InsightOut: Ceremonial Splendour

Duane Rendle is the Dean of Students at St. Michael’s College. Originally from Victoria, BC, Duane completed his BA at the University of Victoria in 1993, and then came to U of T to complete a Master of Industrial Relations. While attending U of T, Duane served as a don at St. Michael’s College and became very involved in student life. In 1998, St. Mike’s hired Duane to serve as their Dean of Men, a precursor to his current position.

Ceremonial Splendour

Duane Rendle in academic regalia carrying a ceremonial mace at the head of an outdoor academic procession

Over the past 22 years, I have had the great pleasure of watching our students graduate from a unique vantage point—that of the convocation beadle.

What, pray tell, is a beadle? That is a very common question and the same one I asked in the spring of 1999 when I first assumed the role. The beadle (sometimes spelled “bedel”) is an officer at a college responsible for ushering students into a formal ceremony, ensuring they are seated, and leading them back out when the ceremony concludes. Beadles are easily distinguished from the students by their academic regalia and, most notably, the presence of a large mace resting firmly against their shoulder.   

The mace has been a symbol of university authority since the 11th century. It was originally intended as a weapon (!), presumably to fend off the rabble who begrudged the pomp and pageantry of the academic elites. Mercifully, such incidents were rare—so rare that universities began to adorn the mace, transforming it from a tool of combat into a ceremonial sceptre.

The University of Toronto mace was handcrafted in London, England and is constructed of gold-plated silver. It was a gift from Lt.-Col. Eric Phillips (chair of the Board of Governors from 1945 to 1964) and was unveiled at the June 1951 convocation. Since then, tens of thousands of graduands have witnessed the mace being reverently carried into Convocation Hall to officially commence their graduation ceremonies. 

Under the mace’s crown is a cushion that bears the coat of arms of George IV, the sovereign who granted the university’s first charter in 1827. As the mace is turned, a series of panels reveal the cipher of King George IV, then the arms of Canada, of Ontario, and the University of Toronto. Additional images of crosses, maple leaves, fleurs-de-lys and beavers pay homage to U of T’s cultural and religious influences.

(At the Baccalaureate Mass preceding the convocation ceremony, I lead the graduands into St. Basil’s Church with the St. Michael’s mace. Please see the accompanying video to learn more about it.)

Serving as the beadle is easily the best perk of being the Dean of Students. Prior to the ceremony I am invited to the Chancellor’s reception, where I get to hobnob with academic dignitaries and the honorary degree recipients. Over the years I have met many well-known Canadians from the worlds of politics, the arts and academics, but I think my favourite encounter was with the irascible Rex Murphy, of The National Post fame. Mr. Murphy seemed genuinely interested in finding out what a dean of students actually does, and his east coast charm made me feel like I was chatting with the fellow on the next barstool, rather than a Canadian icon.  

Leading the academic procession into Convocation Hall is always exhilarating. When the organ chimes and we begin our measured walk down the main aisle, every eye in the hall turns to watch the spectacle. In decades past, our procession was accompanied by the clicking of countless cameras and the light of 1,000 flashes; now though, most choose to silently record the grand entrance using a variety of handheld devices. Once the stage is ascended, I gently place the mace in its ornate cradle atop the beautifully carved table, where it serves as a silent witness to the crowning achievement of each graduating class.      

As the ceremony concludes and the second stanza of “O Canada” begins, I take my cue to retrieve the mace from its holder and lead our newly minted graduands out of the hall and into the throng of well-wishers that await. But for me, my job is just beginning. Over the years I have made it a practice to linger in the crowd for as long as the Chancellor’s Office will permit, to congratulate families, shake the hands of the graduands, and pose with them in photos with the magisterial mace. Over the past two decades I have had the honour of being included in countless portraits, and I am always grateful to be included in such an intimate family moment. This, for me, is the highlight of convocation day and, after a respite necessitated by the pandemic, I cannot wait to return to campus and fulfill the hallowed duties of the beadle once again. 

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Reid B. Locklin is Associate Professor of Christianity and the Intellectual Tradition, a joint appointment at St. Michael’s College and the University of Toronto Department of Religion. His research and writing focus mainly on Hindu-Christian Studies and Catholic theologies of interreligious dialogue. He lives on the Rouge Tract of Williams Treaty Territory, which is the subject of a specific land claim submitted by the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation.

Re-Remembering the Land

Photograph of a large painting of a floral woodland pattern with birds, achieved with many small dots to emulate beadwork.
The Wisdom of the Universe, Christi Belcourt, 2014

I was hired to teach in St. Mike’s interdisciplinary Christianity and Culture programme in 2004. At least since that time, the story of the University has always been told in a fairly straightforward way:

St. Michael’s was founded in 1852 by Bishop Armande de Charbonnel, the second Bishop of Toronto, who entrusted the school to his childhood teachers—the Basilian Fathers of Annonay, France—in 1853. The University would continue to grow, becoming a leading centre of international scholarship within a century of its founding.

When asked about the particular tract of land—Clover Hill—on which the University sits, presidents and chancellors will push the story back one frame, praising the prominent Catholic convert, John Elmsley (1801–1863). Elmsley gifted Clover Hill to the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Basilians for the specific purpose of responding to de Charbonnel’s request. And there, at least in its usual telling, our story ends. In our collective memory, the University and the land it occupies more or less spring into being from the heart of the Church, aptly symbolised by Elmsley’s own heart, now lodged in the walls of our collegiate parish. It’s a beautiful, inspiring story for me, as a Catholic convert myself and as a member of the college faculty.

The story is also, regrettably, a pernicious lie.

I am being deliberately provocative here. I don’t actually doubt that Elmsley transferred a piece of paper he had acquired for these lands to our founding religious congregations in 1851. The lie is not in what our collective memory affirms; it is in what it presumes or, worse, deliberately hides from view. The lie is in the unspoken assumption that the land was Elmsley’s to give.

How might we remember our story more truthfully? A couple of years ago, as part of a larger project, I asked a talented Ph.D. student at the Department for the Study of Religion to research this question. She wrote a new history of the land, one that begins in the year 900, rather than 1851. Here is a selection from her executive summary:

People have lived on this land for thousands of years according to Anishinaabe oral traditions. First Nations such as the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, Anishinaabek, and Tionnontati, traveled and made homes in this part of Turtle Island for centuries. More recently the Mississaugas of the Credit have belonged here, when they migrated south via the Carrying Place trail in the late 17th century.

Europeans began arriving in Turtle Island in the 1600’s. In 1805 the British Crown illegally claimed the land north of Lake Ontario for the city of York—what is now Toronto—in order to establish a capital for Upper Canada . . . The first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, nonetheless established York in 1793, 12 years before the Crown deemed the Toronto Purchase official, and despite protests from the Mississaugas. He divided the land into Park Lots: long rectangular-shaped sections of land that ran between what are now Queen and Bloor streets.

The University of St. Michael’s College lies on what was originally Park Lots 9 & 10. These lots were owned by John Elmsley, a Chief Justice of Upper Canada. When his son—also John Elmsley—inherited the land, he donated two acres of Clover Hill to the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1851 and then four lots to the Basilian Fathers for a new St. Michael’s College site. 

—Sarina Annis, “This Land.

The full narrative is definitely worth your time. It includes references, archival images of relevant treaties and other legal documents, and links to First Nation and Canadian government web sources on the history of Tkoronto.

Now, I want to be clear that I do not think that this longer history is “the truth.” Haudenosaunee colleagues in particular might question some of its claims. But I have reason to believe such colleagues would also view it as a vast improvement over the story we have been telling ourselves so far—precisely because it draws attention to our collective lie about the land.

What significance might a new narrative have for St. Mike’s as a university community? We cannot undo the past. We can, however, choose to remember that past more truthfully and to begin taking real steps to (re)build relationships. Consider the financial settlement reached between the Mississaugas of the Credit and the Government of Canada in 2010. This settlement does not resolve all outstanding differences or redress most specific harms of the Toronto Purchase. It does mean that, a full six years after I settled into my new job and office in Odette Hall, the University’s claim to set that building on that land attained some degree of moral legitimacy. Beyond this, through a partnership with SHARE, the USMC administration is exploring ways to deploy its financial assets—a primary fruit of the illegitimate acquisition of land—to advance initiatives related to (Re)Conciliation.

We are an academic institution, of course, and the main fruit of re-remembering this land will be in our teaching and research. There are tentative signs of movement on this front. The Faculty of Theology and the College division have introduced new courses responsive to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Along with our academic partners in the wider University of Toronto community, we have begun to include a land acknowledgement at the beginning of major events and many of our classes—and also on our website. I was relieved to learn that, in the wake of the horrific discovery of 215 children’s bodies at Kamloops, St. Mike’s joined other members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Canada in calling for greater accountability on the part of the global Catholic Church and our own academic institutions. Some St. Mike’s staff, faculty, alumnae, administrators, board members and benefactors have also raised their own voices in grief and protest.

These are initial steps, of mainly symbolic value. In the coming months and years, we will learn whether and to what extent we are committed to translating them into substantive action. If we do make such a commitment, I believe, it will follow at least in part from our willingness to re-remember our own history, and the longer story of this land.

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Laurie Morris is communications director at the University of St. Michael’s College and the proud owner of a Conklin Carnival t-shirt. She holds a B.A. in English from U of T and a certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility from St. Michael’s. 

Appreciating the Gifts of Dad

Photograph of Laurie Morris and her father sitting in formal wear in the back of a vehicle. Laurie is doing "bunny ears" behind her dad's head.

As Father’s Day approaches, I’m thinking about my late father more than usual. He wasn’t a prodigy, but he definitely had a record of doing things at a young age.

My dad married at a young age. He was 19, and my mother had just turned 20. They met in September at teacher’s college, went to the Royal Winter Fair on their first date, and got married that summer after graduation. My mum got a job at St. John Fisher teaching Grade 4 while my dad found himself at what was then called John Newman Catholic School, teaching Grade 8, which made him about six years older than his students. 

Both my parents were very committed to education. Once I came along, the only way for my dad to complete his Bachelors’ Degree and go on to get his MEd was to do it outside of his actual teaching job, going to school nights, weekends, and throughout the summer—shout-out to Woodward (7T4). I didn’t see much of his day job, but I do remember him coming home after night courses and greeting him with a hearty “Hi, Dave!” much the way my mother did.

The earliest memories I have of my dad “at work” are of his summer job. He worked at a service station fixing cars, pumping gas and—most impressive to my five-year-old self—he got to feed the guard dogs that lived out back in the junk car lot. He would sometimes bring home monarch butterflies that had found themselves on the wrong side of the front grill of a car. Although dead, they remained fascinatingly beautiful. As far as I was concerned, my dad had the coolest job in the world. It was only later toward the end of that same summer, as the days got shorter and the nights began to cool down, I found out that my dad was actually a teacher, and that he would be heading back to school in September. I was shocked and not just a little disappointed. I was also very suspicious about what else my parents had been keeping from me. It was soon after that my sister Lisa was born.

My dad became a principal at a young age. He had very strong views about education—and everything else for that matter—but as an educator and an administrator he was very focused on meeting the needs of every type of learner. He and my mother ended up at the same school, Dad as principal and Mom as resource teacher (fortunately I was at a school a few miles away) and there they had the opportunity to pilot a number of teaching approaches for children on the autism spectrum, as well as increasing support services for children with learning disabilities and expanding literacy programs.

As I became a sullen teen, I frequently challenged his desire to “work for the man” that was the Catholic school board, which at the time—at least at my high school—shied away from teaching evolution and characterized anything non-Catholic as “other religions.” 

We often argued it out at the dinner table. He’d listen, I’d rant—he’d listen again and then say: “Laurie, if you want to make change, you have to get in there and make change. You have to co-opt the system to change the system.”

My dad died at a young age, in 2013. He was 67, and as much as his students benefited from teaching innovations in his elementary schools, he also benefited from a U of T teaching hospital where his unique health issues were finally diagnosed. Later, the complexities of his condition became the topic of many white papers. While dying, he became a case study that advanced learning in research and health care.

I miss my dad at least once a day. I miss the way he could laugh so hard that he’d lose breath. I miss his ability to fix pretty much anything with WD-40 and epoxy glue. I even miss arguing with him. I appreciate the gifts he shared and the things he taught us. Father’s Day and every day, I’m encouraged to be more like him.

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Sarah Figueiredo is a Humber Post-Graduate Public Relations student on internship with the St. Mike’s communication team. Previously, she completed her Honours Bachelor of Arts in Economics at McMaster University, where she took an active role is student life on campus, finding a passion for improving the post-secondary student experience. Sarah currently resides in Cambridge, ON.

The Ethernet Connection: Starting a Digital Internship at St. Mike’s

Portrait photograph of a vibrant blooming pink tree outside the windows of Founders House, with two tall apartment buildings and a blue sky in the background.
Photo by Betty Noakes

Typically, I imagine parents aren’t such a present part of an internship’s first day.

Truthfully, as my commute to the office was a short 15 steps from my bed to my computer, I should have expected 2021’s unusualness extended to internships.

Starting an internship in a pandemic is both a standard and a unique experience. Contradictory, I know.

On the one hand, I had my parents popping their heads into my “office”—a somewhat quiet corner of the house where I stationed my laptop and ring light—to say good luck and offer snacks. On the other, I have a group chat full of program peers who were carefully monitoring their mute buttons as well.

Venturing on this journey with the rest of my cohort helped make this COVID internship feel somewhat normal. Two days before my official start with the St. Michael’s team, I met with my classmates. Naturally, the conversation progressed to impending internships.

Those who already started spoke of awkward Zoom hellos or introduction emails with a generous amount of exclamation points. Others who were waiting to start listened eagerly, taking mental notes. Finally, we fell into the comfortable pattern of sharing fears, fumbles, and fulfillments.

The sense of place I felt in my program was a constant in a changing world. Taking a step outside the virtual classroom and away from my peers felt like ripping away the security blanket we’d knit together the past eight months.

But, I’ve been told a little rain will make the flowers grow. As St. Mike’s is a place where physical flowers and the bloom of knowledge thrive, I knew a bed of support would cushion my next scary step. Unfortunately, though, that didn’t make it less intimidating.

I assume the first day of an internship typically starts with stopping by your supervisor’s office to say hello and possibly setting up a desk or computer. My supervisor was currently on the other side of the country. My bubble-wrapped computer was delivered to me fully configured to take on the day.

So instead, I started my internship doing what any student is so naturally inclined to do—I researched. Beginning with the St. Michael’s 180 strategic plan, I reviewed the college’s priorities, scrolled through official Twitter pages and dug deep into the Google abyss.

I’m also not above admitting I spent maybe a bit too much time stressing how to Zoom-introduce myself. Should I say a fun fact about myself? Do I even have fun facts about myself? What camera angle looks the friendliest yet professional? Wait, maybe it will be a camera-off meeting?

I’m happy to report that my overthinking was unwarranted, as my first day started with my new coworkers projecting warmth and welcome through their webcams. The format wasn’t unique in any way, a simple introduction with an explanation of your role. I nervously forwent the fun facts. But, the team’s smiles paired with their genuine interest in my story differentiated this Zoom call for those my peers spoke of.

This atmosphere was evident in all encounters I had that week. Whether it be through hello emails or individuals reaching out to offer help, it was clear the USMC team took fostering community seriously.

Later in the week, I enjoyed attending my first virtual work lunch soiree, and I genuinely mean it was a pleasure. The group seemed to make the simple game of virtual two truths and a lie evoke genuine laughter instead of awkward Zoom talk my peers have talked so much about.

From stories of past jobs to celebrity run-ins, the group welcomed me into their pasts with no hesitation. I was honoured with the trust they bestowed on me, having been a part of the team for a mere 72 hours.

I felt a sense of place in the openness and camaraderie as I sat alone, 110 kilometres away.  I did not need to trek to St. Mary Street to feel a community.

Looking back on my first week, my only regret is not sharing an exciting insight or fact about myself during that first welcome meeting. I was lucky as St. Mike’s is where the community is encouraged to reach out first; I had many chances to let the team get to know me. Though had it not, I’m not sure how long I would have spent finding the courage to build more than an ethernet connection with my new community.

So, to my fellow digital interns, I have a dare for you—I dare you to be open and authentically yourself every moment of your next adventure. I assure you, especially if you find yourself in the (digital) halls of St. Mike’s, it will be worth the risk.

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Nicolas Vergara Ruiz is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology and minoring in Immunology and Creative Expression in Society. Originally from Lima, Peru, Vergara Ruiz spent parts of his childhood abroad in Bogota, Washington D.C., and Brussels. He values the close-knit community of St. Mike’s, and has served as an international community director of SMCSU, mentorship program coordinator, and commuter don this past year.

Basil’s Grand Tour

Photograph of post author Nicolas Vergara Ruiz standing in front of The Grand Place, the central square of Brussels, Belgium, wearing a blue medical mask and holding a Basil the bulldog plushie.
Nicolas Vergara Ruiz at the Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium

“Home is St. Mike’s.”

More than simply being the chosen message displayed on the 2017 orientation week t-shirts, this phrase envelops the countless backstories and identities of students, staff, and alumni into a shared sense of belonging in our beloved college.

To some, this expression might surface thoughts of a sea of blue, red, green, and yellow shirts, along with the familiar words of the Hoikety Choik; to others, a favourite spot within our skyscraper-surrounded safe haven in downtown Toronto. It would be a stretch, however, for most to fit this phrase into the virtual reality that we have all been subject to during the past academic year.

In this strange setting, the University of Toronto community grappled with the notion of togetherness. There was no welcome desk waiting for the tired smiles of international students arriving for the first time at Pearson Airport, graduating seniors reached their last lecture through a Zoom link, and interactions of all kinds were reduced to rectangular boxes at the mercy of lag.

Certainly, it was, and still remains for the time being, a necessary sacrifice to keep our loved ones safe and protect courageous front-line workers all around. But for a global community where over one in five students are international, it represented a challenge which tested the strength of U of T’s very saying: boundlessness.

This past year, I served the St. Mike’s community from abroad, tasked with supporting first-year and international students, arguably two of the student groups who this year would find it hardest to connect with our college. And so: how to bring St. Mike’s just a little closer in a time when distances seem especially large?

Photograph of a lined notebook with writing and a photograph of a young Nicolas Vergara Ruiz wearing a shirt that says "PERU" and holding a plush fox to a photograph of Barack Obama in a newspaper. 

The writing: "A man (Barack Obama) was on the newspaper. I said, 'today he's gonna become president.' 'President' said Rusty 'yes president' I said. 

"My weekend with Rusty was the best I said. 'I wish to see you soon.' Me to said Rusty thinking about the great times we had. 'Bye' I said. 'Bye to you too' said rusty with a sad face.
Vergara Ruiz’s second grade entry about Rusty

I found the answer in hazy but certainly heartwarming memories of my passing through Ms. Fox’s second grade class, in Ashburton Elementary School. “Foxtown,” as we called it, was fortunate enough to have a pet fox, Rusty, who would transcend his plush nature in the eyes of 8-year-olds and become our companion for a weekend during the school year.

We kept track of Rusty’s adventures in a notebook, which turned a mandatory writing exercise into a privilege—bragging rights for some—to be presented at the beginning of the following week.

In 2019, I returned to Foxtown on a reading week trip to Washington D.C., a decade’s worth of time now separating second grade from my first year of university. Sure enough, I found a smiling (and surprised) Ms. Fox, my old pal Rusty, and what had been my crooked handwriting from the time.

Of course, what evolved as Basil’s World Tour, a trip involving a mini version of our school mascot Basil the Bulldog, would take on an entirely different scope than its elementary school counterpart. For starters, a plush toy tends to hold different meaning for university students than it does for a second-grade class, which made the project less about the material object and more on what its travels represented for those taking part. Moreover, we would be relying on postal systems worldwide to transport our college’s mascot, not all of which could be considered reliable. And with all things considered, there was one question which preceded all in importance: would enough members of our community welcome the idea of touring a plush Basil around the world and, if so, would their geographical location be fitting to provide an itinerary worthy enough for us to maintain our project name?

Graphic of a world map with marker icons dropped in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and North America and connecting lines, to show Basil's journey.
Basil’s journey

The support was overwhelming: within a matter of weeks, we had a 22-stop, 54,152-km trip across all continents save for Antarctica. Beginning his travels on October 15th, 2020, Basil first visited fellow commuter dons Athalia, Natalie, Anthony, Shayndel, and Andrew, enjoying the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Zoo, and an impromptu fishing trip before crossing international boundaries for the first time, to Belgium.

There, he was welcomed into the Vergara Ruiz household with open arms in a time which was already proving to be a handful—an intercontinental move back to Peru. Aside from witnessing the gradual packing of our belongings into boxes, I was still able to take Basil to neighbouring countries Germany and the Netherlands, as well as get a picture with him in the Grand Place, considered by many to be the very heart of Europe.

After an all too brief visit, Basil reached Incheon, South Korea, where Eunha and he were able to enjoy a walk at sunrise. Then, it was learning how to play the guitar with Yihang in Qingdao, China. And enjoying a swim in Singapore with Meghna.

Photograph of the Basil the bulldog plushie in front of a sign with Korean writing.
Basil in Incheon, South Korea

The start of the winter semester, however, brought with it some tough news for our project. While Basil had reached Port Louis, Mauritius, there had been some problems with customs. As weeks with no news passed, we came to realize that our original route through Africa, visiting Samuel and Andrea, would unfortunately have to be postponed until more news on Basil’s status would surface. To this day, none came.

While disconcerting, a thorough mitigation of risks prior to the start of the tour meant we had an ace up our sleeve: the power of production en masse. In a matter of days, a second Basil joined Antonio for a gastronomic tour of Lima, Peru, and the journey through the Americas would continue.

As the 2020–2021 academic year drew to a close, Basil had gone on a hike in Monterrey, Mexico with Rebeca, toured Los Angeles, California with Ella, visited the Sleepy Hollow cemetery with Morgan in Concord, Massachusetts, and walked alongside Kiera by Lake Erie, near Buffalo, in upstate New York.

Photograph of a hand holding up the Basil the bulldog plushie to the Hollywood sign in the background.
Basil in Hollywood, USA

At last, Basil returned to Canada, first with a short visit to Jennifer in Vancouver, British Columbia just in time to see Cherry Blossoms in full bloom before returning to Ontario. In the Greater Toronto Area, Basil was present for Nicholas’s final moments as an undergrad, caught up on video games with Sam, and practiced yoga with Ace. Currently, Basil is wrapping up his time with Elva before making his way to campus for one last adventure with Arjun, the final stop of the trip.

It has been a little over seven months since Basil first left campus. Despite the distance from downtown Toronto, I would argue that Basil was never far from home. St. Mike’s is very much Brennan Hall, the angel statue on the Quad, and the corner of Bay and St. Joseph; but in a year where the vibrancy of our community was heard through built-in computer microphones, we’re reminded that the Spirit of St. Mike’s cannot be contained to physical coordinates on a map. This year, our college didn’t have one single address, but many. In lieu of recognizable landmarks of campus, there were smiles, textbooks, and study breaks, proving that, while taking the strange circumstances of this past year into account, we are still able to return to a familiar phrase, perhaps with a slight twist: “St. Mike’s is Home.”

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Shmily Lin is a first-year student interested in life sciences. He enjoys long walks on the beach, naps, video games and bubble tea.

To My First-Year Self

man working on a computer next to a window

They say your first year of university is one for the ages. It’s unforgettable, unimaginable, and irreplaceable.

I can’t say they lied.

Like many of us, I went into the year with a profound feeling of loss—that I was missing something I’d never get back. It went beyond turning 18 or leaving home for the first time, and it was coupled with the bitter tinge of disappointment that I’d been robbed of the past four years of hard work.

For the majority in our senior year of high school, perhaps it’s not quite right to say we deserved better. After all, what we get in life is largely drawn in varying shades of privilege. Still, my expectations didn’t seem that unreasonable: partying with classmates while flushing our GPAs down the metaphorical drain, practicing the bleacher walks as the principal handed us our papers, and temporary liberation from learning that was over a decade in the making.

There was a small hope that the pandemic would end along with the last of our childhood, but it seemed only one of those was to be.

I dimly recall spending my 18th birthday in a hotel room at the Chelsea, drinking lukewarm tea from the semi-broken boiler and idly finishing a virtual colouring book with the rest of my quarantine cohort. This was four days after I had arrived in Canada, trading the sunny shores of San Fran for the laze and haze of downtown Toronto.

Exiting that hotel room and re-entering the world was elating, until I remembered that the world was still turned off. University wouldn’t be some magical coming-of-age moment. Nothing had changed except my occupation with fresh air. My life would be lived in my dorm, working on problem sets and hoarding food from the Canada Room.

Life online wasn’t awful, although often I can’t tell whether that’s because I truly feel that way or I’ve just never had the chance to experience anything different. Sometimes I’ll hear stories from the upper years about all the things we’re missing, and they’ll proclaim their profuse apologies. And yet, it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had, much like an absent father or being an only child.

For me, it was okay that the most exciting thing in frosh was when one of our coordinators forgot to un-mute. For me, it was okay that we had to scream over the six-foot distances between the tables in the Canada Room just to have a conversation. For me, it was okay that I have never got to meet my study group in person.

This is the year we were handed, and it was the year I’d make do with.

Personally, online courses were probably the pinnacle of ineptitude. While I can appreciate the convenience of watching all my lectures in the room I sleep, the limited socialization opportunities, the abundance of micro-assignments, and the often deplorable wording of multiple-choice exam questions more than forfeits any positives of zoomiversity.

As a friend so eloquently states, “If I only had an hour left to live, I’d spend it in tutorial, because every time I join it feels like a lifetime.”

People often ask me why I traveled all the way to Canada just to live in another lockdown. And, to be honest, I’d planned my trip when the status quo was to still have a few in-person courses. Perhaps that makes me the biggest clown in the world to spend the year in my dorm room shopping for cute posters and waiting for my Quercus quiz to load. Opportunities were limited, people were scarce, and the food from the Canada Room wasn’t particularly welcoming.

I will say I probably had it better than most. Trudging through high school as an overly sociable person, I took the time to look for what limited opportunities there were—I was elected to my house council, I tried student government, I dabbled in a fair amount of clubs, and I even joined an a cappella group (shoutout to SurroundSound!) to fulfill my dreams of reenacting scenes from Pitch Perfect.

The worst part of lockdown is the repetition of daily habits. The worst part of lockdown at university is the endless cramming of course material, desperately churning out assignment after assignment in hopes of optimizing some strange division of marks. Many courses also had the strangest testing schedules in addition to a mess of other work. In the first semester, I had a course with a midterm in the second week. I had simply thought they weren’t very appropriately named; it wasn’t until much later that I realized midterms usually referred to a test that was actually in the middle of the term.

It’s saddening—but not very surprising—when you realize just how many first years thought the same.

Everything past November felt like even more of a blur, as if my confusion was accelerating with every day that passed. I remember the sadness of not travelling home for the holidays, the stress of finals, and the idle boredom of waiting for an end to a year that seemed everlasting. The second semester felt like Groundhog Day—a reminder that nothing had changed.

I’m living now with the acute knowledge that nothing will change next year either. But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that knowledge can be wrong. Maybe I did go into my first year anticipating a train wreck, and instead I ended up at a foreign station. It wasn’t quite wonderland, but I’m always wonderstruck at how much worse it could’ve been.

I’ve learned that things are never as bad as they seem.

If the pandemic were like a fulcrum, changing the way the world turned, then I still had many levers to pull within myself. So, to my depressed first-year self: you’re gonna have your levers pulled. And, you’re gonna find many levers left to pull.

Life is much a balancing act, and there’s three more years to figure it out.

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Douglas Moggach studied political science and economics at University of Toronto, and was active in political and social affairs at St. Mike’s. He obtained his PhD from Princeton, and has taught at University of Ottawa since 1976. He has held visiting appointments in Australia, China, Germany, Italy, and the UK, and has published widely in German philosophy. He is a class representative for the St. Michael’s Class of 1970, and will be sharing a St. Mike’s memory at this year’s Honoured Years Cocktail Hour during Alumni Reunion.

Coping and Partly Coping: Living with the Pandemic

Photograph of two large stone blocks carved with Ancient Greek writing against a blue sky background.

The academic year 2020–21 had been shaping up to be an exceptionally good one. I retired from teaching a few years ago, but have remained active in research. So I had been invited to spend the month of October 2020 at the University of Salamanca, and had also been awarded visiting fellowships in the UK from January to May 2021. The intent was to discuss my latest book, which came out in Germany just before the pandemic, and to get feedback on my current projects, and of course to see my friends and favourite places.

Alas! All these and other plans had to be postponed indefinitely. Only now, 14 months later, is it even possible to think about rescheduling these activities; but even so, everything remains tentative. My family and I have been fortunate in that we’ve been spared physical illness, and there is much to be grateful for, as we must constantly remind ourselves. Still, the frustrations and delays were often hard to deal with, as I know we can all say.

So how to cope? Why not reactivate some dormant projects, or make progress in other endeavours that I had belatedly begun? Besides being vaccinated, I have administered other pandemic antidotes to myself. Ever since I was a boy, I had wanted to learn Ancient Greek. It wasn’t offered in my high school, but I had studied it on my own, on and off over the years. The language is elusive and astonishingly complex, the hardest I have ever attempted, and as an autodidact I had never been able to advance beyond intermediate level. A good friend who is a retired Classics professor kindly offered to guide me through Plato’s Apology in the original, and with another friend we arranged weekly meetings on Zoom, reading the Greek, struggling to translate it, and having the impenetrable points of syntax and vocabulary explained to us. It was highly rewarding, not only because I now feel able to tackle other Greek texts with some confidence, but also because of the camaraderie that we felt and could look forward to experiencing every week: virtual, indeed, but genuine.

Another antidote was bagpipes. I began learning a few years ago, again fulfilling a childhood dream, and I think it’s even a harder exercise than Plato’s Greek! It takes manual dexterity and an ample lung capacity, and presents significant challenges for late beginners like me. I have an outstanding teacher, patient and encouraging, so that my weekly lessons, remote, of course, are always enjoyable, even when my renditions are less than stellar. Before the lockdowns I had accompanied the band that my teacher directs on one of their tours of Scotland, in the course of which I was able to play along (only drones, no melody, wisely), in Skye, and to meet the Queen when the band performed at Balmoral. My services were not required for that particular performance, but I was designated to present Her Majesty with a gift. On being introduced to her as my teacher’s newest student, Queen Elizabeth looked at me with some surprise, and asked, “Really? Just now?” An apt comment, but I persist, even now. I hope to be good enough to play “Scots wha’ hae” with the band on the next visit to the Wallace Monument in Stirling. Regardless, the lessons are another high point during weeks and months of confinement.

eMaybe the most important thing is to keep working and keep focus. Though the content is often good, Zoom conferences lack the immediacy and ease of interaction that you get in personal meetings, and deprived of my usual networks and sources of inspiration, I found myself floundering and unproductive for too long during the lockdowns. That had to change, and I recently roused myself to submit a new book proposal to a university press. I await the assessment, but in any case I intend to complete this manuscript in the next twelve months. As a colleague once bluntly advised me when I complained about the difficulties I was having in revising an article, “Work harder!” He was right. That was the answer back then, and perhaps it is the best pandemic antidote right now, too. It’s not the same, and it’s not as good as it might have been had so much time not been irretrievably lost. I’m only partly coping, if I’m honest with myself, but as Aristotle instructs us, the good for us human beings is always the best attainable good, even if it’s not the absolute best. So with that, with labour and Aristotelian prudence, we cope as best we can.

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Dr. Darren Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michael’s) entitled: “One Canada, Two Catholicisms: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”

Burning up Privilege

Wall mural of two brightly coloured hands, palms facing upward, with a circle surrounding them

On May 10 the University of St. Michael’s College hosted a colloquium on the role of the Catholic university in the 21st Century. A statement was made by one of my co-panelists and colleagues that “racists should be welcome here [St. Mike’s] in love and in truth.” If the statement itself was surprising, perhaps the silence with which it was met was even more so. Not one participant, me included, no one from among the faculty, staff, or leadership challenged that statement.   

Perhaps there were reasons for not responding. Zoom is not the most conducive medium to discuss difficult topics. It’s likely that some people were simply not paying attention behind their faceless Zoom screens. People may not have wanted to draw attention to a remark that might have drawn us away from what they thought were more important foci of the colloquium. Or else there may still be a certain amount of discomfort talking about issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., even in an open academic forum, whether on Zoom or in person. But as the days passed after the colloquium, I thought about what the statement “racists should be welcome here in love and in truth” and the idea that a “discussion group for racists” could be established at St. Mike’s sounded like for the few racialized students and staff participating in the colloquium. And then I thought about the effects of our silence. Increasingly, I felt that not saying anything was irresponsible of me.  

As astounding as it might seem in 2021, to my knowledge, I am the only racialized member of the teaching faculty at St. Mike’s. As such, it is has become both my privilege and responsibility to speak to racism and to try to advocate for those who are underrepresented in the academy whenever I can. My seemingly broken record interventions are authentically welcomed by my colleagues. There is no small amount of irony that I do what is expected of me, performing my own racialized identity in my interventions. A few years ago, my then only female colleague in my faculty and I lamented the conventional roles we played in faculty meetings and discussions. She found herself gently but firmly drawing our attention to sexist language and micro-aggressions as though this had become her responsibility instead of a shared responsibility of all community members. Maybe that’s why I didn’t say anything at the time; maybe I hoped someone else would.   

If indeed silence is consent, then such statements should not be met with silence. The statement “racists should be welcome here in love and in truth” is provocative and merits response, especially for the sake of the few racialized participants in that colloquium as much as for the wider St. Mike’s community. I’d like to now say what I should have said then: racists should not be welcome at St. Mike’s. 

A Catholic university is not a parish, or pious association, or a catechetical institute. Like any university, it is a place for serious, critical, and rigorous academic dialogue and debate. These dialogues and debates are based on accepted facts and not opinions. Racist beliefs and theories are predicated on theories of white supremacy. While these theories may have been taken seriously many years ago in disciplines like phrenology, biology, philosophy, and theology, they have since been debunked based on evidence (or lack thereof) and uncovered for what they truly are. No academic discipline holds even a remote possibility that theories of white supremacy are true or worthy of debate. Further, they are not only false but exceedingly dangerous. Having a discussion group for racists would be akin to inviting people who contend that the earth is flat to an academic discussion with members of the astronomy department or asking biologists to debate the merits of spontaneous generation.

The idea that racists should be welcomed or a discussion group for racists be established on campus seems to be predicated on the questionable claim that catholicity means a Derridean form of “pure” or “absolute” hospitality. Absolute hospitality “welcomes whomever or whatever arrives, without calculation or limit, without concern for self-protection… [it] entails the surrender of one’s home, one’s identity, even one’s life.”[1] This contrasts “conditional” hospitality as the gracious and willing “reception of a guest into safe and friendly space.”[2] All hospitality, in reality and practise, is conditional with “thresholds of possibility, limits and conditions that allow hospitality to be what it is.”[3]   

For St. Benedict, all guests, strangers and pilgrims, should be welcomed as if they were potentially Christ. Chapter 53 of the Rule of St. Benedict instructs the monks, however, that before the stranger can be welcomed into the community, the superior and brothers must first meet the stranger in charity and pray together for peace, before exchanging the kiss of peace (the sign of welcome). The wise and prudent Benedict warns his monks that the kiss of peace should not be exchanged until it can be established that the stranger brings peace and not “the devil’s deceptions” into the community. Even for Western Christianity’s great proponent of welcome, hospitality has its limits when it poses a threat to the wellbeing of the community. Racism is not just a bad idea but an embodied practice that threatens the psychic, psychological, spiritual, and physical well-being of members of the university community. Racialized members already find themselves at risk in so many ways outside of the aspirational safe and friendly space of the Catholic university. Thus, racists should not be welcome into the space of the Catholic university.  

One of my colleagues once offhandedly used the term “burning up privilege.” It has stuck with me ever since. He was referring to ways in which he used up his own acknowledged privilege as a white male university professor to empower others—something he does intentionally and regularly. We “burn up” the privilege that we have not earned to draw others into safe and friendly spaces for exchange, rigorous and critical debate. I think this is what a popular rabbi and itinerant preacher from Nazareth did about 2,000 years ago when he “burned up” his privilege to touch lepers, allowed himself to be touched by prostitutes, ate with sinners and tax collectors, and spoke publicly against religious and social structures that dehumanized. He burned up his privilege, sharing it with those without in order to empower them. Eventually he burned it all up. And we know where that got him. No one was willing to burn up their privilege for him: neither his elite followers nor his most intimate friends would speak up for him. In fact, they denied him into silence. He threw his lot in with the likes of Colten Boushie, Alana Cardinal, Breonna Taylor, Joyce Echaquan and the countless other victims of racism today.   

[1] Jessica Wrobleski, The Limits of Hospitality (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2012) 22.

[2] Wrobleski, xi.

[3] Wrobleski, xi.

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Richard Carter
has been a reference librarian at the St. Mike’s John M. Kelly Library since 2004. He grew up in Ottawa and loves walking, reading, helping students, and being a dad.

