This dinner is an occasion for all of us from within the Archdiocese of Toronto, and from the wider community, to come together in fellowship, and to help raise money to support many worthy charitable organizations. Over the years, more than $5.5 million dollars has been raised to help those in need. I thank Mr Daniel Sullivan for chairing this year’s Cardinal’s Dinner.
Our dinner this year occurs shortly after the municipal elections in our province. We should all be grateful to all of those who offered their candidacy for service to the local community, and we pray that those who were elected will govern wisely in the service of the common good.
Because our dinner this year also occurs during the annual general meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cornwall, our four auxiliary bishops – Bishop Boissonneau, Bishop Hundt, Bishop McGrattan, and Bishop Nguyen - cannot attend the dinner this evening. Although guilt is a good Catholic tradition, I only feel mildly guilty at leaving them to toil away at the bishops’ meeting, while I have escaped to join in this great annual celebration.
We also welcome this evening Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, the newly appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, the personal representative of Pope Benedict in our country, who replaces Archbishop Luigi Ventura, who is now the nuncio to France. We wish Archbishop Lopez Quintana many blessings in his new mission amongst us.
During the Synod, one of the highpoints was the opportunity to participate in the canonization of six saints, one of the most majestic and spectacular of the liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Church. On Sunday, October 17th , thousands upon thousands of people thronged the great piazza in front of St Peter’s basilica.
There were many from Australia, for the canonization of Saint Mary MacKillop, a religious sister of the 19th century who devoted her life to the service, and especially to the education, of needy people in the vast expanses of Australia.
There were, of course, many thousands of Canadians as well, in Rome to celebrate the canonization of Brother André Bessette, who radiated joyful holiness throughout his long life – over 90 years – as he offered spiritual and physical healing to the thousands upon thousands of people whom he welcomed as the doorkeeper of his religious house and college in Montreal.
Enormous pictures of him and of the five other saints hung from the front of St Peter’s basilica, and the awesome music and ritual of the pontifical Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict helped us all to become more attentive to the presence of God. Early on in the Mass, those responsible for shepherding the cases of the six saints through the complex canonization process approached the Pope, and the holy life of each saint was described.
Canonization means that a person’s name is entered into the canon or official list of saints of the universal Church. At the recent canonization, as a hush descended over the throng, the Pope, enthroned before the facade of the great basilica of St Peter, proclaimed in ancient Latin that the six were saints. This is the most solemn declaration that a Pope can make, “ex cathedra” or “from the throne”. As the choir sang Alleluia, relics of the saints were brought forward and placed before the altar, surrounded by candles and flowers.
At that awesome moment of canonization, of course, absolutely nothing happened to Brother André, or to Mother Mary MacKillop, or to the other four. The Pope does not make saints. God makes saints, and does so through the action of divine grace throughout their lives. That action was brought to completion years ago as each of the six came home to the heavenly Father.
What the Pope does at a canonization, through his apostolic authority, is to give us absolute assurance that a person is a saint. There are millions of saints, who have never been canonized, and in a few days we will be celebrating their great feast, All Saints Day. But canonization is a way of highlighting those holy people whom the Church proposes to all the faithful as much needed models of discipleship. We ask them to intercede for us in prayer before God, and we are invited to follow their example.
It is that example that I would like to reflect upon this evening, and especially the example of Brother André, Saint André Bessette. He was a humble and holy man, who died in 1937 at a great age, after many decades of simple humble service. He is famous for his devotion to another humble, hard working saint, Saint Joseph, and famous for the many miracles of healing of body and soul that accompanied his years of faithfully carrying out the mission he received from his superiors, that of being the doorkeeper at a College in Montreal. That is his first lesson to all of us, and especially to those who have made the promise of obedience in ordination or religious profession: day after day, year after year, he faithfully fulfilled the mission entrusted to him.
The mission given to him by his religious superiors was to be a doorkeeper: when people approached the door of the College, they would be welcomed by Brother André, joyfully and with an offer of whatever practical assistance they needed. Though not many have the duty of being doorkeepers, like Brother André, we are all called, whatever our faith, to be people who welcome others, and we look to him to show us how to do that with simple joy and practical effectiveness. If there is one thing that our world surely needs, it is more welcomers, in the imitation of St André Bessette.
Although I had planned anyway to attend the canonization of Brother André, my main reason for being in Rome in recent weeks was because I had been asked by the Holy See to be a member of the Synod on the Middle East, and that experience also made me think of the grace of welcome, and of its too frequent absence in our world.
The Synod was a meeting of bishops and many others that was called by Pope Benedict to look at the situation of the Middle East, and particularly at the suffering of the Christian communities there. We listened to the bishops of the region, to priests and sisters, to lay men and women, to guests from other Christian communities, to a Sunni Muslim Professor from Lebanon, to a Shiite Muslim Ayatollah from Iran, and to a Jewish Rabbi from Israel.
