Monday, September 01, 2014

Tim Hortons and the Canadian soul.


Today is a holiday in both Canada and the United States, so it seems an auspicious time to comment on the impending merger between Tim Hortons and Burger King, a deal that has some Canadians expressing concerns over potential changes to a chain that many have come to regard as an iconic national institution, while some Americans grouse that Miami-based Burger King is effectively moving offshore to avoid paying taxes in the United States. What interests me about all of this is the reflection that the merger/buyout has prompted regarding the place of Tim Hortons in many Canadians' collective self-understanding. The best thing I've read on point comes from Toronto Star writer Amy Dempsey, who begins her consideration of the particular place of Tim Hortons in the national psyche with a childhood memory:
My little brother stood in the middle of the kitchen swinging a giant box of Timbits by its flimsy cardboard handle.

Danny was 7, skinny and, to me, annoying. He would get away with things I couldn't, like messing around with a 40-pack of itty-bitty doughnuts while my mother did the dishes, my father put away leftovers and I did my homework at the kitchen table.

One minute my brother was swinging the box with a big smirk on his face. Then the handle ripped and the Timbits sailed high above his head and somersaulted across our Cape Breton kitchen, landing with a cannonball splash in the dishwater.

"Jesus!" my mother screamed. She was covered in Palmolive suds. There was a moment of silence, then we all laughed for a long time.

. . .

My family's flying doughnuts story may not be as wholesome as the ubiquitous great Canadian hockey road-trip tale, but the story itself, and the way it leaves me with a nostalgic lump in my throat and a hankering for a honey-glazed Timbit, is exactly what has made the company so successful. Tim Hortons has quietly inserted itself into our history. It has become a part of our daily-life stories, but more importantly our collective national story. It has succeeded in making Canadians believe that Tim Hortons is Who We Are, and that we are duty-bound to hold it dear.

"To say you don't like Tim Hortons is blasphemous," says Peter Hodgins, an assistant professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University.

No one wants to hear from the silent minority of citizens who believe Tim Hortons coffee tastes like boiled tap water strained through a handful of soil from a garden that has recently been sprayed by a skunk. Or from those who argue the brew requires heavy doses of sugar and cream to make it even remotely palatable, and then isn't it just a hot milkshake? Only a traitor would dare to suggest Tim Hortons is the Nickelback of Canadian coffee shops — popular with the masses, but ughhhhhh, really?
As Dempsey suggests, Tim Hortons has been so successful because the company has deftly branded itself as an important part of the Canada's social and cultural fabric, finding ways to link itself with enduring values and presenting a distinctively Canadian image at a time when globalization seems to augur an erosion of national identity:
The identity crisis Canadians have suffered since Confederation has helped Tim Hortons achieved its emblematic status. We are keen to latch on to anything that helps define us, particularly in a post-1980s globalized world in which our feelings of national culture have become entwined with our acts of consumption. Tim Hortons has seized on that, but not in an aggressive way. It has become a part of us without making demands.

. . .

"There are other companies that try to attach themselves to Canadian nationalism, but I've never seen a company do it as well," says Patricia Cormack, a professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University whose book, Desiring Canada, written with James Cosgrave, includes a chapter devoted to Tim Hortons.

"They're extremely careful about how to link the everyday with real deep emotional feelings that connect at some level with the nation, the idea of being a Canadian," she says. "It's not just throwing around a bunch of stupid signifiers like hockey sticks and beavers."

So while one company might slap a puck on a T-shirt, Tim Hortons has aligned itself not only with the game of hockey but with bigger ideas attached to it — community, sacrifice, childhood. The "True Stories" commercials were full of pathos and ambiguity. Remember the one where the immigrant family is welcomed to Canada by the dad at the airport? Remember the one about the golden retriever, Sammi, who went to Tim Hortons for her owner and carried the bag back in her mouth?

The same emotional strings are tugged with the company's charitable work, most notably the Timbits youth sports program, a community initiative that has furthered the company’s brand association with hockey. Who can resist the sight of a 5-year-old stumbling across the ice in a Tim Bits jersey? Not me. Tears are pooling in my eyes right now, and I am not being sarcastic.
For an example of one of those Tim Hortons "True Stories," take a look at the below commercial featuring three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family - a commercial in which Tim Hortons coffee plays an apparently incidental role, even though that product is ostensibly what is being promoted:



Is this an example of shameless tugging at the heartstrings by a large corporation out to make a buck? Undoubtedly, but by my lights it's also brilliantly well-done. For more on the underlying issues, read the rest of Amy Dempsey's piece in the Star. AMDG.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Windsor's historic Assumption Church slated to close.