On Walks, Good Books, and Libraries

Outdoors, a mountain path next to a drop-off into a valley

What is it cruising past you with an annoying motorized purr, unzipping from behind your ear the entire afternoon? A bee, I’ll wager.

Sometimes, it swerves to a mapped azalea preening by a hedgerow; sometimes it weaves in complicated ever-widening arcs, scenting pollen; other times, aflush, it hovers in such a tizzy over a satellite dish of petals that it hardly knows what to do except keep buzzing. Finally, it settles on a stamen. Then lifts a moment later to an adjacent splash of colour.

Nothing is forced. The bee has simply burst out of the hive into a bright world to explore widely, up close. It is how I have always thought walking, reading, and thinking should be—and research too: unhurried, whimsical, open-minded, observant.


Laurie Lee was an English writer best known for his autobiography Cider with Rosie, but it was the enraptured prose of his sequel—in which he hiked across Spain on foot—that sent me tramping. Laurie Lee went to Spain and walked for months; I set out on a three-day ramble outside Ottawa. It was not very exciting, but it was, at the same time, marvellous. I camped in backyards; I passed bristling cornfields; I busted a tentpole in a thunderstorm; I crossed the 417 highway and felt the contemptuous delight of youth. I lived on apples, water, bread, beans, and cheese. Then I walked home.

Three years later, I met Lee by chance at a village cricket match in Gloucestershire. In a lawn chair, under a broad-brimmed sun-hat, he leaned forward with a kindly grin. He was wise-cracking and curious and full of questions. I told him I liked the rhythm of his sentences. “I try,” he quipped. Then he asked me where “my people” were from.

“Well,” I said, “my grandmother is from Wales.”

“Wales?” He said, surprised. He looked me over. “You look more like a Viking to me—you’ve a lot to answer for!”

Not long before, in London, I’d bought a gigantic map of Spain—one of those maps so detailed you can flatten it out on the floor, and when you kneel up close you sense you could fall right into it. Soon after, I grabbed a backpack and tent and jumped on a ferry to Spain.


What happens when you walk or read? You enter something else. Part of what you enter is your thoughts, because you are the only subject of your life, the one who does the reading and the walking, but soon you get the feeling that, when you walk, you are walking through something both within and beyond yourself; and that when you read, you are encountering something outside your experience and knowledge: you are lost in the happiest way a human being can be lost.

In the woods, Nature takes you in. Your only job is to step gamely forward, deeply breathe, and look. And the only place I can think of at all akin to the woods is a library.

My first memory of a library was a book of Greek mythology. Lanky, dog-eared, bandaged with tape, it snoozed with several others at the bottom of an elementary school bookshelf. Cracked open, the book featured full-sized, vivid, colour prints, and an incense-like smell. An image of Persephone haunted me most—happily skipping through a meadow one moment, then falling through a crack down to Hades the next. I fell with her and feared and hated the Underworld; but in falling I also felt empathy for Demeter, her mother, who wandered the surface, agitated with grief.

With any good book you plunge like Persephone headlong into the unknown, and it is being held there awhile, braced against a wild experience or a multi-faceted thought, that you equip yourself to shoulder your pack and strike back to the surface.

In the 1990s, as an undergraduate, I began to realize I was doomed to work in a library. Back then I shelved books at the Carleton University MacOdrum Library. I loved the rows and rows of stacks; they were like a forest. Vast ranges fanned out everywhere, crammed with craggy print titles, oversized behemoths, and musty bound journals.  You could pick a book up, and put it down; crouch down low and inspect another, flipping through acid-browned pages; tug the spine of a new one back so it fell in your palm like fruit. I loved the breadth of the Library of Congress classification system; the microfilm reels; the close-packed sheafs of microfiche; and the kingdom of government documents that followed a mysterious order called CODOC.

I got to know and love every floor: the grim black volumes of Sociological Abstracts, the tidy narrow issues of Foreign Policy, the crumbling Canadian Geological Survey; the Statesman’s Yearbook, House of Commons Debates, the Reader’s Guide to Literature. I knew where to find T.S. Eliot criticism, or music scores, almost instinctively: the books themselves were like the bark of trees, shrubs, or the plumage of a birds.

In the wild, you sense a space that sprawls around you; in a library, you sense that too, but vertically. Just as a creaking sequoia hints of an age beyond your own, a library is silent but constantly achatter: past and present voices interweave in a living throng of thoughts, disputes, and stories.

At the John M. Kelly Library, I still roam bookshelf ranges whenever I can. But much more often I forage in catalogues, ebooks, websites, and databases. Together, students and I swat virtual branches, wade through virtual swamps, and sometimes feel lucky after a rocky climb to glimpse a virtual view.


Thinking seems to me best undertaken with idleness, so that the mind can adjust to off-putting ideas, implications, connections, and consequences. Idleness, yes, and boredom: I don’t mean the lazy type but the patient kind—an appreciation of slowness as soil for understanding. Yet students are pushed to consume vast wads of text and other media; profs must sweat to publish enough to meet their tenure requirements.

New shoots in the wild feel no such pressure: they unfurl when they are ready, and why is the world any worse off for the wait?

Your blood right now is bustling through your body, drumming an urgent unrepentant metaphor for life. Wherever you are—in thought, in book, on foot—a forest stands and threatens with its welcome: birds call, squirrels start or scuttle, oak or book spines creak or crack, and the footpath meanders into mystery. I believe it, even at home, with COVID prowling the streets, and spring unzipping campus with relief in every leaf.

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Christine Way Skinner has been a lay minister for thirty years, a mom for almost that long and a partner to Michael for longer. She is the author of books for both adults and children and, for the next few years, will be a St. Mike’s doctoral student.

A Fork in the Road

A pile of books

What do you do when you are in the middle of a pandemic, you are a few years from retirement and your parish ministry job of twenty-two years is eliminated? Well, let a few tears fall. You rage a little bit. Then you sign up to do a doctorate in theology. Perhaps it might not be what everyone does…but it is what I did. 

St. Ignatius of Loyola has been my lifelong guide to discernment. Do you feel a sense of consolation in your decision? It is from God. A sense of desolation? Look for another direction. I had begun a doctorate many years ago, before I had children and before I began parish ministry. The immediacy of mothering and ministry always took precedence over writing and so, after a decade, I withdrew from the program. I was grateful for the education I had received while in that doctoral program and used it extensively in parish ministry. It allowed me to provide adult religious education that nourished the faith of parishioners who wanted to think deeply and broadly about their faith. It supported me in developing religious education programs for children that were not only engaging but sophisticated. The time spend studying at that level had not been wasted.

The longing to learn, to think, to question, to explore, and to challenge my perspectives persistently coursed through my veins throughout the years. I fed it by attending academic conferences and reading voraciously. It seemed enough. For a time. But about 10 years ago, I found myself visiting university websites and began printing off application forms for various doctoral programs. A Doctorate in Ministry seemed the most appropriate as I couldn’t contemplate leaving parish ministry. A D.Min. would spare me the burden of choosing one over another. The printed forms always remained in my “inbox” – uncompleted – until another year passed and they would be recycled and replaced by new versions.

Then, in 2020, my life took a radical turn. I knew immediately the opportunity that was before me. As my youngest son filled out his applications for post-secondary education, I filled out my application for post-post-post secondary education. The bulk of my immediate mothering responsibilities behind me and the ever-expanding tasks of my beloved ministry suddenly part of my history, I was free to surrender to that persistent longing. And so, after many years, I actually filled out an application. I connected with professors from a lifetime ago and collected transcripts of courses that I barely remembered taking—and some that I had relied on daily. I spoke to new professors and thought deeply about which of the many possible directions my study might take. In February, just days after my 55th birthday, I was accepted into the PhD program at St. Michael’s College for the fall of 2021.

It has been a radically different experience contemplating doctoral studies at the age of 55 from the experience when I was 23. I approach it, paradoxically, with a great deal more humility and a great deal more confidence. When I was younger, I was painfully aware of how much I didn’t know. But I was afraid of my ignorance being exposed. This, I no longer fear. At 55, I remain conscious of how much I still do not know. Indeed, I am mindful that I will die having learned but the smallest fraction of what there is to know about the world. And, as student of theology, an even smaller fraction of what there is to understand about the Mystery of God. At 55, I also recognize that I have lived enough days to have gleaned a drop or two of wisdom and that it is my responsibility to contribute those drops in the vast ocean that is human thought. It excites me to know that this is the human condition. Each of us has something beautiful, wise and true to teach. Each of us has even more beautiful, wise and true things to learn.

It is liberating to begin studies at this age. I now know that not one of my papers will be the last word on any topic. I will be able to write them with a certain freedom from obsession because of that. I now know that we can only learn by admitting what we do not know. There is a freedom in that, too. I am privileged to have raised my children, bought my home and need very few material possessions. So, more freedom – to focus on study without the burden of working long hours to ensure a sustainable future (although I will certainly need to work some).

As a gift, I embrace this opportunity – denied, I recognize – to many but offered, surprisingly and grace-fully to me. I study, therefore, for the greater glory of God and for the service of God’s people. For this, I live in gratitude.

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Martyn Jones is a content specialist in St. Mike’s Office of Communications. On a freelance basis, he also writes reported features, essays, and criticism for online and print outlets. He and his wife Melanie are the parents of two boys.

The Hidden Life of Moms 

Still life photograph of a white background laid out with multiple brightly coloured children's toys: Thomas trains, a train track, blocks, a Rubik's cube, a kazoo, a bouncing ball, Lego figures, Hot Wheels, a striped sock monkey, Lego blocks, and connecting toys.

My wife and I welcomed our second child into the world on March 17 of this year. Bauer Timothy Jones has been a quiet baby so far, but it’s unclear to us whether that’s because of a personality difference between him and our older boy Fox, or because we have been better able to meet his physical needs before they foment emotional crises. 

Because of the ongoing pandemic, my wife’s maternity leave so far has mostly taken place within view, or within hearing distance, of where I work during the day. Often, I need only to look up from my screen to be able to see her and the baby. It’s a major improvement over my reliance on texted photos and videos during our last-go-round. Being present for these earliest days of Bauer’s life is one of the great unsought gifts of this era in our lives. 

Melanie demonstrates an easy, unselfconscious care with the baby that two years ago she and I would have regarded with envy and admiration. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has a passage in his most famous book, Fear and Trembling, about how a person learns to swim by attempting with each stroke to make the ideal or infinite gesture—to imitate their idea of the “form” of swimming. However, once the swimmer has internalized the form, they can swim freely, making each stroke without reference to anything but how fast they want to go and the conditions of the water. 

Fox, our first child, almost overwhelmed us at this stage in his life. To continue Kierkegaard’s metaphor, with every wave we struggled anew to figure out how to stay afloat. Innocent of experience and sleep-shocked, we were left to rely on things we’d read or watched, the half-remembered examples of our own parents, and decades of media representations of parenthood. We hadn’t yet internalized the form. 

Things are different now. My wife acts from years of constant and very physical practice, with a level of dedication that goes beyond that of professional athletes or musicians because there isn’t a time of day when she isn’t a mom. To see her expertly remove Bauer from harm’s way when our toddler Fox wobbles on top of his climbing frame, or to observe the balletic grace with which she scoops the baby out of his bassinet while cradling the back of his head, is to catch sight of a kind of pure human excellence it’s easy to miss without the frame of a television camera or an announcer’s hyped commentary. 

Mother’s Day is often an occasion for celebrating feelings—love, compassion, and all the other things we associate with moms, especially our own. Mel and I are both fortunate to have been raised in loving and supportive homes, and I in no way mean to discount the emotional dimension of the holiday. But what I see and find remarkable to reflect on now is the myriad of physical activities that give love its meaning, and the domain of learned competencies with a huge variety of tasks that, while unexciting on their own, add up to the work of love itself. 

Love is a verb, after all, as the CCM band DC Talk emphasized repeatedly in an energetic hit single by that name that came out during my childhood. While I used to enjoy late-night conversations in the dorm about love’s many possible meanings and aspects, and about the theological and philosophical frameworks that can give it even more meanings and aspects, at this point in my life nothing is so interesting to me as the simple acts and gestures that convey love without announcing it. 

Mel is downstairs with Bauer right now coaxing him to sleep, as my own mother did with me, and her mother did with her. Mother’s Day is an occasion for celebrating all these tiny and unsung acts of love that make whole lives possible. As George Eliot writes in the novel Middlemarch, “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life.” 

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Part of the communications team, Catherine Mulroney studied English and Medieval Studies at St. Mike’s and returned recently to complete an M Div at the Faculty of Theology.

A Shot in the Arm

Photograph of a syringe with hypodermic needle stuck into an artistic representation of the coronavirus molecule (a painted styrofoam ball with coloured pins stuck in it).

“Love hurts,” the old song says. But a little short-term pain for long-term gain is always worth it—and especially in these unusual times.

A few days ago, I joined the millions of Canadians now vaccinated. I got a shot of Pfizer and, in the spirit of full disclosure, it didn’t really hurt at all, but for a little site tenderness that lasted all of 18 hours.

My injection moment made me want to recreate Rocky’s famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or Braveheart’s freedom speech, or Gene’s Kelly’s iconic “Singin’ in the Rain” dance because had been so long in coming and meant so much.

In truth, though, the only thing I did do was get a little teary-eyed because taking 20 minutes out of my day meant I was now one step closer to seeing my children again, a little bit closer to getting back to my real office, and I could now say I was helping in my own small way to end the nightmare we’ve all been living for more than a year. I think I’d forgotten what a pleasant sensation relief can be.

I’m happy to say that my employer, the University of St. Michael’s College, has been supportive as vaccinations have been rolled out, encouraging staff and faculty to get a shot, and offering time off to attend vaccine clinic appointments. It’s a mindset that brings our 180 strategic plan alive for me. 

In these days of the coronavirus, I am reminded that the 180 is not just a statement to hang on the wall but a reflection of a lived attitude. The references to such things as concern for the common good, the need to recognize the dignity of all, and our need to care for all creation actually mean something to all of us. Challenging times are bringing that to light. I see this in the professors’ concern for students’ wellbeing, and their understanding that, these days, support and encouragement trumps deadlines. I see it in the student life staff and volunteers’ outreach to students, ensuring they know about extra funding available during COVID or offering reminders to take a break and engage in self-care, informing students of how they can get extra emotional support if needed. And I see it in email traffic and Zoom calls where we are all beginning to realize, via expressions of longing to be together again, that we might all be a little closer than just colleagues.

Daily, I watch the very lessons lived out on campus that I learned in ethics classes while studying theology at St. Mike’s, or while reading the classics here as an undergrad. Life is beautiful and precious and we are called to do our best not only to respect and protect it, but to celebrate it, too. To me, that lesson includes getting a shot—for myself and for my neighbours. We are to live out the now oft-used phrase that we are all in this together. I’m proud to be an alumna—and an employee—of a workplace that practises what it preaches.

As strong as all these motivations are, though, my primary impetus for getting a shot was to ease my kids’ worries. Their dad died a week before the pandemic lockdown began, and the early warnings about the severity of COVID had them stressed about their mother’s health.

“We’ve just had one parent die. We don’t want to lose the other,” said the oldest, soon after the pandemic began, speaking as the now-elder statesman in his usual blunt fashion.

For the following six weeks, I only went as far as our garden, guiltily answering the door on occasions, but mostly watching the world pass by from our front window.

But then, early May dawned, and with it, my first solitary wedding anniversary. I felt an overwhelming desire to visit the garden centre and buy some plants, something that Mike and I had done in May for as long in as we’d been homeowners.

I can’t say it was a fun trip, as it was laden with guilt: guilt for co-opting my youngest into accompanying me on my covert operation, and guilt that I was contravening a heartfelt request from my children. On an up note, though, I felt 17 again, because it reminded me of being in high school and bending a few of my parents’ rules—just slightly, of course.

I monitored dropping age limits and expanding availability and leapt when my chance came. It took close to an hour on hold with the Ministry of Health to book an appointment, and the poor woman who answered my call had a wailing child in the background, but it was all worth it.

My kids put on a brave face at all times for their mother but I know they were relieved. I was just happy I could do something that would ease some of the pile of worries each of them has these days. Then attention shifted to when they could be vaccinated, too, jealous that Molly, the child living in Florida for the year, has already had both doses of Moderna.

This has been an extended period of loss for all of us. Some of the those losses, of course, are trivial—the inability to hit the links, or the discovery that not being able to go to the hairdresser’s means saying goodbye to a preferred hair colour.

And some, of course, are profound. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost a friend or relative in the past year, including some to COVID, with their grief compounded by the inability to say a proper goodbye.

That’s why the vaccine, along with continuing measures such as masking and social distancing, remain so important. A shot in your arm is a shot in the arm for all of us. Take one for the team.

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Karen Pascal is the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society (Canada & USA) and the Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Her work as a filmmaker includes award-winning documentaries on two spiritual giants of the 20th Century: Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen and C.S. Lewis: Beyond Narnia.

InsightOut: Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living

Photograph of Karen Pascal and David Sylvester, smiling, in front of an illustration of Henri Nouwen on a Kelly Library wall.
Karen Pascal and David Sylvester in the Kelly Library, Feb. 2020

Before taking on the role of executive director at the Henri Nouwen Society, I spent many years as an independent television and film producer.

During the early ’90s, I produced multiple seasons of a current affairs program where topical events were viewed and discussed from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The series featured interesting and varied guests on each episode—newsmakers, authors, artists, businesspeople, environmentalists, activists, politicians, and pundits—a grand menagerie of engaging and articulate individuals.

I quickly acquired the habit of asking each guest what she or he was currently reading. I wanted to know what fuelled them, what fired their passion, their minds, their spirits.

I anticipated their reading selections would be as eclectic as the group itself. However, to my surprise, books by a spiritual writer and priest named Henri Nouwen were mentioned and recommended again and again. Titles such as The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, The Inner Voice of Love, Letters to Marc About Jesus, and Life of the Beloved.

I don’t recall exactly which of Henri’s books I read first—but I do remember the feeling I had when I began reading. It was as if the author was writing about me, as if he was looking into my heart, parsing and describing my life’s experience. My hopes, my hurts, my brokenness.

I was consoled. I was inspired. I was hooked.

A few years after being introduced to his books, I tracked Henri down at his home at L’Arche Daybreak, a community just north of Toronto where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. And when I say I tracked Henri down, that’s exactly what I mean. Henri was an extremely busy man. Besides contributing to the care of core members at Daybreak, Henri continued to write. He traveled extensively. And the growing popularity of his books made him a much sought-after speaker in North America and beyond.

He reluctantly—yet graciously—agreed to allow me to feature him in one of my programs.

Less than two years later, Henri died of a heart attack on his way to do a documentary in Russia on The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Like everyone who knew him, either personally or through his books, I was shocked and heartbroken, but I knew instinctively that Henri’s legacy would live on.

And so it does. Henri Nouwen is more widely known and read today than he was during his own lifetime.

Because of the extraordinary materials and resources offered by the Henri J. M. Nouwen Archives & Research Collection housed in the heart of the University of St. Michael’s College campus, the Henri Nouwen Society has been able to introduce new works of unpublished material to spiritually hungry audiences around the world. We reach nearly 55,000 subscribers every day with Henri’s treasured Daily Meditations. He now commands a massive following on all of our social media platforms, where new and younger audiences are now discovering Henri’s spiritual wisdom and encouragements. 

Not bad for someone who has been dead for 25 years!

Throughout 2021, the Henri Nouwen Society has been celebrating Fr. Nouwen’s life and impact. If you’re already a Nouwen reader, or you just want to learn more about this remarkable man, you won’t want to miss our upcoming special anniversary conference June 4th and 5th called Henri Nouwen and the Art of Living.

Featuring keynote speakers Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking), Dr. C. Vanessa White, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Rev. Marjorie Thompson, Sister Simone Campbell, Dr. Roberto Goizueta Jr., and Dr. Chris Pritchett, you will discover valuable insights and practices to help you live a more gracious, grateful, and meaningful life.

We are delighted to partner with the University of St. Michael’s College for this event, and we are particularly pleased that President David Sylvester will be taking a hands-on role introducing one of our esteemed presenters.

For more information and for tickets, please go to our website at

While you’re there, you can also watch my documentary Journey of the Heart: The Life of Henri Nouwen, narrated by Susan Sarandon. Just click VIDEOS under the RESOURCES tab.

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Fr. Gustave Noel Ineza, OP, is a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. Born and raised in Rwanda, he lived through the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and went into exile for a month in what was then Zaire. His family left the refugee camps and returned to Rwanda after three members of his family developed cholera. He studied in the minor seminary and joined the Dominican Order in 2002. He studied Philosophy in Burundi, and Theology in South Africa (SJTI/Pietermaritzburg) and the UK (Blackfriars/Oxford). Ordained in 2014, he worked for Domuni ( and was a chaplain to university and high school students. In 2018, he came to Canada to pursue studies in Christian-Muslim dialogue. He is currently reading on post-colonial approaches to the taxonomies assigned to religious traditions (Muslims and Christians) by colonial powers in Rwanda.

Do We Need Someone to Die to Remind Us that Black Lives Matter?

A cartoon in which a judge asks "Have you reached your verdict?" and the response from outside the panel says "Yes, your honor—we, the jury, find that Black Lives Matter."

Black lives matter! That was more or less the verdict, 11 months after the brutal killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Michael Chauvin, and 43-day-long traumatic trial. Twenty-nine years and a month after the trial of four police officers who savagely beat Rodney King, the fear of an acquittal gripped American society used to police officers’ trials ending with disappointing verdicts and acquittals.

The trial finished ahead of the U.S. Senate vote on a bill on April 21, 2021 to combat anti-Asian American hate crimes. Racial tensions have spiked in the United States, tensions that followed the empowerment of white supremacists, a reality which reached a peak with the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a gathering of racist groups that envied the 1930s Reichsparteitage or Nuremberg Rallies.

Four years prior to George Floyd’s murder, a 24-year old Malian-Frenchman, Adama Traoré, died, on his birthday, in police custody, after he was brutalized by French police. Since Traoré’s death, a huge debate has begun in France. Universalist leftist thinkers were scared that rhetoric that generalizes about police brutality might hinder the “Republic,” a chimeric ideal of French unity that assumes all French citizens are equal and equitably treated by the law. Realist activists, often represented by a courageous woman named Rokhaya Diallo, never stop warning the French that there is a risk of considering the American police brutality as something particular to America, because it is widespread in many European cities. Diallo, who seems to carry alone the Black Lives Matter movement on her shoulders, has become the black sheep of a denialist French media because of her positions. The French President’s attacks on “American” Postcolonial movements, “a catch-all term covering everything from anti-colonial thought to critical race theory, intersectional theory to Black Lives Matter,” highlight the persistent denial of oppression towards racialized minorities in many former colonial European powers. Protests to bring to justice Traoré’s murderers were met with brutal police reactions. France is deeply immersed in denial of its racist colonial past, which lives on in its treatment of racialized minorities.

Indeed, change may take several decades to come, even in the United States. After the verdict was announced, the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, wrote on her Facebook page: “That a family had to lose a son, brother, and father; that a teenage girl had to film and post a murder; that millions across the country had to organize and march just for George Floyd to be seen and valued is not justice. And this verdict is not a substitute for policy change.” Former U.S. President Barack Obama wrote that “true justice requires that we come to terms with the fact that Black Americans are treated differently, every day [and] millions of our friends, family, and fellow citizens live in fear that their next encounter with law enforcement could be their last.” Obama added: “While [the] verdict may have been a necessary step on the road to progress, it was far from a sufficient one. We cannot rest. We will need to follow through with the concrete reforms that will reduce and ultimately eliminate racial bias in our criminal justice system. We will need to redouble efforts to expand economic opportunity for those communities that have been too long marginalized.”

Japanese Tennis player Naomi Osaka, who grew up and lives in the U.S., tweeted these very heartbreaking words: “I was going to make a celebratory tweet but then I was hit with sadness because we are celebrating something that is clear as day. The fact that so many injustices occurred to make us hold our breath toward this outcome is really telling.” In other words, no reasonable person believes that the verdict on Chauvin’s crimes signifies the end of police brutality to Black people. It becomes even harder when some influential TV hosts, like Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld, made it clear they believe Chauvin may not be guilty. Gutfeld stated that the only reason he would want the verdict to incriminate Chauvin is because his neighborhood was looted last summer.

The whole idea of looking at Black people as a threat has been used to justify the discriminatory policing of Black neighbourhoods and unreasonable stop-and-frisks of Black people by law enforcement in the U.S. One highlight of the trial occurred when one of the prosecutors, Steven Schleicher, explained the difference between a threat and a risk. That some insecure white law enforcement agents, empowered by systemic racism in their institutions, might be inhabited by an unreasonable fear of black people transforms Black people neither into threats nor risks. That Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kim Potter, while training a rookie, had to pull a gun on Daunte Demetrius Wright for an outstanding driving ticket explains what may go on in the routine training of American police officers. The fact that she screamed “taser, taser, taser” while shooting him with a gun is also confusing. My training officer in my military service forgot to tell me about the usefulness of screaming “gun, gun, gun” while I am shooting at the target! The most surprising thing is the many peaceful arrests of white mass shooting perpetrators, such as Kyle Rittenhouse and Dylann Roof, which proves that police officers are trained in how to de-escalate tensions, even with highly dangerous individuals. Apparently, that training does not equally apply to people of colour.

One of the most racist whataboutisms on police criminal treatment of Black people in the U.S. is the objection phrased in these words: “What about Black-on-Black crime?” Black-on-Black crime is punished, sometimes beyond the realms of reasonable corrections. In almost all instances when police are accused of the summary execution of Black people, judicial institutions focus on police training guidelines. The fact that Black lives matter is not news to Black people. Black people who take other Black peoples’ lives know they committed a crime and that they would be seriously punished if caught.

The verdict in Chauvin’s trial does not end anti-Black racism. Orchestrated attacks on Colin Kaepernick’s knee may have ended but it will still take years before Black people start feeling safe anywhere around the police. I still get followed by the police in some liquor stores. When I am, I still have the luxury to bother them with words like: “Oh! Because you are here, can you help me find a Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes du Rhône Blanc and a Philippe Colin Chassagne-Montrachet, please?”—in a very French accent. However, most Black people are extremely bothered by their presence. An African American friend advised me to never ask them to fetch me a lemonade.

I think the Church must be careful in these times. When people marched against police brutality following George Floyd’s killing on June 1st, 2020, President Donald J. Trump ordered the peaceful dispersal of the crowds protesting near the White House so that he might stage a photo-op before St. John’s Episcopal Church. In a brilliant article for The Atlantic, Garrett Epps, Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Baltimore, called it “Trump’s Tiananmen moment.” However, the most alarming aspect is that President Trump chose to violate American citizens’ First Amendment rights so that he could take a picture in front of a church, holding a Bible. The following day, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington. While many religious leaders condemned the photo ops, Trump still managed to sow discord among Christians—those who thought his attitude toward protests against police brutality was godly versus those who were disgusted.

Many police departments have Christian chaplains, and law enforcement agents are members of our parishes. Just as Church leaders in the past transformed the pulpit as a place to theologically defend civil rights, it is a Christian duty that it become clear to all the faithful that to God, Black lives matter. 

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Rows of tulips surrounding the St. Michael statue on the quad at the University of St. Michael's College

Spring is one of our four favourite seasons on campus.

The robins are back, shoots are starting to poke up from the spring bulbs planted long ago, the grass is beginning to cycle through various shades of green, and the cherry blossoms are almost ready to burst forth.

In normal times, campus would now be waking up  to the new season, with impromptu Frisbee games in the quad, small knots of students lingering outside to chat between study sessions in Kelly, and the sun reflecting a little more brightly off of the iconic statue of St. Michael.

Usually, campus would be abuzz right now with plans to get ready for the arrival of Spring Reunion, now just weeks away, with the excitement that alumni create upon their return each spring. With COVID continuing to place in-person activities on hold, however, St. Mike’s has turned to an exciting schedule of virtual reunion events and the campus remains largely dormant.

That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t all still like a glimpse of the forsythia, the tulips, the squirrels, and the special look of the light filtering through the trees on Elmsley Lane, whether we are an alumnus/almuna, a student, a faculty member or a staffer.

In response, we thought we would offer these Zoom backgrounds as a taste of home.

Hope to see you — in person! — soon.

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Fr. Gustave Noel Ineza, OP, is a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. Born and raised in Rwanda, he lived through the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and went into exile for a month in what was then Zaire. His family left the refugee camps and returned to Rwanda after three members of his family developed cholera. He studied in the minor seminary and joined the Dominican Order in 2002. He studied Philosophy in Burundi, and Theology in South Africa (SJTI/Pietermaritzburg) and the UK (Blackfriars/Oxford). Ordained in 2014, he worked for Domuni ( and was a chaplain to university and high school students. In 2018, he came to Canada to pursue studies in Christian-Muslim dialogue. He is currently reading on post-colonial approaches to the taxonomies assigned to religious traditions (Muslims and Christians) by colonial powers in Rwanda.

The Other Sister

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught many to value more highly essential workers who are usually underpaid after long hours of vital work. Nurses are among the most praised as they daily risk contracting the virus while trying to offer a treatment to the sick. It is not the first time that nurses, women in particular, have risked their lives to save other people’s lives during pandemics. Several pandemics affected the pre-modern world. Some of those who offered treatment to the sick were non-cloistered women religious whose identities have not been comprehensively studied. These women were part of bigger movements which flourished in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times. 

In September 2020, I joined a team of academics as an assistant researcher to Dr. Alison More. Dr. More is the undergraduate Medieval Studies coordinator and the inaugural holder of the Comper Professorship in Medieval Studies at the University of St. Michael’s College. She works on a joint project with Dr. Isabelle Cochelin (Department of History & Centre for Medieval Studies/UofT), and Dr. Isabel Harvey (Department of Humanistic Studies of the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari). The project is called “The Other Sister” and its focus is “women who pursued forms of religious life outside of the cloister in medieval and early modern western Europe and New France.” The other members of the project are Dr. Angela Carbone (University of Bari Aldo Moro) and Dr. Sylvie Duval (Università Cattolica in Milan), research assistants Laura Moncion, Emma Gabe, and Meghan Lescault (Centre for Medieval Studies or Department of History/UofT), and Camila Justino (USMC Book and Media and Mediaeval Studies).

The women studied are known by many names, including beguines, tertiaries, recluses, oblates, secular canonesses, lay sisters, pizzochere, bizzoche, beatas, and others. Their names and forms of life varied according to location. Our research group organizes thematic meetings which are the main venue for discussing current research, and recent books, chapters in books, articles, both published and forthcoming. As the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s movements, presenters invited from different academic institutions around the world working on aspects of the project meet by Zoom each month. Although the situation has made it impossible for people to have actual face-to-face meetings, it has allowed those on different continents to virtually meet. 

To date, the group has prepared and successfully conducted five thematic meetings. The first meeting was entitled Women Serving Enclosed Women (held on September 29, 2020), the second was on Working in Premodern Hospitals (October 27, 2020), the third’s theme was Charity, Caregiving and Female Social Roles from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period (December 17, 2020), the fourth was on Naming The Other Sister: Tertiary, Lay, or Penitent? (February 8, 2021), and the fifth was held on Medieval and Early Modern Beguines, from Provence to Northern Europe (March 15, 2021). Details about those thematic meetings are found on the group’s blog.

The attendance has recently been reaching about 40 participants, mainly professors, post-docs, and PhD students from around the globe, all interested in the subject. Our discussion inevitably yields new insights which cross the usual temporal and geographic boundaries. 

The main group of the ten researchers attached to “The Other Sister” has working meetings where we prepare the rest of our activities: thematic meetings, workshops for larger audiences, a workshop for our members on using ArcGIS Software to create maps of the communities of non-cloistered religious women, the construction and development of a blog, etc. The blog is named “The Other Sister.” It presents an overview of research and has space for recent updates and news of importance or interest to our community of scholars.

On a personal note, with this project I am learning about historical methodologies that do not aim at proving hidden agendas but analytically and objectively examine all possible data. Also, I have gained a new perspective as a student in Christian-Muslim relations. My usual methodology is historical and postcolonial. It investigates silenced and othered voices in my country’s religious identity construction. I have learned much from “The Other Sister.” Apart from the finesse in the communication of the members and the rigour in the historical research with its requirements for accuracy, I have come to appreciate the academic enthusiasm involved in understanding subjects that touch a given identity. I am also interested in understanding the power relationship between identity and those who write history: in our case, the image given to these non-cloistered, lay-religious women by predominantly male and clerical historians.

Our work values the religious zeal of women who were willing to live a life given to the poor, the sick, prayer, and teaching, often in the face of incomprehension and negative judgment from their society and the Church. Some were considered heretics or witches simply for wanting to live this life outside the walls of a cloister. A deconstruction of the meta-narrative on them that at times portrayed them as uncontrollable dangers to the Christian faith aims to restore their proper image. As the Church strives to include women in its decision-making bodies, it will surely be inspired by the findings of “The Other Sister” project, and the genius of the women working on it.

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Angela MacAloney-Mueller is St. Mike’s Physical Plant Coordinator. She’s been a part of the USMC community since August 1994, and notes that the comfort of students and staff are her top priority. She is, you’ll see, an avid birder.

Bird Nerd on Campus

Photograph of Angela MacAloney-Mueller looking down at a brown and grey owl, which is only inches away from her and looking back up at her.

I still remember the first time I visited the campus of the University of St. Michael’s College. It was for a job interview in July of 1994. With the luscious greenery, the full-grown trees and beautiful flowers, the grounds took my breath away. I thought to myself as I was leaving the campus, “Yes, I would like to work here.” Social media accounts for the university often use the hashtag #oasisinthecity and, as it turns out, we humans are not the only species who think so.

Some migratory birds travel thousands of miles twice a year during spring and fall migration. Toronto is on a major migratory flyway, and every spring the nighttime skies are filled with thousands of birds coming north for the summer to set up territory, find a mate and raise young, all before the long journey home. The city, and the campus grounds themselves, with their close proximity to Lake Ontario, are a perfect resting spot for those birds after a long night of travel. 

I was working at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies when I started birding more than 20 years ago. I’ve had a couple of lifers at work (a lifer is what it’s called when you see a bird for the first time). The campus gave me my first Oven Bird and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The spring offers a chance to see a wide variety of summer migrants, including Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Buntings, Scarlett Tanagers, and so many others. Many of the migratory birds will continue further north to the boreal forest, but a few do stay in and around the Toronto area, like the feisty red-winged blackbird. 

Every spring I get work orders regarding the “attack bird” on campus. It seems the last few years a pair of red-winged blackbirds have thought the grounds lovely enough to build a home and raise young. The male is a fierce protector and will often swoop at people if they get too close to their nest—or, in this case just walk along the path. It is illegal to tamper with a migratory bird or its nest, but we have posted signs to warn people of what may happen. I have a lot of respect for the males: I’ve seen one swoop at a bald eagle! Fortunately, the nesting season is short, only about two weeks, and then peace and harmony return to the grounds.

Over the years I have been able to share a little of my knowledge regarding birds on campus. A couple of our yearlong resident bird species come to mind. A former co-worker came to my office one spring morning to let me know that a baby sparrow had fallen from its nest and asked what should we do. He was flabbergasted when I said, “Put it back.” The old myth that a momma bird won’t take care of its young if it’s been touched by a human is alive and well. Birds have no sense of smell, so it is very safe to put them back in their nest if you are able, which we did that day. The chick’s eyes were not yet open, but as soon as we lifted it close to its nest under the Elmsley Hall walkway, it instinctively crawled back into its nest.

Another time, a don in Elmsley Hall called to let me know a student had a baby robin in her room because it couldn’t fly and wanted to know if I could help. We went to the student’s room, where I discovered she had a fledgling. When a baby bird first leaves the nest, it is called a fledgling and is unable to fly for a few days. The mother robin will hide her fledglings in shrubbery, where she we will return and feed them throughout the day. After explaining this to the student, we took the baby robin back outside where she had found it. It wasn’t long before momma robin was there to check on her baby, much to the relief of the student.       

The St. Michael’s grounds play hosts to a variety of birds and wildlife year-round. When enjoying the flower gardens during the summer months around Brennan Hall you may see a ruby-throated hummingbird or monarch butterfly. The fall and winter months always bring the hawks to campus, where they help with pigeon control. Spring is the real star of the year though, with the many colourful songbirds and warblers passing through. The chorus of birds singing at dawn and dusk this time is joyful to hear, and I am sure wakes many of our students in residence.  

I believe the variety of birds and wildlife add to the campus. Many times, I have seen the delight on a student’s face who has never seen a squirrel before. I’ve pointed out American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers to coworkers when walking from building to building. And it doesn’t matter how many times you see a northern cardinal, you are going to stop and stare at his brilliant red colouring.

Birding for me, as always been a source of stress relief. How lucky we are when on campus, that we can leave our office to walk to a meeting in another building or just to enjoy the grounds and surround ourselves in nature. The St. Michael’s campus truly is an oasis in the city.  