In the Middle East, where Christianity began, and where it has been an integral part of society for 2000 years, the number of Christians is diminishing rapidly because of the very difficult situation which that vulnerable minority faces. A prime goal of the Synod was to see what can be done to encourage the endangered Christian communities of the Middle East, so that they can live there in peace, and flourish once more, and indeed so that peoples of all faiths can do so in harmony with one another in that troubled region that is so precious to Jews, to Christians, and to Muslims. We in the Archdiocese of Toronto need to help in any way that we can.
One way to do that is to visit the Middle East, if possible, both to give some economic help, and to offer solidarity and encouragement to the people there. Another way which I suggested in my own talk at the Synod, would be for dioceses in the West to be twinned with those in the Middle East, to the benefit of each.
We need, as well, to encourage the media to report on the situation of the many vulnerable minorities in the region; their sufferings go unnoticed, and that is wrong.
Sometimes it might be helpful to contact governments, and to express our concern.
I commend the work of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, which makes possible the service offered in the Holy Land to people of all faiths through Catholic Educational institutions there. Another way of helping those in the Middle East is to support Bethlehem University, established by the Holy See, and offering university education to young students of all faiths. The Catholic Near Eastern Welfare Association, or CNEWA, also does good work.
As we think of the Christians in the Middle East who are especially suffering at this time, we must not forget people of other faiths, and other vulnerable minorities throughout the world who are forced to flee their homes. We cannot forget the recent sufferings of the people of Sri Lanka, and of people in so many other countries.
We must try first of all to do what we can to help people live in peace in their homelands. But despite all that we do to help people to stay, the fact is that many must flee, and cannot return home. That should lead us, like Brother André at the door, to reach out in a spirit of welcome.
We can do that by sponsoring families of refugees, and I heartily commend the great work being done by Dr Martin Mark and the Office of Refugees of the Archdiocese of Toronto to offer welcome to refugees, especially at this time to those from Iraq who cannot return home. Many other faith communities are doing similar good work. Our Archdiocese, and the whole community in this area, have long had a tradition of welcoming refugees. We think of the boat people of Vietnam, who now make such vital contributions to our community. Our country has a noble history of being a haven for refugees, and I especially want to commend the government of Canada, and in particular Minister Jason Kenney, for his leadership in welcoming refugees from the Middle East.
As we ponder the lessons of the life of Brother André, God’s doorkeeper, who was welcome incarnate for all whom he met, we in this Archdiocese, and we in this community, always need to look back to the terrible summer of 1847, shortly after this diocese was established, to find inspiration. When 40,000 refugees from the famine in Ireland arrived on the shores of this city of 20,000 people, they were welcomed by Catholics and Protestants working together, led by our saintly first bishop, Michael Power who, like many of his fellow citizens of different faiths, gave his life in the service of the refugees, a martyr of charity. I always think of him as I preside over the Archdiocese of Toronto from my cathedra which is placed directly over his tomb. Like Brother André, he speaks to us of the spirit of welcome, offered to those in need.
As Brother André offered welcome to all who came to the door, we need to look at our community and to reflect upon those who have no home. The communities of many faiths who sponsor Out of the Cold offer welcome to the homeless, in a practical way that makes the spirit of Brother André present in Toronto. Cardinal Carter invited Covenant House to come to our community to offer welcome and practical assistance to homeless young people, and the Brothers of the Good Shepherd and the organizations sponsored by ShareLife assist those who are in need of practical welcome in their desperate situation. Brother André was not just a friendly person; he offered practical, effective help to those who came to the door. A most effective and practical way for each of us to say “welcome” is by donating generously to ShareLife.
As we look at our own parish communities, we can also learn a lesson from Brother André. When people, whether visitors or parishioners, come to a parish Church in our Archdiocese, or to any parish or archdiocesan office, or when they encounter any member of our family of faith, they should experience what people found in Saint André. In each of the thousands of people, hundreds of thousands, whom he met during his long life, he saw the face of Christ, and welcomed them. So too should all who follow his saintly example.
Whatever our role, we can offer at least a kindly word and a smile. So many people came to see him that Brother André rarely spent much time with any one of them; but they knew that he had received each of them as a person to be loved, not as a thing to be used. That is a practical lesson to be applied each day. What matters is not the quantity of time spent with others, but the personal quality of the welcome.
Those who serve in the Order of St André, otherwise known as the ushers in a parish, have a particular mission to recognize and assist each person, and especially visitors and strangers, and to make them feel at home in our parishes. This is not something complicated, but it is so obvious that we can too easily forget it. But all of us should be sure that our parishes are places of welcome.
Brother André was a great man, a holy saint of God. It was not some natural talent that drew thousands to him; it was holiness. At the center of his life was prayer; the welcome he offered to others was not some superficial glad-handing, that phony substitute. He was able to offer peace to others because first of all he was at peace with himself, and at peace with God. May we ask his intercession, and imitate his life.
Brother André was canonized in front of the majestic Church built over the tomb of St Peter, keeper of the keys. I suspect that the great St Peter has a little helper now, greeting those who arrive at the pearly gates. Saint André the doorkeeper, welcome us home.
Photos: Emanuel Pires, Archdiocese of Toronto