This morning I read some devastating news regarding a place dear to my heart: Assumption Church in Windsor, Ontario is slated to close in November after the failure of a four-year effort to raise $10 million for needed structural repairs to the 169-year-old edifice. Churches close their doors all the time, including old ones, but this proposed closing is shocking on a number of fronts: Assumption Church is home to the oldest Catholic parish in Canada west of Montreal, founded by Jesuit missionaries in 1767, and the beauty of the current church building and its prominent location beside the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit made Assumption an iconic landmark and an internationally-recognized historic site. The closing of Assumption Church means something to me personally because, as I noted in a post from a few years ago, I used to attend Mass there regularly when I was a Jesuit novice living across the river in Metro Detroit.

As the Windsor Star's reporting of the story seems to make clear, the decision to close Assumption Church comes down to money. The parish itself remains vibrant, with consistently high attendance at weekend Masses and various forms of outreach to the surrounding community. From the time that it became clear that the church needed extensive repairs costing millions of dollars, the parish and the local diocese have made concerted efforts to raise the required funds by appealing to the broader public. Initial efforts to raise money for the project with the help of a professional fundraising firm hired by the diocese collapsed on account of apparent mismanagement and potential malfeasance by the firm in question, and a subsequent fundraising campaign coordinated by the parish was also mired in controversy. Both campaigns seem to have been ill-starred in different ways, but I also have to imagine that any effort to raise $10 million would have faced considerable challenges given the economic downturn of the last decade and the relatively tiny base of financial support available in a smaller manufacturing city like Windsor.

Though the situation seems rather dire, I noticed a small glimmer of hope in the Windsor Star report on the proposed closing of Assumption Church. According to the local ordinary, Bishop Ronald Fabbro, the decision to close the church could be reversed if the money needed for repairs can be raised in the next couple of months - an admittedly daunting prospect that apparently consoles some parishioners. From the Windsor Star:
Fabbro did leave the door ajar for the church to be saved if somehow huge donations come rolling in and the $10-million target gets reached in short order.

"We will work with the bishop to resolve this so that it can be used again as a Catholic parish," [parish council chairman Kevin] Alexander said.

. . .

. . . [T]he chairman of the parish's finance committee the last two years indicated despite any pledges [to the restoration fund], the only thing that matters is "cash in hand" and right now the account for the church's renovations sits at about $1.1 million.

"It's pretty simple at this point," said Jason Grech, a local accountant. "The only thing we can do to save the church is come up with $10 million in two months. That's really easy to say, but it will be hard to accomplish."

Grech expressed some relief Friday because at least Fabbro's decision provides "a line that can be drawn" on the church’s fate.

"The reality is the church really will close unless we come up with the money," he said. "Call it a miracle that is needed, but who knows what can happen if some prominent people support the endeavour."
Assumption needs a miracle, and I will certainly be praying that, against the odds, the decision to close the church can be reversed. If you are interested in knowing more - and if you are in a situation to make a donation, however small - I urge you to take a look at the parish website. AMDG.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ten years on.



I entered the Society of Jesus ten years ago today, on Saturday, August 21, 2004. As I noted in a post published last year on this date, much has changed over the last decade. I entered the novitiate in a class of fourteen, six of whom are still Jesuits today. Pope John Paul II still reigned as Supreme Pontiff when I entered the novitiate, the only pope that I and a majority of my novitiate classmates had ever known. Ten years ago, I would not have believed that Joseph Ratzinger would succeed Karol Wojtyła as pope - and if anyone had told me then that the pope who would follow Benedict XVI would be a Jesuit, I would have scoffed at the suggestion and offered various arguments seeking to explain why it would never happen.

As I wrote last year, the reasons that led me to become a Jesuit and the reasons why I remain one are essentially the same. I entered the Society of Jesus largely thanks to the example of particular Jesuits whom I knew as teachers and scholars as well as priests, men who impressed upon me the sense that this motley yet cosmopolitan group of "learned priests" was worth joining. Some of the Jesuits who did the most to inspire my vocation have gone home to God, as Father Tom King did five years ago, while others, like Father Jim Schall, are now retired from the classroom. I am grateful for those Jesuits, living and deceased, who helped to bring me into the Society, but on this tenth anniversary of my entrance into the novitiate I am just as grateful for my friends and companions in formation who give me hope and confidence that the future of this enterprise is in good hands.

The photo that illustrates this post merits an explanation; this is the chapel at my old novitiate, Loyola House, as it appeared while I was a novice. Bright and airy if also austere and rather plain, the chapel at Loyola House has a special place in my heart owing to its role in my novitiate experience; this is where I first learned how to pray the Divine Office, initially struggling to figure out the organization of the breviary, and this is where I preached for the first time in the form of practice homilies that all of the novices were required to periodically deliver during Mass. Many times in that chapel my classmates and I attended morning Mass celebrated by Father Walt Farrell; the early hour was less than kind for night owls like me, but Walt's quietly dignified way of saying Mass and his invariably excellent (and often impressively concise) homilies made a lasting impression. These memories are bit more poignant now that Loyola House is no longer a Jesuit novitiate: the building is currently occupied by an interfaith peace organization, and I don't know what has become of the old chapel furnishings such as the altar, tabernacle, and crucifix. I recently heard that the old novitiate is also being used for Sunday services by a Detroit-area Quaker meeting, so the building is once again a place of worship even though it is no longer a Jesuit residence.