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Carla Thomas is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena, based in Trinidad and Tobago, West Indies. She is a national of Guyana, South America, and worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for several years. Carla is passionate about young adult ministry and adult faith formation. She sums up her self-understanding as a Dominican by means of the following bible quote, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Romans 10:14-15). At present, Carla is involved in parish ministry among Caribbean nationals in Toronto. She is looking forward to gardening again this summer and, hopefully, to visit a few more places in and around Ontario. She is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Theology and is developing a thesis prospectus at the intersection of family theology and ecclesiology.

Photograph of a colourful kite with a long tail flying against the background of a bright blue sky and wispy clouds.

This Is the Day the Lord Has Made

Alleluia! Christ is risen! This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad! Alleluia!

Dear Easter, it is wonderful that you are here again! You are truly one of the best times of the year and I delight in the signs of your presence everywhere. Thank you for bringing your friend, Spring. You began to alert me about two weeks ago that you were just around the corner when I noticed the new life springing up all around. The perennials have begun to emerge promising to bring a feast of color to the front lawn soon and I admit that I have been eagerly keeping an eye on the trees next door looking for the first sign of leaves. In this neighborhood, the children have begun to play on the sidewalk again and some parents have hung Easter eggs on trees. You are welcomed with joy for you bring re-birth, new life, hope and God’s promise of faithful love for the world.

As I reflect on the hope that this season represents two different kinds of events come to mind. First, in my homeland of Guyana, South America, Easter is kite-flying season. It is a national tradition that on Easter Monday families would spend the day outdoors enjoying a picnic and helping children to raise their kites in the air. I consider the sight of hundreds of kites dotting the sky throughout the day to be one of the most beautiful experiences of the Easter season. From an early age I learned to associate this event with the resurrection. Catechists used this local tradition as a symbol to help children understand in faith the biblical testimony that Jesus rose from the dead and that He is truly alive. While Easter is a Christian celebration, kite-flying is for everyone. On Easter Monday, social and political struggles are transcended as communities share in a day of fraternity, friendship and mutual goodwill. This cherished national tradition provides for the people of Guyana a glimpse of the reconciled unity and hope promised by the resurrection of Christ and articulated recently in Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti.    

The second event is the Holy Saturday liturgy during which the Elect receive the sacraments of Christian initiation. Having served on RCIA teams in parishes in Guyana as well as Trinidad and Tobago, I would say that there is no greater joy that night than witnessing the baptism of new members who were preparing for that moment for at least two years, in most cases. Their faces are usually filled with peace and hope as they look forward to life as Christians. Indeed, the newly-baptised often become much more enthusiastic members of their parish communities than life-long Christians. Their journey as neophytes continues throughout the Easter season as they move into the period of the mystagogia until Pentecost. The RCIA renews parishes. In my case, the recitation of baptismal promises became even more meaningful when made in the presence of new members who were an inspiration for a deeper engagement with the faith. The celebration of the sacrament of baptism is one of the preeminent signs of hope at Easter.    

Dear Easter, you beckon Christians to look to the future now, especially as the pandemic comes to an end. For the Catholic Church, it means celebrating to the fullest extent possible over the next year and a half, two very important milestones Pope Francis has asked us to observe. The first is the Year of St. Joseph which began on December 8, 2020. It marks 150 years since he was proclaimed patron of the universal church. The second is the launch of “Amoris Laetitia Year of the Family” on March 19, 2021 to mark the fifth anniversary of the publication of this apostolic exhortation. After a year of sheltering-in-place with family, with all its tension and struggles, joys and delights, it is fitting that our church should celebrate families in their triumphs and accompany them in their challenges. In addition, for persons who had to shelter-in-place without family, ‘Amoris Laetitia Year of the Family’ coincides with the beginning of their ability to be reunited after months of separation. This is cause for celebration. In cases where families lost loved ones and could not gather in their time of grief, the year also coincides with their opportunity to finally meet to comfort each other in community.   

The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of Christian hope. No matter what comes next the Easter event is the assurance that ultimately in Christ “all shall be well” (Julian of Norwich). Alleluia!

Happy Easter to all!

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Emmaus O’Herlihy is an Irish Benedictine monk of Glenstal Abbey, Ireland. Trained in graphic design, he worked as an Art Director in Los Angeles, U.S.A., after receiving his BDes from National College of Art and Design, Ireland. Currently a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Theology in the University of St. Michael’s College, Emmaus is exploring ways that liturgical art advance the full, conscious and active participation of the assembly during liturgy.

A Reflection for Good Friday: The Triune God’s Solidarity with Those Who Suffer

Illumination showing the Gnadenstuhl motif from Die Dietsche Doctrinale
Jan van Boendale, c. 1374.

The primary ritual action of this Good Friday liturgy is the showing and veneration of the cross. Although everyone here is already familiar with how the cross symbolizes divine purpose, it’s worth remembering how Jesus’ violent and humiliating death by crucifixion posed an enormous challenge for early believers.

Crucifixion was an intentionally brutal and humiliating form of capital punishment in the Roman empire that was administered to rebellious slaves, enemies of the state or leaders of insurrection. Because of this, Robin Margaret Jensen’s study on the significance of the cross in the history of Christianity begins with, what she terms, the ‘Curse of the Cross.’1 She refers to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in which he writes that for Jews awaiting a kingly messiah, it was incomprehensible that this messiah would be crucified since crucifixion signalled a cursed death; for Greeks, a crucified god was, to put it simply, ludicrous. Such a death was contrary to logic and scandalous.2

The early Church’s response was to embrace the paradox of Christ’s death; to preach of Christ crucified and proclaim that such a form of death represented both the most intense expression of Jesus’ humility and the clearest indication of his glorious identity.3

Nevertheless, it took almost another three hundred years for images of the crucifixion to become commonplace as the identifying marker of the Christian faith.4 Even today, images of the crucifixion remain challenging—and I don’t mean to suggest those occasions when contemporary artists reinterpret Christian iconography. Images of the crucified Christ engage our imagination, they tease out the significance of the events of Christ’s death: It is not enough to recall that Jesus died but to reflect upon how he died.

In the Pauline epistles, arguably the earliest testimonies to the place of the cross in Christian theology, Paul explains that those who count themselves wise or who seek more positive signs will judge any celebration of the crucifixion to be a kind of madness.5 What’s more, it’s the kind of madness that has multiple sides to it. One side to this madness can be identified in the accompanying image (see illustration). It reflects the theme that the Dominican community in Toronto has chosen for this year’s Triduum: the Triune God’s solidarity with those who suffer, especially those victims of violence.

The image shows an illumination from the 14th century that depicts what would, by the 16th century be termed the Gnadenstuhl motif.6 Translated as Mercy Seat or Throne of Grace, the German term refers to this trinitarian motif to underline the significance of identifying the Trinity as present in the death of Christ. In her study of the Incarnation through an aesthetics of vulnerability, Susie Paulik Babka writes that among those images that attempt to translate difficult and abstract concepts into visual expression, this motif invites Christians to consider that the darkness which accompanies us in times of catastrophic suffering, and especially at the moment of our death is nothing less than “the dwelling place of God.”7

An initial glance at the illustration is enough to show that this motif involves a trinitarian dynamic centred on the passion of Christ. God the Father is usually seated (sometimes on a throne), and supports the dying or dead Christ. The Holy Spirit, represented as a dove, is most often positioned between the Father and the Son. In seating the figure of the Father on a stool or a throne, this motif subtly alludes to Old Testament references to the mercy seat “understood as the point of contact between God and humanity; the locus of divine presence on earth,” …the critical point of mediation between heaven and earth.9

In the composition in this image, symbols of the four evangelists surround the diamond shape within which the Father holds the horizontal beam of the cross onto which Christ’s body is nailed. Whether or not an actual cross is present, “the unifying thread of nearly all the works of art that utilize [this] motif is the theme of unity between heaven and earth in the passion of Jesus…”10

The Holy Spirit, symbolised as a dove in flight, is a “vital part of the composition.”11 Positioned between the Father and the Son, the wings of the dove touch the Father’s lips and the head of Christ, acting as a bridge between the first and second persons of the Trinity. By echoing the shape of the cross, the figure of the dove emphasizes the Spirit’s dwelling with Christ, becoming what Jurgen Moltmann describes as “Christ’s ‘companion in suffering’.”12 Jesus’ experience of catastrophic suffering effects all three divine persons: The “tenderness of the relationship between the Father and the Son,” a bond preserved by the Spirit, “is somehow comforting” even while it reminds us of the suffering of the tortured.13

This image highlights something of both the ordeal of human suffering and the depth of Divine witness to it. Babka writes that “just as heaven and earth join to praise God in the liturgy, … heaven and earth join to mourn the death of the Son in solidarity with all who suffer catastrophically.”14 As an image of God, the ‘highest being,’ the Three in One, the Gnadenstuhl motif subverts any understanding of God as abstracted from our own experiences of isolation or illness, humiliation, brokenness, or pain.15 The cross is “the event in which God takes the absurdity of catastrophic suffering into God’s life and being” ; the triumph of the cross affirms the depth of God’s solidarity with the ordeal of suffering, with all who suffer.16 The “emotionaland theological impact of this image …occurs in an aesthetics of vulnerability” that challenges indifference to the suffering of others.17

By offering us a glimpse of both human frailty and divine grace, this image alerts Christians of the need to maintain a vigilance to the suffering ‘other.’ In venerating the cross, we are not only called to behold Christ in his great act of love and respond with veneration to the symbol of the way he died. When we kiss, bow or genuflect to the cross, we also commit ourselves to seeking Christ in the ‘other’ who suffers. We testify to what this image’s depiction of the Trinitarian presence at the moment of Christ’s death encapsulates: that God becomes incarnate where there is catastrophe; that by fully sharing human suffering in a humiliating death, God invites us to “stake our subjectivity” in the suffering of Christ, of the ‘Other,’ the Christ who suffered and died on the cross two thousand years ago, and the ‘other’ whom we identify as Christ suffering in the present.1 And in this is our hope, because we are ‘followers of Jesus’ whose death on the cross did not end in failure but in Resurrection—the definitive revelation of Jesus as Son of God, the second person of the triune God, and the conclusive reassurance that belief in the risen Jesus correlates with our deepest experiences and our ultimate hope for renewal.

1 Robin M. Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 1.
2 Ibid, 4-5. Although Jensen writes that “Paul’s focus on the mode of Christ’s execution emerges most fully in his letter to the Galatians [when he] “acknowledges the fact that Christ’s death on the cross was an obstacle to belief in Jesus as Messiah,” (Gal. 5:11), she adds that “Paul employs the cross in a more metaphorical sense” in 1Cor. 1:19.
3 See, for example, 1 Cor 1:23, where Paul writes “we preach Christ crucified…”
4 See also Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 227: “…there is a rarity of depictions of the crucifixion in Early Christian art. The image is entirely absent from the catacombs and sarcophagi in Rome and does not become common until the Byzantine period [during] the late sixth century.” 
5 See Justin Martyr and 1 Cor 1:18-25. Also Robin M. Jensen, The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017) 1, 5.
6 This illumination is found in the Die Dietsche Doctrinale by Jan van Boendale, c.1374. The word Gnadenstuhl is thought to originate with Martin Luther’s use of the term in his 16th century translations of Exodus (25:21-22) and Hebrews (4:16) which refer to ‘mercy seat.’
7 See Susie Paulik Babka, Through a Dark Field: The Incarnational through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016), 225.
8 The most familiar probably being Masaccio’s Trinity at the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, c.1427.
9 Babka, Through a Dark Field, 207, (who also refers to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Daniel, 204-205).
10 Ibid, 196.
11 Ibid, 204.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid, 225.
14 Ibid, 196.
15 Ibid, 194.
16 Ibid.
17 Ibid, and 192.
18 Ibid, 225.

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Maya Martin-Spisak is a third-year student majoring in History, with a focus in Law and History, and double minoring in Linguistics and Book and Media Studies. She is from San Diego, California but has also lived in other parts of the U.S., the Philippines, Belgium and Taiwan. At St. Mike’s, she has served in various roles in the Mentorship Program, Orientation, Residence Council, and House Councils. She is currently serving as the Mentorship Program Coordinator and Residence Council President.

My Experience as an Asian-American Woman

Photograph of multiple tea light candles floating on a dark body of water at night. There are many more candle flames out of focus in the background.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that the following article is about my personal experience and is not meant to represent anyone else’s.

I was originally going to write about my 58 days in self-isolation quarantine. However, due to the recent events in Atlanta and the steep rise in Asian hate crimes, I thought it was more suitable to write about my experience as an Asian-American woman, though I’m not sure what to write. There’s so much to unpack and I don’t know where to start without feeling overwhelmed. How am I supposed to react when people who look like me are the targets of assault and hate crimes? How are we supposed to speak with our communities in a way that is productive for everyone, including people who refuse to acknowledge the hardships of minority communities? There isn’t one way or easy answer to any of this. I’m still mulling over these questions and processing all the events that have happened in the past year. But I’ll tell you what I’ve come up with so far:

The murder of Sarah Everard was gut-wrenching. She took every safety precaution she could on her walk home. Everard’s case highlighted the violence and harassment women face. And not even two weeks later, we wake up to hear about the terrible events in Atlanta. It gave me a wave of emotions. I was devastated to hear about more violence against women and yet another mass shooting in my home country. It broke my heart that someone had deliberately targeted the spas and killed Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Soon Chung Park, Yong Ae Yue, Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez and Paul Andre Michels. I felt infuriated when Captain Jay Baker defended the killer, saying that he was having a “bad day.” And I was scared by the thought that I or someone I knew could be a victim of another attack. But through all that, I was and still am thankful for my friends and family who reached out to offer their support.

Later that day, I tried going on a walk to recenter myself but after reading about the significant rise in Asian hate crimes in Canada, I found myself on edge and looking over my shoulder the entire time. As a woman, I’m always careful of where I go. However, due to recent events, I have felt like I needed to be even more cautionary because I am an Asian woman and I felt like those two factors made me a very vulnerable target. It was similar to a feeling I had almost a year ago at the start of the pandemic: people who looked like me did not belong here. Rewind to this time last year: It was after one of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s press conferences where he had blamed China for the spread of COVID-19 and referred to it as the “China virus.” I had gone to a store to pick up some moving supplies where I seemed to be one of two East Asian people there. The other customers in the store made a point to avoid the two of us at all cost as if we were the only two people who could carry and spread COVID-19. The customers didn’t care about how close they stood to each other as long as the other East Asian person and I weren’t near them. In both cases, I was scared of the people who were scared of me because of their prejudice against Asians.

This prejudice is not new; it has been around for a long time. In Canadian history, many policies have codified Asian prejudice into law. The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 made it so that the Chinese were the only ethnic group required to pay taxes to enter the country, and through the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 the government banned Chinese immigration with little exceptions. An indirect result of these acts was the model minority myth, along with micro-aggressions, stereotypes, slurs, and fetishization—all of which are still present today and things I have experienced.

It’s taken a lot of effort to work through my identity. I am a Chinese adoptee raised in an American family. I don’t speak Mandarin, celebrate a majority of Chinese holidays, or have Chinese family members. When I was younger, I didn’t feel part of the Asian community. But even then, I had internalized and normalized a lot of the micro-aggressions, stereotypes, and model minority myths used against the Asian community. The “(you are not American, you are a foreigner) where are you really from?” and the “You’re good at that because you’re Asian.” I found myself discrediting my achievements and hard work by attributing them to my ethnicity instead. There was a point where I wished I had paler skin and Eurocentric features because of the media around me. I grew up in a household that pushed me to study what I wanted, but I still felt ashamed when I decided to major in the humanities over STEM because of the Asian STEM stereotype. And yes, being polite and successful are great traits to strive for but the model minority myth takes those characteristics and erases the rich diversity of Asian–North American backgrounds by creating a monolithic monster full of misconceptions. It took me years of work to break down those internal stereotypes, prejudices, and myths that had been part of my foundations from an early age. And I know I’m not done. Erasing those preconceived notions and internalized racism will be something I have to work on for the rest of my life.

In relation to recent events, I am grateful that people have taken to their media platforms to educate themselves on facts and misconceptions about Asian communities. But it’s not enough. It takes a lot of time to read, question yourself, and feel uncomfortable to undo the prejudices that are rooted deep within ourselves. And it’s important to listen to the stories and experiences people give, they can provide a perspective you might have not thought of.

Overall, my experience as an Asian-American woman has been difficult at times but I wouldn’t change it. I’ve grown a lot and become more confident in my own skin and great heritage. I hope other people find ways to do the same.

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Samuel Ojiefo Ejeregbe was born in Nigeria but spent most of his adulthood in the United Kingdom. He holds a First-Class Honours degree in Law from the University of Buckingham, with legal mini pupillages in London and Internship in New Jersey. U.S.A.. He also attended Allen Hall, Archdiocesan Seminary of the Archdiocese of Westminster, London UK, where he was awarded a Diploma in Philosophy from the Pontifical University of Saint Patrick in Maynooth, Ireland. He was awarded a scholarship from the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Scholarship Board for a master’s degree in law as a specialist in Financial Services Law and graduated with Distinction. He is currently studying for the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree at the Faculty of Theology in the University of St. Michael’s due for graduation in Fall 2021. He loves playing tennis, cooking and theological discourse.

Readying Ourselves for Palm Sunday

Extreme close focus photograph of a palm leaf against a light grey background. The palm fronds reach upwards from the bottom right corner of the image.

The COVID-19 pandemic, without any shred of doubt, made the annual Lenten observances move so fast due to restrictions in public worship, with many following with online liturgy.  Despite a limited number of people—10—allowed to attend public Masses—and with all the restrictions—we have journeyed through Lent with a monastic spirit. Whatever the case, it is certainly a Lent that we will always remember! Perhaps now we can reflect upon all the many and rich symbols that we associate with Holy Week and Easter. So, let us begin by reflecting on the signs of Palm Sunday that would lead us through the Easter Triduum to celebrate the resurrection of our Blessed Lord. 

As a teenager, I always braced myself for Palm Sunday prior to Easter celebrations because of the lengthy readings. I got exhausted standing whilst the Narration of the Arrest, Trial, Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ was read, though moving to hear. I quietly wondered why the long narration when we were marking the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. I felt it should be called Passion Sunday. The drama group of my local parish, St. Patrick’s Sapele, made it even more special as an adult would ride on a donkey with palms, depicting the triumphant entry of Christ.

What I quickly noticed from Palm Sunday was the very fact that the people who applauded Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem, shouting “Hosanna” and words of adoration, within a week, would be crying, “Crucify Him.” Previously, our Lord had deliberately avoided popular acclaim, even fled, but this, upon entering Jerusalem, he accepts. Seeing him on a donkey, those around him remembered the words of the Prophet Zechariah, “Exult O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you and riding on a donkey” (Zec 9:9-10).

Pope Benedict XVI explained that the prophecy of Zachariah relates to Jesus: He is a king who destroys the weapons of war, a king of peace and simplicity, a king of the poor and he was clearly not building any revolt against Rome. Riding on the borrowed donkey, Jesus made a humble entry into the city of Jerusalem whilst the crowds surged at him and scattered their garments on the floor and waved branches, a poignant moment that foretells that this triumphant hero will be dealt with like a criminal and killed. Palms do have a symbolic gesture, a sign of victory. On Palm Sunday thankfully with the increased numbers for public worship, hopefully we can be able to go out to meet Jesus, carry the blessed palms, joyfully sing out our hosanna and join in his triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

But our joy soon turns to utter sadness as, holding our palms, we hear the narrative of Christ’s passion. We realize, once again, that his triumph, his true victory, will come through the Cross. We know, as Jesus did, how Holy Week will eventually end. We know that joy will turn to sorrow and back to joy. We know that through the sufferings of Christ, followed by his resurrection, good will surely triumph over evil. We know that many today are fatigued and may be going through mental challenges triggered by the continuous lockdown caused by COVID-19 but we are assured that it will not last forever and we shall, God willing, return to normalcy in no distant future and healing to those suffering.

What is customary on Palm Sunday is the opportunity to take our palms home, a subtle reminder of victory, that no matter how long the darkness may last, brightness will come and joy will be overflowing. Let us not forget that it was on the Cross that Christ conquered. So, as we begin Holy Week with Palm Sunday, let us keep our eyes on the Cross; Christ is with us always till the end of time.

Palm Sunday is a robust time to reflect on what Jesus has done for us; it is not just some distant story or something remote from us. It is about what God has done for us; it is about our salvation and our life. We are not just passive spectators, or listeners: all that we recall on Palm Sunday (and during Holy Week and Easter of course) is about what Jesus has done for us. This is such a hopeful message as we continue to try and do our best in this strange and difficult situation that we face at the moment in a pandemic.

The opening address on Palm Sunday Mass expresses this very well: “with all faith and devotion, let us commemorate the Lord’s entry into the city for our salvation, following in his footsteps, so that, being made by his grace partakers of the cross, we may have a share also in his Resurrection and in his life.” Amen.

I wish you, your loved ones and families a Blessed Palm Sunday.

I call you blessed.

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Renata Brum is a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (RCIC). Prior to founding Brum Immigration in 2018, she was the Senior Citizenship Judge of Canada, with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for 5 years, responsible for supervising and training 36 citizenship judges. Reporting directly to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, she was a citizenship judge for 6 years prior to her appointment as Senior Judge. Renata is an alumna of St. Michael’s and a former Vice Chair of the Collegium.

Helping International Students Navigate Canada’s Immigration System During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented and disruptive force in all our lives. Our daily routines have undergone significant upheaval and our social interactions have become largely virtual—a practice that disrupts our intuitive inclination to connect through personal presence and physical touch. 

Staying physically apart has had a significant impact on all students in Canada who have had to muster up new levels of resilience and creativity as they adapt to online learning and to prolonged isolation from their friends and classmates with whom they normally interacted with over the course of their studies. 

Perhaps one of the harder hit groups has been international students, who are often in Canada with limited support, without their family members, and who have now been separated from their friends and communities for almost a year as provincial and federal lockdowns and restrictions have strictly curtailed social gatherings.

Additionally, the sharp decrease—or in many cases, total suspension—of in-person learning, looming immigration status expiry dates, and an unclear future with regard to job opportunities, have left international students with justified anxieties about what comes next. 

Over the course of the past year, I have had the opportunity to help international students navigate the murky, and often overwhelming, information provided to them by Canadian immigration officials. These clients in particular touch a nerve, elicit a deep, intuitive and reflexive compassion, since they are the age of all of my five children—18–24—who are themselves reaching beyond their grasp toward the future they are dreaming for themselves.

During these unusual times, I have assisted international students with applications for initial study permits, extensions of their status in Canada, applying for Post Graduate Work Permits, and have assisted financially precarious students obtain emergency work permits—notwithstanding their student status—so they could work full-time and support themselves in Canada.

My clients’ stories and struggles as they navigate how to continue their dreams of making a better life for themselves in Canada continue to inspire me. I recently worked with a young student, a brilliant aerospace engineer who, having been disowned by his family, was alone in Canada without any support. He found himself on the brink of poverty, utterly destitute, and with no way to pay his tuition unless he was able to work full-time. Bound to part-time work by the conditions imposed on him as an international student, he did not know what to do. When we connected, I was moved. My maternal instincts kicked in. I offered him a room in our home and then set to work on his immigration status. I knew he was an ideal candidate for an emergency “destitute” student work permit. I took on his case pro bono and successfully obtained his work permit authorization—in 3 months—giving him the ability to adequately support himself in Canada.

Fortunately, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (“IRCC”) has introduced a variety of policies aimed at assisting international students begin and continue their studies and at obtaining the proper authorization to work after they have completed their program.

Applying for a Study Permit

Before travelling to Canada, the vast majority of international students must apply for a study permit. Only citizens and permanent residents of the United States of America, and limited others may apply for a study permit at a port of entry at this time. Unsurprisingly, study permits issued to students online and before travelling to Canada are delayed—so be prepared for a wait.

Entering Canada

International students who have a valid study permit or letter of introduction confirming that their application for a study permit has been approved and that they have been accepted to a designated Canadian school that has an approved COVID-19 readiness plan are exempt from the travel restrictions currently in place. This exemption also applies to accompanying family members of workers or students who wish to study in Canada.

Technical Bits — Extending Your Studies & Restoring your Status

What if your study permit has expired and you need more time to complete your studies or you wish to pursue additional studies in Canada?  You may apply to extend your study permit online.

If your study permit has already expired, you may be eligible to restore your status. If it has been less than 90 days since your study permit expired, you can restore your status as a student by applying online. In addition to these provisions, there are special measures for students whose status has expired beyond 90 days—an unusually compassionate step for those who were particularly hard hit by COVID-19 uncertainties.

Working in Canada After You Complete Your Program: Changes to the Post-Graduate Work Permit Program

Eligibility for a Post-Graduate Work Permit (PGWP) now varies greatly depending on whether you are inside or outside of Canada. These requirements are technical, and it’s best to call us for advice before applying.

Mandatory Quarantine

Although international students are exempt from the travel restrictions, they are not exempt from the mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement. On February 21, 2021, all international travellers (except for a few limited exemptions) are required to enter a government-approved quarantine facility for a period of 3 days as they await the results of the COVID-19 test they underwent upon arriving in Canada.

We continue to assist international students at all stages of their studies in Canada in navigating Canada’s immigration system.

Emma Hambly is a communications coordinator at the University of St. Michael’s College. She has a B.A. in English Literature and Classics from McGill University, and an M.A. in Literatures of Modernity from Ryerson University. In her spare time, she sews, makes collages, designs zines, writes comics, and looks for more hobbies.

A year of friendship at a distance

Close focus photograph of six envelopes resting on a pad of paper next to a fountain pen. The envelopes have stamps from Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, and USA.

In September 2019, my best friend travelled almost 14,000 kilometres to New Zealand on a work/study visa. We kept in touch the best we could, video chatting each other at those rare moments when the 18-hour time difference worked for both of us. Once she called while she was halfway through a mountain hike and had to yell over the high winds.

In March 2020, she caught one of the last flights back to Canada before New Zealand went into full lockdown, so that she could be with her family as everyone sheltered out the surging pandemic. I never imagined that I’d be video calling her just as much when she lived only 20 minutes from me as I did when she was half a world away.

Somehow, suddenly, we’ve marked a full year since everything changed. A year since the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. A little less than a year since we all realized the whole staying-at-home-thing wasn’t going to blow over in two weeks.

One of the many, many things that we’ve had to adapt to during this time is friendship at a distance. Figuring out how to stay in touch with anyone outside our quarantine bubbles has taken resourcefulness, perseverance, and so, so much patience. Thank goodness I have friends who are always willing to put in the effort.

It started with trivia. A month into the pandemic and tired already of group Zoom calls with nothing real to update one another on, my friends and I started creating and hosting trivia nights. They’re silly and fun and a great distraction, but also a surprising lens into my friends’ personalities. Our American expat got us all into Texan history, and who knew that her husband had an encyclopedic knowledge of world flags? My best friend asks questions about cooking and wonderfully evocative Yiddish words. A usually laid-back friend puts on a blazer and gives his best cheesy game show host impression whenever it’s his turn.

We keep coming up with creative ways to spend time with each other and push through the quarantine fatigue. Playing video games and board games online, synchronizing our watches or counting down so that we can watch movies at the same time, celebrating the strange creature that is the pandemic birthday.

A year of quarantine feels like a concrete signpost in what has otherwise been a shapeless span of time. I don’t need to tell you how much everyone has lost. And I know how lucky and privileged I am that my loved ones are still safe and healthy and employed.

But I hope it’s fair to say that I’m missing the little things, like going to the movies, making tea for my friends, staying up too late dancing, even being able to sit in companionable silence without having to say no, my screen isn’t frozen.

This feeling of wistfulness has made me want to focus on what I could make of quarantine, rather than on what I was lacking. It ended up leading to the best thing to come out of my personal experience with this year: pen pals.

I love writing and have always thought exchanging letters with someone, sounded wonderful. Why not try it now, with all this time at home? It turns out many people had the same idea.

I posted on a “seeking pen pals” message board and described myself and interests a little—hoping to find one or two people to connect with. Long story short, I received way more responses than I expected, and I now have more than 20 pen pals. I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

So, for the past few months, I’ve been sending letters to places all over the world: a spread across Canada, six different American states, three cities in the UK, even two spots in New Zealand.

Alongside letters, I’ve received stationery, stickers, Polaroid photos, tea bags, and a hand-drawn comic. I get to see all the care and creativity people put into their letters, and there’s something heartwarming and personal about seeing someone else’s handwriting.

I’ve been learning what life is like for people in different countries—almost like travelling without travelling. A primary school teacher from Dublin sent me a list of Gaelic phrases and a handmade St. Brigid’s cross—a traditional Irish symbol of protection. A grad student in Singapore sent me a nengajou (Lunar New Year card)she painted herself, and wrote about eating mandarin oranges and pineapple tarts during the holiday.

Despite how far flung we are, there’s so much we have in common. I’ve connected with my pen pals over our shared love of reading, making art, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and watching bad movies. I get to learn how other people have been coping with the pandemic, and share in their joy when vaccine supplies get announced.

One day, when it’s safe to fly again, I’ll have friends in other countries I can meet for the first time.

It’s been a hard year. Something that keeps bringing me comfort is people proving, again and again, that they want to stay connected. That they want to keep friendships going, no matter the odd shapes they take these days.

As we look forward, tentatively, to warmer days and vaccines, I hope we can take pride in our bonds with other people, knowing how much harder we had to work for them.

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Michael Valpy is a Canadian journalist and author. He wrote for the Globe and Mail newspaper where he covered both political and human interest stories until retiring in 2012. Through a long career at the Globe, he has been a reporter, Toronto- and Ottawa-based national political columnist, member of the editorial board, deputy managing editor, and Africa-based correspondent during the last years of apartheid. He is a Senior Fellow at Massey College and at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Examining the New Face of Media Ethics

A row of men in suits holding smartphones at an indoor event

Media ethics until the advent of Donald Trump and the mighty winds of Big Tech social media has been one of those polite topics of discourse like how does Canada’s constitutional monarchy work—important to those committed vehemently to one side or the other, but otherwise kind of meh.

No more.

The banging drum beats of “Fake news! Fake news!” from the Trumpian White House and the bedlam of political and social misrepresentations over Twitter, Facebook, Parler and the like— it’s not pronounced “parler” as in “to speak,” by the way; it’s pronounced like “parlour”—has redesigned how we communicate with one another (we tell a huge amount of lies and journalistic objectivity is increasingly a matter of opinion) and made us search earnestly for new and maybe dangerous rules of censorship.

Bringing me to the course I am teaching this term in the Book and Media Studies program. It’s called Media Studies. It has 63 third- and fourth-year students, about two-thirds of them in Toronto with a handful thinly scattered across the rest of North America, and one-third in China, Taiwan, South Korea, and India, plus a lonely soul somewhere in Eastern Europe.

Because the subject is redefining itself at high speed, I decided to teach just the minimum basics of media ethics myself—using the illustration off what’s known as The Potter Box to demonstrate the media ethics of facts, values, principles and loyalties—and rely on experts from elsewhere in Canada and the United States more knowledgeable and up-to-date than I am to Zoom into the class and be questioned by students.

This is the first time I’ve taught online and my suffering students have had to put up with my disorganization, for which I offer them an apology, but there have been so many plusses. Online digital learning can offer more than freedom to eat snacks unseen during lectures.

Jeffrey Dvorkin came into the class with his new book still in proofs, Trusting the News in a Digital Age (Wiley). In his stellar career, he had been chief journalist and former managing editor of CBC Radio, former vice-president of news and ombudsman for U.S. National Public Radio and until last year director of the journalism program at University of Toronto Scarborough.

Mathew Ingram, the chief digital writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, came to class to talk about the QAnon cult that made its presence forcefully felt at the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and what the mainstream media did to encourage Donald Trump’s political successes—the air time and free advertising ($2 billion USD worth, according to one estimate) given to him by TV networks like CNN, because they knew he would attract a crowd, in much the same way a car accident does.

Also the example of NBC: In the wake of Trump’s refusal to attend a virtual presidential debate with Joe Biden, the network offered the president his own town hall event and scheduled it at the same time as Biden’s previously announced town hall (at Trump’s behest).

In other words, said Ingram, the network treated a debate between candidates for president of the United States as though it were the finale of a celebrity cooking show.

We welcomed into the class Robyn Smith, the young editor-in-chief of Vancouver’s successful on-line Tyee newspaper to talk to us about the values and ethics of the alternative media and what drives its journalism.

One of the stars of our class visits has been Harvard’s Joan Donovan, research director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, who helped my students explore what regulatory controls can be put on the social media giants like Twitter and Facebook that can compel them to steer clear of destroying democracy without destroying freedom of speech in the process.

And then the wonderfully lively Jesse Brown, founder and publisher of Canadaland, came into class to talk about what it truly means to run a media organization free of the systemic bias of tilting toward the values of societal elites, my favourite aspect of media ethics. Then, following Brown, Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research, one of Canada’s leading polling firms, spoke to the class about avoiding shoddy or misleading polling in media.

We have more to come before the term ends.

The CBC’s Nana aba Duncan will talk to us about racism in the media. Concordia University’s Marc-André Argentino will explore with us the nexus of technology and extremist groups. And our last visit will be senior New York Times writer Jim Rutenberg who will talk to us about whether political reporting is still alive and healthy.

It’s been interesting.

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In 2020, Sister Penny McDonald celebrated her diamond anniversary of her entrance into the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Toronto. After obtaining a BA at St. Michael’s, her main ministry until 1995 was in education, as a secondary school teacher and administrator. Sister Penny realized her need to deepen her theological understanding for her work with students and in the field of vocational discernment, and was awarded a Master of Divinity degree at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. In 1995, Sister Penny moved from teaching to volunteering at St. Michael’s Hospital in the HIV clinic. Later, she directed the Drop-In, a place for women who were homeless or under-housed. For the past 14 years, Sister Penny has worked at Providence Healthcare as a volunteer in the Adult Day Program. The joy and satisfaction of serving in one of the original ministries of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Toronto, and of being part of a welcoming community of compassion, hope, and healing, has been source of joy. 

“Listen to what life is asking you”

Close focus photograph of a lavender flower against a green and pale pink background.

On Thursday March 13, 2020, I returned home from Providence Healthcare, where I have volunteered for 12 years in the Adult Day Programme (ADP), a programme for people who have dementia and are living at home. The following day I received an e-mail informing me that all volunteers were suspended until further notice. When I left Providence Thursday I had no idea that I would not be returning on Tuesday to be with the club members and staff.

I am a Sister of St. Joseph of Toronto, and the Charism of our Community is reconciliation and service of the dear neighbour. It is a challenge for me to accept that loving my neighbour is to stay home, to wash my hands, to wear a mask. In contrast, Our Foundress, Sister Delphine Fontbonne, arrived in Toronto in 1851 with three other Sisters in the midst of the Typhus epidemic and took on the management of an orphanage on Jarvis Street. For these Sisters, loving the dear neighbour meant living with the orphans, establishing schools, planning the House of Providence, which would accommodate hundreds of poor seniors, the sick, and immigrants. Sister Delphine died on February 7, 1856. She had stayed with a woman who was alone and distraught, and she had tended to the sick Sisters in her Community.

Today, of course, I want to be with the club members and staff of the ADP, and I await the day when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. Until such time, in the words of Dr. Ted Dunn, as expressed in his book The Role of Meaning-Making in Transitional Times, I “listen to what life is asking me.” I find purpose and meaning in being aware of the suffering in our world, following the news and world events, entering into committee work carried on with Zoom, sorting and organizing and packing, exercising, praying, gardening, reading, listening to music, crosswording. For this moment in time my life is changed. I believe the change is not forever!            

This year our Congregation is celebrating God’s goodness to us for 170 years. It is our prayer that we be healers and show the compassionate face of God to our dear neighbour. March 8 is International Women’s Day and I thank God that I belong to a Community of women—a Community that dates from 1648 in France. I live in the Grace of all the women who spent their lives in service of the dear neighbour without distinction and in fidelity to our call to continue the mission of Jesus “that all may be one”.

Source: Ted Dunn, PhD The Role of Meaning-Making in Transitional Times

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Nick Pantaleo, FCPA, FCA, SMC8T0 B. Comm, is a retired executive of Rogers Communications Inc. and a former partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is a Senior Fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute. Recently, he took time to meet virtually with students as part of St. Mike’s Alumni Mentorship Program.

Change is Constant

Where has the time gone?

I blinked and suddenly I found myself in a virtual meeting with future St. Mike’s grads almost 41 years after my own graduation! 41 years!

Photograph of a young man standing on a hill looking out on a misty sunrise

That’s right. I am a St. Mike’s alum, having graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1980. I then embarked on a 33-year career—22 as partner—at PricewaterhouseCoopers, specializing in taxation, before “retiring” to take a senior vice president position at Rogers Communications. In 2019, I retired from Rogers. The timing was planned but it turned out to be fortuitous because I was able to devote more time to my aging parents as they battled health issues and moved into a retirement home.

I usually make the point that I “retired from Rogers” as I did from PwC, as opposed to saying I am “retired.” After all, I plan to—and have remained—busy since leaving Rogers. I play more golf in the summer, and I spent more time at our place in Florida in the winter months BC—“Before COVID.” I have also written some papers and remain engaged in tax and other policy discussions at the C.D. Howe Institute, where I am a Senior Fellow. I also have more time to focus on my charitable and board responsibilities —until recently I was on the Board of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto and am currently on the Board of Catholic Cemeteries and Funeral Services.

