Former Canadian prime minister, John Turner, died in September and among the many tributes, homage, political commentaries, post mortems, and personal reflections that have been published or aired many have spoken of his devout Catholicism. One is never quite sure what the media means when they say devout, or ardent, or pious, but be assured it is usually vague if not vacuous.
Paul Burns, a former and storied leader in the St. Mark’s-Corpus Christi orbit, sent me a note indicating that Turner’s mother, Phyllis Ross, was an active Catholic, a prominent BC figure, senator and first woman chancellor of the University of British Columbia, and that her connection to St. Mark’s, at the time under the leadership of Henry Carr, an iconic Basilian educator, consisted in securing funds for an important series of Patristic Latin texts.
Paul reminded me of the Holy Rosary connection in Toronto. Turner and his family were parishioners of the tony Basilian church adjacent St. Michael’s College School and Turner himself was a lector. Although, it would have made more sense, given that he was Minister of Finance, if he had been an usher taking up the collection.
I met Turner on several occasions because I was a frequent guest speaker to the Michaelmas crowd that gathered annually at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, to pray, eat, and discuss their faith in the context of their professional and political lives.
It was a Grit fiefdom, exclusively male, party political, Catholic in sensibility but profoundly expansive in its embrace of conflicting Catholic perspectives. The occasional Tory, traditionalist, and Chestertonian wannabe would show up and the contest of opinion would be robust, healthy and tinged with bonhomie and good humour.
Although Mark McGuigan, Paul Martin, and other Liberal notables would float in and out, Turner was the most engaged, with his views becoming more progressive in time, but views rooted in his extensive reading and not lightly held.
Charming and curious, he struck me—I was the academic guest after all and not really one of the Michaelmas folk—as someone who took his faith seriously, felt comfortable in discussing matters theological and spiritual among his friends, finding time for sherry, chat and spirited banter.
Rather Chestertonian in a way, and he was no Tory.