with.

Having grown-up, lived and taught solely within the bubble that is called suburbia, I was really uneasy about how the evening would unfold. I knew I was going to be way out of my comfort zone, but I also knew it was going to be good for my spiritual growth – two things that I expressed to my course director a few days before the trip. He assured me I wasn’t going to be disappointed. And I wasn’t

As I approached the Sanctuary Mission doors there were two shirtless homeless men, obvious drunk or high or both, trying to hold each other up on the front steps. Sitting on the front steps my course director (and friend) was taking great delight in watching my discomfort in trying to figure out how to get in the door. As I put my foot on the bottom step, one of the two men swayed in my direction and threw his arms around me in a big hug. My course director was laughing too hard to take a picture, but I wish he had, because I’m sure the look on my face was priceless.

This was the beginning of an evening that would sow the seeds of transformation in my understanding of the humanity in homelessness.

Before walking the streets, we gathered as a group in the Sanctuary basement where Patrick asked us a profound question: “Who is my neighbour?” He reminded us of our calling in Christ’s commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. (Mt 22:37-39)

Once again Patrick asked us, “Who is my neighbour?” He then reiterated his point with the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37)

As I began to see the homeless not only as co-inhabitants of the city, but rather as my neighbour, the transformation of my understanding of their humanity continued.

Patrick then led the 50 or so of us through the streets of Toronto, stopping in various parks to explain how youth end up on the street at the age of as young as 11 years-old. He talked about their lives in abusive homes and their tales of survival through prostitution. As shocking as Patrick’s stories were, it was even sadder to realize that they were the truth. Not only was he telling the stories of friends he ministers to, he was also telling his own story.

My greatest revelation came towards the end of our walk when, standing in a park behind the “Y”, Patrick pointed at a luxury condo tower and ranted: “What really pisses me off is that the people who live in these $750,000 condos sit on their balconies and watch teenaged boys sell themselves for $10.” He was pointing right at the building my brother-in-law had lived in for 3 years and had just moved out of months ago. My son had played in the park where we were standing.

I realized then just how blind I can be to the misery around me.

Having met Patrick and heard his story and those of his friends transformed the way I perceive homelessness. These people are no longer shadows in a doorway or a lump in the bushes. They are people. People who are someone’s child, and another’s friend.

Does this mean I can give hugs freely to everyone I meet the next time I leave my bubble in suburbia. Probably not. It does mean that when I do see them I’ll see them for the person they are, and that I’ll pray that God gives them the strength and courage to be the best human they possibly can.

I will continue to ask myself: “Who is my neighbour?”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Advent in June

Dear Theophilus,

The calendar intrigued me somewhat this past weekend. Here we are at the beginning of summer, yet in the Gospel we are reading what mounts to be Advent stories. Granted, these Advent stories of the birth of St. John the Baptist are read every year on his feast day, but with June 24th falling on a Sunday this year they were all the more evident.

Living in Canada, we seem to have lost sight of the meaning of this great fist in the liturgical calendar. We are more inclined to equate la Fête St. Jean Baptiste with the Fête nationale du Québec, a day for that province to express its cultural and linguistic identity. I don’t have a problem with Quebecers expressing their cultural heritage, in fact, it’s something I embrace, however, in the rest of Canada this can been seen in a negative light as this same expression has brought Quebec to the brink of separation from Canada on more than one occasion.

The funny thing is St. John the Baptist’s mission was one to prepare the Israelites for Christ’s unifying mission. Throughout his ministry, St. John the Baptist constantly pointed away from himself and towards Christ:

He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3:30)

What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet. (Acts 13:25)

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Mt 3:11)

It’s only fitting then that on the longest day of the year bonfires are lit in memory of St. John the Baptist. Beacons pointing towards Christ’s coming to purge the world of sin with the fire of his love through the Holy Spirit. At this time of year when Easter joy has become a faded memory and Christmas is too far away to really look forward to, it’s refreshing to recall that Christ’s unifying grace needs to be the focus of our life’s ministry, just as it was for John.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Connecting with Relics

Dear Theophilus,

Recently our parish hosted an evening with The Treasures of the Church. It is a sort of travelling road show of relics of Catholic saints presented by Fr. Carlos Martins of the Companions of the Cross.

Personally, at the start of the evening, I didn’t know what to expect. We began in the church where Fr. Carlos explained his vocation story and his mission. He then went on to explain what relics are and how one can open their hearts to the grace that flows from relics. Fr. Carlos then concluded by telling the stories of a few better known saints: St. Jean Vianney, St. Bernadette of Lourdes and particularly St. Maria Goretti.

Then it was time to proceed to the parish hall where some 150 relics of the Church were on display with a brief biography of their saint. The main attractions had to be a reliquary containing bone from the 12 Apostles, another with a fragment of Our Lady’s veil, and finally, a portion of the True Cross.

Before entering the hall, Fr. Carlos informed us that we would probably feel a special connection with 1 or 2 specific relics; a saint that spoke to us personally, who kept calling us back. I have to admit that I was a bit sceptical on this point, but soon realized that Fr. Carlos knew what he was talking about. Although I found it interesting to see the highlighted relics that I mentioned above, I found myself drawn again and again to 2 saints in particular – St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady; and St. Jean Vianney.

We have a statue of St. Anne in a niche by our stairs at home. We pass under her watchful gaze many times a day. It’s the same statue that stood at the foot of my grandmother’s bed in her Ottawa apartment, the only thing of hers that I inherited when she passed away. I remember being fascinated by St. Anne and took comfort in her presence, knowing that I was in a safe place. Seeing her relic I felt as though Bonne Ste. Anne was telling me that she still looked over my grandmother as she sleeps in eternal peace with our Lord.

Almost 10 years ago my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the small French village of Ars. It’s only a 10-minute drive from our friends’ home and we were surprised that they had never been there, nor that I had not visited the village during one of the many trips I had taken to visit them. We had had a marvellous trip to that point, having visited Lourdes, Santiago and Fatima, but we were struck by the simplicity of St. Jean Vianney and the clarity with which he taught. As a Catholic teacher, I pray to have the same clarity of thought and expression as this great saint.

During this whole experience my wife and I tried to keep an eye out for our 8 year-old son who had met up with a buddy from school. Normally during functions in the parish hall the kids are running in and out of the tables, enjoying the relative freedom that comes when parents are deep in conversation. This wasn’t the case on this evening. Whenever I spied Michael from across the room, he and his friend were engrossed with one relic or another, at times kneeling in prayer. The power and mystery of the relics filling them with grace.