The January 7th terrorist attack by Islamic militants on the offices of the French satirical Charlie Hebdo in Paris brought, and rightly so, widespread condemnation. The massacre of twelve civilians, including two policemen, one of whom was Muslim, constituted a heinous crime and there is a need to express our solidarity with the French people and the affected families.
On January 10th, the international media reported that up to 2,000 civilians in and around the town of Baga, Nigeria, were slaughtered by the Islamist group Boko Haram.
What I found particularly appalling was that journalists went ballistics about "an assault" on the freedom of speech and expression, while almost ignoring the second massacre involving an incredible loss of human life.
A classic example of what Pope Francis calls the "throwaway culture".
In principle, I'm not opposed to satire. It takes talent and creativity to really nail something, for example, the social satire of Stephen Colbert when he says: "If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it."
However, the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices or deeply held religious beliefs (that one finds personally objectionable) usually ends up being nothing more than a sophomoric exercise, demeaning to everyone, and truly offensive to the point of serving no useful transformative purpose.
After Paris, the Chaldean Church Patriarch Luis Sako, in addition to expressing his sorrow, said that: "In front of what is happening in the Arab region and abroad, which is unprecedented and threatens relations and co-existence, we call upon all our Muslim brothers to take the initiative from the inside to dismantle this terrorist extremist ideology. And build an open and enlightened Islamic opinion that doesn't accept the political exploitation of religion."
More satirical cartoons are not the answer, nor are empty symbols of political world leaders marching arm in arm, nor are simple protestations. It is not enough to say, "This has nothing to do with Islam" or to ignore some texts taken from the Qur'an which clearly espouse violence against the infidel (non Muslim) or " Islam is a religion of peace." Whether we wish to admit it or not, the vast majority of all terrorist attacks in the world are carried out in the name of Islam, to defend the faith, or the prophet . They do everything saying, "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), before doing it, putting everything under God and the call of Islam, even the killing of the innocent.
Speaking at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, on New Year's Day, 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a forceful and impassioned plea to religious scholars and clerics:
"It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible! That thinking—I am not saying "religion" but "thinking"—that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world!.... Is it possible that 1.6 billion people [Muslims] should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants—that is 7 billion—so that they themselves may live? Impossible!.... I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move... because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost—and it is being lost by our own hands."
The struggle within Islam itself must be confronted and the imams will have to lead.
Two immediate flash points need to be addressed:
1. The interepretation of texts.
For all Muslims, whether you are conservative or liberal, a basic premise is that the Qur'an is not the work of Muhammad but of God himself. Therefore it is timeless and not restricted to the seventh century; it is the word of God preserved unchanged over time. The orthodox (and particularly the fundamentalists) believe that each verse has an absolute value, regardless of the context. The liberals propose a contextualized reading and interpretation, taking into consideration place and time. Therefore, they emphasize the necessity of adapting the text to history, current events, and to modernity. Modernity that is not a synonym for atheism, immorality, hedonism and the denial of religious dimension of life, as often occurs in the West.
Islam is a system, not just a religion. Can immigrants to western countries find a way to meaningfully participate in existing economic, political, legal and social systems?
Patriarch Sako believes: "There is a future for us human beings only by living together in peace, harmony and cooperation as we were before the advent of the radical streams that use violence. We have to accept our historical and moral responsibility in spreading the culture of the recognition of the other, acceptance and respect him based on the principle that "There is no compulsion in religion" and "through honest dialogue, wisdom, clear vison, and intact religious upbringing."
Rather than satire, we need to learn to speak the truth in love.
☩ Frederick Henry
On a Christmas Eve (1223), in the small Italian village of Greccio, in order to highlight the coming of God-with-us into the world, St. Francis of Assisi re-enacted the birth of Jesus as inspired by the Gospel narratives. What was so unique about it was that he used living creatures, people and animals, in the setting of a stable on a Mount Greccio.
The re-enactment of the incarnation scene remains a wonderful way of engaging our bodily senses and imagination in the mystery of God's presence.
It's delightful to hear the story of a three-year-old helping his mother unpack their nativity set and announce each piece as he removed its tissue paper wrappings. "Here's the donkey!" "Here's a king and a camel!" When he finally got to the tiny infant lying in a manger he proclaimed, "Here's Baby Jesus in his car seat!" Well, it wasn't a car seat, but to a three year old it looked like one.
Some adaptations are an act of creative piety. While visiting Chiclayo, Peru, I noted that one nativity scene contained a small red toy fire engine, a statue of the Sacred Heart, and a picture of an elderly gentleman. Upon inquiry about these unusual additions, I was informed about the fire engine was a gesture of sharing, "Jesus needs something to play with." The statute was a religious treasure and "a sign of the abundant love of God." The picture was a sacred memorial of a beloved grandfather and "a prayer for eternal life."
There is one person seemingly missing from all these nativity scenes that I would like to add - John the Baptist!
First of all, because prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth. St. Luke's Gospel reminds us that as soon as Mary steps into Elizabeth's house, the child in Elizabeth's womb starts to dance for joy. It is as though the fetus has heard God's music, singing around the baby Jesus in Mary's womb, and he just has to dance. What does John the Baptist tell us - listen to God's music! Dance! Recognize the simple joy of the child in the womb, dancing to celebrate the presence of Jesus.