While my graduation was over a generation ago, I have never been far away from university life. My oldest daughter is a SMC1T3 Commerce graduate and my youngest daughter graduated from Guelph University with a business degree in 2017. For many years after my own graduation, I was very involved in recruiting university students. I also taught tax to university students throughout most of my career, and I continue to do guest lectures at the University of Waterloo, where I was an Executive in Residence shortly after leaving Rogers.

Teaching was my primary source of personal development throughout my career. After graduation and later after another year of study to get my professional accounting designation, I guess I found it hard to discipline myself to be a student again. I found teaching a great way to stay current. Plus, teaching was very rewarding. I always found my interactions with students to be refreshing and a welcome diversion from the intensity of my professional career. Sure, student interactions could be intense at times—like around exam and mark time!—but it was not the same as dealing with client matters. I find students’ enthusiasm to be infectious. Their curiosity and questions about what to expect “in the real world” challenge me and are an opportunity for personal reflection.

So it was a no-brainer to accept the invitation to participate in a virtual meeting with future grads last month as part of St. Mike’s Alumni Mentorship Program.

Graduates of my generation faced challenges and uncertainty. Does anyone ever know what the future holds for them? Students graduating this year and possibly even the next, do so in circumstances they could not have imagined when they started their university journey. Who would have thought that this decade would begin with the world struggling through a pandemic the likes of which have not been experienced in more than 100 years?

How do students graduating from St. Mike’s meet the challenges brought on by the pandemic and quell their anxiety about the future?

Based on my experience, two things come to mind immediately.

First, as with all challenges we face, start by trusting yourself. Trust your abilities. Yes, you will be a work in process when you graduate. But take comfort from the fact that you will graduate from a preeminent college in a world-renowned university under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Arguably, no group has faced a greater challenge during the pandemic than students—of all ages. They have had to basically re-learn how to learn while being largely isolated from their peer group and unable to participate in extracurricular activities that are equally important to one’s development. How will you have met this challenge? One. Day. At. A. Time. That is how you will meet the challenge(s) “in the real world” brought on by the pandemic. And for those times when you do doubt your ability, continue to ensure your support system is in place—parents, spouse, partner, children, coach, friends, colleagues. At some point, they will need you as well.

Second, remember that change is constant. That is a good thing. Change can be the great equalizer if approached with a positive mind frame. Change creates opportunities. The pandemic is forcing all (profit and not for profit) businesses, organizations and institutions to re-invent themselves, to rethink their operating model from top to bottom. Everything from how to service customers to how and where employees will work. Those too hard-wired to the way of doing things BC will struggle. They will have difficulty pivoting. They will need help. Therein lies the opportunities for future graduates. 

I look forward to sharing more of my experiences in future blogs. Reach out to me at with any thoughts or questions.

In the meantime, stay safe!

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John Paul Farahat is Director of Music and Principal Organist of St. Basil’s Church. He conducts St. Basil’s Schola Cantorum and Parish Choir. He received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Organ in 2019 from the University of Toronto, where his research focused on the life and improvisations of Victor Togni (193 –1965), internationally-renowned organist of St. Basil’s and St. Michael’s during the 1960s.

Liturgical Music in this Long Lent

Image depicts the organ in St.Basils church

Liturgical music in Lent can sometimes feel like a trimmed-down version of what we would experience in Ordinary Time. In Lent, the Gloria and Alleluia are omitted. The organ is only used to support singing, and there are no preludes or postludes (with the exception of Laetare Sunday, and the solemnities of the Annunciation and St. Joseph).

In normal times, these changes are felt with a particular intensity over a 40-day period. But much of the liturgical music of the last 12 months could be said to reflect that pared-down character of the Lenten season.

The most noticeable change in liturgical music since March 2020 is the suspension of congregational singing.

The 1967 document Musicam Sacram: Instruction on Music in the Liturgy was a product of the Second Vatican Council. It spoke beautifully about the importance of congregational singing, a directive wholeheartedly embraced by the St. Basil’s community. But in a context in which congregational singing is suspended, how do we understand the role of music in worship? While Musicam Sacram justly emphasized the role of outward congregational song, it expanded on this by underscoring that congregations “should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God(Art. 15).

St. Basil’s has adopted and applied this directive with care by reintroducing the regular use of entrance and communion antiphons in the liturgy. In listening to and praying with the antiphons, the congregation enters more fully into the celebration of Mass. Like the readings, psalm, and gospel acclamation of the Liturgy of the Word, the antiphons change daily, set as part of the lectionary cycle. The antiphons are scriptural, appointed for each Mass, and are intimately linked to the texts of the liturgy. Take, for example, the Entrance Antiphon of the Second Sunday of Lent, connected to the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration: “Of you, my heart has spoken: Seek his face. It is your face, O Lord, that I seek; hide not your face from me” (Ps. 27). Or, alternatively, the Antiphon at the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy: “Hosanna to the son of David: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel. Hosanna in the highest!” (Mt. 21).

The music ministers of St. Basil’s have also adapted their roles to the realities of the pandemic. St. Basil’s Schola Cantorum, an octet comprised of students who would sing both on weekends and select weekday feasts and solemnities, has restructured into small and safely distanced quartets. In addition, they have supplemented the roster of cantors who sing for Mass (in person and live-streamed). St. Basil’s Parish Choir, usually a hallmark of worship on Sundays at the 10:30 Mass, has been rehearsing weekly online since last March, and occasionally recording virtual choir videos. The next video will be released during Eastertide. The St. Basil’s Singers, too, have met regularly online.

I am confident that the community will reclaim its collective voice at the end of the pandemic. Once we exit this long Lent of many months, we will once again be able to come together as a community in worship in a way that resembles normalcy. In the words of St. Paul, we will “sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs(Col. 3:16).

And, surely, we will sing an Alleluia or two as well.

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St. Michael’s alumna Suzanne Heft spent her childhood living in the United States, the Middle East and England before attending the University of Toronto, graduating with a B.A. in English Literature in 1990. After a brief stint in public relations, she became interested in non-profit fundraising and has been a senior executive on numerous fundraising campaigns over a 20-year Toronto-based career. She met her late husband Harold Heft while working at U of T many years after graduation, and the university holds a special place in her heart as the place where they met. Suzanne’s oldest son Sam is a student at Woodsworth College, and A Perfect Offering, published by Mosaic Press and available from book retailers, is dedicated to him, his younger brother John, and to Harold himself. 

A Perfect Offering

Ring the bells/that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering/There’s a crack

A crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.

—Leonard Cohen

Photograph of contributor Suzanne Heft and her late husband, both smiling.

What would you do if suddenly your world cracked apart?

What if you were a teenager on vacation, sunbathing on a beach and a terrorist bomb blew up just a few metres away from you? Or you were a new mother of a one-year-old baby who inexplicably died in a hospital ICU? What if your beloved parents were both killed by a drunk driver two months before your university graduation? Or what if you collapsed at work, age 49, only to be told you had a brain tumour growing in your head and likely had less than two years to live?

What if. What if.

The last scenario actually happened to me, or rather to my husband, Harold, almost six years ago. A writer by trade, a former English professor and a senior marketing executive, he was rendered unable to read or write by the location of his tumour. A father to two young children, he found himself, suddenly, figuratively, staring down the barrel of a gun. And me alongside him.

Many people reading this are familiar with the “life before” and the “life after.” Traumatic events are the fault lines that separate us from who we were then and who we are now. Understanding and exploring this phenomenon became Harold’s preoccupation in the months after his diagnosis. His past had fallen away like the sheer drop of a cliff below his feet, and the future was now an elusive mirage.

“What do I do now?” he asked me. As he had done all his life, he chose to write. Except this time, I was his scribe. Together, and with help of an editor friend we had both known for years, Harold imagined a book of non-fiction stories, the real, wrenching stories of ordinary people, who, like him, had made passage from “the before” to “the after,” and who had luminous insights and observations to offer. Making this book—a book he himself would have wanted to read—became a true passion project.

Creating a book is a daunting task under any circumstances. Doing so while you’re in the middle of chemotherapy, radiation, and rehabilitation from brain surgery is practically impossible. And yet we worked on it. Tenaciously.

Harold died in 2015, before the completion of a full manuscript of the book he imagined so vividly. At his funeral, there were hundreds of people present while my friend Jim delivered a eulogy where he talked about Harold’s legacy as a storyteller, among other things. Adrift in my own grief, I knew that part of my forced reckoning with death lay in picking up the book project where Harold had left off—and finding a way to complete it.

The submissions we solicited came pouring in. Iranian-Canadian writer Marina Nemat wrote of an encounter with a fellow survivor of the infamous Evin prison in Iran where she had been wrongly jailed as a young woman decades before escaping to Toronto. Rabbi Yael Splansky, mother of three sons, recalled a deeply personal sermon she delivered in front of her entire congregation on the Jewish New Year, having just turned the page on her gruelling treatment for breast cancer. New York Times columnist Jennifer Finney Boylan sent us a story about a near-death moment that changed her life forever, and Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson shared photos and stories of orphans and street children he encountered on location in Kabul and Vietnam, boys and girls with glassy stares and lost childhoods.

All these stories—and many more—polished like gems, made it into the pages of A Perfect Offering: Personal Stories of Trauma and Transformation, which was finally published in December 2020.

I hope that the book is a testament to the power of story. That in our shared vulnerability, we find ways to be less alone with our pain. There is an old adage, “a burden shared is a burden halved.” I’m not sure this is quite true, but I do believe that when other human beings witness our suffering, it calls us to a state of grace that is transformative and compelling.

It is highly serendipitous that this book is published during the middle of a global pandemic, where so many of us are suffering alone, and grieving all manner of losses too numerous to mention. Harold was always skeptical of those folks who said: “everything happens for a reason.” His own story is in the book, but it was half-finished. In the flurry of work on other people’s essays, he neglected his own, until, alas, it was too late. I decided to include it as is, unfinished and real. It is his own imperfect offering.

Indeed, there is perhaps no other kind.

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Oghogho Abigail Iyekekpolor is in her 3rd year double majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology and minoring in Practical French. In her time at St Mike’s, she has served as an Orientation Leader and the Student Life Programming Assistant. Last year, she launched the #SOULSofSMC social media campaign. She is currently serving as a residence don.

Black History IS History

When I first started writing this InsightOut, I honestly felt a bit apprehensive. While I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts, I can’t deny the nervousness that comes with it. Talking about Black History Month is like opening Pandora’s box: it calls to mind slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, #BlackLivesMatter Movement, police brutality, systemic racism, generational trauma. It’s a dense topic and almost impossible to talk about everything without getting sidetracked by feelings of anger and exasperation. It’s quite daunting, and although part of me doesn’t want to exclude anything, what I want to talk about most is what Black History Month represents to me, especially based on the things I’ve learned in the past 12 months.

Collage of photographs of prominent Black Canadians. First row, from left: Oscar Peterson, Michaëlle Jean, Ferguson Jenkins, Anderson Ruffin Abbott.
Second row, from left: Josiah Henson, Donovan Bailey, Deborah Cox, Mathieu de Costa.
Third row, from left: William Hall, 
Jarome Iginla, Marlene Jennings, Clement Virgo. Fourth row, from left: Kardinal Offishall, Elijah McCoy, Austin Clarke, Jamaal Magloire.
Image Source: Wikimedia

Originally, Black History Month was “Negro History Week,” introduced by African American scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson in February 1929. The aim was to raise awareness of the experiences of Black people in America and around the world while celebrating their great achievements. Woodson set the week in February to incorporate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two Americans who played an instrumental role in shaping Black history in the United States. The celebration gained strong momentum in the years to follow and by the 1970s Negro History Week became Black History Month. In Canada, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in December 1995, following a motion by Dr. Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament.

Since then, Black History Month for many of us growing up in North America has been about celebrating figures of the past. We learn about the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, the brave actions of Rosa Parks, the fortitude of Malcolm X, groups like the Black Panthers and so on. These are a few among many strong people who fought the great battle against racism, and “we as a people are soooo much better for it now!” As a young Black girl who’d had her skin called poop and her foreign name mocked countless times I was more than willing to accept this narrative. A whole month to celebrate people who looked like me—what could be better? I practically worshipped people like Harriet Tubman and Maya Angelou when I was in elementary school.

And then I saw a story about Trayvon Martin on the news when I was 12 years old. I always feel a pang in my chest when I think about this because it was the first time I truly felt afraid to be Black. Then came Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Andrew Loku. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Elijah McClain. Ahmaud Arbery. D’Andre Campbell. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Regis Korchinski-Paquet.

 Evidently, that great battle against racism is not over.

This isn’t an attempt to discount the invaluable contributions of the larger-than-life individuals we usually celebrate during Black History Month, those who have galvanized movements and brought about invaluable change. But it is a call-out and a reflection. Black History Month isn’t only about the greats of history or people of the past. It’s also about ordinary people who have been and continue to be brutalized without any regard for their human dignity, just because of the colour of their skin. It’s about how #BlackLivesMatter is treated as a political statement rather than a simple affirmation. And, very importantly, it’s about knowledge and empowerment.

I’m currently taking the course SMC300, a special topic under Book and Media Studies taught by Emilie Nicolas on #BlackLivesMatter in the Media. Previously, we discussed the experience of learning about Black history in Canada and how sub-par our education on the subject has been. An overarching theme for some of our discussions has been the idea of erasure. Black people in Canada are often regarded as new, even though the first Black person in this country, Mathieu de Coste, arrived in 1608, not to mention the enslavement of black people in Canada during the 17th and 18th centuries. We almost never learn about this, only hearing stories of the underground railroad that led enslaved people from America to “freedom” in Canada.

Apart from historical events like these, Black people have been cheated of the acknowledgement they deserve in many other areas of pop culture and society: fashion, music,  dance, language, science—the brilliant Black individuals who contribute to these areas are often overlooked while their accomplishments are lauded when embraced by white people.

What I’m trying to say is that I believe we celebrate Black History Month today for the same reasons Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week more than 90 years ago. Members of the Black community are still not being recognized for their achievements and are still being treated inequitably. We may not be facing the exact same racism that Woodson endured in his time but we must combat our own reimagined version of it to move forward; the fight is ongoing. It’s a daunting idea, but the past year has shown all of us what it feels like to live through major historical events and has shown us our ability to partake in that history and to choose what side of it we want to be on.

The past year has also shown us that these efforts can happen outside of February. Just look at last summer: with a pandemic raging throughout the world, people were forced to sit and reckon with the obvious displays of systemic anti-blackness around them. Discussions about it were unavoidable.

Consequently, if you ask me, Black History Month serves as a reminder that even in a society where the cultural and social impacts of Black people are felt all around us, our lives and contributions are still so disregarded that we must relegate them to one month. Black History is everywhere: it’s the new dance trend that you see on TikTok, it’s the traffic lights that guide you smoothly home during your daily commute. The reality is that Black history IS history, period. Until the time when we can fully recognize that and embrace the complex and beautiful humanity of Black people every day of the year, we will continue to use the month of February to mourn our losses, celebrate our heroes, and mobilize for greater change. 

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Norm Tanck, CSB is the Associate Pastor of St. Basil’s Parish. He entered the Basilian Novitiate in Erindale, ON in 1967 and made his first profession of vows in 1967. He received his M.Div. from USMC in 1973 and was ordained a priest in 1974. Norm served as St. Mike’s Director of Campus Ministry and College Chaplain from 1982 to 1985.

A Different Kind of Lent

St. Basil's Church

As I write this, I do not know what Ash Wednesday and Lent will look and feel like this year. St. Basil’s Parish has plans for when and how ashes will be distributed. We will have short continuous services during the day. If you are on campus, you can check St. Basil’s Parish website to see how you can register for a time to receive ashes (Information for Ash Wednesday). The way we receive them this year will be different. If you can come in person, they will not be smeared on your forehead as in the past, but sprinkled on the top of your head, as they do in Rome.

Every year in the past St. Basil’s Church would have overflow crowds of people coming to receive blessed ashes on their foreheads. Parishioners, members of the USMC community, local residents, government workers, businesspeople and shoppers would leave the church and go into the world around them bearing the Cross of Jesus Christ for all to see.

There may have been a sense of solidarity in the church, but on Bay Street, in Eataly, in the MacDonald Block, or Robarts Library, I imagine one could feel conspicuous, self-conscious, even vulnerable. Some, however, may have felt proud to profess their faith in such a public way.

There may be a sense of relief this Ash Wednesday that we might not have to face the stares and quizzical looks, maybe even the ridicule of others. We may not even have to face the challenge to look at our lives and assess what needs to change for us to live a good life in relationship to God, others, the rest of creation, and ourselves.

This kind of self-focus, self-assessment and call to personal conversion, transformation, and change is only part of what Ash Wednesday and Lent is about. Often, we forget or maybe ignore the call the is given to us, to the Church.

The first reading for our Ash Wednesday liturgy tells us: “…call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast” (Joel 2:15-16a). The people, a corporate reality, is called to change. The Lenten call to repentance is a call to the Church herself to change, and a warning to humanity that the path it is on will result in ruin. The prophet Joel uses the image of a famine to portray a people, a nation, in crisis. Joel is not one of the happiest books in the Bible. But I think he is a relevant prophet for us today.

Walter Bruggeman, a Scripture scholar who specialized in the Psalms and the Prophets, said that a prophet has three functions. The first is to announce that the old order is ended—not that it is going to end but that it is already over. The second function is to let the people sing their songs of lamentation, to grieve their loss. The third is to give the people a new hopeful and energizing vision for the future.

This year, as I reflect on what Ash Wednesday may mean as we begin the second year of our pandemic crisis, I am struck by this corporate call to repentance and change. It is a call that is given to the Church so that like Joel we can become a prophetic witness to the world. COVID-19, like Joel’s agricultural crisis, is emblematic of the cumulative issues and many crises that threaten the common good of the human family and of all of creation.

In his latest book reflecting on our present COVID-19 crisis, Pope Francis says, “Every now and then, however, great calamities awaken the memory of (our) original liberation and unity. Prophets who sought to recall the people to what really matters, to its first love, suddenly find eager audience. Times of tribulation offer the possibility that what oppresses the people – both internally and externally – can be overthrown, and a new age of freedom begin… Crisis has shown that our people are not subject to blind forces but in adversity are capable of acting” (Pope Francis, Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future.  New York, Simon & Schuster).

The Pope uses a familiar model to reflect on the issues and respond effectively. We begin by seeing what is going on, being attentive to the situation. Then we must discern what needs to be done and choose a plan of action. And finally, we must do it.

This model is good for our personal Lenten discipline and conversion, but this year, it comes as a special challenge for the Church and our prophetic witness. What do we have to announce? How do we let go of the past? And what is our hope for the future, not only for ourselves but for the world in which we live?

Pope Francis in the epilogue of his recent book writes, “A crisis forces you (us) to move, but one can move without going anywhere. In lockdown many of us left the house for essentials or walk around the block to stretch our legs. But then when we get back to where we were and what we were before, like a tourist who goes to the sea or the mountains for a week of relaxation, but then returns to her suffocating routine. She has moved, but sideways, only to come back to where she started”.

He goes on to say, “I prefer the contrasting image of the pilgrim, who is one who decenters and so can transcend. She goes out from herself, opens herself to a new horizon, and when she comes home, she is no longer the same, and her home won’t be the same… This is a time for pilgrimages”.

This is a time for us to look, choose, and act.

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Martyn Jones is a content specialist in St. Mike’s Office of Communications. On a freelance basis, he also writes reported features, essays, and criticism for online and print outlets. He and his wife’s toddler Fox has just turned two years old. 

Reading Out Loud or, The Whale 

When Herman Melville died in September of 1891, his novels were out of print. He had by then spent several decades writing poetry no one seemed to enjoy, least of all his long-suffering wife. The success and fame he earned early in life writing semi-autobiographical novels about seafaring—those stores had all been depleted long ago. His obituary in the Times even misspelled the title of his greatest book, still decades from being recognized for what it was.

1851 is the year Melville published Moby-Dick or, the Whale. It is the story of Ishmael, a man who, to rid himself of his depression and see the world, joins the crew of a Nantucket whaling ship called the Pequod. Captain Ahab presides over the vessel, emerging from his cabin to clomp across the deck with one leg made of whalebone. In a violent encounter with an albino sperm whale on an earlier voyage, Ahab was “dismasted,” and after recovering from the loss of his leg he developed a diabolical obsession with the perpetrator. His mission of revenge against the whale will, in the end, cost the lives of every man aboard the ship but one.

While this summary makes Moby-Dick sound like one more adventure story written from Melville’s experiences as a young sailor, the book departed from its predecessors in containing a huge amount of musing about—well, everything: life, the universe, the whaling industry, fate, democracy, table manners, civilization, the taxonomy of whales, and the human situation in the midst of it all.

Moby-Dick was first reviewed in England by critics whose three-volume copies were both censored in various places and misprinted to exclude the epilogue. The latter would have been a minor error had that last page not explained how Ishmael, the book’s narrator, survived the cataclysmic wreck of the Pequod at the climax of the book. Imagining their simple-minded American cousins capable of accidentally writing a story narrated by someone who does not survive the events being narrated, the critics attacked Melville, and American reviewers, cowed by their sophisticated English peers, adopted their posture. Moby-Dick sold poorly, as would everything else Melville wrote from then on. 

Moby-Dick has a claim to being the great American novel; if it isn’t that, it may at least be the greatest American novel so far. Ahab’s vengefulness against an animal foe develops a superlatively powerful expression of the theme of humanity’s struggle with nature. Vivid metaphors in every chapter suggest meanings beneath meanings and other meanings under those, giving the story a feeling of infinite depth. The many voices and registers, the occasional stage directions, the scenes of comedy, the stately rhythm, and the exclamation points—he uses them unsparingly!—all make the book an absolute blast to read out loud.

This is just what my wife and I have been doing to conclude the day. After our toddler is asleep, our chores are done, and we’ve closed the laptop after a last episode of whatever show, I bring out my heavy and heavily dog-eared paperback copy of Moby-Dick and start to read. We’re over a quarter of the way through, having just witnessed Ahab’s dark speech to the crew about their voyage’s singular objective, and the toast the crew makes to the death of the whale.

Melville’s complex and semicolon-laden sentences sometimes flow too hard to shape them with the right intonation or verbal emphasis, but this is all part of the fun—as is sounding out unfamiliar words, or laughing in spite of yourself. (The Pequod’s third mate, Flask, is unable to help himself to butter while dining with the captain for reasons of psychology and decorum, which Melville explains at length before saying, “however it was, Flask, alas! was a butterless man!” I laugh every time I read this passage and still couldn’t tell you why.)

Shakespeare’s plays—themselves meant to be spoken and heard rather than read—were Melville’s literary obsession before composing Moby-Dick, and their rhythms provide the book with its line-level tempo. There are whole passages that would scan as perfect blank verse with the addition of a handful of line breaks. Like a steam engine, the rhythm of iambic pentameter creates momentum, and when you start to hear that rhythm and match it with your own voice, it can carry you away.

It’s easy to get carried away, of course: to use silly voices, to read too loudly or forcefully, or even for your voice to crack or give out. In my experience, this adds to the enjoyment for the reader and the listener. When you give voice to someone else’s words, you put your own stamp on them, and through the processes of your memory, they leave an imprint on you as well. The quiet chuckles and pauses to sort out some obscure meaning add something to the experience of the book: a quality of communal enjoyment.

Melville’s spotty career and tumultuous personal history are relevant, too: as they created the conditions that gave rise to his great book, so might there be a kind of perfection in the awkward or unsteady voice of a parent, partner or friend reading Moby-Dick out loud, especially if they’re reading through the imperfect medium of a video call. Even in this scenario, far from ideal, reading aloud transforms art into shared experience. When stuck at home—or “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” as Ishmael says—there are few things as needful as that.

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Mark De Luca (SMC1T5) holds a Bachelor of Arts (Political Science and History) degree from the University of Toronto. After graduating, he pursued a Post-Graduate Certificate in Broadcasting—Radio from Humber College, ultimately moving out West to work as a news reporter/director in rural Manitoba. For the past five years Mark has had the privilege of working in rural and urban centres at a number of radio stations, including 730 CKDM (Dauphin, MB), The Shoreline’s myFM (Kincardine, ON) and 680News in Toronto. Mark now works as a Traffic Reporter with the Canadian Traffic Network (CTN) and can be heard every afternoon on the following stations: Boom 97.3, Flow 93.5, Jazz FM 91, The New Classical FM, 1460 CJOY and Magic 106.1.

InsightOut: The Familiarity of Radio in a Changing World

It’s been roughly one year since Toronto experienced its first full lockdown. I remember it vividly. I was at the local pub having a beer with some buds, chatting about this potential pandemic spreading across the globe. It was being called COVID-19, similar to the SARS outbreak 16 years prior, but we didn’t know much. The World Health Organization was apprehensive about classifying it as a pandemic but was keeping an eye on it. Nearly 365 days later, we find ourselves in the situation we are currently dealing with.

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has completely changed lives for all. From the way we interact with one another to how we conduct our daily lives, this once-in-a-generation virus has been front and centre for one whole year. 

At times it seemed you couldn’t get away from it. Every popular media platform provided wall-to-wall coverage about the pandemic at all hours. Having worked in news radio for close to five years I was used to information overload but COVID-19 presented a whole new meaning when it came to the 24/7 news cycle. Radio—an industry already going through immense change—once again needed to find a way to adapt, learn, and grow.

Rather than disregard the virus entirely, I looked for ways we could evidently beat the illness while living and working amid it. For some, that meant working from home, wearing a mask, social distancing, weekly Zoom video calls, but for me that meant using my platform: radio, and the power it still has over a population.   

Radio has been around for more than 100 years and has changed along with the world around it. Although the medium has taken a new direction in the form of engagement through social media platforms, at its core, the main objective is to communicate important information to a wide audience in real time. As a traffic reporter I quickly realized this when the busy city streets of Toronto and its area highways instantly became bare. What was once gridlock on the 401 now seemed to be open, the hustle and bustle of Yonge & Dundas non-existent, and a backed-up Gardiner Expressway a thing of the past.

I pondered this new world and many times asked myself, “What’s the point of these reports if everyone is at home?” but, in reality, that was not the case. Although the streets were substantially less busy, a new group of people came to light… the Essential Workers. The ones whose jobs did not allow them to stay at home were the people now occupying our roadways. The nurses, frontline health care workers, EMS paramedics, warehouse attendants, truck/ delivery/ bus/ taxi/ UBER drivers, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, police officers, and firefighters were now the primary commuters. They were the ones waking up early in the morning, getting in their cars—or jumping on public transit—to provide the necessary services to keep our province safe and economy afloat.

The realization that, for a select few, working from home was not an option quickly resonated with me. For these people, a new level of fear, stress, and anxiety was unexpectedly thrust upon them. For many of these workers, the only break they could potentially have (if they received any at all) was that short timeframe between home and work that they had to themselves.

I reflected on this new reality and how my job could make the lives of these essential workers easier. What could I do to help them? Like many other industries, I was now relegated to a “Home Office” which was anything but—realistically it consisted of a desk, microphone, and a bed sheet over my head. But I was home, and for many this was not an option.

It was at that moment I made the decision to dedicate all my reports to essential workers across the Greater Toronto Area. If I could make someone’s commute easier, I see that as a win. Radio has the unique power to provide much-needed companionship to so many, adding an extra voice to someone’s day when at times they may feel alone.    

My time at St. Michael’s taught me about the importance of community, and I have taken those lessons with me throughout my life—I do not take that for granted. For these workers, community is more important now than ever before and I have applied those beliefs to my traffic reports. As we continue to adapt to the changes of COVID-19 I am optimistic there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With enough self-discipline, focus, and commitment to work in our own unique ways we will beat this thing.

I hope radio, in all its changes, brings you that sense of comfort and familiarity we are all longing for. As I say after I end every week on-air, “Until next time, be safe out there and I’ll see you next week.”

SMC, can I get a Hoikity Choik on C?

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Maxine Webster serves as Advancement Officer, Alumni Engagement at St. Mike’s. She holds a B.A. in Media, Culture, and the Arts from The King’s College in New York City. 

Virtual Connections with St. Mike’s Alumni

Since starting work within the Advancement team two months ago I’ve come to appreciate the special nature of St. Mike’s.

I was initially drawn to the role based on the understanding that the College is supported by a loyal and generous community of alumni. And as someone who graduated from a small liberal arts college in a big city, I appreciate the juxtaposition of being part of a safe, tight-knit community while simultaneously being surrounded by the resources and opportunities a bustling city—and one of the world’s leading research universities—affords.

This is an interesting time to be working in university alumni relations, as so many things have shifted in the last several months due to COVID-19. Traditionally, St. Mike’s alumni would be looking forward to various in-person social events. On the flip side, alumni who may not have been able to access a local event in the past can now tune in, a unique opportunity to connecting with one another virtually.

So, while we all wait to return to “normal” when it is safe to do so, it is my job to engage and support the alumni community throughout this time—and I think we can all agree it is more important than ever to stay as connected to one another as we can.

Alumni volunteer activity is a critical asset to any university, and I am particularly grateful for the Alumni Association Board and Young Alumni Committee. These groups provide invaluable perspectives and insight as the mouthpiece for St. Mike’s alumni at large. Their contributions and ideas support the relationships between St. Mike’s and alumni, as well as within the alumni community, through alumni programming. They have a direct impact on the future of St. Mike’s. Right now, there is an opportunity and a priority to grow these groups to further represent the diversity and various backgrounds of the alumni body.

There are a couple of new virtual programs coming up. I am really looking forward to the St. Mike’s Alumni Workshop Series in partnership with the Office of the Dean of Students, where alumni who represent varying industries and experiences are meeting with a small group of current students over Zoom throughout February and into March. Each session is focused on a particular theme, such as “Finding a Job in a Difficult Market” and “Entrepreneurship.”

Another program in the works is a Faculty Speaker Series, a way to highlight and share St. Mike’s fantastic faculty and programming with all University of Toronto alumni through virtual presentations. We also look forward to traditional programming—the Lenten Retreat, Alumni Reunion, and Spring Convocation—done in new ways, for now.

Furthermore, I have been inspired by ideas alumni bring forth—from social media initiatives to thematic virtual events—and I am honoured to witness the progress that continues to take place at St. Mike’s, through St. Mike’s 180 strategic plan. I look forward to continuing to spend time in conversation with alumni in an effort to connect, learn, share ideas, and make plans.

More than anything, I realize time and time again what a special place St. Mike’s is. Stories of Catholic services and religious pursuits, campus life and community involvement, stimulating classes and academic advisors, all remind me that St. Mike’s is a place where some of life’s fondest memories have happened, and continue to happen. Even in the midst of a challenging season, I am constantly reminded that a strong alumni community makes for a stronger St. Mike’s.

If you would like to introduce yourself or get in touch with me about any of the things above (I really enjoy hearing from alumni!), you can reach out via email or phone (416.926.7260 ext: 67260).

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Kathryn Elton joined the University of St. Michael’s College in 2016, as Chief Advancement Officer, overseeing fundraising and alumni programming. One of the best parts of her work, she explains, is meeting and getting to know St. Mike’s incredible alumni community.

Remembering Long-time St. Mike’s Alumna Gloria (Chisholm) Buckley

Gloria in 2018 receiving her 70th Anniversary Chancellor’s Medal

The University of St. Michael’s College and University of Toronto communities lost a treasured friend with the passing of alumna Gloria (Chisholm) Buckley on January 25, 2021. Gloria, who graduated from St. Michael’s College in 1948 with a Bachelor of Arts and Science, majoring in chemistry, was a beloved alumni volunteer leader. She was also a trailblazer who shone a path for women in science and returned her good fortune by serving others.

When Gloria was presented with St. Michael’s Alway Award in 2014 she was celebrated as a “pioneering spirit, a scientist, working mom and community volunteer…at peace with both faith and science, a lifelong passion for knowledge, and thrilled by discovery. With a penchant for asking questions, a feminist before the movement began, a desire to contribute to saving lives, to fight for health and to understand the world at its most basic elements. She has lived up to the highest standards in numerous ways.”

Gloria’s graduating class photo, 1948

Gloria’s accomplishments were extensive. She was:

  • a researcher at University of Toronto and at St. Michael’s Hospital’s Lipid Centre
  • a scientist in the private sector, including in bioscience and clinical chemistry specializing in cancer research
  • a member of the Christian Family Movement—helping peers with children cope with the pressures of life while raising families
  • a member of the Associates of the Sisters of St. Joseph for more than 25 years
  • one of the longest-serving members of the U of T Senior Alumni Association
  • the founder and leader of the organizing committee for University of St. Michael’s College Alumni and Friends Annual Lenten Twilight Retreat


  • the longest-serving Board Member of the USMC Alumni Association.

Gloria was also the proud mother of sons Roger, Brian, and Phillip, all of whom attended St. Mike’s.

She was a much-loved friend among the alumni community. St. Mike’s alumna Marcella Tanzola remembers:

“I had the honour of knowing and working with Gloria for many years on the St. Michael’s Alumni Board. With Father Bob Madden, we both helped to establish the Annual Twilight Lenten Retreat and worked closely over 25 years to make this a memorable and meaningful event. Gloria was a tireless worker and supporter of all alumni pursuits. For me she was a ready ear and good counsellor. We shared wonderful conversations during all those years and I learned what a remarkable woman she was as we exchanged our life experiences. Rest in a much deserved peace Gloria. I will miss you.”

Miriam Kelly, another alumna and colleague, adds:

“The Basilian Fathers, the University of Toronto and the University of St. Michael’s College, and the Annual Lenten Twilight Retreat will all be thankful for the many years Gloria gave to their many endeavours, sharing her wisdom, hospitality and sense of humour. Gloria will be much missed and remembered. Rest in Peace.“

When I joined St. Mike’s advancement and alumni programs team in 2016, all my new colleagues recommended that Gloria be one of the first alumni I should meet. She had a long-standing connection with St. Michael’s, deep commitment to the university, and astute perspectives on our past and our future. She was also a frequent attendee at alumni meetings and events, and I soon learned why she was loved by my colleagues. Betty Noakes, a member of our advancement team who knew her for more than 10 years notes that “Gloria’s kindness, knowledge, sage advice, and grace made the world a better place. She exemplified Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge. I will hold her in my heart, and miss her dearly, as will, I’m sure the community she has left behind.”

The University of St. Michael’s College is truly blessed by a loyal and committed alumni community, and I have a special place in my heart for Gloria. From our first meeting in fall, 2016 until our last conversation this past fall, when she was sharing ideas about St. Mike’s vision for the future, I have felt extremely lucky to have known her, even just a little.

Thank you Gloria. God speed.

Gratefully, Kathryn.

Alumni who wish to share memories and tributes to Gloria are invited to send messages to: We will collect them and send them to the family.

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The author of our post for Bell Let’s Talk Day 2021, Therese Hassan completed both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of St. Michael’s College. A recent graduate from the Master of Theological Studies program at the Faculty of Theology, she is particularly interested in Catholic philosophy of education, theology of ministry, and qualitative methods in religious studies. Therese is currently a Secondary School teacher with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.

Talking About Fight Club to Stay Healthy

I recently assigned my students an adaptation of a “time audit” activity that Jay Shetty offers in his book Think Like a Monk. The premise of the exercise was that what we spend most of our time on essentially reflects what we value most. The idea was for my students to audit their time over five days to identify where most of their time was being spent. My students had to articulate what it is they truly value and whether or not the way they spent their time (especially amid a pandemic) truly reflected what they valued most. For most students, the realization set in that how they spent their time was disproportionate to what they outlined they truly valued.

As I listened to my students’ reflections on their time audit, several patterns emerged. Many of my students identified having valued their mental health but recognized that the way they spent their time did not necessarily foster positive mental health. Many voiced an intention to carve out more time in the day to spend on activities that would benefit their mental health, including less time on social media, more time meditating and praying, and more time being present with family (I know: amazing conclusions, right?). Interestingly, almost all of them felt guilty to some degree about not doing more with their time, considering the time at home the pandemic has granted. On this point, I could relate to my students more than they will ever know.

The truth is that the conclusions my students came to as a result of their time audit are as intuitive as they are appropriate to the unprecedented time we find ourselves in. As their teacher, I am essentially endowed with the responsibility to keep considerate of their mental health, offer information and resources on how to cope and who to talk to, and tips and tools in practicing self-care, all while standing as a pillar of poise, a model of “keeping it together,” a standard of composure even though I too share in the same struggle. It’s like having to prepare my students for a test I’ve never taken myself, in an area I haven’t yet achieved a level of expertise. Put all that against the backdrop of a pandemic, and it feels more like a fight; only it’s a fight I didn’t ever think I’d need to prepare for, let alone be responsible for in preparing others. I’m right there in the ring with everyone else trying to listen to coaching instructions.

Of course, I could never say this out loud. The first rule of fight club is you cannot talk about the fight club. If I talk about my struggle in the fight club, how can anyone find me dependable or reliable? What if I am seen as any less of a Professional? How do I continue to meet the needs of my students, friends, or family members in supporting their mental health while staying afloat myself? How do I talk about self-care amid a pandemic when I’m still trying to figure out a routine that works for me? How do I help the people around me continue to feel connected despite struggling from isolation and confinement myself?

