Montréal, Canada. Wikimedia Commons

To The Peoples of Canada

The exhibit “From the Land to the Peoples” in the Grand Séminaire in Montreal. The phases of preparation and inauguration. The discovery of something new in the concreteness of early Christianity.
John Zucchi

On Dec 5, 2000, Communion and Liberation in Montreal in collaboration with the Grand Séminaire of Montreal, the Newman Centre of McGill University, Ste. Catherine de Sienne Parish, and the Villa Marcellina School launched the exhibit, “From the Land to the Peoples.” The Grand Séminaire was a fitting location for the occasion–which, incidentally, attracted about 100 Montrealers-given its long tradition in Canada’s first metropolis. The seminary is run by the Monsieurs de Saint-Sulopice founded by Jean Jacques Olier in Paris.

There are a few points that I would like to highlight about the event, “From the Land to the Peoples,” which became our community’s gesture for the Jubilee Year.

I was delighted by the opening remarks of the Rector of the Grand Séminaire, Marcel Demers, and the Vicar-General of the Archdiocese, Bishop Anthony Mancini, who spoke about how fortunate we were to have such a great exhibit visit our seminary and our city. What was especially striking was the syntony between our experience in the community and the words of our two guest speakers, His Excellency James Mathew Wingle, Bishop of Yarmouth (Nova Scotia) and ex-rector of St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, and Professor Janine Langan, foundress of the Christianity and Culture Programme at the University of Toronto. Bishop Wingle reminded us that all of time and space have been given us to communicate to others what we have met in our lives, and that the Church is not against culture, even a hostile culture; rather, it penetrates culture as a leaven, transforming it. Professor Langan emphasized the category of the “encounter” and spoke in endearing terms about the exhibit as yet another possibility of an encounter with the Church, with that same Church that was encountered by those who met the apostles on their journeys. Professor Langan told us that the exhibit shows with tangible everyday objects how lives were transformed, as Christians “impregnated” the world with the sign of Christ.

What was a consolation for me was to see Bishop Wingle and Professor Langan emphasize those categories that are so close to us. Often I find that there is a resistance to the vocabulary and the meanings that Father Giussani has stressed for us: for examples, the category of the encounter, the awareness of the hostile aspects of the common mentality, and the need to penetrate the real world and its culture through an encounter, in a concrete and tangible way. Often friends will say to me that this is all and well, but our concern with these questions and our use of this vocabulary is something particular to the movement of CL, or that these are “continental” or “European” concerns. It was consoling for me to see that Bishop Wingle and Professor Langan had a conception of the person of Christ and of the Church which has led them to adopt the same vocabulary, to take on the same awareness of what the Church is.

There was one other beautiful aspect to the exhibit and this was to see our very tiny group of young people–what we have hesitantly and probably temporarily called ”la grande école,” Julien, Adrien, and Giacomo, all in their early teen years, guide a few groups of young people through the exhibit. Fr. Luca from Massachusetts, a member of the Fraternity of St. Charles Borromeo, helped to prepare them (in a special session apart from the adults) to be guides for the exhibit. These three youngsters saw a newness in the concreteness of early Christianity and they guided the classes of students through it with a freshness, a vigor, and a judgment that became a provocation to us adults–that same freshness and desire and affection that motivated those Apostles to leave their land.

Excerpts from the remarks of Janine Langan
“What a good working tool,” I said to myself at the beginning. But then I realized that there was something far more important here: the occasion for an experience, an invitation to an encounter, and I hope that many will have this encounter.

And right here is the aim of any exhibition. An exhibition is a call to an encounter, just as all of education is the call to an encounter: “Come out of your shell, let me introduce you to… life.”

“From the Land to the Peoples” leads us toward the most necessary encounter of all, the encounter with the living Church. I am not saying: with the Church of the early centuries; there are not fifty Churches. The Church of today is the Church of the early centuries, just as it is true that I am the tomboy who climbed trees and the impassioned student of the future Cardinal Daniélou.

Since it is so successful in provoking this encounter with the Church, “From the Land to the Peoples” deserves a profound reflection on the part of all Christians involved in education, both parents and teachers. This is what I would like to do with you this evening.

Why are the churches, even when they seem full, as in Toronto, in fact so empty of young people? Because too rarely do our youth have the chance for an encounter with the living Church that can make them choose personally to come in, to unite themselves with her.
When we speak of the need for vocations, we generally are thinking of the priesthood or other forms of consecrated orders, and too often we forget about the most important vocation of all, the baptismal vocation, the call to choose to live the Church.
This is the experience that “From the Land to the Peoples” proposes and provokes. Why does it manage to do this so well?

1. It shows us tangible objects, which remind us that encountering Christ is not something abstract, that Christ is not a myth or a philosophy. What a shock, for example, for us who tend to make the cross a poetic emblem, the tree of life, when we realize we are standing in front of a stone urn that once held the bones of one Alexander, the son of Simon of Cyrene. There is nothing more useful than these “reality checks” for putting Christ back in the place that is his, at the center of history, true history.