As I did in my ninth-anniversary post last year, I would like to round off this post with an appropriate verse from the psalms. Psalm 119:116 is used in the Benedictine rite of monastic profession, and I think that it speaks to my Jesuit vocation equally well: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam; et non confundas me ab expectatione mea. "Receive me, O Lord, according to your word, and I shall live; and let me not be confounded in my hope." AMDG.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

On the monastic character of Ignatian spirituality.



Father Frans Jozef van Beeck, a Jesuit whom I've discussed here before, once began an autobiographical essay with the admission that "I am by no means the sole Jesuit for whom the Society of Jesus is in the first place and very palpably something international." This has certainly been true for me: as I have noted in the past, part of what drew me to the Society of Jesus was its cosmopolitan character – the sense in which, as Jerónimo Nadal put it, "the world is our house." I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to celebrate the feast of the Society's founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in a number of different countries and in various circumstances, ranging from large public festivities to low-key community celebrations to virtually private observances (last year, for example, St. Ignatius' Day fell in the middle of my eight-day retreat, so I passed the feast in silence).

In whichever place and in whatever way I spend St. Ignatius' Day, this feast inevitably leads me to reflect upon the roots of my vocation. Some of the better things I've written on point are in posts produced four years ago in Innsbruck and two years ago in Philadelphia. I have nothing really new or original to add this year, but I would like to share some excerpts from a 1937 essay by Karl Rahner entitled "The Ignatian Mysticism of Joy in the World," in which Rahner considers how one might reconcile the mystical and contemplative dimensions of Ignatian spirituality with the decidedly 'worldly' mission of the Society of Jesus. In explaining how the mystical and the worldly fit together in an Ignatian context, Rahner also shows how the Society of Jesus stands in essential continuity with the monastic tradition that came before it:
Ignatian piety is a piety of the Cross, like all Christian mystical piety before it. One would lay oneself open to the danger of completely misconstruing Ignatian piety, were one to overlook this first fundamental characteristic. We must take note of the fact that Ignatian piety is and intends to be primarily 'monastic' piety; 'monastic' not in a juridical sense, nor monastic in the external arrangement of the community life of his disciples, but 'monastic' in the theologico-metaphysical sense which constitutes the first and last meaning of this word. What we mean to say by that is that Ignatius in his life, in his piety, and in the spirit which he impresses upon his foundation is consciously and clearly taking over and continuing the ultimate direction of life by which the life of the Catholic Orders, the 'monazein,' was created and kept alive. Proof of this is the simple fact that he and his disciples take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And with them necessarily take over the attitude of the monachos, of one alone in God far from the world. Ignatius stands in the line of those men who existentially flee into the desert in a violent fuga saeculi, even though it may be the God-forsaken stony desert of a city, in order to seek God far from the world. It is nothing but superficiality if one allows the difference in external mode of life between Jesuit and monk to mask the deep and ultimate common character which dominates the ideal of every Catholic order.
At times, some Jesuits have tended to regard our particular charism in the light of rupture, insisting (sometimes a bit grumpily) that "we're not monks" and that St. Ignatius offered the Church something essentially discontinuous with the traditions of older religious orders. I've always been skeptical of that approach, partly because of my appreciation for the Benedictine tradition, but also on account of my awareness of Ignatius' debts to the writings of the Benedictine abbot Garcia de Cisneros and to the monks of the Abbey of Montserrat. I appreciate what Rahner has to say about the 'monastic' character of Ignatian piety because he helps to confirm certain intuitions I've always had about my Jesuit vocation. As Rahner emphasizes, the worldly dimension of the Ignatian charism must be seen in the context of an inward "flight into God," which is ultimately the same fuga saeculi that has always driven Christian monasticism: "Ignatius approaches the world from God. Not the other way about. Because he has delivered himself in the lowliness of an adoring self-surrender to the God beyond the whole world and to his will, for this reason and for this reason alone he is prepared to obey his word even when, out of the silent desert of his daring flight into God, he is, as it were, sent back into the world, which he had found the courage to abandon in the foolishness of the Cross." Rahner further suggests that the Ignatian vision of 'finding God in all things' presupposes a healthy indifference that allows us to find God wherever God wishes to be found: "Ignatius is concerned only with the God above the whole world, but he knows that this God, precisely because he is really above the whole world and not merely the dialectical antithesis to the whole world, is also to be found in the world, when his sovereign will bids us enter upon the way of the world." In other words, we seek God in the world because the One whom we seek in the desert of the heart has bidden us to seek him also in what Rahner calls "the stony desert of a city."