Mental health is something for all of us to be concerned about. One of the most significant personal revelations I ever had on the topic was to learn that mental health and mental illness are not synonymous concepts but rather interconnected concepts that each span their own continuum. This means that not everyone with mental illness has bad mental health, and an absence of mental illness does not necessarily mean good mental health. There’s a line in Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb where she talks about the nation before her as not a broken nation, but an unfinished one. Similarly, mental illness or the struggle with mental health doesn’t make us broken, but unfinished, a work in constant progress. Trying to work towards positive mental health is a struggle to be met by everyone at one point or the other. Meeting the expectations of self-care can and probably does feel near impossible with or without a pandemic. For that reason, we are literally all in it together even when we feel completely alone.

Despite it all, I am still trying to do it all. People depend on me. I am sure that many out there are doing the same thing, persisting and persevering because people count on them. If there is one thing I have learned, it is that, for whatever reason, knowing I’m not alone in the ring is a comforting thing. Storytelling is a magical device we have that dates back as far as the human community itself. Testimony and dialogue help us confront some of the harsh realities of the human condition at its deepest level, inviting us into a journey of “meaning-making” as we bear witness to the stories and experiences of those around us. If there is one thing I can say for sure, it’s that we need to feel empowered and empower others by and through witness and storytelling regarding our experiences and struggles with and of mental health. We need to normalize talking about this regardless of rank, position, gender, age, or creed.

They said that the first rule of fight club is to never talk about the fight club. Well, this is our fight club, and mental health is our ring. Whether one is giving or receiving support in dealing with mental health, we’re all in the ring, a human make-up of grace under pressure, each of us hoping that we or the ones we love can and will persevere through each second of every minute of every round. One of my own coaches from the ring often reminds me that, in our fight, we strive not to be perfect but to be balanced; constantly adjusting our footing to be as close to the centre point of love, family, friends, respect and humanity. We may sway, but we adjust, and we never fall completely.

And so, to that I say: screw the rules of fight club. Let’s talk about fight club. Let’s reflect on our own stories deeply and honestly. Let’s share our testimonies and open our hearts to the testimonies of others. In a time characterized by physical and social distance, let our stories and experiences of being inside the ring connect us like never before. Let’s talk not just one day a year but consistently and intentionally, because our lives depend on it. 

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Photoshopped image of Bernie Sanders from the 2021 Presidential Inauguration sitting in Charbonnel Lounge, with the InsightOut logo appearing on a projector screen behind him

Recent events have delayed the post from our guest contributor. InsightOut will be back on Thursday. As you wait, throw off those mittens and take a tour of the fireplaces of the University of St. Michael’s College.

John Sampson is a fourth-year PhD Student at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. He is writing on the life and thought of the Chinese theologian T.C. Chao. John can be found at home most days, writing his thesis and drinking only the finest cups of hand-crafted coffee.

In Search of Christian Unity: A Chinese Christian Perspective

Black and white photograph of T.C. Chao in front of an outdoor altar

“People must be involved in the work of building up the Church,” wrote T.C. Chao (1888–1979), a famous Chinese Christian theologian and one of the first presidents of the World Council of Churches. “[Christians] do not have the authority to divide arbitrarily, because it is the will of Christ to tear down walls of separation, to split open curtains of division, and create in himself one new person,” he said, alluding to Ephesians 2:14–22. What Chao penned in 1946 has ongoing relevance for Christians around the world today, as we come together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and pray that we may be one “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). T.C. Chao gave expression to a conviction held by many Christians in the Chinese Republican Era (1912–1949), the period of time when Christianity burst on the scene unlike ever before in China. The conviction was that unity and cooperation were essential if Christianity was to survive, if Christianity was to put down roots in China.

A major obstacle to this pursuit of unity, however, came from the fact that North American and European Christians were trenchantly divided, importing this division into China. Throughout the nineteenth century, foreign mission societies refused to work alongside one another. Catholic and Protestant missionaries remained fixated on their own approaches to Christian faith, on their own doctrinal precepts and ecclesiastical teachings. Protestant denominations produced competing Bible translations and promoted their own translation efforts over and against any other. With few exceptions, Western Christians let divisions that brewed in Europe spill into China, and nurtured these divisions without supplying adequate means for letting a Chinese expression of Christianity take root. This was a deep-seated problem. The desire to preserve Christian practices from one culture (i.e. Europe) stifled the voices of Christians from another culture (China). It stifled the possibility to be enriched by what Chinese Christians themselves had to offer.

In the 20th century things began to change. Many Chinese Protestants criticized the denominational conflict of the Western Church and sought to overcome disunity through the formation of the National Christian Council in 1922. The following year, the Roman Catholic Church convened the first council of the Catholic Church in China, and later consecrated six Chinese bishops in 1926 to allow for greater control over territorial jurisdiction. These practical ways of ensuring that Chinese Christians chart the course for Chinese Christianity were followed by attempts to root Christian identity in a shared Chinese cultural heritage. Just as European Christians turned to Greek philosophers like Aristotle to help advance theological reflection in Middle Ages, Chinese Christians turned to figures like Confucius and Lao Tzu to help shape a unified vision for doing theology in China. The truth of God manifested in classical Chinese learning, argued L.C. Wu 吳雷川 (1870–1944), could be fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who was God’s Way (or Dao 道) made flesh. Just as the moon reflects the light of the sun, so could sages like Confucius reflect the light of Jesus Christ, said Y.J. Zhang 張亦鏡 (1871–1931). Christians could, and indeed, must be sincere about promoting Chinese culture, argued the polymath Roman Catholic theologian P. Joseph Zi 徐宗泽 (1886–1947), who followed the example of the pioneering Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). For the first time in history, Chinese Christians shed light on ways of being Christian that were in touch with their own culture. Christian thought and practice were being rooted not in European Christian thought-forms, but in Chinese ones. And unity among Christians of different theological persuasions was beginning to take hold.

But, sadly, throughout the 20th century, crisis and conflict continued to mount in China and sap the strength of a unified Christian effort. The Communist Revolution (1949) collapsed any and all such efforts. The newly established People’s Republic of China restructured all religious practice through official, state-sanctioned Churches, causing the activities of both Catholic and Protestant Christians to become a heavily monitored affair. In our day, with the unprecedented rise of underground house churches and unregistered Christian gatherings, Chinese Christianity has shown that it is not going away any time soon. But Christians now remain painfully divided. As with the Christian division that erupted in St. Cyprian’s day from the Decian persecutions (250 AD), Chinese Christians are divided between those who have joined official, state-sanctioned Churches and those who have refused and faced persecution as a result.

As we think about and pray for Christian unity, we remember that it is not always an easy thing to put into practice, and can indeed cost a great deal. It cannot be imposed, but most flow naturally from the lived-practices of Christians themselves who come from the diverse cultures of the world. Conscious of the things that divided Christians in his day, T.C. Chao saw discord and division in a certain light, in light of the suffering Saviour himself. The divided and broken body of Christ, the Church, sees itself as thus filling up or completing “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions,” Chao said, citing Colossians 1:24. Christian division is that state of suffering which the Church enters into and remains in until it attains the resurrection. The Church’s bitter hardship amidst discord and brokenness is the way of the cross, a way it can embrace but which, in the end, it hopes to surmount in union with the one, resurrected Christ. This was T.C. Chao’s vision, one which has ongoing relevance for us today as we think about and pray for Christian unity.

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Maria Ivaniv is a third-year PhD student at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College. Her current research, done in conjunction with the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, focuses on the participation of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council and its reception of the Council in North America. She holds ReMA, MA, and STL degrees in theology and religious studies from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, and MA and STB degrees in theology from the Ukrainian Catholic University. Maria was a lecturer at Three Holy Hierarchs Kyiv Theological Seminary (Kyiv, Ukraine), a teaching assistant in the Theology Department at the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv, Ukraine), and served as Secretary of the Patriarchal Commission for the Laity of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (Lviv, Ukraine).

The Pain of Separation, the Joy of Unity

Photograph of Windle House on the St. Mike's campus with the steeple of St. Basil's in the background

In this time of pandemic and lock-down…we are separated by public and health recommendations, law, and fear for ourselves and our loved ones. In this situation, I desire to be reunited with friends, family, and significant other. I expect that you feel the same way. This pain, which I feel in my heart, reminds me of a time when we could be together and be joyful and content in being together. 

This experience can give us a chance to reflect on unity and what it means to be united or to desire unity with others. It can help us think about the question of Church unity, especially during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which for more than a century has occurred every year from January 18–25. In this little blog post I will reflect on the pain of separation, the joy of unity, and my identity as a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic in the midst of these.

I can recall a few moments in my own life when I have felt the pain caused by the separation among Christians. I keep those experiences in my heart as a reason to work for unity. The first time my heart felt the pain of separation was in Amsterdam, where other students and I were attending an ecumenical conference. That was, in fact, one of my first experiences of listening to and speaking with other Christian denominations. It was exciting to see that there are a lot of themes that unite us. As a part of that meeting, we went to a Sunday service in one old and lovely English Reformed Church. There was a wonderful service and sermon. It was the Sunday of the Cross in my Church calendar, and I was happy that the preaching was about the symbol of the Cross and its importance in the Christian life as the sign of our salvation. After that, however, I was disappointed at the absence of the Eucharist in the service, and it brought me some pain. I understood that I could not have received it anyway, but the pain of not seeing the Eucharist—what I understand to be the realization of unity—as part of the Sunday service profoundly pained my heart.  

Another experience that brought the pain of separation into focus came during an ecumenical conference a few years ago. The conference was an excellent opportunity for dialogue and sharing about what unites us. Common prayer was part of that conference, and one of the prayer services was a Byzantine Divine Liturgy presided at by an Orthodox priest. It was nice to pray together in one of the ways that I pray in my own parish. But the pain again struck my heart during Communion… Because of the separation, I could not share Eucharist with those who pray in the same way I do. The pain caused by these two experiences of Christian disunity remains. And it creates in me a longing for unity—a unity that heals the wounds among Christians as well as the wound left in my own heart.

Happily, my heart is also marked by other, more joyful experiences. It seems to me that pain alone cannot bring us together—we also need to feel the joy of unity. Studying at the Toronto School of Theology is one of these experiences. Being part of the University of Saint Michael’s College and studying together with other students of different Christian denominations brings me a lot of joy. Also, the presence of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Michael’s brings a different voice and many opportunities for the students to experience and learn about other traditions. This experience of common work, studies, prayer, and friendship reveals a lot of differences; at the same time, simply being together unites us. 

As I mentioned before, I am a Ukrainian Greco-Catholic. This means that I belong to an Eastern Church of the Byzantine Rite that is in union with Rome. There are 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in the world. Being an Eastern Catholic is beautiful but challenging in some ways. I experience all the beauty of Byzantine prayer, eastern spirituality, and magnificent iconography. I also enjoy all the beauty of the Latin Church, its theology, prayer, and teachings. Living in these two spheres simultaneously gives me the feeling that I see a glimpse of unity among the churches, and I feel the pain of separation and the joy of unity at the same time. But I know there is a long way to go, and all of our efforts are not enough if we do not call on the Holy Spirit to unite all Christians, as He did at Pentecost. Therefore, this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gives us an excellent opportunity to be together (even if it is virtually), pray, be joyful and ask the Holy Spirit to unite us. 

It seems appropriate to finish this little blog post with the words of the Kontakion of Pentecost:

When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He parted the nations. When He divided the tongues of fire, He called all to unity; and with one voice we glorify the all-Holy Spirit.”

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Dr. Christopher Hrynkow holds a PhD (Peace and Conflict Studies, St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba) and a ThD (Christian Ethics jointly awarded by the University of St. Michael College, the Toronto School of Theology, and the University of Toronto). Hrynkow is Associate Professor in Religion and Culture at St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, where he teaches courses in Religious Studies, Catholic Studies, Peace Studies, and Critical Perspectives on Social Justice and the Common Good. He presently serves as the founding director for St. Thomas More College’s new Centre for Faith, Reason, Peace, and Justice. Additionally, Hrynkow is Department Head, Program Chair, and Graduate Chair in Religion and Culture for the University of Saskatchewan.

A Culture of Care

Photograph of a white dove in flight against a dark green background of foliage

COVID-19 has provided a real opportunity for us to pause and reconsider our ways of being in the world. Such reflection can bring into focus an important question for Christians, academics, and citizens today: what kind of world do we want to see after the pandemic? In considering adequate responses to this question, I know in my heart that we cannot go back to the status quo that existed in late 2019. First of all, especially after this dark winter, we will have lost too many folks who would have otherwise survived. As such, the world cannot ever be the same. Also, my faith along with my formal studies and research in areas including peace, education, and Christian Ecological Ethics have formed not only my mind but also my heart. The cumulative effect, in no small part as result of my experiences at St. Mike’s, is that I am certain we need a transition to more just and verdant ways of being in our religion, politics, education, and action in the world. Better choices in terms of what we select to revive and what we choose to leave behind in our cultures and societies as a result of the pandemic are required to participate in the necessary transformation. From a Christian perspective, this transformation is necessary to more fully accept Jesus’ call to be pilgrims for peace, justice, and the integrity of creation on Earth. Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching can provide a guide for this most important journey. In order to ground these opening points, please allow me to go deeper into one of the most recent examples of Catholic Social Teaching with my remaining space for this reflection.

Since Paul VI established the practice, each year and in anticipation of the World Day of Peace celebrated on January 1, the Catholic Bishop of Rome releases a message. In the 54th message, written for 2021 during a time of global pandemic, Pope Francis addressed A Culture of Care as a Path to Peace. This example of Catholic Social Teaching is both innovative and important. Herein, like his predecessors, Francis considers peace as much more than the mere absence of war but as also including positively defined conditions like social justice, gender equality, care for creation, and, as he himself helped to bring into focus, cultures of encounter and dialogue. Indeed, by introducing “a culture of care” to Catholic Social Teaching, he is recalling his earlier reflections that align with, and enrich, the content of “cultures of peace” so important to peace studies. The concept of cultures of peace is both analytical and aspirational. It helps us to discern those ways that are helpful in cultivating cultures of peace. Additionally, “cultures of peace” provides a framework to exercise our moral imaginations in creative ways in order to provide a vision to drive the action of building substantive peace.

In accord with these intertwined features of cultures of peace and drawing lessons about caring for both each other and the rest of creation from the events of 2020, Francis offers “a culture of care as a way to combat the culture of indifference, waste and confrontation so prevalent in our time” (#1). Summarizing the doctrine of the Catholic Church in light of a culture of care Francis teaches, “this doctrine is offered to all people of good will as a precious patrimony of principles, criteria and proposals that can serve as a ‘grammar of care’: commitment to promoting the dignity of each human person, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, the pursuit of the common good and concern for protection of creation” (#6). In this light, Francis articulates a duty to promote a culture of care “as a process of education” (#8) in a holistic sense that moves far beyond the four walls of the classroom to touch upon the duties toward the common good not only of teachers and professors but also of those of families, faith leaders, and politicians amongst others. For Francis, supporting the common good with a spirit of solidarity is particularly important at a time when “the massive Covid-19 health crisis…[is] aggravating deeply interrelated crises like those of the climate, food, the economy and migration, and causing great suffering and hardship” (#1). As such, the Pope teaches there can be no substantive peace without a culture of care, which “calls for a common, supportive and inclusive commitment to protecting and promoting the dignity and good of all, a willingness to show care and compassion, to work for reconciliation and healing, and to advance mutual respect and acceptance” (#9). These are prime ingredients for any recipe aimed at nourishing the incarnation of cultures of peace in this world.

To conclude, I would note that in framing cultures of care as a path toward peace Francis is implying there are other paths towards peace, a selection of which he has already engaged in other exercises of his teaching office, including with Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti. Peacebuilding work is transformative because these paths of dialogue and action exist within a reality of integral ecology, where everything is interconnected, as Francis also notes in the 54th World Day of Peace Message. Indeed, that connectivity means a culture of care is transformative whether it be incarnated in small doses like sharing nourishing food with a neighbour or in large doses like ensuring the just distribution of vaccines across both individual societies and the community of nations. Thus, if Francis’ teaching has resonance for you, the global pandemic is no barrier to the necessary transformative journey named in this reflection. In fact, despite its association with restricted movements, lockdowns, and curfews when viewed through a lens informed by a culture of care, COVID-19 actually serves to stimulate this transformative journey. It only remains for us to choose a path, or paths, to peace. Then, we begin, or indeed deepen, our work as pilgrims building up cultures of peace.

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James Roussain begins a new role at the John M. Kelly Library this January as the Interim Head of Public Services, a change from his position as Outreach and Instruction Archivist, which he has held since 2017. Prior to joining the University of St. Michael’s College, James worked at Scotiabank, where he was involved in the maintenance and deployment of the corporate records management program. At the Kelly Library, James assists students with their research, exposes students to the treasures in the Kelly Library’s Special Collections, and teaches in the college’s Book and Media Studies program. James is a past president of the Archives Association of Ontario (AAO) and the Toronto Area Archivists’Group (TAAG). In his spare time, he is pursuing a Master of Education in Higher Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He holds a Master of Information degree from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.

On Jellyfish, Loneliness, and Learning

As the new semester gets under way in the coming days, it is important to take a step back and think about those we are working to support: our tireless and dedicated students. With our new reality of living apart and working remotely becoming just that—our current reality—we need to remember that these are indeed strange and stressful times not just for us but for our students, too. As a librarian at the Kelly Library, I am fortunate to work directly with students assisting them in their research, writing, or in navigating the complexities of the University of Toronto’s immense library system. For many, the library is an intimidating space in the best of times. Compounded with the challenges of remote work and a lack of helping hands, finding resources and completing research has never been more challenging, especially so for many of our first-year students, for whom the academic library is an entirely new entity.

During the fall semester, the Kelly Library, in partnership with the Principal’s Office, hosted twice-weekly Research and Writing Help Drop-In sessions, where students were able to join us—remotely—for one-on-one assignment help. With two writing instructors at my side, we would greet students and, using private break-out rooms, answer as many questions as possible over a two-hour period. What started off as a way to accommodate students who were unable to snag longer scheduled appointments grew into a window on our students’ lived reality: too many due dates, a mess of assignments vying for their attention, and an overwhelming sense of isolation and, at times, loneliness. Logging in from their living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and sometimes an enviable patio, students shared with us their frustrations in working alone and, for many, navigating time zones and poor internet connections. This has not been an easy time.

As I helped students find articles, tidy up citations, or figure out the best keywords for their upcoming essay on, say, vestigial traits in jellyfish, I grew to realize two things. The first—and perhaps sacrilege to our faculty readers—is the trivial nature of our work during these incredibly challenging times. In more than one occasion I felt the need to reassure students that while, yes, your essay is important, so too is the need to care for yourself and reach out to others. This is not to say we must lessen academic rigour, but rather carry a realistic understanding of what is possible. The second thing I learned is how little I know not only about jellyfish but about every single topic brought to me during these drop-in sessions. The level of academic achievement on our campus is truly astounding. There has not yet been a case where working with a student on their research has not taught me something new, and for that I am thankful.

In looking ahead to the coming semester and the challenges it will surely bring to our students, especially those graduating into a world of social, political, and simply logistical unknowns, we need to work together to ensure empathy and perspective are at the front of our minds. The rise of mental health programs and services on campus—so well advocated for by our dedicated students on SMCSU—brings overdue awareness to the importance of creating community wherever possible. Week after week, soon after logging in, the same group of students would join our drop-in sessions. Some came for detailed questions on style and structure, while others came just to check in. We created community in the most unlikely of places: a Zoom call focused on academic research and writing help. Who knew? In our own unique way we forged a space where students could share their frustrations, get some help, and see a familiar face at the same time. It is easy to get caught up in administrative matters, the daily to-and-fro of emails and meetings, or the challenges of bureaucracy. Take a moment, as often as possible, to guard against these blinders and seek our community. Or, if so inclined, check in with our students and ask them how they are doing. What may be seen as a hollow “How’re you?” during pre-COVID times may now carry more weight than you know. 

While the library’s stacks are closed for the time being, our dedicated staff remains available to help. We strive to place the student experience at the centre of our work and tailor our collections, services, and spaces to offer them an inclusive, welcoming, and supportive environment—both in a physical and virtual sense—where they can flourish during their time on campus. In my own role within the library, and my small role on the University of Toronto campus, I am proud to have the opportunity to work daily with our students and to learn alongside them.

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A lit sparkler held in front of a window and a row of candles

We really are all in this together, but each one of us has a unique view of these exceptional times. That’s why we are reaching out again to the St. Mike’s community to ask you to submit a post to our blog, InsightOut.

InsightOut began as a way for students, alumni, professors, staff, and members of the extended University of St. Michael’s College community to share their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since our first piece ran in early April, 2020, we have heard some amazing stories, ranging from staff members missing their colleagues, and students weighing in on the experience of distance learning, to alumni reflecting on how their St. Mike’s experiences have carried them forward.

While we had envisioned that the blog would be a short-term project, it has settled in to be a way for community members to learn a little bit about each other and to celebrate together the amazing nature of St. Mike’s.

As we begin not only a new semester but also a new calendar year, we continue to look forward with hope to calmer times, even as we ride out still-uncharted waters. In that spirit, a new challenge for readers and contributors to InsightOut: We’d like to hear about what you have learned/are learning during this unusual days. What are your hopes for the future? How has your teaching/learning style changed? What do you now know you can live without—and what you can’t?

The year 2021 will see InsightOut look ahead, with a little bit of nostalgia thrown in for good measure. If you have a St. Mike’s story to tell, or an experience you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you.

InsightOut submissions are usually between 750 and 1,000 words long, and are accompanied by a brief biography (a paragraph will do) and a photo. The tone should be conversational. The focus is on the anecdote, the lesson learned, the St. Mike’s memory. Occasionally pieces are shared with related sites. Blog posts run Mondays and Thursdays on the St. Mike’s home page.

For more information, or to talk about a possible submission, please contact or call 416-926-2254.

Dr. David Sylvester is the 8th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. A professor of medieval social and economic history, he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Fordham University, New York City and has taught for three decades in universities in Canada and the United States.

Together in this Season of Gratitude and Hope

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
(Hopkins, Grandeur of God)

One of the beautiful things about being a part of the University of St. Michael’s College is our attentiveness to the rhythms of life in community. Our pastoral urban campus, with its historic oak trees, colourful ivy and beautiful rock gardens, keeps us attentive to nature, and demands that we acknowledge the passage of seasons. The academic year is traditionally framed, of course, by all the necessary signposts of the academic year, such as move-in days, reading weeks, and midterm and final exams. But St. Michael’s is also defined by the rich cultural and religious mosaic of our community, and we are invited throughout the year to celebrate the many important feast days that help our students, faculty and staff bring meaning to their work and studies: solemn and joyful holidays like Easter, Ramadan, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, and Nowruz. Even as I write, friends and colleagues are preparing to light candles to mark Hanukkah. 

So, here we are together now in Advent. For Christians, we wait and prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, the light in the darkness, our hope for the world. For all of us, this is meant to be a time for completion, for rest and reflection with friends and family, and for preparations for new beginnings.   

As I take stock of this past year, my thoughts are filled with gratitude. In this most remarkable year, in which all of us have experienced disruption, loss and sadness, I am continually amazed by the dedication, kindness and generosity of the people with whom I work. Their compassionate leadership and sacrifice have bolstered fellow students, professors, and colleagues alike. I see it every day in the bold actions and quiet kindnesses they take on. And I know that much more is done unseen. 

The response to this pandemic from our students, faculty, staff, trustees, and alumni invites more than gratitude, however. It gives me great hope for the future of our community, and for our role in continuing to bring hope to others. Many challenges remain ahead of us, but the compassionate resilience of St. Michael’s shines through and sustains us even in these darkest days of winter. I now approach each day understanding that our university serves as a light of hope in these difficult days, for each other, and for the society in which we live.

As we pause to celebrate the coming holidays, I wish each of you and your families, a happy and holy Christmas, and prayerful best wishes for a New Year marked by many new reasons to give thanks and to share in the hope that binds us all together.


The SMC Troubadours perform physically distanced Christmas carols in this special InsightOut post.

Simon Patrick Rogers is the special collections archivist at the John M. Kelly Library. He earned his Master’s degree in Information Studies (archival stream) from the University of Toronto in 2008 with an additional specialization in Book History and Print Culture. He has extensive experience processing, arranging, and appraising archival materials and is also active as a faculty instructor for the Book and Media Studies program at the University of St. Michael’s College. He currently serves on the University’s Collegium. He has published numerous articles on diverse topics including archives, municipal history and architecture, music, literature and the field of monetary appraisal.

A Busy Fall for Kelly

It has been a busy fall in the Kelly Library’s archives and special collections, at the end of a long, tumultuous year full of upheaval and trial. In spite of the closure of the rare book reading room to researchers, we have been active behind the scenes with some exciting new acquisitions to the collections.

Photograph of the Kelly Library exterior

A major accomplishment for us was receiving a wonderful donation of photographs for the Henri Nouwen Collection from San Francisco-based photographer Kevin F. Dwyer, a gift which includes some of the best photographs taken of Nouwen just before his death. A formal announcement of the acquisition, complete with a look at some of the photos, will come in January, 2021.

In other Nouwen news, we have hired a new processing archivist to work on the backlog of Nouwen materials, and especially to focus on important collections of letters and materials collected posthumously in the archives. The successful candidate for this position, Teresa Wong, started on December 1st and joins us most recently from the completion of a prestigious internship at the Getty Institute in California. The position was made possible by a generous donation from Henri’s brother Laurent Nouwen, and the Henri Nouwen Society. We are very excited to begin work on these important collections and to make available for the first time new collections to researchers online through the discover archives database and Collections UofT portals.

I am also delighted to announce the recent acquisition of the administrative archives of the Canadian Alternative Investment Cooperative and Foundation. This important organization in the history of social justice in Canada began in 1984 and recently finalized its dissolution. The archive will provide researchers new insights into Catholic social movements in Canada inspired by responses to Apartheid and to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. The co-op’s mandate was to work with registered charities, non-profits, and co-ops to promote alternate economic structures leading to long-term structural change in underprivileged and marginalized communities. They managed loans and financing for a whole range of social enterprises across Canada, including many thriving and firmly established cooperative businesses still in operation. These papers will complement our other social justice collections, such as the L’Arche Canada and L’Arche Daybreak collections, and the papers of the Catholic New Times journal.

There are some further donations in the works, too, that I look forward to announcing in 2021. It has been exciting to build our collections and work with the donors to understand the histories and backgrounds of these new archives.

As we concentrate on working from home, I have been able to do some more direct research work with patrons, especially with providing access to already-digitized materials. Unfortunately, many of the archival collections are not yet digitized. Sometimes this is because of access restrictions or copyrights, but other times materials could be made more digitally available. We have been assembling the equipment to build a digital preservation studio in the Kelly and building the in-house capacity to digitize and preserve those items that can be digitized. We already have the equipment to digitize many of the most common kinds of media we find in our collections, such as photographs, textual records, legacy material on floppy disks, and other born-digital collections, as well as all kinds of audio and video formats. It is exciting to be a part of this process, especially now as we see more and more materials coming into archives that require some kind of digital preservation just to access their contents. It can be a little like detective work to even figure out the software formats of legacy media, and the process of digitization can also be a little like conservation work, as materials are cleaned or restored where damage to the original media format has taken place over time.

Personally I miss the office. A lot of my work is very dependent on having physical access to the collections and, like many of my colleagues, I am feeling the long haul of logging so many computer hours and interacting virtually through video meetings. I also miss the camaraderie of the office space and the kinds of connection that I can make through chatting and small talk with my fellow librarians over my daily pilgrimages to the coffee maker or the staff dining hall.

It has not been all bad, however. I am more mindful and appreciative of life at home and am blessed to have had this extra time with my wife and son. We did some garden projects this spring and summer and enjoyed the harvest. We went camping when we could. I bought a really nice hand-cranked coffee grinder and do a virtual exercise class in the mornings with a great trainer in Ottawa. In some ways this attention to the routines of domesticity is very much like archival work. I hope we can all maintain some appreciation for simple pleasures as we look forward to life after COVID.

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Anne Louise Mahoney (8T4) lives in Ottawa. Her lifelong love of books and reading has brought with it countless gifts, including hours of happiness, lasting friendships and a career as an editor. (Photo credit: Photobin Photography)

Books—A Love Letter

Photograph of a Little Free Library painted with flowers and filled with books

I can’t remember not being able to read. Some of my happiest childhood memories are of traipsing off to the Gladys Allison branch of the Toronto Public Library every Saturday with my dad. My two older sisters and I would spend an hour or two in the children’s section, browsing, reading, choosing our books and waiting for Dad to come and get us after his own browsing in the grownups’ section. After checking out an armful of books each, we’d pile back into the car and head home to devour them. Then we’d do it all again the next Saturday. One of Dad’s greatest gifts to us was those weekly trips to the library. (Of course, he had a massive library at home, too. Any request for information for a school project would result in a stack of related volumes in 15 minutes or less.)

My love of reading only grew over the years. When it came time to choose a university program, all I could be sure of was that I wanted to read books all day. English literature seemed like the perfect choice. And it was! My professors at St. Mike’s were stellar—their lectures were imbued with their own irresistible passion for words and language. I had discovered a whole new world of kindred spirits.

When it was time to venture into a career, again all I could be sure of was that I wanted to read books all day. Before long I found myself editing non-fiction books for kids, then branched out from there. Over the years, I have been lucky enough not only to edit books, but to edit books on theology, spirituality, prayer, meditation, inspiring people of faith, and religious education for all ages. A feast for the mind, the heart and the soul.

You won’t be surprised to hear that COVID-related isolation has offered me more time to read. Although my local library in Ottawa was closed from March until November (even now, we can only drop off and pick up reserved books there), the e-books I borrowed kept me company, made me laugh, touched my heart and helped me cope. A few years ago, I remember hearing an interview with a woman who learned to read as an adult. Her comment has stayed with me: “I’ll never be lonely again.”

I think that’s the essence of it for me: reading connects me with other people. They may live in a different time or another place. They may be like me in some ways, or their experiences may be completely new to me. Yet for a few hours here and there, I become part of their world—and that changes me in some way. Studies have shown that reading fiction helps us become more empathetic: when we let ourselves enter into someone else’s life, we come to know their joys and sorrows so intimately that these almost become our own. We bring that understanding back into our daily lives, ready to share it with those we meet.

In The Library at Night, writer/editor/translator Alberto Manguel puts it this way:

Books may not change our suffering, books may not protect us from evil, books may not tell us what is good or what is beautiful, and they will certainly not shield us from the common fate of the grave. But books grant us myriad possibilities: the possibility of change, the possibility of illumination.

That spark of possibility is what led Dolly Parton to create her Imagination Library in 1995 in the county in Tennessee where she was raised. In 2000, the program went national; it’s now international. Children who are enrolled in this program get a book mailed to them every month until they turn five. As of 2019, the program had distributed over 125 million books.

Ernest Hemingway would probably have approved of Parton’s initiative. After all, he once said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” That’s why libraries are such an important part of our towns and cities. Many people I know were heartbroken when the libraries had to shut down this year. Libraries are so much more than buildings with books in them—they are places where people from all ages and backgrounds can gather, learn, share and yes, borrow books, all at no cost. Being cut off from that common space where everyone is welcome was a great loss for so many during a time of many losses and upheavals. In my neighbourhood, the scattering of Little Free Libraries gained many patrons over the past 10 months. In our online Buy Nothing group (where people post items to give away), books were a hot commodity—those lucky enough to get one of the books on offer promised to pass it along when they were done. (A few virtual book clubs even sprang from all those posts and the comments on them.) Kids’ books were in high demand.

Meanwhile, writers’ festivals and book launches found themselves going virtual—and welcoming people from around the world. I was able to see Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) and Margaret MacMillan (The War that Ended Peace) speak at the Ottawa International Writers’ Festival from the comfort of my own home. I also “travelled” to St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, to hear Tara Westover, author of the bestselling Educated: A Memoir, deliver the Christian Culture Lecture in September. It’s usually an in-person event, with about 1,300 people attending. This year, 35,000 people from a number of countries registered for the online lecture. For me, this is the power of books and stories: they bring us together across time and space.

I guess what it all comes down to is community—even when we have to be far apart.

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My journey to Canada to attend St. Michaels College in the University of Toronto began in the Fall of 1971. A member of the last Western Year offered, I was introduced to wonderful professors and amazing students. I graduated from St. Michaels with a double specialist degree in English and Religious Studies. After attending OISE, I began teaching at what was then Cardinal Newman Catholic High School and then moved to Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts. After retiring in 2012 (which I fondly call switching gears), I continued my interest in education by working as an independent Retreat Facilitator. I married in 1975 and have stayed happily married for 45 years! My husband and I have four beautiful children and two blessed grandchildren. (Marilyn Grace, 7T5)

My Return to St. Michael’s

Scarboro Missions Golden Rule Poster
Scarboro Missions

St. Mike’s has been a home away from home for me for many years. A connection with professors such as the late Fathers Bob Madden and David Belyea and Prof. Richard Marshall, was a gift that kept on giving. I have tried to stay involved with the community through participation in several committees—most especially the Kelly Lecture Committee.

In the 1990s I returned to St. Mike’s as a student once again to take a Certificate in Youth Ministry. As a teacher and chaplain this offered the perfect opportunity to learn and grow in my field. However, my current return to participate in the Diploma in Interfaith Dialogue has been a welcome opportunity to grow and develop in my field as a Retreat Facilitator.

The back story is significant to my deciding to enroll in this Diploma program. I have always been interested in spirituality and various religious traditions. I am touched by all that these traditions have to teach us. Influenced by great spiritual writers like Thomas Merton as well as the Catholic Church’s teachings on inter-religious dialogue and the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, I have been led to pursue a deeper understanding of different faith traditions. To quote Pope Francis: “I cannot engage in dialogue if I am closed to others. Openness? Even more: acceptance! Come to my house, enter my heart. My heart welcomes you. It wants to hear you. This capacity for empathy enables a true human dialogue in which words, ideas and questions arise from an experience of fraternity and shared humanity.” (Address to the Bishops of Asia, August 17, 2014)

I became involved with the Scarboro Missions Fathers as a retreat facilitator and worked, with Kathy Murtha and others, on offering retreats to young people with a particular focus on the Golden Rule. This experience has enabled me to grow and to enhance my understanding of other faith traditions. Taking a one-week summer course entitled Encounter World Religion in 2013 with Brian Carwana (check out his ReligionsGeek blog) was an experiential and academic introduction to many faith traditions! I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in truly getting a feel and taste for diverse religious traditions.

My participation in a Habitat for Humanity Women of Faith Build in 2008 was also another opportunity to get to know women from other faith traditions. This has been a real gift in my life…much more exciting than book learning as the women involved still meet occasionally to this day. Another Faith Build occurred in 2017 as a precursor event to the Parliament of the World’s Religions which was held in Toronto in 2018. The Parliament of the World’s Religions was another event that led me to pursue more studies and work in interfaith dialogue. As a participant and presenter, I was deeply moved by the diversity and gifts that so many faith traditions offer to the world.

All of this has led to my enrolment in the Diploma in Interfaith Dialogue offered at St. Michael’s and financially sponsored by the Scarboro Missions. The Diploma consists of 10 courses, two of which are foundational. I have been so blessed to participate as a member of the first cohort in this program. The foundational courses—Catholic Perspectives on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations and Principles of Dialogue—were instrumental in setting the tone and feel for the program. The participants are people who are truly open to dialogue, to diversity and to learning about other faith traditions.

After completing the foundational courses, I have taken courses on Religion and Migration, Indigenous Sacred Traditions and Reconciliation, Judaism, and Sacred Architecture. All of them have been exceptional, with dedicated and knowledgeable professors guiding us. The courses are four weeks in length once a week and involve presentations, pertinent readings and responses. The passion with which the professors present their material is truly what stands out for me in this program. I look forward to the next two courses in which I will participate: Islam and Women in Religion.

The document Nostra Aetate (Vatican II) calls us to remember: “For all peoples comprise a single community and have a single origin, since God made the whole race…” (section I). Hence, we as Catholics are called to learn about our brothers and sisters of differing faiths. I strongly urge anyone interested in growing and learning about other faith traditions to enroll in this informative and challenging program.

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Simran Dhir is a third-year international student specializing in Pharmacology and Biomedical Toxicology. She is a mentor of St. Mikes mentorship, Academic Success, and a Co-coordinator for PAIR Mentorship, a program focused on providing students with peer-mediated mental health support.

Mentorship Reimagined

Mural of two bright, multicoloured hands interlocking

I think it’s a little crazy how different this article would be if I’d had to write it a year ago. I always held the view that mentorship doesn’t really change all that much with time. You go through an experience, you share your story and the wisdom gained, help people use the resources you regret not using, and assist them in getting through something you struggled with. You reassure your peers that things will work out in the end, and that there are ways to make the journey less bumpy. Your knowledge definitely grows with you, which may lead you to give better advice and resources but the core principle of supporting and exchanging ideas with one another doesn’t change.

