Saturday, July 23, 2011

World Youth Day in Madrid

In a few weeks, I will be heading for Madrid to participate in the latest edition of the World Youth Day where I have been invited to be one of the bishop-catechists. This remarkable event, which was hosted in Canada in 2002, has become a mainstay in the world calendar of Catholicism.

It all started in 1985, a year designated by the United Nations as International Youth Year. To mark the occasion, Pope John-Paul II decided to invite young Catholics to join him in Rome for a few days of prayer, reflection and action. To the great surprise of many observers, close to 300,000 young adults answered his call.

Since then, every year, the Pope sends a message to all young Catholics inviting them to reflect on a particular aspect of the Gospel. And every couple of years, he invites them to gather with him in a particular city to celebrate their faith in Jesus-Christ. Since 1985, World Youth Day has been hosted by Buenos Aires, Compostella, Czestochowa, Denver, Manilla, Paris, Rome, Toronto, Cologne and Sydney. Now it is headed back to Spain, to the capital of Madrid.

The event will take place from August 16 to 21, though many young people will come to Spain in the preceding days to participate in the “days in the diocese”, a preparatory time hosted by the other dioceses of the country. World Youth Day will actually begin with a celebration of Mass in the evening of Tuesday, August 15, presided by Cardinal Rouco Varela, archbishop of Madrid.

During the following three days, participants will spread out in the morning to various venues in the city to participate in activities according to their language groups. Typically, these activities include a formal teaching by a bishop-catechist (I will be doing mine in French), witnessing by other youth, hymn singing, prayer and confession for those who so desire. Morning activities culminate in the celebration of daily Mass led by the bishop-catechist.

The rest of the day is less structured. Participants choose from a wide menu of activities: plays, talks, discussions, concerts, art exhibits or simply meeting other youth from across the world. English-speaking pilgrims will be invited to the Madrid Sports Centre where a team (including yours truly) will be present to welcome them and involve them in various activities.

The Pope will arrive on Thursday, August 17 to be welcomed in a wonderful celebration that evening. He will preside at a public Way of the Cross on Friday evening, in which is re-enacted the Passion of Jesus. And he will lead a prayer vigil on Saturday evening at the Cuatro Vientos Aerodrome, where over a million youth are expected to gather and spend the night.

Finally, the Pope will preside at Mass on Sunday morning at the same site, from which the gathered youth will disperse to head back home. Having participated in two of these events, I can say that very few return home unchanged. Let us pray for the success of this great gathering and for an outpouring of Christ’s Spirit on all those preparing to attend.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Journey to the Father

This week-end marks the eleventh annual Journey to the Father Conference in Saint Raphaels, near Cornwall. This exciting adventure in the Catholic faith is modeled closely on the Franciscan University of Steubenville High School Aged Conferences. Two main differences are the nationality of the speakers – all Canadian – and smaller size (a few hundred) which creates a more intimate atmosphere. Participants come from all over Ontario, with a smattering from the Montreal area and a few from the States.

The program is a mix of dynamic talks, beautiful liturgies, great music, with enough social time and opportunity for sports to allow the youth to meet new friends and relax. Over 400 volunteers from our Diocese are involved in staging this conference. It is thanks to this support from people of all ages in our area that Journey to the Father is such a success.

The event is held next to the ruins of St. Raphaels, under a large tent. Other tents are set up nearby for meals – prepared on site – and for sleeping. Ground sheets accommodate about 400 males or females, each in their respective tents. Chaperones sleep with their groups and 24-hours security is assured in the tents. The whole site is also well supervised throughout the weekend.

The theme of this conference, inspired by this Sunday’s Mass readings, is “God is patient, merciful and kind”. Here are some excerpts of the welcoming message I wrote to the participants.

“This weekend is a great occasion for us to simply be with each other, to appreciate each other’s goodness and friendship, to become more aware of the gentleness and tenderness of our God, and to open our hearts to Jesus’ Spirit of peace, justice and joy.

