Monday, July 25, 2011

Prayers for Norway

My heart breaks for the people of Norway. Last week I wrote about the gift of camp counselors. Today we mourn for them and their charges. May we build a world beyond hate and violence. May we hold each other close on the journey toward it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Memories of Summer Camp

I love summer. The heat, the blue skies, the refreshing lakes, and days that last well into the night make it a favourite time of year.

As a teenager I worked as a summer camp counselor, and I still think there is no better summer job in the world. Camp Pine Valley lay just outside of the little town of Sainte-Agathe-Des-Monts in the Laurentians in Quebec. It catered to Jewish children from Montreal, and I was grateful to the directors for hiring me and my brother even though we were Christian.

Like all camps, our goal was to entertain the children and make them feel at home in a rustic group setting. Days were spent moving from activity to activity, motivating and encouraging the children while keeping their homesickness at bay. Most came from wealthy families, and Pine Valley would be their home for the summer while their parents worked overtime through July and August.

The work could be exhausting and at times difficult, but the counseling staff developed strong friendships and support for each other. And Friday nights were always treated reverently as the Sabbath, emphasizing the presence of God for our campers.

Years later, after I met and married my husband Brian, we spent our summers at a camp where he had been a counselor and senior staff member as a young man. Columbus Boys Camp welcomed underprivileged Catholic boys from Toronto for an experience of wilderness and community. Although the campers’ backgrounds were different from those at Pine Valley, the same small group experience of meeting the natural world with a counselor in the lead brought the best out of children who had rarely left the big city.

Given the shortage of priests it wasn’t long before Brian and I were asked to assume the position of chaplains. We felt privileged to be given the task of helping the campers sense the deeper presence of the Spirit beyond camaraderie and play in forests, fields and water.

The value of our camp was brought home to us in so many ways. City children staring awestruck at star bright skies as we prayed around a campfire, or crying when it came time to leave their counselors made it clear that something had touched them in a profound and meaningful way.

Perhaps more than anything else, I was moved by the surprise return visits of former campers, now men, often well past their fifties. They were always welcome at the lunch table and I can remember one sitting beside me and crying as he told me how Columbus Boys Camp had changed his life. It had given him a whole new understanding of friendship, of faith and of who he was and what he could become.

I never returned to Pine Valley so I can’t say for sure that it had that same effect on its alumni, but I expect it did.

Both camps are now closed but there are many other camps doing that same good work today. To those young people who are out there doing the work of camp counselor, I say thank you. For some child you may provide the memory that gets them through the dark times, to some you may be the source of inspiration for a better future.

And you too will learn in the hard and sometimes endless work of providing support and encouragement, that you have great gifts to share and great worth to others.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More Sex Abuse in the Irish Church

When will it end? A judicial report into the handling of priestly sex abuse cases in the Irish Diocese of Cloyne, published this week, has once again revealed a Church leadership more interested in self-preservation than justice. This is the fourth report on sex abuse scandals in Ireland in the recent past.

According to the report, Bishop Magee, himself guilty of inappropriate advances on a young parishioner, disregarded the 1996 guidelines on dealing with sex abuse allegations, and did so with the full support of the Vatican. He also lied to government officials about the extent of abuse in the diocese.

These are not decades old allegations. All of the abuse happened after 1996, and the cover up continued until as recently as 2009.

Although Magee is assigned primary responsibility for the failure to deal with the allegations, the report also notes that the Vatican was “entirely unhelpful” to Bishops who did wish to implement them.

Apparently, dithering over implementing the guidelines had to do with questions of canon law. Rome fiddled while Ireland burned.

Unbelievably, not only did the Vatican refuse to help implement the guidelines, but once the story of the abuses broke, the Magisterium debated at length whether or not the clearly culpable Magee should keep his post. In the end he was removed from governance but allowed to keep the title of bishop. (Contrast this to the quick firing of Bishop Morris of Australia for the so much more serious ‘crime’ of suggesting that the Church open discussions on the ordination of women).

Not surprisingly, Frances Fitzgerald, the Irish Minister for Children commented that the Vatican’s “sole concern was the protection of the institution – not the children”. (Donadio and Kulish, “Irish Report Finds Abuse Persisting in the Catholic Church” New York Times, Wednesday, July 13 2011).

It is clear, absolutely clear, that those in power in my Church, the Catholic Church, are more interested in preserving the ragged remains of what they perceive as the prestige of their position, than breathing the spirit of life and love into the world.

While the church of the community continues to value humility, charity, justice, compassion and hope, the Church of the Rock (and a hard cold lifeless rock it is) navel-gazes and holds the world at bay. No child, no woman, no lay person can clamber on the slippery boulder from which the Vatican pronounces and denounces.

But here’s the thing. If God truly is a living God, if there truly is such a thing as the Holy Spirit, if truth does prevail in the end, then the Vatican should be careful. Rocks weigh a person down, and cause one to stumble and fall. Eventually they erode, collapse and roll away. Nothing eternal is made of stone. Remember the stone in front of the tomb? It moved, displaced by the power of the Holy spirit.

Lay Catholics need to speak up and be a voice for compassion, stability, honesty and truth. The Spirit given to all people, to all the world, has to be allowed to advocate for truth and change within the Catholic Church. If we don’t want to be complicit in the abuse of minors and the exclusion of women and married people, then we need to speak the words in our hearts. We need to call for reform and conversion within the cold stone walls of the Vatican.

In the end, breath, spirit, faith, hope and love, these intangible senses of the divine, carry forward and last beyond today, beyond the world, beyond all time. And that to me, is Church enough.

For more information on the Irish report go to

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom Flotilla... Again

Should my world ever crash around me, my country reduced to a captive land, bombed, abused, and besieged, I hope and pray that people like those on the Freedom Flotilla will come to the aid of me and my people.

It breaks the heart to hear that this week the boats of the flotilla were first sabotaged, and then restricted from sailing to Gaza by Greek authorities. As Greece struggles with economic collapse, Israel is only too ready to help ... at a price. No one may sail to Gaza from Greece. And so the flotilla of ships laden with humanitarian goods are confined to port, even though the UN does not recognize Israel's right to restrict access to Gaza.

When will the world say no to this? When will we say no more collective punishment?

There are children in Gaza who hunger. The destitute and sick wait for help, confined and cut off by the Israeli military who treat anyone as a terrorist. But Deuteronomy is clear: 'The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers' (24:16a).

Where is our willingness to safeguard the dignity of the human person regardless of race or religion? When will our world leaders speak up for justice and peace? If 86 year old holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein is willing to risk sailing on the flotilla, should we not at least risk words of hope?

May there be justice and peace in Israel and Palestine. May there be hope for all those held captive by fear or prejudice.