But what happens when you need to mentor someone and help them go through something that you have no experience in? Surely you can give them resources but how do you talk to a student on a nocturnal schedule and give them ways to stay motivated when you yourself can barely get out of bed for an online lecture? Most of us have never had to navigate online learning for such a prolonged period before, requiring the kind of self-discipline needed in today’s environment. A lot of us have little to no experience managing college extracurriculars and social interaction completely online. A few months ago, it was almost too easy to tell a mentee to join one of the many clubs here at U of T in order to find their community and combat feelings of loneliness but how do you do that now when someone is struggling with the immense workload that comes with school and the inherent separation that comes with the lack of a physical meeting ground?

What I am trying to get at by my long-winded introduction is that the environment this year is new for everyone. Mentorship now, at least to me, is more of a mutual learning process where everyone is really just sharing things that they have tried and had success with. It is about giving authentic, real and raw advice and truly acknowledging every accomplishment with a pat on the back, be it attending every class for the week or squeezing 15 minutes of a workout into your day. Now more than ever, mentors are realizing they do not have all the answers and will have to tread this uncharted path alongside their mentees.

Another integral part of mentorship this year is connection. Most mentorship programs speak about a semi-formal relationship with boundaries where one is not exactly a friend but also not a superior. Now, students are joining these programs to make a friend. This is the extracurricular of choice for many students these days hoping to find community online. The SMC mentorship program, led by two amazing people, Nicolas and Maya, is working on revamping expectations and asking mentees what they are truly looking for. They are including more social events, inclusive timings, and accessible outreach to ensure students have access to everything they need.

From what I can gather, mentees this year can be divided into two broad groups. Members of the first group are looking for assistance streamlining resources available to them; it can be very confusing for a first-year student to navigate how university works, especially when removed from the physical campus itself. The resources, though plenty, are scattered; having someone there to clarify even the smallest of details goes a long way. The other group includes students who just want to connect with someone at the university. Mentorship programs aren’t geared just towards academics and logistics anymore, evidenced by programs such as PAIR Mentorship that revolve around emotional well-being. As mentors, we are trained, now more than ever, to engage in candid discussion about mental health, family matters, and personal welfare. While we are taught to acknowledge our limitations, we are still given regular updates on new mental health resources to share with our mentees.

Joining the Academic Success Team as a peer mentor has been a very rewarding and learning-filled experience for me. It involves helping students manage their time, courses, and activities, and showing them how everything is really trial and error, even for those of us who are mentors. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned has been how mentors must be mindful about the process of sharing resources. While imperative, it is not enough to know the “right” solutions or be aware of every resource around if the list is overwhelmingly large and cannot be applied effectively. I have found that focusing on providing mentees with the top three resources at a time that best fit the situation at hand is much more effective than dumping everything all at once; one can always schedule follow-up appointments to discuss and share further if the initial strategies don’t pan out. Above all, during my appointments I strive to make the student feel as comfortable, reassured, and heard as possible. I share personal anecdotes to let them know that everyone is weathering the same storm right now. It becomes very easy for students to doubt themselves with everything going on but I feel that the mere action of someone identifying a problem and asking for support is a huge, commendable step. We are all re-learning how to study and learn due to the big change in our environment and by keeping an open mind, we can learn a lot from one another.

I believe mentors are forming much deeper connections with their mentees this year, especially since they are being virtually invited into each other’s homes. It has been a challenging year but mentorship is one of the things that reminds me of how we are stronger together and how important it is to motivate and encourage one another as we step forward.

If you want to know more about any of the things I spoke about, here are some resources. Please feel free to contact me at if you have any questions or just want to chat about how your eyes are hurting after all those Zoom meetings or how happy you are that Tim Hortons is staying open during the Toronto lockdown 🙂

St Mike’s Mentorship:

PAIR Mentorship:

Academic Success Peer Mentorship:

Nicole LeBlanc, Wellness Counsellor at St. Mikes:

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John L. McLaughlin is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael’s College. One of his many COVID-related regrets is that he will not be able to return “home” to New Brunswick this Christmas and have some fresh dulse.

Hope in the Time of COVID

I collect cartoons. My collection focuses on pieces that deal with biblical themes, especially those that cite specific passages. Many are from the Peanuts comic strip, documenting the experiences of Charlie Brown and his friends. One of my favourites, which I often use in introductory courses to convey the continuing relevance of Scripture, shows Lucy and Linus looking out the window at the pouring rain. Lucy worries that the whole world might flood so Linus reassures her by noting God’s promise to Noah in Genesis 9 never to do so again, with the rainbow as a sign of that commitment. She says, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind,” to which he responds, “Sound theology has a way of doing that!”

I think it is safe to say that most of us are carrying more than one “load” these days in light of the ongoing COVID-19 measures. I am writing this on the day that Toronto, and with it the University of St. Michael’s College, began its second pandemic lock down, once again restricting what was still very limited opportunities to leave our homes and even less ability to interact directly with our family, friends and colleagues. The entire University of St. Michael’s College community has quickly come together to respond to this new crisis, making it possible for us to continue our mission as a university. But I am sure that most of us are also pretty tired of virtual meetings and remote classes via Teams and Zoom. I can hear some readers asking, “Where’s your ‘sound theology’ now, bud?”

Well, today is also six days before the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. So Happy New Year! Like many religions (Rosh Hashanah in Judaism, al-Hijra in Islam, Vikram Samvat in Hinduism, Nowruz in Bahai’ism and Zoroastrianism, and so on), Christianity starts its year separately from the calendar year. But this is more than the oddity of a different date to note the annual passage of time. Advent marks the resetting of Christian worship. Because Christians structure their annual worship differently, their lives have a different focus, or at least they should. In contrast to the calendar year, the liturgical year is not simply a cyclical repetition of the same weeks and months year after year. Instead, it is an annual spiritual journey towards an end point, reinforcing that our lives are not a random collection of experiences, but rather they have a purpose, a goal. In keeping with this, we start the journey through the life and teachings of Jesus anew by switching to a different Gospel that is read more or less sequentially (with some supplements from the other Gospels), this year from Matthew in 2019–2020 to Mark in 2020–2021.

One might think we would start that journey with the beginning of Jesus’ human existence.  Instead, the liturgical year begins with the Advent season, four weeks that prepare for Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. That is the specific moment of the Incarnation, which Christians celebrate as the epitome of divine engagement with humanity, when God became one of us. But that was not the start of God’s involvement with the world and its inhabitants; the opening verse of both Genesis and the Fourth Gospel affirm that God began interacting with the world “in the beginning.” By starting the liturgical year not with Jesus’ birth but with a period of preparation for that event, the Church reinforces the fact that God’s concern for us did not start a little over 2000 years ago in Roman occupied Judea, but rather long predates the Nativity.

For the next three Sundays, the first reading is drawn from the latter part of the book of Isaiah, which is marked by themes of hope and encouragement. Isaiah 40-66, called Second or Deutero Isaiah, derives from an unknown prophet (or two) speaking to Israelites deported to Babylon after the Babylonians conquered Judah and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. This constituted a crisis of faith for the people. In the ancient world, military success was attributed to the superiority of the victorious nation’s god. In this case, the Babylonians had even destroyed the Temple, considered the dwelling place on earth of Israel’s God. But if he (all ancient deities were gendered, male or female, but that’s a very different blog post) couldn’t protect his own house, surely he wasn’t much of a God. At the very least he must be secondary to Marduk, the chief Babylonian God.

Faced with this theological challenge, many ancient Israelites abandoned faith in their God. In fact, this is the point when the Israelite religious traditions should have faded out to become an historical artifact, like the Babylonian religion did when they in turn were conquered by the Persians 50 years later. Instead, the Israelite traditions lived on precisely because of Israelite prophets, historians and priests, who responded to this theological crisis in two ways. First, they reinterpreted their national defeat as God using the Babylonians to chastise them for their history of sin and apostasy, which meant that their God was in control of the Babylonian army, not Marduk. Second, Deutero-Isaiah in particular encouraged the exiles as well as those left in Jerusalem to recognize that God was still with them and would intervene to free them from their bondage and bring the exiles back to Jerusalem, which did happen shortly after. As a result of this and other efforts Israelite religion continued, eventually giving birth to both Judaism as we know it today and Christianity.

“Sound theology has a way of doing that!”

All the Advent lectionary readings emphasize this hopeful perspective. Rather than try to comment on all the readings from each of the four Sundays of Advent (a significantly longer blog post), let me concentrate on how the first readings do this each week. On the first Sunday of Advent, the prophet calls God to come down from the heavens and intervene like he has done in the past, while acknowledging that their sins have prevented him from doing so (Isa 64:1-9).   The next week we hear the opening words of Second Isaiah (Isa 40:1-11) with its repeated command to comfort God’s people because they have paid double for their sins. As a result, the prophet announces,

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD
make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3)

which Mark cites (and restructures) in the corresponding Gospel reading.  On the Third Sunday of Advent, the prophet expands on this, proclaiming concretely that

The Lord has anointed me
to bring good tidings to the afflicted;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour . . .
to comfort all who mourn (Isa 61:1-2).

Then, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent the lectionary switches to the pronouncement in 2 Samuel 7 that David’s “throne shall be established forever” (v. 16).  Historically, the Davidic kingship ended with the Babylonian conquest, but other writers spoke of a future “anointed one,” just as David was anointed when he took the throne, and the Hebrew word mašîa/mashiach gave rise to the idea of a coming Messiah who would liberate them from foreign oppression.

As these passages along with the other lectionary readings convey, Advent is a time of hope and expectation. Those attitudes may be in short supply these days in the midst of a global pandemic, even with recent announcements of possible vaccines on the horizon.  But the prophet’s message that God was still with the Israelites in exile, linked to Advent’s anticipation of God coming among us, not as a powerful leader but rather as a tiny baby, affirms the belief that God does not abandon us in times of need. Hope remains.

“Sound theology has a way of doing that!”

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Mary Ellen Sheehan, IHM, STD, earned a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and is a Professor Emerita of Theology at St. Michaels College of the Toronto School of Theology. Currently, she offers lectures, workshops, and retreats that relate theology to a range of questions emerging in our current cultural context. She draws on the contemplative character of theology to deepen our experience and understanding of God and to explore the meaning of committed Christian discipleship in our world today.

Keeping My Hand to the Plough

An oxbow river winding through a forest in Michigan

With committed colleagues and always stimulating students, I enjoyed 35 years of blessed ministry at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. There is simply nothing like the ecumenical and interfaith exchange at the Toronto School of Theology, where all involved learn so much from each other through theologically informed, respectful dialogue. In 2013, at the age of 75, I left Toronto and moved to Windsor. There, as my Irish-born father used to put it, I kept “my hand to the plough” by offering reflection days, workshops, and retreats on theology and cultural issues in several countries. I also became active in local Interfaith Centres, learning always and contributing, too, to these dialogues. Ah, the beauty of that endless curiosity I was born with!

In December of 2019, I made perhaps the biggest move of all: crossing the border to take up residence in Monroe, Michigan, where our IHM Senior Living Community is located. I received a warm welcome from our many IHM Sisters who live here, several of whom are my longtime friends. At the same time, I found myself engaged in considerable adjusting, recognizing through a few new aches and pains and through some energy and stamina diminishment that I am “aging” a bit! As well, I am still reckoning with the fact that I can no longer be in those stimulating classrooms at TST! However, being healthy and in the Independent Living part of our Centre, I still enjoyed my trips with friends to libraries and to the Detroit Art Museum and Symphony Hall.

But little did I know that by March 2020 everyone on our planet Earth would be adjusting! The border closed, so no annual spring and fall trips for me to Toronto to renew my friendships with colleagues and former students and to experience the rapid changes occurring in the city. In fact, I could not even go to Windsor to enjoy friends there. And increasingly, with new State health regulations, my freedom to go off our Monroe campus has been curtailed. New challenges indeed—COVID consequences—from which not even a bizarre USA Presidential Election process could distract me.

My first inclination was to go into a contemplative Celtic Anchoress state with my room as my hermitage. But that didn’t last too long! While I am sure that those Anchoresses had their informal ways to keep up with the village happenings, they did not have computers and mobile phones with global reaching apps and email! But me? I have those things and so I have figured out how to use them to contribute to the mission of our active IHM Religious Congregation, committed as we are to “the liberating mission of Jesus Christ” through preaching, teaching, and healing.

Through email, FB, Zoom, and WhatsApp, I have been able to communicate with family, friends, colleagues, and former students all over the world. We share our joys and sorrows together and thus keep the strength of Christian community—the Body of Christ, the people of God – alive and well in loving support for each other. After all, Jesus didn’t put any conditions on his claim: “Where two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in their midst.” We have supported each other in some family tragedies that have occurred, and while we have not been able to gather for funerals and weddings and graduations, we have not been COVID-defeated. For sure, there is no replacement for a personal hug or a good cry together, but technology has kept us connected.

Here in our IHM Senior Living Community we have Sisters who suffer from physical diminishment. But how they are contemplatively connected to our loving God! So, I go to them to ask them to pray with me for people I know in need of strength and consolation from COVID challenges. Several of the Sisters write down first names and put them next to their Living in Christ liturgical readings booklet and pray each day for them. We also have a practice of writing names on a board outside our Chapel so that they are brought into common prayer time, with all the proper COVID protections in place.

Personally speaking, I have preached at our Liturgy of the Word services, a practice that brings me so deeply into the ever-creating Word of God, a Word that helps us all to remember how life emerges from suffering when there is community. I have also kept current with challenging articles and books on colonialism, white privilege, racism, local LGBTQI church injustices, and other acts of social and economic exclusion. I have also participated in stimulating and personally challenging Zoom sessions on some of these topics. I share these resources with others and we have follow-up “techy” conversations that always lead to prayerful reflection and compassionate action.

And always, I have my classical music playing, and of course, too, at times the haunting renditions of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen and K. D. Lang.  At times, too, I put on a CD of poignant lamenting Irish songs. Always in reach is the current biography I am reading and poetry books. Prayer and the arts nurture appreciation. I experience in them beauty aborning from pain, hope arising from tragedy. In a sense, we can all produce something out of nothing when we share our God-given gifts with each other. Our loving God is always creating, healing, and transforming us, leading us to hope even as we struggle with COVID consequences.

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David Byrne is a doctoral candidate in theology (ethics) at the University of St. Michael’s College. David is also a professor in the Community and Justice Services program at Centennial College in Scarborough, Ontario. David lives in Oshawa, Ontario with his wife and two children.

A Year of Learning Differently

Photograph of girl looking at a math problem on a laptop

I have developed a motto over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. A year of living differently. I have said it so many times, it has become a mantra—a way to refocus when my family and I are faced with change, or when we have to give up something we love to do. No more visits to museums or the zoo? A year of living differently! We camped instead, exploring Ontario’s provincial parks. No big family celebrations or barbecues? Just a year of living differently! So, we gathered virtually and at a distance. Postponing a trip my wife and I were hoping to take for our ten-year wedding anniversary, opting instead for a long bike ride and dinner at home… a year of living differently… though, that one with less panache.

As a professor at Scarborough’s Centennial College and a father of two young children, for us there is no place that the impacts of this year of living differently have been more noticeable than in the classroom. Mornings used to be rushing around to get everyone ready before dropping them off at their schools and driving into Scarborough to teach, coffee in hand. Now, with my wife and I working from home, and our children doing online school, mornings are waking up slowly and making sure everyone is fed and set up with their technology before our various Zoom meetings start.

Though I appreciate the extra time that this change has provided, it has been a hard adjustment. My children miss their friends and teachers, and I miss my coworkers and students. My wife would happily return to the office if able. There is nothing that technology can do that can replace the transformational experience of working and learning together, face to face, despite the enormous efforts of educators over the last eight months. And in many ways, it is getting harder, as we all grow tired of the seclusion and endless hours spent staring at screens.

Though, the pandemic has not been the only major adjustment for our family this year. In the spring, after months of testing, my daughter was diagnosed with a learning disability. As a baby and toddler, my daughter shone brightly. She walked early, she talked early, she was creative and engaging. Though, despite her social skills, we noticed that she struggled with some aspects of learning. Though she would carry on conversations with anyone who listened, she struggled to recognize letters. By the time she reached Third Grade, she was a year or two behind most of the other kids. This meant that in an educational environment where grades are prioritized, we had to adjust our expectations and support her as she struggled through her work, knowing that even with her best effort her report cards would be more a moment of recognizing and celebrating small victories than big ones.

Even with her diagnosis, and the creation of an Independent Educational Plan (IEP), my daughter would struggle in a regular classroom environment. There, with a single teacher whose attention is split between twenty or more students, our daughter cannot receive the support she needs to thrive. Though my daughter’s teachers have been fantastic in their efforts to support her, there is no way in our education system to provide the level of flexibility it takes to meet the demands of children who face complex barriers to learning. So, even though the psychologist who diagnosed my daughter asserted that my daughter could a get a PhD with the right accommodations, I found that hard to believe.

Then COVID struck, and with it the longest March Break in history.

With all of us at home, my wife and I took turns helping our daughter with her work. We supported her to get organized. We taught her to use a laptop with voice technology to help with her reading and writing. We helped her to overcome the frustration that accompanied her constant feeling of inadequacy. It was not a smooth or linear process. There were lots of strategies we tried that did not work. Lots of days where the demands of our own jobs meant that our daughter was on her own. But over time, we saw a change.

Tears became less frequent. Her reluctance to try new strategies gave way to excitement for new learning technology, especially the programs that let her express herself creatively. She started answering more questions in class and, to our surprise, helping her fellow classmates to understand their assignments. And when her recent progress report came out, the results reflected what we were seeing—our daughter was “getting it” for the first time.

I witnessed the positive impact of a flexible, empathetic and unconventional approach to learning. I watched my daughter shift from apprehension to enthusiasm. And, as a professor, I immediately thought to my own students. Especially those who struggle the most—and thought, how might a similar level of support and flexibility benefit them? What do they need to unlock their hidden potential that they have not had provided to them?

As a doctoral candidate in theology at USMC, whose research is rooted in liberative theological ethics, an approach to doing ethics that begins with the concrete experience of people as a primary source for ethical reflection, I was called to think more deeply about who my specific students are. I teach in a program at a school in a community where many of the students face barriers to learning. Many of my students work full time to afford their education. Many provide care for parents and young children. Many are first- or second-generation Canadians. And many are the first from their family to attend post secondary education. Few of them enjoy the same level of support and stability that my daughter does.

What I have found is that in this year of living differently, with my life unrecognizable from a year ago, I am called to embrace how to learn differently, too. As everything I know about education shifts, as I am shaken from my habits, as an educator I am called to change. To change the way I lecture, the way I assign and assess work and the way I view the different approaches to learning of my students. I need to look for ways to identify their unique needs and provide them with accommodations. I also need to see this task as an opportunity as opposed to a burden—one that I admit makes me feel vulnerable, but one that also enables me to see the face of my daughter in each one of my students—the little girl who found her love for learning in a radically different space than the one I imagined.

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Adrian Ross is the Executive Assistant to the Principal at the University of St. Michaels College. Trained as a musician, he is an historical keyboardist specializing in harpsichord and clavichord. He is engaged by the agency of music, especially rhythm, in health and liturgy, especially in antiquity and the Middle Ages.

InsightOut: Les Barricades Mystérieuses

Detail image of harpsichord keys and strings

The therapeutic potential of music has long been recognized: King David and Orpheus disarmed evil by the lyre, and harmony and rhythm could restore the revolutions of Plato’s soul, to give but a very few examples. Indeed, and perhaps because of this, the restorative power of music is particularly attested in times of plague. The prescription of music was especially prevalent not just as palliation, but as prevention and treatment, during outbreaks of plague in mediaeval and early modern periods. More generally, music is often desired during life’s most uncertain, critical, and mysterious experiences, notably in dying. The composer Guillaume Dufay (1397–1474), for example, even wrote a motet for his own deathbed (Ave Maria Caelorum III) and to this day music at the bedside continues in palliative care.

It is difficult to define precisely what technical qualities make music capable of healing physical and spiritual crises, and this may be subjective to a certain degree. One piece that has always spoken to me as particularly consoling is the enigmatically titled Les Barricades Mystérieuses (The Mysterious Barricades) by François Couperin (1668–1733). It is one of the most popular and abiding pieces of music written for the harpsichord, a keyboard instrument predating the piano and using plucked strings, like a guitar.

Like much current popular music, Couperin’s piece features a refrain (the rondeau) and three verses (couplets). Beginning with a masterfully simple refrain, each of the verses becomes increasingly dramatic, culminating in the last verse. Having moved from the simple to the relatively complex and uncertain, this last verse prolongs the musical tension and the expectations of the listener until that final resolution and dissolution back into the final refrain. This arc of experience is not unique to this piece, to music, nor indeed to the arts at large.

We are now in November 2020, still in the midst of pandemic and called by the Church to reflect on the passing of life to death and, by grace, to glory. Listening to music, even music of past ages, is an opportunity to experience the beauty of art not merely as entertainment and distraction, but as a transcendental that defeats our barriers, opening the human heart to relationship with others and God.

Please enjoy my interpretation of Les Barricades Mystérieuses, recorded on an instrument built by Yves Beaupré (Montréal), generously on loan from Charlotte Nediger, using a tuning system by Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683–1764).

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Nick Cotman did his undergraduate studies in philosophy and political science at the University of Ottawa. He then completed his Master of Theological Studies at St. Michaels Faculty of Theology in 2019. It was at this time that he began working in the chaplaincy leader position at his alma matter, Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in Kingston, ON.

Encountering Opportunity in Restriction

Image of an open window looking out onto an autumn landscape

As we have come to expect from most things in 2020, public education in Ontario’s schools looks a little different from most years. In Kingston, secondary schools are following an octomester model, meaning that there is one class each day for 22 straight days. Lunch periods are staggered for each grade in an effort to avoid congestion around the school. Additionally, teachers are livestreaming their lessons to ensure remote learners are getting the needed material. All of these adjustments have required a significant mental and pedagogical reorientation from staff and students. Having only begun my high school chaplaincy career in the fall of 2019, and being out of the school by this past March, these first months back have felt more like the second volume of my first year as I relearn the role.

Being (physically) back in school has affirmed something I had been reflecting on since COVID first began to reshape our daily lives: that a single thing can be both restrictive and freeing. The colleagues and students I have the privilege of spending time with each day are showing me there are unexpected opportunities to be found in the constraints we are currently navigating. I think it is important to note, however, that any “pleasant surprises” we encounter in no way diminish or undermine the unique challenges each of us has faced. Nonetheless, we should acknowledge that by being forced to reconsider the way we approach many things, 2020 has also shed light on the shortcomings of previous practices and provoked new, more effective methods. Being in school has made this especially clear to me.

There are a few experiences I’d like to recount. The first is one which is bound up closely with my position in the school: the absence of school Masses. This has forced a significant shift in focus to other liturgical practices. I have been doing regular class visits to lead lectio divina readings and the Ignatian Daily Examen with students. Although we will be thankful when the day comes that we can celebrate Mass as an entire community, this unplanned hiatus has led me to recognize the richness of these other liturgical approaches. Mass in school was always an appreciated community event, but it was evident that further foundational efforts in spirituality and liturgical understanding would enrich the experience. The event of a school Mass may have become overly familiar, causing a lack of deliberate and reflective participation. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that we often need “to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur or triteness of familiarity.” This break may inadvertently serve as opportunity to form our liturgical sensibilities as a community through other practices, allowing us “to clean our windows,” and more fully appreciate Mass when we can gather once more as an entire community.

Another example that is small but noteworthy is the new inclusion of an end-of-day prayer. Prior to current circumstances, we would recite a simple grace over the PA before lunch.  Now, however, with each grade now getting out of class at different times, this was ruled out to avoid further interruptions. In the absence of a lunch hour prayer, we decided to begin doing a prayer at the end of the school day. This small change has been incredibly well received. We join in a meaningful prayer to give a definitive conclusion to the school day and to look forward to the evening ahead. This is a practice we will likely carry forward beyond these unusual circumstances, though we may have been unprompted to explore it without the current conditions.

Without Masses, retreats, or community outreach to coordinate, my priorities within the school have shifted. More than ever, it seems that chats in the staff room and chance encounters with students in the halls are of greater pastoral importance. When there was more room to complete tasks and plan outreach events, I began to let behind-the-scene to-do lists take the front seat. I’m thankful I’ve been required to shift my focus to relationships within the school. When things return to normal, I’ll be sure to maintain this focus.

There are an array of other instances I could talk about, such as our amended graduation ceremony, virtual coffee houses, and the music class using the cafetorium so as to social distance more effectively (allowing halls throughout the school to enjoy their practice). Students seem more open to seek me out to chat (though perhaps they just want out of class since they’re now in the same room all day!) and are displaying impressive consciousness of the well-being of those around them. They are dutiful in mask wearing, have embraced the octomester model, and even surpassed any previous food drives during our Thanksgiving collection.

These are all just small instances of the pleasant surprises I’ve seen over the past months. We have all encountered them in different ways, but I am especially thankful to see them occurring in Catholic education through the lens of chaplaincy. When we learn to embrace unanticipated circumstances, we can open ourselves up to viewing things in new ways and create room for God’s grace in areas we might lack control. In the chaplaincy work ahead, I’ll be sure to continue looking for the pleasant surprises and opportunities for growth that our current restrictions can bring.

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Voices Honouring St. Mike’s Fallen

The Soldiers Memorial Slype is one of the most moving spots on the St. Michaels campus. The sandstone archway is found between Fisher House and More House and connects the campus quad to Queens Park. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of on-campus events this Remembrance Day, but our fallen are not forgotten.

Etched into the walls of the spare and understated war memorial are the names of more than 150 men from the St. Michaels College and St. Michaels College School, students and graduates, who died in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Here are two of them.

Private John Cecil Feeney In Memoriam Yearbook Page

Private John Cecil Feeney was born in Marmora, On., in 1897 and enrolled at St. Michael’s in 1913 to study Philosophy. The St. Michael’s Yearbook of 1917 states that Cee, as he was known to his friends, played rugby, baseball and hockey and was “the acknowledged all-round athletic star of the College.” The yearbook also notes, though, that his love of athletics notwithstanding, Feeney was a dedicated student who “displayed a remarkable ability in his Philosophical studies.”

Although his time serving in the Canadian Officers Training Corps afforded him the rank of lieutenant, he enrolled as a private in the 5th Universities Company, which was part of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, in February of 1916. In July of that year he joined his battalion in France. Two months later, on September 15, he was killed in action in the battle of Courcelette and was buried there, far from his grieving mother and two sisters, and, as the yearbook notes, “several brothers … serving at the front.” His name appears on the Vimy Memorial in Pas de Calais, France.

“His loss is a source of honest sorrow to the students of St. Michael’s in general,” his classmates wrote, “but more especially to us, the Class of ’17, with whom he lived in close association for several years. May our prayers intercede for him and aid him in reaping the reward of his pious conduct, while in our midst, and his final sacrifice of his life for his country. Requiescat in Pace.”

Feeney is also remembered in the University of Toronto Roll of Service, 1914–1918.

Inscription – His name as it is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial (2010). Over 11,000 fallen Canadians having no known place of burial in France, are honoured on this Memorial. May they never be forgotten. (J. Stephens)

Private John Cecil Feeney’s name as it is inscribed on the Vimy Memorial (2010).

Roll of Service – From the "University of Toronto / Roll of Service 1914-1918", published in 1921.

“University of Toronto / Roll of Service 1914–1918,” published 1921.

Group Photo – F/O Larry Doherty with F/O Bill Blakeny and F/O Rowan Hutchinson

Group Photo — F/O Larry Doherty with F/O Bill Blakeny and F/O Rowan Hutchinson

Flying Officer Lawrence Aloysius Doherty, the son of Thomas Arthur and Mary Doherty, was born on April 1, 1918 in Toronto. He was a member of the 414 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force, enlisting in Hamilton in 1940.

While on a secret mission over the English Channel on June 6, 1943, he alerted fellow officer Rowan Hutchinson that he had spotted a trio of German planes—Folke-Wulf 1900s, according to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial—about to attack. His warning saved Flying Officer Hutchinson, but Doherty’s plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

The accompanying newspaper article below quotes Hutchinson as explaining that he was flying in the lead when Doherty radioed to say, “Look out, Hutch!” prompting Hutchinson to turn just in time to see his friend’s plan crash into the water.

“Larry saved my life,” Hutchinson explained.

Doherty, with no known grave, is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey, England.

He is also honoured in the University of Toronto Memorial Book of 1939–1945.

Doherty Newspaper Clipping

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

“For the Fallen,” Laurence Binyon

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Dr. Pa Sheehan is from Sixmilebridge in County Clare, Ireland. He was living in St. Johns, Newfoundland when the pandemic started and moved to Toronto in July. He teaches the Irish language at the University of St. Michaels College as the Ireland Canada University Foundation (ICUF) scholar. 

Finding One’s Inner Resilience

Irish Hurling photograph

Whenever this pandemic ends and we can look at it in the past, we will all be able to say that it was a defining period in each of our lives. I want to be able to say to myself that it was the period in my life during which I realized what resilience I had always possessed but was not always sure how to use. We cannot control the end result but what we can control are the decisions we make during the process that lead us to the end result. That may sound a little contradictory but it is a perspective I have borrowed from the sporting world and adapted to use in my new normal life.

As a teenager, and even during much of my time at university, I began noticing that I enjoyed being in control of my destiny, that the final outcome would always align with my desires. We all know that this is not always the case, however. There are instances when the outcome does not correspond with the initial intentions. This used to make me feel bitter, angry, anxious and many other things. I look back at exam results with which I disagreed or at not having been picked on a particular sports team and how I allowed these external decisions make me become upset. Little did I know that these external decisions were outside of my control and that I had already done my part, so as long as I was satisfied with the role I had played, I had no reason to feel any ill sentiments.

I truly believe that this pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for me personally. I do not want to belittle the appalling circumstances in which many people find themselves due to the pandemic. I only want to acknowledge the wonderful things it has done for me and I hope you can appreciate that. I talked about resilience at the beginning of this article and I want to refer to it again.

Many moments have tested my resilience during this pandemic. I am from Ireland and have had trips home cancelled, meaning I have not seen my family in well over a year now. My job involves organizing social events and fostering a sense of community amongst the Irish themselves in Toronto as well as anyone interested in Irish culture. This has obviously been affected. One could view my moving to Toronto during the pandemic as a pity, considering I cannot experience what the big city has to offer in its fullness. I am also a sports fanatic, whether it be playing or watching and this aspect of my life has been considerably impacted as well, as sports events were cancelled one after one. I was in the middle of training for my first marathon, which inevitably succumbed to the pandemic. Having been deprived of playing my first love—the Irish sport of hurling—while living for a year in Newfoundland, I welcomed the move to Toronto as it would afford me the opportunity to play it again, given the number of Irish expatriates living in the city. Of course, the pandemic continued and these plans were scuppered along with many others.

A couple of years ago, I would have viewed these setbacks with frustration as I could do nothing to control them. However, I realize now that there is beauty in the fact that I cannot control them. It means that I must make new decisions which are within my control. For example, my inability to physically go back to Ireland has encouraged me to reach out more to people back home whom I may have neglected in the past, whether they be family or friends. It has also motivated me to appreciate the greatness of my homeplace, something I strive to illustrate each day in my teaching of Irish language and culture. Not being able to physically host social gatherings has afforded me opportunities to organize more online events and I am extremely thankful for this as I have most definitely interacted with more passionate and enthusiastic Irish people as a result of the compulsion to go online. The cancellation of marathons and hurling championships has reminded me of the reasons I initially fell in love with playing sport. I do it because it makes me feel good, simple as that. I am still running almost every day, but not because I am training for a marathon that may or may not take place in the future. I have no control over that. I train to feel well. And whenever I can play hurling again, the result of the match will not be significant, nor will the quality of my own performance. All that will matter will be the sheer enjoyment I derive from playing the game and making my best possible effort. Never in a million years would I thought I would have uttered that last sentence!

As plans continue to go awry, flights continue to be booked and cancelled, restrictions are lifted and then enforced again, events are planned only to be aborted once more, I take solace in the fact that my mind is not bound by the outcomes which I cannot affect but by the decisions which I choose to make every day to make the best of every possible situation. Resilience is something each human being possesses but only initiates when necessary. I encourage anyone to solely focus their minds on the decisions they can control. Although you have no say in them, the results will probably astonish you.

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Dr. Adam Hincks, S.J., holds the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures at the University of St. Michael’s College. Dr. Hincks, who specializes in physical cosmology, completed a B.Sc. in physics and astrophysics from U of T in 2004. In 2009 he earned a Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University and then entered the Jesuit novitiate in Montréal. After pronouncing vows in 2011, he pursued philosophical studies at Toronto’s Regis College and later did a Bachelor of Sacred Theology at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Returning to Toronto, he worked on a Master of Theology and Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Regis College from 2018–20. He was ordained to the priesthood in 2019.

What Parish Are You At, Father?

Colourful galaxy photograph

“What parish do you live at, Father?” It’s a question I’ve been asked a couple of times since I was ordained last year. The answer—“I’m not based at a parish”—can be unexpected for those who are only used to seeing priests at Sunday mass. The fact of the matter is that most ordained Jesuits are not parish priests, nor have we ever been since our founding in the sixteenth century. The same can be said for those in many other religious institutes, such as the Basilian Fathers who are so important to St. Michael’s College. This doesn’t mean that none of us have parishes—for instance, here in Toronto, Our Lady of Lourdes is served by Jesuit priests and St. Basil’s by Basilians. Nor does it mean that we don’t help out at parishes in various ways. But it isn’t our sole defining ministry.

In my own case, my principal assignment, which I just began in July, is as a professor here at the University of Toronto. To be honest, when I became a Jesuit in 2009 fresh off of a doctorate in physics, I never dreamt that I would come back to the St. George campus, where I had been an undergraduate, as a professor! I figured after the many years of Jesuit formation I would could end up in an academic setting, perhaps at one of the scores of universities we run around the world, but it was only a vague idea.

The position I have begun here is new and unique. Supported by the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures, I have an appointment both in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and here at St. Michael’s College. The majority of my research is purely scientific, in the area of physical cosmology, or the study of the Universe as a whole. I work on telescopes that observe the very early universe and that map out the cosmos on its largest scales. But with my training in philosophy and theology, I also have an interdisciplinary interest in how science relates to faith and vice versa. And so a good part of my teaching will be precisely in this area—such as SMC371, “Faith and Physics”, which I shall teach in the winter term of 2021.

Still, one might return to the spirit of the question I began with and frame it a bit differently: why should a priest be engaged in research and teaching at a public university? There is the somewhat facile answer that there have been clerics on faculties ever since the first universities of the West arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Church has always valued education and the pursuit of knowledge, and thus her clergy and religious as well as her laity have always contributed to these great endeavours. But looking at the question from within the tradition of my own religious order, I am reminded of the notion of “finding God in all things”, a formula often used to capture a key aspect of the spirituality of St. Ignatius of Loyola, our principal founder.

“Finding God in all things” is not a vague aphorism or a flaky aspiration, but is rooted in the deeply Biblical conviction that as Creator, God is intimately present to his creatures, or, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “God is in all things, and innermostly.” This does not mean that if you use a powerful enough microscope (or telescope!) you will suddenly find scientific “evidence” for God. But it does mean that studying creation—whether through the lenses of the humanities, the social sciences or the natural sciences—can be a springboard to contemplating its Creator. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8, NABRE). And ultimately, it is “contemplation of divine things” that is one of the principal tasks of those of us in religious life.

So I consider myself blessed to have this opportunity for contemplation, even if the busyness of the job means that I can’t always advert to it! I am looking forward to collaborating with all my colleagues at this university—fellow faculty, other researchers and students—as we lift our minds to consider true and lovely things “worthy of praise.” Not everyone contemplates science from within a religious worldview, and of course there are some who think such a stance is ludicrous. But I’m excited that St. Michael’s College has opened the space to explore it further, and I’m excited to see where it leads. I trust it will make me a better scientist, a better Christian—and a better priest.

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John Fraresso is completing his Master of Theological Studies degree at St. Michaels Faculty of Theology. He completed his undergrad at UTM in the 90s in Crime & Deviance and Sociology. He currently serves as the Community & Spiritual Life Coordinator for the community of LArche Hamilton.

God Keeps Laughing as I Make Plans

A path winds along the side of a coastal cliff

If you really want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.

Sometimes God taps you on the shoulder, other times God throws a brick at your head.

Add to these—paraphrasing Gary Zukav— in order to be authentic, your personality must serve the will of your soul, and you get a glimpse into my journey of returning to school in my mid 40s. They actually define my life story, but that’s a book and not a blog.

From the time I was a young boy, I always felt called to be in service to others. If the call to have children wasn’t so strong within me, the call to priesthood might very well have won out in my teens. I listened to that call to have children and was blessed with three beautiful kids. Since they were (and are) my highest calling, I launched into corporate life in my 20s and had a highly successful career. Though it was gut-wrenching in many ways, it served my kids well by providing a very comfortable life for them. On the other side of this coin, making millions more in sales and margin dollars for a multi-billion dollar company did nothing to serve the least of my brothers and sisters, nor my soul’s calling.

