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Full Text: Cardinal Collins' Address, All Party Interfaith National Breakfast, Ottawa

Posted : Dec-15-2014

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Parliament Hill – December 2, 2014

Good morning. I am so pleased to be with you today in this historic building that is the visible sign of the parliamentary democracy which we all treasure. Here, on Parliament Hill, we are at the centre of Canadian civil society, where legislators entrusted with care for the common good of our nation debate, discern, and decide the path forward for our country. Theirs is an immense responsibility.

To all the organizers of this special gathering, especially co-chairs Nathalie Thirwall and Member of Parliament Mark Adler, I extend my gratitude for your efforts in coordinating the necessary logistics involved in such an impressive undertaking.

I am grateful to those who have chosen to embrace the noble vocation of public life. I know there are members here this morning from the House of Commons, as well as from the Senate, in addition to representatives from a number of embassies, and also the Papal Nuncio to Canada, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi. Greetings to you all.

Public service is not an easy vocation, with many days spent away from family, the need to prioritize so many diverse issues, and difficult decisions to reflect upon. It can all seem overwhelming at times. I know I speak on behalf of the many faith communities represented here this morning when I say to you, our legislators, that we pray for you. We pray for you every day, that you may make wise decisions to advance the common good in our country.

To the many diverse faith communities in attendance today, I thank you for all that you do. We are blessed to live in a country where we can enjoy freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Ever since the earliest days of Canadian history, the principle of the co-operation of Church and State has enriched our life as a civil community. Peace, order, and good government flourish when there is a richly diverse political and social ecology in which the state does not presume to do everything, but in which countless voluntary associations, such as religious communities, are vibrantly active in the service of the people. Biodiversity is essential to the health of the great forests of our country, and something analogous is essential to the health of civil society. In so many ways, often very quietly, faith communities across our country lead the way in outreach and care for those on the margins, whose plight has so frequently been highlighted by Pope Francis. For people of faith, caring for the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers is a public witness to our beliefs. It is what we are all called to do. At the municipal, provincial, and federal level, our country would be a harsher and colder place without the loving witness of people of faith.

I have been asked to speak for a few minutes this morning on the theme of "Faith in Times of Crisis". It is an intriguing topic. Upon reflection, it could be interpreted in many ways. Faith in Times of Crisis – is our world at a point of crisis, from violence in the Middle East, to strife in Ukraine, to the depredations of Boko Haram in Africa, and to dozens of college students killed in Mexico?

Or perhaps it is Faith in Times of Crisis in our own country – mere weeks ago the very halls of this Parliament were a scene of violence, and not far from here ruthless murder was perpetrated at Canada's most sacred national shrine, the tomb of the unknown soldier. We pray for the two noble soldiers who gave their lives, here and in Quebec, and for their families.

Or perhaps Faith in Times of Crisis speaks to our own personal journey, in which each of us can experience the pain of broken relationships, jealousy, envy, greed, and despair.

For our legislators, and for all in public service, apart from the pressures of life that are especially challenging for those who must constantly be travelling, and living far from home, and working at irregular hours, there is the burden of making a right judgement on matters that affect us all. This can become a severe crisis of conscience if there is pressure put upon a public figure to forsake the most profound principles which define him or her. As Edmund Burke reminded the electors of Bristol, those who are elected are not merely passive representatives of the views of their constituents, but are chosen to exercise their intelligence and free will. They must be faithful to their conscience.

Navigating these turbulent waters of crisis can be most difficult. I suggest two ways in which faith can help all of us, and especially those in public office:

First, we can learn from the example of those who have gone before us, whose faith has given them the stars to steer by in the midst of the crises of life.

And second, we can reflect fruitfully upon the virtue of humility, a virtue rooted in faith, which protects us from becoming disoriented and shattered by the crises we all face.

The first example I would offer of a person who demonstrated the effect of faith as a sure guide in times of crisis, is St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, judges, and politicians. He was also an ambassador, and so he can serve as well as patron saint of those engaged in diplomacy – indeed he wrote his masterpiece, Utopia, while on a diplomatic mission.

Thomas More lived in a time of extraordinary social upheaval, at least as turbulent as our own, and as violent. He lived with integrity – that is, he was an integer – a whole number: not divided as a fraction, with the public part of him following and conforming to the shifting whims of his monarch, or public opinion, and the inner personal part of him guided by faith and reason to seek the truth. No, to live like that in public life is to be a fraction, not an integer: integrity means being whole: what he said and what he did and what he believed were one. He did not personally believe one thing, while publicly doing another.

It should be noted about Thomas More, for the benefit of those who think that faith is a simply matter of feeling, like taste, that while his was a life of faith, it was not a merely subjective faith. He flew, as must we all, with the two wings of faith and reason, each needing the other. He would not sign an oath that expressed what, after much thought, he did not believe to be objectively true; and so he gave his life, a martyr to freedom of conscience. Like Thomas More, we all need to be people of integrity – integer-ity - and to look to both faith and reason as we seek to respond to the crises of life.

