By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC
With so much turmoil assailing us as citizens of the world and members of the church—climate change, the regression to authoritarianism in countries recently struggling into liberal democracy, the plague of misinformation and its deadly spawn, social and moral collapse in a time of turbulent economic realities, and scandals ever flourishing in high places—the readings we find in the lectionary for the Last Days seem only too apt.
But the key ingredient of Christian witness in dark times—and when really, historians would muse, is it ever otherwise?—is found in a creative posture of hope and not in a defeatist posture of angry resignation.
I was reminded of this just recently while in the Maritimes to give a lecture on John Henry Newman, Pope Francis, and synodality.
Hope is a strong component of each of the above but it was also the defining characteristic of the parish that invited me: St. Marguerite Bourgeoys in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The energetic and visionary pastor of this impressive community of faith is Bill Burke, former director of the liturgy office of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, ably bilingual, educated in graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, a sterling product of the best theology of the post Second Vatican Council. He is also a priest who enacts, enables, and empowers, thereby co-creating a church that is local in its reality and universal in its pastoral outlook.
When I gave the talk—there were more than 550 people either present in the church or accessing the presentation through live-streaming—I was struck by how the parish is a model, an exemplar, of how a Catholic parish can embody Newman’s summons to consult the laity, Francis’s call to structural conversion and parrhesia, and the best aspirations of synodality: to listen, to learn in dialogue, to speak with tenderness.
Burke would be the first to insist that none of this can happen alone. And, indeed, an impressive cohort of committed congregants work with him to make St. Marguerite Bourgeoys a sanctuary of reason and light, a beacon of hope nurtured and sustaining, a spiritual oasis in what is often a wasteland.
In a time when some bishops are insisting on vetting the content of invited speakers to their respective dioceses, if in fact not banning them outright, for fear that they are being derelict in their pastoral solicitude by not protecting their flock from disturbing ideas, it is especially important that parishes flex some intellectual and spiritual muscle.
It is not a time to foreclose discussion, to retreat to a facile certitude, as attractive as that may be; rather, it is time to generate a life-giving hope.
Bill Burke and his team of pastoral co-workers—Tom Penney, Margie Gillis, Jovita Macpherson, Jaime Bates, and countless more—are the church of the future. That’s where the hope resides. For me, at least.