About five years ago, I was discarded like yesterday’s news by the company I had poured my life and soul into. That monumental event—which at the time seemed devastating—set me on an incredible journey up to this day, a journey that continues to unfold. What is evident in it, though, is that the will of my soul is getting the upper hand, as my personality is listening to it a lot more than it used to. God keeps laughing as I make plans. Sometimes God taps me on the shoulder and I listen; more often than not God has to throw a brick at my stubborn head.

Richard Rohr wrote an entire book, Falling Upward, on what happens when we hit mid-life as we start to reassess our values and where we’re heading. Circumstances started to line up for me to follow my dream of returning to school so that I could follow a vocation to be in service to others—which, you will note, sounds entirely different from a “career change.” I enrolled in St. Mike’s Faculty of Theology to do a Master of Theological Studies degree.

Many people have said to me, “Wow, that’s quite a change. What made you decide to go in that direction?” My answer is always that it wasn’t a “change” per se; it is simply a matter of honouring what has always been deeply seeded in my DNA, the will of my soul.

I decided to do the “responsible thing” and continue to work full-time so I could make money while doing school part-time. I didn’t really need to; my financial situation had allowed me to go full-time, but I didn’t listen. Result? The new company I was working for shut their operations down. God. Brick. Head. I listened, and dedicated to school full-time.

I decided to do a field placement in my degree. My professor suggested, after a period of discernment and discussion, that I do my placement at LArche. Turns out—and he was bang on—that someone like me, so stuck in my head, could learn a lot from people who live from their hearts. In the ten months I have been at LArche I have learned more than my entire education, going all the way back to junior kindergarten.

Yet even in this journey of the past few months, I continued to make decisions with my head and didn’t listen to my heart. Put another way, my personality wasn’t serving the will of my soul. God showed up again, brick in hand. LArche had to remove all volunteers from their homes when COVID struck, including me. A week later, they offered me a relief assistant position. I struggled with taking it, because my head told me that perhaps I should find something full-time for the summer (a nice cerebral decision that didn’t consult my heart). My heart eventually won out, and in no time I was getting more hours at LArche. Fast forward a couple of months, and the person who was my supervisor at LArchetheir Community and Spiritual Life Coordinator—was retiring, and they needed someone to fill the position.

Guess what I’m doing now! Of course, as a result of listening to my heart, it all works out well with my studies: I can balance both this position and my studies. Though it is highly regretful that classes aren’t in person—I didn’t return to school after 20+ years to do it online—the fact that they are virtual, and that I don’t need to commute from Burlington to Toronto for classes, allowed me to take this service position at LArche.

This is literally a microcosm, a small sample, of the incredible events that have conspired to allow for this to come to fruition. My super-stubborn self has learned (more accurately, is still learning) the valuable lesson that you can’t stand in the way of the will of your soul. I guess with more brazen effort and deafness one could. I am sure many do. I know I have. But when you surrender even just a little, gain a little humility, ask God to guide you, simply go with the flow, and let go of the wheel so that The One with a better driving record can take it, miracles happen.

Again a couple weeks ago as my head was trying to run the show, God sent another messenger to remind me. Without even knowing I needed to hear it, she shared Proverbs 3:5-6 with me: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will make straight your paths.”

Thankfully I noticed this subtle tap from God, gave control back to God, and saved myself another brick to the head.

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Risa de Rege is a library technician at the Kelly Library. She has a B.A. in history, art, and medieval studies from the University of Toronto, and is currently a masters degree candidate at the Faculty of Information.

The Ups and Downs of a Paradigm Shift

Photograph of Risa's books: Extraterrestrials; Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me); Predictably Irrational; Factfulness; The Elephant in the Brain; Research Design

The past year, and the unwelcome pandemic that came with it, has brought a lot of change to my life. Usually I’m a person who is happy with things the way they are, but every now and then the paradigm shifts, so here I am. Since January I’ve started a new job here at St. Mike’s, seen my hobbies completely change for the foreseeable future, and enrolled in a graduate program. Nothing is normal, and every day I feel the stress of a global disaster. But maybe the British were on to something with “keep calm and carry on.”

I’m no stranger to libraries. I worked at Victoria College for several years at the circulation desk, and in 2018 joined USMC as a processing clerk in the technical services department. A few years ago I decided to make a career out of this experience, and recently finished my library technician diploma. In January I had the pleasure of joining Kelly’s access and information team full-time—only for us to shut down about 10 weeks later. After a few months working solely from home (probably the longest I’ve gone without visiting campus since high school), I was back on-site to help with shifting in anticipation of an ongoing construction project. I then helped with curbside pickup and, more recently, re-opening for study space. Not exactly how I imagined my career really taking off, but sometimes that’s just how it is.

Working from home offers more flexibility and no more time lost to commuting. I have a bit more time to myself, but nothing to do with it. Outside of work and school I spend most of my time singing opera, a hobby which for obvious reasons will not be coming back anytime soon. A trip to perform in England this summer was postponed to a healthier year, and I have many friends whose shows, if not whole seasons, were cancelled. I have been singing virtually, though. While unfortunately my local opera society has not ventured online, I’ve rejoined the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, which is producing a virtual concert season, and I continue to sing with a community choir which has adapted marvellously. This all-ages, all-abilities group generally sings music written specifically for it by local composers. While singing together live on Zoom is basically impossible due to a host of technical issues, our current composer-in-residence is creating music specifically with this situation in mind. It’s been fun to explore music this way, but it’s not the same. It’s really articulated to me that I sing not only for love of the art form but for love of the people I sing with.

One true advantage of COVID is that working from home means I can foster kittens. I’ve fostered adult cats for years and now have my own, a tabby named Autumn who I picked up the day after Kelly closed. But now, being home most of the time means I’m here to keep an eye on things (I love cats, but I don’t trust them). I started taking in kittens in July, and I’m on my second pair now: two brothers who have a mild neurological condition that affects their balance and motor skills. Among all the stress of a global pandemic, a million dead, a looming election, an environmental crisis, etc., it is extremely grounding to take care of two sweet, vulnerable babies and know that I am giving them a second chance at a happy life. Sometimes all the good we can do is small, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a difference.

Another thing I’ve started during COVID is my master’s degree at the Faculty of Information. While I’m grateful that the Faculty committed to an entirely virtual semester early on, an entire graduate program quickly moving online is not without its difficulties. But I was eager enough to start that I didn’t want to delay another year just on the off chance that in-person courses might return in the fall of 2021, and I don’t regret it. It’s nice not to have to worry about commuting any farther than across my bedroom to my computer desk. And while online classes are still pretty structured, there’s a bit more flexibility to go at my own pace. I did my library technician diploma completely online, through Mohawk College, and it was an entirely different experience that I found very positive. Classes designed to be delivered online are very different from classes designed to be in-person that get thrown into Zoom. Everyone in academics has described this year as a “learning opportunity.” What we learn from it remains to be seen.

The biggest downside is that communication is much harder and mostly relies on the strength of one’s internet. With professors still encouraging group discussions as a major part of classes, I’ve found that a lot of my time is spent trying to hear someone over background noise or a bad connection. Due to either bandwidth or shyness, few people have their cameras on so it’s been very difficult for me to feel like I’m getting to know anyone. If there’s one thing COVID has taught me, it’s how much I rely on casual social interactions: chatting before class starts; stopping by a former workplace to catch up; and the subtle body language and facial expressions that contribute so much to conversation. In some ways staying behind a computer is good for social anxiety; in other ways it’s far worse.

Still, things have been okay. I want to do a thesis and I’ve been able to start refining my ideas and doing some preliminary research this term. I’m interested in fringe beliefs, like conspiracy theories, the paranormal, or pseudoscience, and why people believe in these things. While I’m pursuing this mainly out of personal interest, it’s not hard to justify why understanding science resistance is pretty important in the current state of things. If we ever want to go back to learning in-person, we need to get more people on board with the latest epidemiology.

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Nick Olkovich is an Assistant Professor and holds the Marie Anne Blondin Chair in Catholic Theology at St. Marks College in Vancouver. He completed three of his four degrees at the University of St. Michaels College where he met his wonderful partner Julia, a graduate of Christianity and Culture and the Faculty of Theology, in a course exploring the thought of Bernard Lonergan.

Nick and Julia’s Victory Garden

Photograph of Nick holding radicchio he and Julia grew

I’m sitting in my living room looking at what’s likely to be the last tomato from the small garden we planted at St. Mark’s College here in Vancouver. Shortly after everything shut down on March 16, 2020—and well before the ground was ready in Toronto—Julia and I found ourselves sowing seeds—two types of lettuce, arugula, radicchio and puntarelle—and planting tomato, eggplant, pepper and cucumber seedlings.

Anxiously awaiting signs of germination and growth, we’d close our laptops around 5 p.m. every second day and drive up to the College to check on our pandemic garden. Slowly but surely our seeds sprouted and their shoots began to look like miniature versions of themselves. Within weeks we were eating arugula while Toronto was still under a pile of snow. Yet, our tomatoes had barely grown; the cucumber seedlings kept dying; and I was convinced that my pepper plants were shrinking. I was frustrated. Anxiety over the pandemic combined with the pressure to work harder and accomplish more. I was hard on myself like I was hard on the garden.

As the lockdown wore on, workdays and then weeks began to blur into one another and yet time stood still in a different way when we’d call it quits, earlier and gradually with much less guilt, and head up to the College. We’d go when we were miserable or angry with each other. It was quiet and it helped. We’d go on the weekends sometimes when the sun was shining and it helped even more. Julia needed her steps and so we’d walk after pulling weeds and talk in ways that our pre-pandemic weekdays never seemed to allow.

As time went on our near daily trips became routine. We’d pack our tomato ties, our scissors, and big ziplock bags that I’d wash after each use. Soon we lost access to a hose and so we started bringing a watering can that one of us would fill six or seven times behind St. Mark’s Parish whenever Fr. Rob wasn’t hearing outdoor confessions. As summer finally started to arrive in Vancouver the garden became a hot spot of activity. We met neighbours who told us they liked our greens (thanks?); neighbours we traded stories and plants with; other gardeners on the UBC campus who envied the shade our lettuce got; neighbours’ children and their pets. I began running into work colleagues, one who tended two of the College’s four garden beds, and others who still had access to the main building. These chance encounters and the short conversations they prompted—so everyday and yet so oddly meaningful—broke up the monotony of daily Zoom calls and online happy hours. Soon enough the garden started to produce and everyone we ran into or visited got a bag of lettuce or clippings of chard. What had started out as a pet project had become a way to connect.

In the end, not everything worked out. The eggplant and peppers never grew. Most of the tomatoes will never ripen. But over time my frustration with the garden turned to acceptance and then celebration. Look at all the delicious things we got out of two overcrowded and partly shaded boxes. Over time I’ve grown to be easier on myself and to celebrate all the little ways Julia and I have grown over the past six months. None of it was expected. None of it was easy. All of it was grace.

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Michael Coleman is a non-degree studies student at the University of St. Michael’s College. He received an Honours Bachelor of Science degree, double majoring in Physiology and Biochemistry, this past spring. He has also served as a Residence Don for the past three years. In light of the pandemic, he aims to use this 5th year to broaden his academic horizons as well as seek more potential graduate school and employment opportunities.

Never Let the Fire Die

Childhood photo of Michael Coleman's birthday
Childhood photo of Michael Coleman’s birthday

Last month, I celebrated my 22nd birthday with my best friend, Mitch, since the day also marks 18 years of our friendship. I’ll admit that the card he wrote made me quite emotional and reminded me why I call Mitch my brother. He knows that this is a significant year for me regarding academics and Donship, so to instill confidence as only he can, he writes, “You are an inspiration to everyone around you. Never let that fire die.” Sadly, and as much as I’d love it to be, this InsightOut isn’t about Mitch. Instead, I want to take this opportunity to discuss what “never letting the fire die” means as a Don, and how the St. Mike’s Don team is working to continue supporting and inspiring students during these uncertain times.

Serving as a Don for the past three years has been a true privilege. It is a role that allows you to get to know and support the development of residents—typically totalling around 100 people within an average career. Due to the nature of the job, however, you ultimately have double or triple that in numbers of residents on campus who know who you are and recognize you as a student leader. They see you everywhere, and they are always watching.

What I’m getting at is that, as a Don, you end up impacting and setting an example for more students than you might be aware of, hence why we often have to moderate our presence both in-person and online, always acting with good judgment and consistent discipline, and providing accurate referrals where necessary. Sure, every year of Donship comes with its spikes of difficulties, be it busy schedules or unexpected incidents, but it’s part of the job.

This year, however, we are dealing with the most chronic obstacle we’ve ever all faced as a Don team: the pandemic. This prompts the question: How have the Dons adapted to this pandemic-induced shift, and how do we aim to continue to support and inspire students through these new trials and tribulations?

I’ll begin by addressing the first part of the question: How have the Dons adapted to this pandemic-induced shift? Well, let’s talk about what has changed on campus and within the role. All rooms are now single-occupant, overall floor capacity has been reduced, and there are maximums on how many students can be in one space, be it washrooms, common rooms or Brennan Hall’s COOP. Some new rules we must enforce include wearing masks in common spaces and restricting guests from different communities. Furthermore, students are sitting at a distance from one another when dining in the Canada Room, though we’ve recently converted operations to take-out only to comply with provincial guidelines. Lastly, all house meetings and events are to be held online. Thanks to our modified training this year, new and returning Dons alike were able not only to learn about the usual rules of residence and the new COVID-related rules, but also how to use a variety of video conferencing platforms for use within their communities.

Needless to say, these conditions can feel rather isolating and intimidating to both residents and Dons alike, so let’s address the next part of the question: How do we aim to continue to support and inspire students?

This is where “keeping the fire alive” comes into play. This year has been a true testament to our Dons, ensuring they’re in this role for the right reasons. Unlike previous years, we don’t get to have in-person activities or meetings with our residents and must somehow still provide the same degree of support. We can’t allow quarantine or the changes in our role to affect how we act, either, because as previously mentioned it’s still all eyes on us, and as student leaders we can’t succumb to isolation.

We have to maintain our responsibility to our residents by compromising, having those meetings online but devoting ourselves to maintaining optimism and enjoying every interaction we do have with students outside when we see them on campus.

It’s also important for us to remember and share with students that though many buildings and in-person services are closed, we are all still able to access health and wellness services, academic counselling, and registrarial services online where needed. When libraries and gyms are open, I’m sure to tell my students that those resources are available for them, and often end up running into them there. Referrals are also arguably easier to make for students using online platforms, as I can now easily copy and paste any info a student might need during our video call. This reduces the amount of paper notetaking and business cards, and provides a written record of the referral in this digital age.

As a Don, it’s important to recognize that although the job may not look as rewarding or as personal up-front, it is still a job that relies on community-building, enforcing rules, and overseeing the academic and social development of our residents. The support from the Dean’s Office has also kept us informed and motivated. They always keep us updated on guidelines and are always there to talk to us and help us avoid burnout. As student leaders who are passionate about our position to inspire and set an example for those around us, I think Mitch said it best–we can not, and will not, let our fires die.

To close, I ask you to acknowledge your fires as well. Think of things that you have maintained during these uncertain times out of passion and responsibility. Meditate and reflect on what they are and give yourself due credit and congratulations for keeping your fire alive.

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Nisheeta Menon is a graduate of St. Michael’s Christianity & Culture program and holds a Master of Divinity degree from the Faculty of Theology. While studying theology she served as the Social Justice Co-ordinator and Student Life Committee Vice-President. She is now a high school Religion teacher in Mississauga, where she hopes to continue her co-curricular work serving her school community in the areas of equity and diversity education and chaplaincy.    

Wandering in the Desert

Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Marc Chagall, 1956
Moses with the Tablets of the Law by Marc Chagall, 1956

Autumn is a time of year I have always loved. As a student, I looked forward to transitioning back into school and the start-up of all of the clubs, sports, and activities. Now, as a secondary school teacher, my appreciation of this time of year has only increased. It is around this time that the life of a school starts to take shape—student leadership, chaplaincy, athletic teams, volunteer and outreach initiatives, arts programs, etc. Plans turn into reality and the school begins buzzing with activity, creativity, and life!

This autumn, as you might imagine, looks very different. The beginning of the school year was tumultuous, to say the least, and some of us only received our teaching assignments in late September. A number of teachers, like me, were designated to teach the online cohort and, with that, we have sunk into the routines of virtual teaching with considerable reluctance.

Students continue to be moved in and out of our courses due to a host of scheduling issues while the quadmester is rapidly progressing toward its end date in the second week of November. The tight timeline forces teachers to compress the curriculum, either speeding through important concepts or eliminating them entirely. The students “attend” class daily but are behind their screens while we are behind ours, and, even when our cameras are on, there is a palpable discomfort.

In a regular classroom, these students would know each other quite well by Grade 12, and they would continue to build connections with one another throughout their time in a class like mine. In the virtual environment, however, students in my classes are from all over the school board and, despite my efforts, their interaction is limited. As well, during the average school day, my colleagues generally remain isolated in their own classrooms (for good reason), leaving the staff lounge and department offices empty. The school is eerily quiet and the few faces you may pass are hidden behind masks. This is a far cry from the Thanksgiving liturgies, staff potlucks, and Student Council Haunted House tours of the past.

For most teachers, even those with in-class cohorts, the laments are the same: feeling disconnected from the students, being unable to teach and assess in an effective way, concern over students with access issues or learning challenges, and a general lack of guidance and support. At the same time, we watch the news as reports of COVID-19 cases in schools rise and we check in with some of our close friends and family as they await the results of their tests. We miss the loved ones who are outside of our social bubbles, and we worry about them, and ourselves. It is difficult to be hopeful.

One day, as I discussed these grim realities with a colleague, I confessed I was having a difficult time staying optimistic and energized, but that I was simultaneously feeling guilty about this because I also acknowledge how privileged I am in many ways. She offered one of the most helpful comments I have heard throughout this pandemic: “Of course you’re having trouble staying hopeful! What do you expect? We are the Israelites in the desert! This is not the Promised Land!”

Coincidentally, it was at that very time that I was in the midst of discussing the Exodus story with my Grade 12 Religion class. We had talked about how the Israelites in the desert must have felt a sense of hopelessness, fatigue, monotony, and an underlying fear that they might never actually reach the Promised Land. It is difficult to imagine that they ever woke up optimistic and chipper, ready to spend another day wandering in the desert!

During this pandemic, part of the struggle which so many of us put ourselves through is trying to make our lives as close to what they were pre-pandemic as possible. Of course, this is nearly impossible, and our failure to meet our self-imposed standards only heightens our anxiety. By acknowledging that we are “in the desert,” perhaps we can give ourselves permission to feel a little lost, at times hopeless, and generally unable to think more than a few steps ahead at any given time.

My most gratifying class thus far occurred when I shelved the curriculum for one day and chatted with the students about how I was feeling. As a teacher, and one of the only adult influences outside of their home they have regular access to right now, I know that modelling for my students the fact that it is okay to be struggling is perhaps the most important lesson that I can offer. After sharing with them a little about what was weighing on me, my students quickly piped in with words of validation and encouragement, which led to other students sharing their particular burdens, which in turn led to more encouragement from the group. Despite the distance between us and the glitchy internet connection, our discussion rolled on until the end of the period. There was laughter, exclamations of, “Oh my gosh! Me too!” and quiet, muffled sniffles at times. We never got around to our lesson on the Book of Exodus that day, and yet I am certain that we came to a better understanding of how the Israelites were able to survive—and find deep meaning in—their time in the desert together.

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Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael’s College. She holds degrees in English and theology from St. Mike’s. This holiday, she is stopping herself from making too many pies.

Gratitude as Gift

Photograph of lilacs in a basket

This Thanksgiving, I choose to be grateful.

Gratitude may not be the first emotion that will come to mind for many of us this fall. If your holiday traditions include circling the dinner table with guests rhyming off the things for which they are thankful, you may have to dig a little deeper this year. I can’t think of a person I know who hasn’t been touched in some way by the pandemic, whether it’s by fears of job loss and economic instability, worries over the health and safety of loved ones, or a general sense of anxiety about the way forward to healthier, happier times.

For my family, this is our first Thanksgiving without my husband. Mike died the week prior to the pandemic lockdown, and we celebrated his life in Charbonnel Hall the day before the COVID restrictions began. Charbonnel seemed an ideal place for a memorial service because, although he wasn’t a St. Mike’s grad, he spent plenty of time on campus, first swinging by after work to pick me up in the COOP when I was an undergrad, then picking me up after classes when I returned to study theology, and finally re-arranging his drive home from the office to get me when I began working here five years ago.

At times, my family’s grief—both individual and collective—seems bottomless, our loss immeasurable. Heightening our mourning is the fact that we moved immediately from a celebration of life to a life of isolation, cutting us off from the ways in which people mark a death and find consolation. Yes, there were casseroles, but instead of inviting the consoling chef in for a visit, there would be a timid knock at the door and a wave from the driveway. There were mass cards, but no masses to attend. And as my children gradually returned to what passes for normal life these days, social distancing often cut us off from even the solace of each other’s company.

We do talk to each other, though—a great deal—and when we do we ponder the life of their father, our time together as a family during his illness, and, of course, happier times. It has been through these conversations that I am repeatedly reminded of the sacramental nature of gratitude.

To be grateful is to admit that our lives—and the people in them—are a gift. It is to acknowledge our own vulnerability and our deep need for connection. At its heart, gratitude signals an awareness of the grace that imbues our lives, allowing us to weather the most challenging of times and circumstances. It reminds us that this is not the end. Even in loss, we can acknowledge the richness of what we have received—and we can hope for the future.

Like so many other people this year, this will be a tough Thanksgiving for our family. Instead of adding an extra leaf to the table to accommodate the kids and their overflow crowds, I’ll be arranging only four settings, appropriately distanced. Two children will not be making it home for dinner this year. Mike’s spot will be empty.

But we will Zoom with extended family, and we will laugh, and we will tell stories. And through it all I will try to remain thankful—for the gift of a wonderful marriage to a great guy, and for our four children, who continue to remind me of Mike, whether by a facial expression, a turn of phrase, or by outrageously goofy behaviour.

When our oldest son was over recently to help me with some gardening, for example, he had one tree nearly felled before he realized he was cutting down my favourite lilac rather than the sizeable weeds that had sprung up from wandering maple keys.

Jake’s face showed his chagrin when he realized his mistake, his desire to help his mother having turned instead into something he worried would upset me. But suddenly his expression turned to one of amusement. “Hey,” he said, “didn’t Dad mow down your hydrangea the week after you planted it?”

When I confirmed the memory, Jake tilted his head and smiled. “Just like Dad!” he said. Yes, I thought, you certainly are. And so are your siblings.

This year, there will only be four places at our Thanksgiving table. Our lives are upended and not at all what we would have anticipated or asked for.

And in the midst of it all, I will choose to be grateful.

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Stephen Marchment is an assistant registrar for the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of St. Michael’s College. He is currently working on a Master of Education degree in Student Services in Higher Education at OISE. Steve has worked for post-secondary institutions across Canada and internationally for more than 10 years. USMC is the sixth post-secondary institution he has called home. 

Looking at Your Hands

Baby Ollie Marchment discovers his hands

On June 7 of this year, my wife and I welcomed our son Ollie into the world. My wife was in labour for just a little over 31 hours. To say she did an amazing job is an understatement; she laboured for about 20 hours at home before we decided to transfer to the hospital with our midwife. But this Insight Out isn’t going to be about giving birth in a hospital during a pandemic, or about how the first time Ollie and I met I was wearing a mask—that could be a whole other post. This Insight Out is about one simple question: When was the last time you just looked at your hands?

My wife and I didn’t really get a lot of direct in-person support from family or friends in the first few weeks of being new parents because of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. We simply couldn’t; there were still many unknowns about COVID-19 and its effect on infants. We were advised by multiple health care professionals to be very cautious about who we let around our son in the early week—even grandparents. This was difficult for us and our parents. But let’s fast-forward to when he was about three months old so that I can share the following story.

I was just finishing up a meeting when my wife called me downstairs to see what Ollie was doing. We both looked at each other in wonderment and laughed because Ollie was simply looking at his hands for the first time. He had just realized that these things that kept floating in front of his face and going into his mouth were in fact attached to him! It was a wonderful moment to share with my wife, to be present for that little triumph and moment of new self-awareness.

So, let’s rephrase the question: When was the last time you appreciated a very small part of your day?

I’ve been reflecting on that moment a lot as the months have passed. I feel that Ollie was not just discovering his hands but was trying to teach us a lesson: Appreciate the small stuff, because the small stuff can make the biggest difference. Now that Ollie has discovered his hands he can suck his thumbs, grab onto things and push himself up during tummy time, grab his pacifier out of his mouth. It’s all because he took a moment and pieced two and two together… he’s had his hands this whole time.

As we go further into October and we see news about a second wave and predictions of 1,000 cases a day in the coming weeks, I encourage you take a moment and appreciate the small stuff. Take a minute to breathe and think about a small thing you may not have given much attention to or taken for granted. Maybe it’s a new song you heard, or how your coffee tasted amazing this morning, or you heard from an old friend, or that you simply have the ability to wipe away a tear or two from a moment of sadness or a moment of laughter.

I try my hardest to keep as positive of an attitude as I can and bring that to work with me every day. I truly think we’re in this together and we need each other to succeed. Let’s take moments to be self-aware, to notice things we may have missed before, to be grateful for the small stuff, and to take care of each other.

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Roshni Mathews is a social responsibility enthusiast and student in the 202021 cohort of the Graduate Diploma in Social Responsibility and Sustainability.

Kathryn Cooper is Program Manager for the Graduate Diploma in Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of St. Michaels College, a Professor of CSR at Conestoga College and the President of the Sustainability Learning Centre.

Using Experiential Learning to Understand the Bigger Sustainability Picture

A bird's-eye view of farm plots

To some of us, the current pandemic is a warm-up for the climate crisis. For others, there is a direct connection between changing climate and infectious diseases.

Amid the roller coaster of pandemic cases, students in St. Mike’s Graduate Diploma in Social Responsibility and Sustainability were busy recently seeing the connection and designing a world that could adhere to the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5 degree C warming. Divided into Zoom teams, participants played the roles of World Governments, Clean Tech companies, Climate Activists and Fossil Fuel businesses in an international Climate Summit simulation. They learned first-hand the level of collaboration needed to make the planet the climate-stable and socially just place it needs to be. Topics on the debate floor included, “Can focusing on small changes leverage big results?” and “Can building new connections between stakeholders generate environmentally sustainable, socially just possibilities for all?”

These were heady questions for a Monday morning, but with the help of Climate Interactive’s En-ROADS Climate Simulator and the program’s own Climate Ambassador, Laura Lindberg, the group came away with important insights.

Developed jointly by Climate Interactive and MIT Sloans Sustainability Initiative, the En-ROADS simulator uses an intuitive interface carefully grounded in the best available science and calibrated against a wide range of existing integrated assessment, climate, and energy models. (En-ROADS stands for Energy Rapid Overview and Decision-Support.) Designed to inform and engage people about the transition to the low-carbon economy needed to address climate change, it is something anyone can use for free to better understand the actions needed to stop and reverse climate change. For instance, want to plant a billion trees to save the planet? If you are lucky, the global temperature might drop by 0.1 degree by 2060. Subsidize renewables? That is another 0.1 degree. If you feel we are getting nowhere fast, that’s the point.

“There is no ONE solution on climate action,” says student Tayna Thorpe, Senior Advisor, External Affairs and Communities, Rio Tinto, a participant in the program. “No single action is sufficient. Many levers are required to meet the 1.5 degree target. It truly is all-hands-on-deck time.”

 And that is why student Laura Lindberg chose to study the role of climate conversations and became an En-ROADS Climate Ambassador for her capstone project, the summative work for the CSR program. Lindberg, recently employed by PepsiCo in New York and Toronto, joined the program to better understand the impact of the climate crisis.

“I am increasingly concerned about the state of the climate and dire implications for our continued survival. To be honest, I find it difficult not to think about. I felt I needed to do something significant to help,” she notes. “I love presenting and facilitating, so when I found the En-ROADS simulation and training, I knew it would be a tool I could use to make a difference.” As the certified En-ROADS facilitator, Laura guided the climate role play by taking on the role of executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “It was the first time the En-ROADS Climate Summit had been delivered on Zoom…Companies around the world are beginning to use this tool for employee training and scenario planning. I am proud to be leading USMC’s introduction to this groundbreaking tool,” she says.

En-ROADS Control Panel – Climate Interactive – an informational chart developed by MIT Management

“We want participants in this program to challenge their worldview,” notes Kathryn Cooper. “We are living the unintended consequences of our unexamined assumptions about the environment, society and business. Participating in the simulation and role play engaged the cohort in an interactive, thought-provoking way. I think we learned that everyone has a role to play in addressing global climate change. None of us can solve this alone, and small measures won’t cut it. We are all part of a larger system and every policy lever needs to be pulled. Everyone reading this article has a role to play.”

After using the En-ROADS simulation, CSR participants understood at a deeper level which policies and strategies are more likely to have a big impact.

“Cross-industry and cross-sector partnerships are required to make significant environmental progress,” says Roshni Mathews, who took the free training sessions to become the En-ROADS facilitator for this exercise. “In this simulation, we all learned that collaboration, shared goals, and a willingness to be flexible for the greater good is key to making impact.”

About the Graduate Diploma in Social Responsibility & Sustainability:

For close to 20 years, the University of St. Michael’s College has been the go-to school in Canada to study Corporate Social Responsibility, an operational philosophy also known by a variety of other labels, including ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance), Corporate Citizenship, Social Purpose and Social Innovation. The program is renowned for blending Liberal Arts critical thought, social justice, and practical problem solving with expert instructors and mentored capstone projects.  In 2019, Dr. David Sylvester awarded the first President’s Capstone Project Awards.

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Dr. David Sylvester is the 8th President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. A professor of medieval social and economic history, he holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. from Fordham University, New York City and has taught for three decades in universities in Canada and the United States. For the 50th post in the InsightOut series, Dr. Sylvester offers special greetings for Michaelmas. 

Rev. Dr. Matthew Durham is a Roman Catholic priest and experienced hospice palliative care administrator. An alumnus, Fr. Matthew earned an MDiv and a DMin at the Faculty of Theology, and is currently the Executive Director, Hospice Palliative Care and Community Development for SE Health. Formerly, he was the Director of Community Engagement & Advancement at The Hospice of Windsor & Essex County Inc. This article was co-authored with Hana Irving, MA.

Helping the Most Vulnerable at the End of Life

A hospice caregiver clasps the hands of an elderly patient

While discussions of how to create a system that supports Canadians who wish to live and age at home have been at the forefront of health care agendas for decades, this discussion has only become more necessary in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussions of viral spread, social and physical distancing, the importance of wearing a mask, washing hands, and disinfecting surfaces to prevent infection have become commonplace in households nationwide. At the same time, as a society, we are becoming more aware of the social and economic disparities that have put certain vulnerable populations at greater risk.

Ubiquitous yet largely ignored, in every major city there are thousands of Canadians who are homeless and lacking access to adequate resources to follow public health guidelines about social distancing and hygiene (Jadidzadeh & Kneebone, 2020). Furthermore, people experiencing homelessness are often at greater risk for virus transmission due to crowded living conditions in temporary housing or shelters, or congregate settings, and overall face a 5–10 times greater mortality risk than the general population (Tsai & Wilson, 2020). Those risks only increase for individuals with compromised immune systems or who may be approaching the end of life.

For people experiencing homelessness, access to palliative care has traditionally been a challenge, which has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hudson, Shulman and Stone (2017) note that

the delivery of high-quality care in mainstream settings for homeless people is complex for many reasons, including mistrust of health services, isolation, the impact and chaos associated with substance or alcohol misuse and, for some, alcohol-related early cognitive impairment. These factors, alongside the relatively young age at which homeless people may benefit from palliative care, means access to hospice and care homes is currently rare. As a result, homeless people often receive inadequate care and support. (p. 54)

This is a problem that Journey Home Hospice has been addressing for a little more than two years as Toronto’s only hospice serving homeless and vulnerably housed individuals. The hospice, which is a partnership involving Saint Elizabeth Foundation, Hospice Toronto, and Inner City Health Associates, provides 24/7 hospice palliative care, including complementary therapies to patients at the end of their lives, with a typical admission having a prognosis of approximately three months. More than pain and symptom management, Journey Home Hospice also offers formerly homeless patients the opportunity to experience “home,” sometimes for the first time in decades. The small clinical staff, complemented by specially trained volunteers, often become a “found” family for patients who are typically estranged from their loved ones. Volunteers especially fill an important role: reading stories aloud, singing favourite songs, cooking memorable dishes, playing cards, or even watching movies with patients.

Equally important, Journey Home Hospice becomes a place of healing, even as patients approach the end of life: regular meals; a clean, safe place to stay; coordinated pain and symptom management; programs such as art and music therapy, legacy work, and a visiting dog program all help patients to reconnect with their humanity after years of hardship and struggle. The psychosocial and spiritual care program also helps patients reconnect with loved ones if they wish and provides a welcoming space to express their faith or find a connection with their chosen religion.

Every patient who has stayed at Journey Home Hospice comes with a story. As each patient begins to feel at home, they will often share their story with a trusted team member or volunteer, and each life history comes with its own unique heartache. Whether fleeing an abusive family or relationship, struggling to cope with mental health issues and addiction, or facing financial setbacks from a divorce or workplace accident, our patients never intended to be homeless. However, once they found themselves without a permanent address, the struggle to find or maintain employment, save enough money for deposits on a new apartment, or even access social services became almost insurmountable challenges for many.

For many persons who have experienced homelessness, the overwhelming shame and fear associated with appearing “needy and dependent” prevents both men and women from asking for help. This is only compounded by our generally negative view of dependence and aging as a society. A recent study in Montreal found that individuals aged 50–64 were the largest growing demographic of the homeless population, as ageism often made it difficult to find new employment, and age prevented them from accessing social services and support programs designed for older Canadians (Burns, Sussman and Bourgeois-Guérin, 2018).

Journey Home Hospice becomes even more important in this context as a beacon of hope for patients, and as a potential teaching and learning facility on a local, national and international scale. Both from listening to our patients’ experiences and leading research into the factors affecting homelessness, we know that it is largely structural issues that cause and perpetuate homelessness. We are socially conditioned with capitalist values that emphasize individual responsibility, work ethic, and suggest that the only factor that determines success or failure is an individual’s motivation to work towards a goal. In reality, there are political and social factors that shape individuals’ access to opportunities, education, resources, and the necessary support and social services. Poverty and homelessness are closely tied factors that are caused by an inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunity (Murphy and Eghaneyan, 2018).

Our hospice is creating a truly safe space for people who have experienced homelessness, with a specially trained team able to respond to their unique life stories, physical, psychosocial and spiritual needs, as well as to offer care in a flexible environment responsive to the needs of the individual. COVID-19 has demonstrated more than ever that health care solutions in Canada must be innovative and responsive; we are proud that in the midst of this pandemic, not only have we been able to offer patients a safe respite at the end of their lives, we are also expanding to serve more people in the future. Currently, Journey Home Hospice is renovating our existing site to add six more hospice beds and hopes to be open in late 2020.


Burns, V.F., Sussman, T & Bourgeois-Guérin (2018). Later-life homelessness as disenfranchised grief. Canadian Journal on Aging, 37(2), 171–184.

Hudson, B., Shulman, C. & Stone, P. (2017). ‘Nowhere else will take him’ – Palliative care and homelessness. European Journal of Palliative Care (24)2. 54.

Jadidzadeh, A. & Kneebone, R. (August 2020). Homeless shelter flows in Calgary and the potential impact of COVID-19. Canadian Public Policy. S160–S165.

Murphy, E.R. & Eghaneyan, B.H. (2017). Understanding the phenomenon of older adult homelessness in North America: a qualitative interpretive meta-synthesis. British Journal of Social Work, 48, 2361–2380.

Tsai, J. & Wilson, M. (April 2020). COVID-19: a potential public health problem for homeless populations. (Vol 5). e186–e187.

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Chiara Greco is a fourth-year student studying Philosophy and English at St. Mikes College. Since her second year she has been involved with student journalism and harbours a deep passion for the field. She is currently the Editor in Chief of  The Mike, our official student newspaper.

The Importance of Student Journalism to Campus Life

A stack of newspapers

When I reflect on the importance of student journalism, especially in a time when we have been struck with a global pandemic, my immediate reaction is to create a defence of the field. To rake up all the reasons in my head why student journalism is important and worthwhile. While I can’t be sure where this response came from, I am sure that many people question the choice of being a student journalist—of the added stress without perhaps the large reward or payoff, or even exposure, that professional journalists get in breaking stories. While I’ve been told the career path I have chosen may be a “dying field” I’ve still prospered through my experience and, if anything, this global pandemic has shown me exactly why student journalism is so important.

In a time of social distancing the importance of staying connected through stories, media, and news is so pertinent. Our current global crisis has unveiled the dependence we all have on media and news to connect us. I’ll be the first to admit that virtual living—and learning, for that matter—can be very impersonal, and presents a challenge to most. But the job of student journalists is to bridge this gap between virtual life and ‘normal’ life for students across the university community. Student journalism is a pillar of university life on campus, and with our new-found virtual world, student journalists are those who will form the path towards online community. Stories are the basis of life, the overarching connection we all have to each other, and it is through journalism that these stories get communicated.