As I read Rahner's lines about seeking God in the urban desert, I am mindful of some of tensions inherent in our lives as Jesuits. The Society of Jesus is well known in the wider world for the adventurous missionaries and cosmopolitan nomads who have sojourned in our midst, even though just as many of us have, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, merely "watched the door" for "years and years . . . without event." Finding God in all things obliges us to work out our salvation in a variety of different circumstances, and sometimes to serve in ways very different from what we might have hoped for or imagined when we entered the Society of Jesus. The lifelong challenge for each of us is to nurture and cultivate the interior freedom and stillness, the spirit of fuga saeculi, that allows us to be what Jerónimo Nadal described as "contemplatives likewise in action." In the words of the current Superior General of the Society, Father Adolfo Nicolás, "every Jesuit should be able to live like a monk in the middle of the noise of the city... That means that our hearts are our monasteries and at the bottom of every activity, every reflection, every decision, there is silence, the kind of silence that one shares only with God."

On this Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I pray in gratitude for the gift of my vocation. I pray also for my brother Jesuits, that the Society of Jesus may be for all of us a help to salvation and a means of doing God's will. Finally, I pray for you who are reading this and for your intentions, and I ask also that you pray for me and for the members of the Society as we remember our founder. AMDG.

Monday, July 28, 2014

An Meine Völker!


Today marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia, an act which signaled the formal commencement of hostilities after a month of escalating tensions following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. The above copy of Emperor Franz Joseph's war declaration, addressed An Meine Völker! ("To my peoples," that is, to the various nationalities of the Habsburg realms), is on display at the Military History Museum in Vienna, not far from the display case that contains the gun that started it all. If you would like to read the text of the declaration, you can find the original German here as well as an English translation.

With respect to this anniversary, a friend reminded me earlier today that the roots of the ongoing violence in places like Israel/Palestine, Iraq, and Ukraine can be traced to the aftermath of the Great War and the failure of the world leaders who gathered at Versailles to achieve a just and durable peace. Though I admit that I am not very optimistic about current efforts to resolve the world's intractable conflicts, I can only hope that an awareness of the tremendous human suffering caused by the wars of the last century will somehow lead us to a greater appreciation for peace. AMDG.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"Iconoclasm kills."



As the tragic dispersion of Iraq's ancient Christian communities continues unabated in the face of the Islamist takeover of the city of Mosul and surrounding areas, news emerges that the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have started to level Mosul's historic Shia mosques and have used sledgehammers and bulldozers to destroy the tombs of prophets revered by Christians and Muslims alike. Reacting to these latest developments, Father Stephen Freeman offers some thoughts that deserve your attention:
There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for "icon smashing") and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

The icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to "cleanse" things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement's iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

28 June 1914 and the Jesuits.


Today is the one-hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie von Hohenburg during a visit to Sarajevo, an event that precipitated a political crisis that led to the First World War. The assassination has a little-known Jesuit connection, as I discovered in the course of two successive summers in Austria. A display case at Vienna's Military History Museum offers an enigmatic clue: the pistol that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip used to kill Franz Ferdinand and Sophie is identified by a small plaque including the words Leihgabe d. Österr. Provinz der Gesellschaft Jesu - "On loan from the Austrian Province of the Society of Jesus."


I was quite amused when I first saw the ascription of ownership on the plaque below the murder weapon; it struck me that this was another proof that truth is stranger than fiction, and I mused that this unlikely fact would surely titillate enthusiasts of Jesuit conspiracy theories. The story behind Jesuit ownership of the artifact is actually rather straightforward, and it was even reported by the international news media ten years ago when the Austrian Jesuits agreed to lend the pistol to the museum. After serving as evidence in the trial of Princip and his co-conspirators, the murder weapon and a few other items - including two other pistols, some bullets, and the Archduke's bloodied shirt - were given to an Austrian Jesuit, Father Anton Puntigam. A teacher and school chaplain who worked in Sarajevo at the time of the assassination, Puntigam administered the last rites to Franz Ferdinand and Sophie and evidently respected the murdered couple so much that he hoped to establish a museum in their memory. The vicissitudes of war and the austere peace that followed prevented Puntigam's plans from coming to fruition, and after the priest's death in 1926 the murder weapon and related items ended up in the Jesuit archives in Vienna. Loaned to the Austrian Military History Museum in 2004, Princip's gun and the other objects given to Father Puntigam have been on display ever since - with the aforementioned plaque making it clear that they still belong to Ours.

As the late Paul Harvey used to say, "And now you know... the rest of the story." AMDG.