2. It makes us consider the rarity and fragility of the fragments which remain to testify to the activity of the early Christians, their efforts to preserve and transmit the memory of their personal encounter with Christ–all these fragments of stone, these strips of papyrus, these cracked bottoms of glass bowls, objects that time consumes and makes it impossible to interpret without help! And nonetheless, this message has reached us, two thousand years later. What a wonder this is! And what a responsibility for us to find that we must preserve a treasure like this and pass it on to others in turn.

3. It is a moving experience to see the presence of these new Christians imbue the everyday world with the perfume of Christ, with his imprint. In the contact with their fresh joy, the simplest objects become sacred, become signs, just as they would be, centuries later, for St. Benedict, for St. Francis. These rough lanterns, the seals, tombs, rings, cups… How they speak of God-with-us in their basic symbols! Even if some of them can make us smile–like the funerary stele of Abercius–at a certain boastfulness they have about them.

4. What a lesson in creativity! Faced with the problem of finding a visual and literary language to express and transmit their joy at having encountered first the Church and then the Lord, what inventiveness!

5. We must admire the freedom and generosity with which a Julian Martyr, a Minucius Felix, a Clement of Alexandria would find the way to discover in the culture of their times the germs of this message, the desire for this joy. How easily and readily did they adopt pagan forms in order to fill them with this message. For them, everything that is good and beautiful becomes grist for the mill of Christ.

6. And finally, nothing essential has changed, even through all these cultural transformations. What a consolation it is to find at the heart of this Church of the early centuries the same joy, overwhelmed by Baptism, ravished by the Eucharist, devoured by missionary ardor, and turning to contemporary culture in order to transfigure it.

“From the Land to the Peoples” leads us toward this encounter with the young Church that was still in gestation; it is a challenge that every teacher must take up. A difficult challenge, since our exhibit goes against the current of contemporary culture, because our young people no longer know how to read, look, and listen, since they have so little experience of truly human relationships. But at the same time, this is its chance too. Mother Teresa, the Pope, and others have turned so many lives upside down with these three simple words: “Come and see.”

Some passages from the talk by Most Rev. James Mathew Wingle, Bishop of Yarmouth
Just as individual persons need to be aware of their past in order to realize who they are, so also communities need to know their corporate past in order to understand who they are in the present moment. The faith community that we call the Church is not different. We have a past, as we can see–an exceptionally rich and noble heritage, and by learning about that which has preceded us, we acquire a sound and well-formed sense of our true identity.

The witness of the first-century life of the Church is the evidence of the way in which the command of the Lord “to go out and proclaim to the whole world the Good News of salvation” was taken as a real and pressing imperative. Courage and bold daring is the hallmark of our forebearers in faith. This audacious claim met with the hostility of the surrounding environment, for it stood up to the counter claims of a powerful dominant culture. Contemporary “secular humanism” is also a virulent anti-gospel environment.

Catholic nature of the Christian presence and claim
The glory depicted in the photographs of artifacts from the Christian presence in the first century show us how the faith is Catholic in a spatial and a temporal sense.

The Gospel can never be limited to any one locality. While indeed expressed, and very concretely present in the age, in literature, in poetry, in song, in magnificent works of art, none of these expressions, splendid though they may be, are capable of exhausting the power of the Gospel. Divine truth is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ with a compelling immediacy. While it is true that the human reality of Jesus Christ during the days when He walked among us (as one of us) veiled his divine nature, nonetheless we know in faith that the entire Godhead was present in the man Jesus Christ.

Temporal Catholic sense
No one age can exhaust the mystery of Christ for Catholic means universal. The era or age depicted in this exhibit is shaped and formed, informed, by the truth and goodness of Jesus Christ, a real Jesus Christ, not just an idea or a concept. The Church is herself a mystery, in the sense of a truth that is greater than our understanding. We see certain aspects and tangible manifestations of what we refer to as “the Church” but there is always more than what we see. At the heart of the mystery of the Church is the presence of her Divine Bridegroom, the Risen Lord.

Jesus Christ is the definitive entry of God into the affairs of humanity. The Fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, is a fragile moment, when God waits on the cooperation of His creature to make present his eternal plan of salvation. The frail quality of our human flesh becomes the bearer of the gift of Eternal Life.

The Church is essentially oriented toward the future–God’s future for the world. The world is His creation, and is destined to reflect His glory and goodness. The Church is not a museum that merely safeguards a bygone past. While treasuring what has gone before us, and understanding our organic and essential connection with it, we grow in the present and into the future. This exhibit shows us the creative power of God at work through faith in the hearts of real men and real women who believe. We can do no less in our time. To express the indescribable mystery of the Divine in the limited material of our present age and culture is the invitation and the urgent task. We cannot be content to be relegated to the sidelines, as the contemporary mind-set tends to do. Catholic faith is never purely private, purely personal. It is a public truth. Jesus Christ is real, a genuine presence in history. At one concretely identifiable moment in time, He entered human history. But his presence in human history goes way beyond the bounds and limits of the earthly existence of one man. His is a continuing presence in the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit who animates and shapes the Church as the real sacrament of his real presence today.