“In our world, people seem to always be in a rush. They crave fast food and fast cars. They dream of a job where they can make a lot of money quickly and retire early. They want their pleasure here and now. Our world is not very patient.

“In our world, people can be unforgiving. Grudges last a long time while revenge is considered “sweet”. They want bigger prisons and longer jail sentences. They don’t let you forget your mistakes. Our world is not very merciful.

“In our world, people can be uncaring and cruel. They focus so much on their own well-being and comfort that they forget the poor and hungry around them. Their anger boils over quickly and often, their blogs are filled with rants, their talk is filled with words that curse and bully. Our world is not very kind.

“Our God, however, is patient, merciful and kind. And our God calls us to be patient, merciful and kind with others… and with ourselves, too! This weekend, let’s give God a chance to touch us with patience, mercy and kindness. Our lives, and our world, will be better for it!”

The Conference ends Sunday morning with Mass at 10:30 a.m., open to the general public. If you are in the area, please feel free to join us for this enthusiastic, joyful celebration of the Eucharist in St. Raphaels. And let us all join in prayer for the success of this wonderful event.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Russian Orthodox Church

Ever since I read the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevski as a young man, I’ve dreamt of going to Russia. That dream came true a few weeks ago as I enjoyed a ten-day trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I immersed myself in the history of this remarkable country which, in less than one hundred years, had passed from the autocratic rule of the tsars to the totalitarian régime of soviet communism, through the painful adventure of perestroika and glasnost to the present muddle of state-directed capitalism.

As I became more aware of this history, I also came to realize the central role of the Russian Orthodox Church in its development. In many ways, Russia emerged as a nation through the unifying dynamism of this Church. It all began in what is now Ukraine, centered its capital of Kiev, in the year 988. The local Grand Prince, Vladimir, had sent envoys to various parts of the world to advise him which religion he should adopt. They came back extolling the virtues of the liturgy at the cathedral of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, the head church of Orthodoxy. So Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith in its Byzantine form along with all his people, and the history of Russian Orthodoxy was launched.

Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, just as Russia was throwing off the rule of the Mongols and becoming an independent state. The leader of the Russians, now called a tsar, took upon himself the role of protector of Orthodoxy in the world. And in 1589, the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the bishop of Moscow as a Patriarch in his own right, thus setting up Russian Orthodoxy as a self-administered, independent body.

The Russian Orthodox faith was deeply held by practically all Russians until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Before then, each little village had its church, distinguished by its “onion domes” meant to replicate the form of a candle’s flame as it stretches up to heaven. Each Russian home had its “red corner” where candles were kept burning before icons of Christ and of the saints. Hundreds of monasteries, both of men and of women, dotted the landscape. The relationship of the tsar to the Russian Orthodox Church was similar to that of the English monarch to the Church of England.

The Bolsheviks put an end to all that. According to Fr. Ronald Roberson, a specialist of Eastern Christian Churches, some 136,000 clerics were arrested in 1937 alone, and 85,000 of them killed. Over eighty percent of the clergy disappeared in the first twenty years of communism. Church persecution was intensified under Khrushchev’s rule in 1959. Churches were destroyed, icons burned, seminaries abolished, monasteries closed.

Only since 1990 has the situation begun to improve. Churches are being rebuilt and renovated. Monasteries are opening up their doors. Theological institutions are being founded. Indeed, polls indicate an extraordinary growth of religious faith in Russia since the end of communism. Thirty percent of young adults say they have converted from atheism to belief in God.

My tour guide was a young university teacher. As we visited a church, I asked her if she could help me buy a candle so that I might light it before one of the icons as a sign of prayer. Not only did she help me do so, she bought one for herself and, lighting it in front of an icon, stood in silence for a moment of prayer. It spoke powerfully to me of the rebirth of the great Russian Orthodox Church in its native land.