Get ready for the upcoming angelic melody as the angels rejoice and the world celebrates God's coming to restore the world to its proper song. "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on Earth peace among those whom he favours!"
Second, we need to hear the adult voice of John the Baptist announce, "The Kingdom of Heaven is near.'" Throughout the four weeks of the Advent season, each year, we encounter this strange lonely figure sounding his message out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight." He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Most of us are aware of a deep hunger at the core of our being. Some experience it as the need for something that will give them the inner strength to cope with life, or peace of mind and freedom from feelings of fear and anxiety. There is also a sense of being wounded, hurt, broken, and in need of healing.
Many, it seems, feel cut off and isolated from other people and from nature. They long for harmony.
Sometimes, our great and awesome God seems almost untouchable. That is where Jesus comes in. He is God-with-us (Emmanuel), walking among us and showing us what God is like. I think C. S. Lewis put it well: "The Son of God became a man that men (and women) might become sons (and daughters) of God."
God became a man so that we might become God's child. There must come a moment in our life when we turn from our sins and invite Jesus Christ to come into our life to be our Saviour and Lord.
Maybe we have to add ourselves to the nativity scene!
☩ Frederick Henry
In A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh and Piglet take an evening walk. For a long time they walk in silence. Silence like only best friends can share. Finally Piglet breaks the silence and asks, "When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what's the first thing you say to yourself?" "What's for breakfast?" answers Pooh, and then asks, "And what do you say, Piglet?" Piglet says, "I say, I wonder what exciting thing is going to happen today?"
Like Piglet, we never really know when or where the Lord is going to show up. But you can be sure of this: He will show up!
In the Scriptures, people encountered God in unexpected ways. Running from his troubles, Jacob laid his head on a stone and while he slept and saw a stairway to heaven. He is presented as wrestling all night with a manifestation of God in the flesh. Moses turned aside from his flock of sheep to see why a bush would burn and not be consumed, and from it heard the voice of God. Saul of Tarsus met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Jesus got his attention by knocking him to the ground and striking him blind. In yet another instance, the depressed disciples were on the road to Emmaus when they unexpectedly discovered the 'road of companionship' with Jesus. Through these scripture passages, Jesus shows us that he desires to walk with each of us.
Pope Francis, at what was expected to be a short visit with the Union of Religious Superiors in Rome in 2013, turned the event into a three hours conversation, during which he announced that 2015 was to be a year dedicated to consecrated life.
Pope Francis stressed that religious life does not exist to produce administrators or managers, but rather, men and women who are brothers and sisters and "travelling companions."
He went on to say that religious must speak to people through their lives. Religious are called to be prophets "by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth." Religious are called to light the way to the future and walk with others on the way. Religious life is not an end in itself but a service to God's people on their journey.
Among the many highlights, a number of points, deserve special emphasis:
- Today's religious men and women need to be prophetic, "capable of waking up the world," of showing they are a special breed who "have something to say" to the world today.
- Religious men and women need to live and behave in a truly different way, recognizing one's weakness and sins, but acting with "generosity, detachment, sacrifice, forgetting oneself in order to take care of others."
- "It's necessary to spend time in real contact with the poor. For me this is really important: it's necessary to know from experience what's real, to dedicate time going to the periphery to truly know the situation and life of the people." When Pope Francis talks about the "periphery" he is not just talking about economic peripheries but of the profound experiences of alienation and hopelessness, suffering and the search for meaning that exists among the men and women of our time. Religious are to be travelling companions who journey with others step by step, not lecturers or moralists who simply tell other people where they should be.
- Religious are to be prayers who witness to the mystery of God's presence among us, and show us that God cares, that God loves, that God reaches out to us.
As part of our observance of the Year for Consecrated Life, we have been blessed with some new travelling companions, i.e. the Seeds of the Word Community and the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Merciful Jesus, who have accepted our invitation to establish a presence in our diocese.
The Community "Seeds of the Word" was founded in Palmos Brazil by Archbishop Dom Alberto Correa. It is a new community that gathers to its heart members of diverse walks of life – single people, couples families, those consecrated and priests in a life given entirely in service to the mission: for the life of the world. Contemplative and Missionary, the community seeks to discover and nurture the Seeds of the Word of Life and promote its growth in each person through human dignity and vocation for sons and daughters of God, disciples of Christ. Through the liturgy, the Word of God, fraternal life and the mission to teach the poorest of the poor. The community resides and works out of Our Lady of Fatima parish in Calgary.
The Congregation of the Sisters of Our Merciful Jesus was founded in 1947 by Fr. Michael Sopocko as the answer for the apparition of Jesus, who ordered St. Faustian among other things, to found the new religious community. The members of this congregation begin each activity renewing the message of: "Jesus I trust in You." The spirituality of the congregation consists in surrendering to God's activity and in trustful acceptance of all the consequences of such trust. In their apostolic activity the congregation tries to meet the actual needs of the Church. The Sisters work in 17 monastic houses in Poland and in 16 houses abroad. They are involved in many acts of mercy in and beyond parishes. They are opening a Divine Mercy Centre in "The Ranch" – the former rectory of St. John the Evangelist parish in Balzac.
May the Year for Consecrated Life further engage all of us as travelling companions seeking to live our Christian life more authentically and with renewed enthusiasm.
☩ Frederick Henry