A second example of faith guiding the way through the crises of life is found in St. John Paul II, who visited our own country on several occasions. His was a most turbulent life, as he confronted the violence and oppression of both Nazi and communist dictatorship, and survived the shock of an assassination attempt. Those were grave external challenges, and undeniably dramatic; but in many ways the greatest crisis he faced was personal, at the end of his life, in his experience in old age of the frailty of the human body. In that struggle, he drew upon the reserves of wisdom and serenity that well up from profound and reasoned faith.

In declining health, the pope was hardly the robust, active and engaging pontiff of the 1980s. He was dying in front of the world, reminding us of the dignity that is found in every moment of life to the very end, even in those filled with pain, whose bodies no longer exhibit the beauty of youth. There is a greater beauty, a deeper beauty, than the beauty of youth and superficial physical perfection, and it is found in the human spirit shining through a disfigured body. Our human dignity comes from within, from the fact that each of us is a child of God.

In a society that is increasingly all too eager to embrace the most convenient and efficient way to end life, because this or that life is deemed to be not worth living, by whatever criterion one chooses, in the crisis of his last illness the late pontiff reminded us that every human being can live in dignity, regardless of their circumstances, until their last breath, until finally called home to the house of the Father. In his final years, even more than in his vibrant youth, Pope John Paul was a humble witness, a powerful witness, an authentic witness to the dignity of the human person. He never spoke more eloquently than when he could not speak.

We look to the example of those who have navigated through the crises of their lives guided by the light of faith. But we can also learn from a simple virtue, rooted in faith, which helps us all to transcend the crises we face: the virtue of humility.

At all times, and especially in times of crisis, we need to be grounded – not to be lost in a fog of illusion, but to see honestly the reality of our human frailty and of our need for God and one another. We need to see ourselves and the world around us accurately, as they truly are, not as we might wish or fear them to be.

When we get disconnected from reality, and caught up in illusion – whether it falsely exalts or falsely depresses us - we cannot handle crisis in our personal lives, or in the public responsibilities entrusted to us. Faith helps us in times of crisis, because it gives us the perspective that leads to humility, as we recognize "God is God, and I am not" – a most sane way of seeing things. It has been said most wisely: what I am in the sight of God, that I am indeed, no more, no less.

The humility that is a fruit of faith helps us to deal with all of the crises of life, including the daily stress of decision making, and the awareness – which grows over the years – that there is very little in life that we really control, and that what we do control is usually not worth controlling.

Humility tames the ego, and so gives us the resilience to face both triumph and disaster with serenity. In our pride we are brittle, and self-referential. Humility makes each of us a more magnanimous person; when we are all wrapped up in ourselves, we make a very small package, and one that falls apart in times of crisis.

Different religious traditions have various ways of helping people to become grounded in humility – and humility literally means being in touch with the humus, with the earth. It means being down to earth.

In the Catholic faith, we have a great treasure in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, known to many as Confession, as a way to become grounded, to humbly recognize our sins, and in the experience of God's mercy to begin again. Recently Pope Francis presided over a great celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Vatican, but before hearing the confessions of others, he went to a priest and knelt down and uttered that great opening line: "Bless me Father, for I have sinned."

In my archdiocese next week, we are having something akin to a Confession marathon. On December 10, we will have the Day of Confessions where every one of our 225 churches opens its doors all day long and late into the night to invite each member of the Catholic community to acknowledge weaknesses and frailties, to meet with a priest to confess their sins and then to be forgiven and begin anew.

I am a strong advocate of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We need to seek forgiveness. It is easy to become caught up in the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I. It is not as easy to acknowledge that often, we are part of the problem. In an interview published last year, Pope Francis was asked to describe himself. This is what he said: "I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon." His motto, taken from the words of the English Saint Bede, is: "It is in the experience of mercy that we are chosen." Wise words, that can benefit us all, of whatever faith.

Most of us would not, when asked to describe ourselves, lead with being a sinner. We would tend to talk about qualities that are admired, accomplishments, educational achievements, things like that. I cannot imagine an election sign that read, "Elect Bob Smith, Sinner". But that's exactly what we are. Sinners.

I go to confession myself frequently. It is a true grace in my life. I am reminded constantly of the saying, "Be patient; God isn't finished with me yet." We are works in progress and we need to check in, so to speak, for regular maintenance. We don't let our cars go for years without an oil change; at times we can take better care of our cars than of our immortal souls. By confessing our sins we become accountable, and grow in humility, and in compassion for others, whose sins are so obvious to us. Love means saying "I'm sorry," and perhaps if we do that then we can begin to heal the fractures in our own relationships.

In my own faith tradition, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a precious pathway to growth in humility and the experience of mercy, both fundamental in confronting the crises of life; I encourage everyone here present to look to the ways in your faith tradition that lead to humility, and the experience of mercy.

Faith guides us and gives us the perspective that helps us to survive and flourish in times of crisis. My prayer for our legislators, and all gathered here today, is that we may learn from those who have overcome through faith the crises of personal and public life, and that we may become grounded in the humility that allows us to do the same.

May God bless you.