While my experience will not speak for everyone, I understand the importance of representing the masses, of being a voice to and for the unheard, and of cultivating a personal experience through our shared stories. Student newspapers like The Mike are an avenue in which this cultivation takes place—and, frankly, it’s hard to imagine university life without student newspapers or the journalists who staff them.

My time at St. Michael’s College has been defined by my involvement with The Mike, starting at the beginning of my second year. From working on the news team to becoming the Editor in Chief, I’ve understood that student journalists have a nuanced responsibility to their peers. We have a responsibility not only to hold our school accountable but also to be a reliable source of student life and news. Integrity, facts, and accountability summarize the three pillars which have come to define my experience of student journalism, and they will continue to guide me through my role with student publications.

Over the summer as I prepared for my role as Editor-in-Chief  I faced many challenges in reinventing the paper as an online periodical. The future of The Mike fell into my hands, and while it may have seemed like a large task to take on, especially with the challenges of the pandemic, I was privileged to represent the St. Mike’s community. As I transitioned into my role I began to prepare for things none of my predecessors had to ready for—how to run a printed student newspaper during a global pandemic. With no precedent,  changing the course of The Mike meant I had to evaluate the immense role student newspapers have within the university community. To put it simply, without student newspapers one of the most crucial aspects of student life would be taken away. In this way, The Mikes achievements and success translate directly into St. Mike’s overall successes and achievements.

Decorative banner for The Mike: By Students, For Students

For as long as can be remembered The Mike has delivered students with a print version of the paper across campus newsstands. But the newspaper has been forced to make some hard decisions, such as forgoing our printed paper for now. But since The Mike’s inception our intake of news as students has changed drastically. While an online publication may take away the feeling of holding a physical copy of your work, we now rely more than ever on online avenues to give us news and connection, so The Mikes online home has gone through a complete 180.  We’ve changed our website and delivery to allow more students to access and stay up to date with our publication and newsletters.

It is the duty of student journalists to deliver their colleagues’ voices on campus. The importance of cultivating a community across borders is exactly why student journalism is so valuable, because without it the distance between us would be far exacerbated. Student journalists, like professionals in the field, need to become experts on our own community. We need to become a voice for those students who may otherwise not be represented on campus. But this wide range of representation is only accomplished if students contribute their voices. The more voices published in The Mike, the more the diverse and accurate the representation of our community. So while a printed copy of the paper would be an ultimate goal, we have to remember the importance of accessibility and inclusivity when representing the student community. In a time of social distance, it only makes sense for student journalists to present student life as such.

While this pandemic has taught me many things, both good and bad, navigating my role as a student journalist and Editor in Chief of The Mike will perhaps be one of my biggest takeaways. Student journalism is at the heart of every university and college campus. It’s what connects us all.

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Betty Noakes has been a proud employee of St. Michael’s College since 2009. She has served as Alumni Affairs Associate, responsible for numerous alumni and community events for many years, and, most recently, as Advancement Associate, responsible for donations processing and donor stewardship. Betty earned her BA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from St. Mike’s/UofT in 2013, crossing the stage at Convocation Hall at the age of 50, finishing off studies that were postponed in the 1980s. One of the greatest joys of Betty’s work has been interacting with and getting to know many St. Michael’s students, alumni and friends. Betty is also one of the human caretakers of Toby, the 11-year-old Newfoundland/Labrador dog and, most recently, nine-week-old Baco the kitten. 

A Family’s Best Friend Gets a Pandemic Pal

Photograph of Toby in the river

Toby, our big brown Newfoundland and Labrador mixed-breed dog, came to us 10 years ago when he was just a year old. We found him on Kijiji a few days after our family dog Jake passed away. Losing Jake, our family felt anchorless. We had always had a dog, and we felt so incomplete. Our cat Luke missed having his dog friend to chase around the house, to torment, and to cuddle with during the day when the humans were away. We wanted a dog who was large and gentle and who would enjoy time with our family at our cottage on the Crowe River. A dog who loved water would be best, and we thought love of water would be ingrained into a Newfoundland and Labrador’s DNA. We were right about that!

Toby’s previous home had been in a high-rise apartment in the GTA where, during the day and for most of the night, he was kept in a crate. His previous owner had to move and so put Toby up for sale. Lucky for our us! We like to think lucky for Toby as well. From the very beginning Toby loved us and we loved him. It wasn’t long before he became well known in our neighbourhood from his walks and visits to the local park, as he would greet everyone with a tail wag and a smile and could get along with most other dogs. For the past several summers, Toby has become infamous on his stretch of the river by our cottage where he stands in the water for hours on end “fishing,” often mistaken for a bear by passing boat traffic.

Toby and his cat Luke were best buddies, and often curled up together to sleep in Toby’s favourite chair. After long days at work or at school each of us would be greeted with such excitement! It was as if he had been waiting for our return all day. These greetings and the kisses that came with them were magic, and helped us leave the stresses of our days at the door. Evening time was always a flurry of supper preparations and clearing, homework, chores, and a walk for Toby. Afterwards, when things quieted down for the night, Toby would stretch at our feet and receive pats and scratches, with Luke snuggling in my lap as we read or watched TV.

As the years ebbed on, Toby was always at or under our feet or by our sides. When he sensed we were sad or when things were not going our way, he would put his big chin on our laps or rub against our legs and we would automatically reach out for the comfort of patting him, without even realizing we were doing it. Toby always seemed to know when anyone was sad and needed an extra bit of his gentle, unconditional love.

It’s been 10 years since Toby arrived, and our two sons have grown. One of Toby’s human brothers moved away and Luke the kitty recently went over the rainbow bridge. These changes came in the winter of 2019 and were hard on Toby. He missed the human who grew up with him and he kept looking in the vacated room, sometimes just sighing heavily and lying on the floor of that room, waiting for his brother’s return. When his cat brother passed on, Toby was extremely sad, looking for Luke in all his favourite spots, and cuddling with the cat’s abandoned stuffed toys. Toby was depressed and seemed to lose his enthusiasm for things that used to give him so much joy. We tried to pat him even more and show him extra love, but he just seemed so sad, so despondent, although he went along wagging his tail, likely for our sakes.

Then suddenly, about six months ago, things changed again in Toby’s world. We humans stopped going out every day and stayed home most of the time. All of the sudden there were more walks and more pats on the head! We humans who were left in the house, however, seemed sad and worried to Toby, as we sat more in front of the TV news shaking our heads. Toby became even more attentive to us, sensing we needed to pat him, and hoping we needed to go out for another walk soon. It seemed to help Toby’s sadness having us around so much, and we sure know it’s been a big comfort to pat him, to walk him, and to look into his big kind brown eyes full of unconditional love for us. We pat him and we feel our worries ebb away; worry and concern for his needs takes us out of ourselves a little bit.

Photograph of Baco

Though Toby has been busy looking after us the past six months, he still seemed a bit sad, and still went to the same spots looking for Luke the cat. But recently, the opportunity to give a new kitten a home presented itself. We jumped at the chance to give a home to a cute little kitten born in a barn in a vineyard. We’ve named the kitten Baco, after the delicious Baco Noir which hails from his birthplace.

For now, Toby and Baco are sniffing at—and closely keeping an eye on—each other.  Over the past few days, Toby has an extra spring in his step, although for now it may be the prospect of humans leaving open the door to the room where the cat food is, giving him the opportunity to gobble it up before we or Baco know what is happening. Or it may be the realization that in Baco he has a new friend to commiserate with about the humans, to share toys and to cuddle with—and eventually to keep him company when the days return that prompt the humans go back to being away from home for hours on end.

For now, though, Toby is delighted to lie at our feet and let us pat him while he sniffs at the kitten swatting at his nose from my lap.

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Mike Czobit is the director of the Office of the Principal, and the coordinator of SMC One. Before joining St. Michael’s in 2017, he was an editor and writer at World Vision Canada.

There Will Be Cake 

Photograph of a cake with a fondant beret on top

Every year, before the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas meets for its first lecture in September, we have an opening reception and something we call the “Beret’ing In.” To the tune of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” each incoming Gilson Seminar student approaches the lectern in Charbonnel Lounge and receives a black beret, officially joining the seminar. After every student has been beret’ed in, cake is served—a special kind of cake: raspberry beret cake.

This tradition is a night of fun and introductions before the hard work of the Gilson Seminar begins. The course, which is split into two half-term classes over the course of the year, is one of three first-year seminars offered by St. Michael’s College as part of our SMC One program. The other two seminars are the McLuhan Seminar in Creativity and Technology and the Boyle Seminar in Scripts and Stories.

These seminars are among the most popular first-year courses at the University of Toronto, owing to a number of factors. For example, each is taught by a member of our talented St. Michael’s faculty in a small class setting that fosters fascinating discussions and close friendships with fellow classmates, and each features an international learning experience. In the Boyle Seminar, students are invited to travel to Dublin after the April exam period. A trip to Silicon Valley takes place during reading week for the McLuhan Seminar. And the Gilson Seminar’s second half-course has its destination in its title: The Gilson Seminar in Faith and Rome.

For most people, international travel these days has been ruled out for health and safety reasons, and for the impracticality of visiting a country when it likely requires a quarantine upon arrival. But, back in February, before the present conditions of international travel took hold, there still was the possibility to go to Rome or Dublin. In fact, that was the plan for both the Gilson and Boyle classes (the McLuhan Seminar had traveled to Silicon Valley last November, before anyone here had really heard of the virus).

In the Principal’s Office, we are responsible for organizing all three SMC One trips. Throughout January and February, we proceeded as usual, preparing students by holding Safety Abroad workshops, requesting traveler information, and making airfare arrangements. We worked with our partners in Dublin and Rome to finalize details for each trip, and in the case of Rome, arranged for tickets for the Pope’s Wednesday Audience. Everything was proceeding as it had every year, except, as everyone knows now, this wouldn’t be a normal year.

By late February, my office was paying particular attention to reports of COVID-19 cases emerging worldwide. When the first few cases surfaced in northern Italy, we were concerned but hopeful that the country would get control of the virus. Reflecting on that now makes me realize how little we all knew and how naïve my optimism was. Day by day, in early March, the number of infected patients rose. Not just in Europe, but also at home. These developments worried our SMC One students, who began asking my office questions about the safety of our planned trips. At the time, we honestly didn’t know what the virus would mean, but we assured our students that safety would be paramount and that the trips could be postponed. Then, on March 12 that happened. The University decided that due to safety concerns, all student travel would be postponed until further notice. This was the right decision.

After we unwound the arrangements for the planned trips, my office had a different task to attend to, which was to start recruiting for next year’s SMC One seminars. When we promote these classes, we do the opposite of shying away from discussing their travel components. But during this recruitment period, getting on a plane to go somewhere far away seemed like the least desirable thing to do. At the same time, the 2020–21 SMC One seminars were months away and the situation in March would change—and, to be optimistic, be much, much better.

We pushed forward with our recruitment effort, inviting incoming U of T students to apply for a spot in our seminars. We expected that we would struggle to fill the classes. We expected that SMC One would have lost its popularity. What happened was something different.

When the application window closed on June 15, we had received the highest number of applications for SMC One in the three years their present format has existed. In fact, we doubled the total number of applications over our previous best. Our incoming students were not deterred by news reports of the virus or of how international travel will never be the same. They reacted to the closing of borders with a greater desire to see them open again. What they want, and what classes such as SMC One will provide, is a return to better times when a desire to explore and experience life and culture in different parts of the world can enrich a university education.

As the new academic year begins, we have begun planning for our SMC One classes. Different this year is that all three will take place in the Winter term, with the hope that all will be able to be in-person or have a larger in-person component than is safe in the Fall term. It is too early to know what international travel will look like in 2021, but we’re hopeful that conditions will improve.

Every year, the Gilson Seminar begins with berets and cakes. We hope to see this tradition resume in this coming year’s Gilson class. And when the cake is finally served, it will have the double meaning: welcoming a new class to St. Michael’s College and also celebrating how far we’ve come through difficult times. When we began our recruitment effort for SMC One in the spring, we were pessimistic about our prospects of filling these classes. Our students showed we should have felt otherwise.

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Rachel Ottenbreit is a St. Mikes alumna and former staff member, and is currently studying theology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome.

Doubling Our Joys and Halving Our Sorrows

Image of Alumna Rachel Ottenbreit on the Spanish Steps in Rome.

In Italy, the lockdown began in March. Things closed fast, and although it felt like a total shutdown from the beginning, every week brought new restrictions. Parks, schools, churches, and businesses were closed; travel, group meetings, and “playing” (not ironic quotes: that’s the word the ordinance used) were banned; we could leave our houses only for emergencies, and then alone and with a paper justifying what we were doing on the street. Jane Austen might have said we were “in the middle before we knew we’d begun,” and Shakespeare that “there are more kinds of lockdown and quarantine, Horatio…”

The consequences of these closures are so varied. Surprisingly there were unexpected joys. Yes, although dolphins may or may not have returned to the canals of Venice (reports vary and I didn’t see it myself), those canals are definitely clearer and wildlife have been exploring our cleaner, quieter world. Joys erupted on a personal level too. I got to watch my aunt’s wedding in June and one of my best friend’s this last week. I couldn’t have flown home for either, so those live streams were pure, unexpected gifts.

In Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos writes that soldiers at the front cannot desert: “A chest is a chest when you get to the trenches. And one less counts!” That is, in the trenches you can literally take hits for others. Once you’re there, whoever you are, you do whatever you can do because whatever you can do makes a difference.

This is not to say that I’ve taken many hits myself. I’ve been very fortunate to live with other people, good friends, in the middle of this. We have good WiFi and a garden we can go to for fresh air and exercise. And our university bent over backwards for us (even couriering library books we requested, as long as that was possible).

But being restricted earlier and more severely than other countries, missing more than one family member who planned to visit this spring, helping people pack up and go or find ways to stay because they couldn’t leave, and grieving with close friends, many of them, who’ve lost family members and can’t go home…yes, while there were unexpected joys, there has also been an expected sorrow.

I started checking in with friends back home in their own trenches. Between the people I wrote to and those who, reciprocally discovering the same idea, wrote to me, throughout this time I’ve been in touch with more old friends than any time before. Though officially isolated, I knew I wasn’t alone, and I hope they did too. This has been another joy.

For me, as for many believers around the world, it was incredibly difficult to go without religious services—in my case, Mass and Confession. But it’s also been incredibly moving to see Pope Francis doing everything he can so that we Catholics, we anyone, aren’t alone. He really shouts it from the rooftops: we are not alone and we need never be. To remember him walking through Rome’s tragically empty streets praying for all those suffering, and giving his hopeful, consoling “to the city and to the world” blessing still calls forth thankful tears. Thats the front line, and I’m so thankful that he’s there.

All in all there are so many blessings. It has become much more obvious that we’re in this, in life, together. We don’t need a pandemic to take hits for each other. We can double our joys and halve our sorrows together. In the middle of this mess, that’s something to be grateful for.

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Cianna Choo and Jessica Sorbara are this years Orientation coordinators. Cianna is a 3rd-year student majoring in Neuroscience and Molecular Genetics and Microbiology, while Jessica is a 4th-year English and History major. They have been involved with Orientation throughout their time at St. Mikes and, as they say, becoming a part of Orientation has undoubtedly been one the best decisions weve made throughout our time at UofT so far.

Welcoming the Class of 2024 Virtually

Photograph of silver U S M C balloons with blue balloons in the background

Welcoming incoming students to the St. Mike’s campus and university life at UofT is always exciting and rewarding, but this year we are even more excited to be greeting students in a new, innovative way, adjusting to life amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizing a virtual Orientation for upwards of 1000 incoming students was definitely not something we expected when we started to plan our events in April, and we have had to adapt and reconstruct mostly all of our original plans. We have faced challenges of accessibility, social distancing guidelines, and scheduling with people located around the world. With the changing and complicated circumstances around us, we were constantly in a cycle of adjusting and re-imagining our plans for Orientation 2020. Because we are unable to have a traditional in-person Orientation we have had to think of fun events that would substitute for our usual elaborate on-campus activities. While changing plans and adapting to virtual methods of Orientation is extremely challenging, it has also allowed us to explore so many different delivery methods, activities and events that we would have never thought about before.

Something new and exciting this year has been the shift from Orientation being one week of amazing events and activities in September, just before school starts, to organizing an entire summer leading up to that week. Planning Orientation has been both a challenging and exciting process, trying to figure out ways to build the St. Mike’s community with incoming students who have never been on campus before. With the transition to an online approach, we have had to find new ways to make sure students can feel—through their computer screens—the welcoming, positive energy that radiates throughout St. Mike’s.

Throughout this summer the two of us, along with our amazing Orientation team, have had to find a way to create a virtual community; thankfully, we’ve managed to do that through our SMC Online Orientation page on Quercus and our various social media pages. Our SMC Online Orientation page is filled with modules introducing different programs, professors, clubs, events, and all aspects of life at SMC.

We have also been able to interact with students directly via our Summer Workshop Series—a new concept we are both so happy to have made possible this summer. Wanting to make sure the incoming class was prepared for their first year of university, we took a moment to reflect on our own first-year experiences and all the questions we had asked regarding university life. Our Orientation team then created and facilitated the Summer Workshop Series sessions, where we would share our own experiences and advice to help incoming students with their transition into university. We got the chance to host some amazing sessions, including ones offering ideas on how to get involved at St. Mike’s, study and time management tips, ways to explore Toronto, and so many more!

Even though we have had to eliminate some of our traditional Orientation events, we were able to create such amazing aspects of Orientation we would have never thought about previously. We also began thinking about all the different ways we wanted students to get excited about Orientation before the week itself. We wanted to make sure this incoming class wasn’t missing out on the sense of spirit that we have at St. Mike’s, so we had to get creative. We have introduced many contests this summer on our social media pages to get students engaged—learning the Hoikity Choik, getting excited about bed races, and showing off SMC spirit! We have also been extremely lucky to work with an amazing group of leaders and marshals who, throughout the entire summer, have shown everyone how much SMC means to them. By facilitating events and creating videos about campus, TikToks, Instagram takeovers, and so much more, everyone on our Orientation team has shown the incoming students how amazing and welcoming the community is at St. Mike’s.

Organizing a week of fun, informative events online was a completely new experience for the two of us, but it was something that got us to think about Orientation in a completely new way. With all the changes that have come our way, we are so excited to meet our incoming class and to see that SMC spirit—even if it is through our computer screens!

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Dr. Stephanie Rutherford is an alumna of St. Michaels College (BA 1997) and is now an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment at Trent University. Her work is interdisciplinary, focusing on the intersections among the environmental humanities, animal studies, and cultural geography. She is the author or co-editor of three books that consider these themes, the most recent of which is Historical Animal Geographies (2018). She is currently writing a new book on the history of wolves in Canada for McGill-Queens University Press. You can learn more about her work here.

Letting Go of the Treadmill of Productivity; Or How to Finish a Book in a Pandemic

Photograph of Dr Rutherford pointing at a photo of a wolf

The book was already late when the pandemic hit. Of course, being late is nothing new to most academics; we are often scrambling to meet—and missing—writing deadlines. Teaching and administrative work often take precedence during the term; bite-sized articles seem more doable over big projects.

But this was a big project that needed finishing. I’ve been working on this book about wolves for about eight years now. Eight years is a long time for any project; it starts to feel like it’s strangling you. The funding has elapsed. People keep asking when the book is going to be done. I started to be called the wolf lady, and not just behind my back. It was time to move on.

Last year I decided it was a good idea to seek a book contract to impose a deadline since I couldn’t seem to meet my own. It seemed like a smart thing to do—adding pressure from an outside source—as if the reason I hadn’t completed the book was out of slothfulness instead of being pulled in a variety of academic and administrative directions. It’s the curse of academia: you are never doing enough, publishing enough, or reading enough. It’s a feeling bred in PhD programs that lasts throughout your career, if you let it. Shame is not only the purview of my Irish aunties; it’s also the handmaiden of neoliberal academic life.

So, I got my contract and I had a June 2020 deadline. Then the pandemic hit. My 9-year old started school from home and in many ways that became my full-time job and my actual job began happening in smaller chunks and much later at night.

Of course, this has been the reality for many parents, and the effects can be quite gendered. For instance, there have already been a fair number of stories about how women academics have slowed their research output while men have sped theirs up during COVID. Guiliana Viglione in a Nature article tells us women are starting fewer new projects. Diane Peters in University Affairs writes that women’s research has been “squeezed” by the pandemic. I have received invitations to complete three surveys meant to measure my own gendered lack of productivity, which have only succeeded in making me feel that the authors of these surveys are much more productive than I am. My fabled life of the mind has been replaced by the life of “Mom, can I have a snack”? So it goes.

But I have discovered, amid a fair amount of frustration, that I can work in new ways to accommodate our present reality. They aren’t ideal; right now, I often write in short chunks, bookended by swims and bike rides with the best kid I know. And I’m lucky. I don’t have to do this while worrying about my job, or my partner’s job. It also helps that I have the security of tenure. My research can be put on hold in ways that more precarious faculty could never consider. Neoliberal academia once again.

But I’ve realized something that feels significant in my own understanding of the kind of academic life I want to lead. If my project was new, this approach wouldn’t be tenable. It seems those eight years of researching and pondering might, in this strange time, be an advantage rather than a liability. Put differently, maybe it pays a little to be late (don’t tell my mom) and engage in a kind slow scholarship, one that allows for a capacious openness to the kinds of ideas that might sometimes be missed when the treadmill of academic production has to be so very fast. At the very least it allows you to dig deep. In this way of thinking, instead of too long, eight years might seem like just about the right time, at least for me and at least with this project. The pandemic graced me with the ability to let go of the shame that goes with an obsessive emphasis on academic productivity, and embrace being present for myself and my family, as well as my work. In doing so, I learned to love those wolves again, which is really how this whole project started.

It turns out that letting go of that shame was perhaps just what I need to do. Just before writing this short reflection, I completed the draft of the book, late again but done this time. It feels great; it’s time for someone else to worry about it. So now I’m going to go enjoy another swim with my kid, because as Rabbi Harold Kushner famously noted “No one ever said on their deathbed ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.”

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Laurie Morris is communications director at the University of St. Michaels College and the proud owner of a Conklin Carnival t-shirt. She holds a B.A. in English from UofT and a certificate in Corporate Social Responsibility from St. Michaels. 

Do You Want to Go Faster?!?!?

Two photographs, one of Laurie at the CNE in 1977, one from the 2018 CNE

In the five months since most of the country went into collective lockdown, there have been countless memes and chin-stroking think pieces about the effect of COVID-19 on our perception of the passage of time. March went by in a millisecond, April lasted 1100 days and now, according to the Gregorian calendar at least, the end of summer is upon us. But how will we know the summer’s over if we can’t go to the Ex?

For as long as I can remember, going to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto has been a welcome but bittersweet segue between seasons. Even when I lived in New York, I’d factor the dates into my vacation calendar. It would never be the primary reason for a return visit to Toronto, but it never fell off the radar either. The CNE was something that kept me strangely anchored to “home.”

I’m sure most of us have a mental reel of Exhibition highlights. For me, it includes Holly Hobby doll prizes, huge boxes of Double Bubble gum (100 pieces at once!!) and the Polar Express guy who keeps asking if you want to go faster. And, of course, the thrill of discovery in the “oddities and novelty” factor—the invisible dog, Labatt Blue tube socks and, more recently, a larger-than-life sculpture of Justin Trudeau made entirely of butter.

Butter sculpture of Justin Trudeau

But when it comes down to it, the lure of the CNE (at least for me) was less about what actually happened there and more about the promise of one last chance to exhaust the potential of summer, complete with corn dogs and top hats emblazoned with glitter. A trip to the Ex offered an opportunity to embrace simple, silly pleasures and a brief distraction from the more serious business of “getting down to business” in the Fall.

COVID-19 has challenged us in unexpected ways. Among other things, it’s called us to be flexible, patient and quick to realign expectations to find the best path forward—arguably some of the same skills required to scale the shifting steps of the Fun House.

But as much as the virus has us taught us about masking, distancing and cleaning, it’s also given us the opportunity to be creative and impressively resilient. Not nearly as satisfying as corn dogs, but important to recognize nonetheless. Many of the usual milestones and markers that we’ve depended on to bridge transitions and provide a sense of renewal don’t work well in a time of social distance and sanitization.

So this year, we have to draw on lessons learned from CNEs past and COVID present. As we head into Fall, give yourself permission to embrace silly, simple pleasures and to delight in the smallest things. The gates of the CNE are temporarily closed but we can still make the trip.

(Contributor’s note: No invisible dogs were harmed in the making of this blog post.)

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Anthony De Feo is the Programs Coordinator at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College. He began his time with the Faculty of Theology back in November of 2019, taking over for Catherine Mulroney. He graduated with his Honours B.A. in Religious Studies and Italian from McMaster University and his Master of Divinity degree from USMC. He lives in Stoney Creek, ON with his wife, Cristina, and their three-year-old daughter, Catarina.

Rethinking How We Do Things

Family portrait

Five a.m. alarm clock: I sulkily hit the snooze button and slowly roll out of bed, ready to begin my journey to the office in Toronto. The train leaves promptly at 7:20 a.m. from Aldershot station, about a 20-minute drive from my house in Stoney Creek. To make it to the train on time so I am in the office by 9 a.m., I leave the house no later than 6:45, providing time for a proper parking spot and to load up my PRESTO before the train leaves. Shower, get dressed, eat a quick breakfast, and out the door I go; then on the train to Union Station, where the second “adventure” of getting onto the TTC awaits. I get off at Bay Station and hit the Tim’s on Wellesley to get my morning cup of coffee, then on my way to Alumni Hall. Emil is usually already hard at work, ready to greet me as I saunter past his office, stopping for a brief chat about the previous evenings’ Leafs game or how neither of our children slept the night. The day usually starts with checking the many emails that came in overnight, from students asking about information on their courses and reaffirmations that they are on the right track. Diana comes in not too long after, and the three of us chat a bit before getting “lost” in our work; though, before long one of us would usually ask “Is it lunch time yet?” as we couldn’t wait to go to our favourite lunch hot spot: EATALY! As you can imagine, the afternoons were a little harder to get through because of having eaten delicious food and especially after a bombolone (Italian doughnut). However, we got through the days easily with the help of student drop-ins, conversations with faculty, and many phone calls and emails being made.

Fast forward to mid-March. No longer being woken up by a 5 a.m. alarm to remind me I had to catch a train, the commute from Stoney Creek to Toronto turned into the commute from my bedroom to my “living room office.” No longer worried about getting on a crowded GO train or TTC subway. The worry now was whether my internet would hold up for the Zoom appointments I had that day; or whether my three-year-old would make an appearance at our Faculty Council meeting. Face-to-face conversations with students turned into many back-and-forth emails; morning conversations between colleagues turned into many WhatsApp messages and frantic Zoom meetings to talk about what had to be done that week. It very soon became “the norm” and we had to adapt quickly to our new circumstances. Course planning in the lounge turned into strings of emails between me and TST, making sure we had the right course information for the upcoming academic year. Zoom became a normal way of communication between me and our students, meeting to plan for what courses they had to take in the Fall and Winter. Since the COVID pandemic has caused many to re-think how we do things, we as a Faculty of Theology have decided to run our Fall courses remotely, not yet knowing what the Winter term will hold. The hope is that we can return to some in-class learning, but only time will tell. For now, we will continue to forge ahead and are planning a virtual Welcome Day, many Zoom liturgies to come, and a possible online Convocation.

Only a handful of times does my daughter want to know what “papa is doing,” or decides to peek her head into one of my student appointments. I have the benefit of not having to juggle working from home and taking care of my daughter at the same time because my wife has also been home since March; this has been a blessing in disguise. Though there have been challenges, it has been nice to be home with my family and be able to experience some of the things I would otherwise miss while away at work. We are lucky to be able to enjoy nice lunches together outside on our deck in the beautiful summer weather; It isn’t EATALY, but it is perfetto!

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InsightOut: Connective Threads  

Emma Hambly is a communications coordinator at the University of St. Michaels College. She has a B.A. in English Literature and Classics from McGill University, and an M.A. in Literatures of Modernity from Ryerson University. In her spare time, she sews, makes collages, designs zines, writes comics, and looks for more hobbies.

Connective Threads

Photograph of hand-sewn radish and carrot plushies

Push the needle through two layers of fabric, then loop the thread back through itself to make a neat little knot before continuing. It’s a motion I’ve done thousands of times. But during quarantine it’s taken on a new kind of meaning.


I’m lucky to be surrounded by very creative friends and family. It seems that most of them have taken the quarantine as an opportunity to take up old hobbies or delve further into their current projects.

One friend is writing again for the first time in years, and another is 52,000 words into her science-fiction novel. My mum is painting more frequently than she has since art school, and my dad is creating collages in the same sketchbook he left half-finished 20 years ago. My best friend is cross-stitching patterns with dainty florals and profanities. My partner is cooking and baking new recipes and continues to feed our temperamental sourdough starter.

As for me, I’ve been sewing. A lot.

Since quarantine started, I’ve been sewing gifts for friends and family and donations for strangers in need. I’ve hand-sewn 16 plushies, embroidered a beret, and made 60 face masks. Our small apartment is bursting at the seams with sewing supplies. My recent online purchases from small Canadian sellers include glass eyes, sheets of vegan leather, metallic felt, and a wonderfully soft faux fur called “minky.” Right now, I’m working on a little bird for my aunt’s birthday and a plague doctor doll because…well, I suppose that one doesn’t need an explanation.

There’s something enormously comforting about a simple task that gives you a sense of control during uncertain times. For me, sewing is a magical combination of enjoyable, relaxing, and creative, a form of self-expression that helps to counteract pandemic-era feelings of anxiety and powerlessness.

My mum, who is a talented seamstress, taught me how to hand-sew when I was six. And since then, the slow but sure process of turning a few pieces of fabric and some thread into a three-dimensional object with its own personality hasn’t stopped enchanting me.

Quarantine may be filled with necessary constraints, but it has let me pursue my hobby unrestricted.

In the earlier days of the pandemic, I volunteered for Stitch4Corona, an initiative organized by U of T Engineering students to provide fabric masks to Torontonians in need of them, like seniors and the unhoused. With access to a sewing machine and basic skills, it felt like the least I could do. When I was able to expand my social bubble to include my parents, my mum offered to help.

Sitting at the dining room table on a rainy day, listening to the whir of the sewing machine, took me back to my childhood, watching my mum make my Halloween costumes. Year after year, she would create an impeccable, real version of whatever I had dreamed up: a furry tarantula with eight interconnected arms, a red rose with my face peeking out of the petals.

This time, though, we were working together. I sewed the fabric into its basic mask shape and stitched in the elastics. My mum gave each rectangle three neat pleats, and I finished the sewing, adding in the nose wires and leaving pockets for filters.

We switched, laughing, when we realized she had accidentally pleated all the masks so far upside-down, and I was much slower at topstitching. We found our rhythm and spent the afternoon turning a pile of fabric sheets, elastic, and wire into a thick stack of masks.

Before I could start my third round of sewing, Stitch4Corona announced that with COVID cases decreasing in the city, they were wrapping up their initiative. In the end, more than 600 volunteers sewed more than 14,000 masks.

I turned back to my lifelong hobby, sewing by hand.

When quarantine started, I felt caught up in the need to do some small thing to let my loved ones know I was thinking of them. So, I bought two pattern collections (32 designs in total), sent the images around to my friends and family, and asked them to pick their favourites. I’m about a third of the way through the list.

I’m worried about my grandmother’s wellbeing and I haven’t been able to spend quality time with her in months, but I’m glad to know she keeps the little raccoon I made her right next to her computer. My friends’ faces lit up when they picked up their creations at our 6-feet-apart, masks-on barbecue.

It makes me happy to create something tangible for my friends and family when our connections these days are so digital. And I hope my silly plushies can bring them a smile in these strange, stressful days.

Time, effort, and connective threads. Put simply, sewing is the art of bringing things together. Sometimes, it can have that effect on people as well.

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Fr. Don McLeod is a Basilian priest, an alumnus of USMC (College and Faculty of Theology) and a member of the Collegium since September 2013, serving as Chair from 2017 until the present. He has a particular interest in institutional governance and in ensuring that the proper role of the Collegium in University governance is clearly outlined. He has taught and been an administrator at both the high school and university levels, most recently at St. Joseph’s College in the University of Alberta. He continues to exercise his passions for aviation and cycling, Catholic Social Teaching and the study of Scripture and Biblical languages, while residing with the Basilian Fathers of Presentation Manor in Scarborough.

“Piloting” USMC

Aerial shot of the St. Mike's campus

Two or three weeks ago, someone asked me if serving as Chair of the Collegium was burdensome, especially during the current COVID-19 crisis. After a few moments’ reflection, I replied that although Collegium had recently had to confront some very challenging issues, I would not describe my role as “burdensome.” To the contrary, the past four-plus months have been challenging but not burdensome.

To help clarify, permit me to draw an analogy with aviation. When people learn that I am a licensed pilot, they often ask if I fly solo—to which my usual response is “yes and no.” “Yes,” if that means that I am the only person in the aircraft. “No,” if the implication is that no one else is involved in a flight. Although it sounds counter-intuitive, even if the pilot is the only one aboard the airplane, there is no such thing as “solo.”

Most people who fly commercially know that a safe and successful flight requires professional pilots “up front,” equally competent and professional flight attendants in the cabin and good ground crew—and that is certainly true. However, there is much more to aviation than that.

First, even a small aircraft comes with a very detailed Pilot’s Operating Handbook—in the case of the Cessna 172, the aircraft I fly, nearly 200 pages of very dense information. Included in this are several checklists covering nearly every conceivable situation, from before engine start through to shutdown—and the pilot who ignores or omits even parts of these does so at his or her own risk. These documents reflect literally thousands of person-hours of designing, building and testing, without which no aircraft ever makes it to the flight line, let alone into the air.

Further, behind the scenes of any safe flight are the people who service the aircraft and keep it airworthy. This includes mechanics, dispatchers, fuelers, cleaners and airworthiness inspectors—all of whom are required to ensure that the aircraft is indeed safe to fly.

Most of my compatriots fly out of and into what in Canada are known as certified aerodromes—airports, for short. These facilities require ongoing maintenance to ensure that taxiways and runways are safe and clear of any debris, including snow and ice in winter, that pavement markings including runway numbers are clearly visible and that all ground signage is accurate. Much of this work goes unnoticed but is essential to safe operation—and is regularly inspected.

Once the aircraft is ready, the airport safe to fly out of, the pilot (and maybe passengers) belted in and the engine started, the pilot is still dependent on many people to ensure a safe flight. If the airport has traffic controllers the pilot must obtain clearance both to taxi and to take off and must rely on the men and women at the other end of the radio waves to ensure safe separation of all aircraft. Even at an uncontrolled airport, the pilot must rely on other pilots and even people on the ground to advise of their positions and intentions. The same is true, in reverse order, when preparing to land.

In short, from long before engine start to after shutdown, safe and enjoyable flying is dependent on the skills, attentiveness and commitment of a significant number of people filling a wide range of roles—the pilot is one of these people, undoubtedly an essential cog in the machinery, but far from being the only one. In other words, the pilot in reality is never “solo.”

To return to my analogy, one could suggest that the Collegium, and in particular the Chair, might be viewed as the pilot who is charged with ensuring that the University is able to fulfill its mission. However, just as with the pilot of an aircraft, a successful “flight” of the University is dependent on the commitment, dedication and competence of many more persons than the relatively few that a casual observer might see seated at the Collegium table.

This has been even more apparent to me as we have dealt with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the very beginning, every member of the USMC community, regardless of their particular role, has given more than generously of their time and talent to ensure that we “fly” successfully through this unprecedented turbulence. I may by analogy be one of the “pilots” for this adventure but am well aware of the enormous debt of gratitude my colleagues and I owe to so many who have contributed to our safe and level “flight.” To them I say simply, “Thank you!”

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As a humanitarian professional, St. Mikes alumna Catherine Bellamy has worked with the United Nations and reputable think tanks for the past 20 years. She has managed operations and lead initiatives with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. She was a lead author on the Overseas Development Institute report on the Lives and Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in 2016. Currently, Bellamy is an advisor on capacity strengthening with WFP.

Helping Côte d’Ivoire From a Distance

Piles of plantains for sale in an outdoor market in Cote d'Ivoir

I was hired for my current job at the UN World Food Programme (WFP) the day that schools were closed in Italy as COVID-19 continued to spread. At the time, I had been worried about going back to work after being mostly a full-time mom for a few years. How would my son adjust to full-time daycare, would I miss him too much, would it mean that I slept even less? Instead, all the anxiety drilled down into one challenge for my husband and me: how to keep a toddler occupied while on conference calls or answering emails.

When I was pregnant, I felt invincible. I was six months along in 2016 when I went to Istanbul to interview refugees for a report on international assistance. The coup was a surprise. From my hotel room window, I could see one of the standoffs within the army. The military tanks were lined up on a bridge over the Bosporus, normally a picturesque spot. It was a tense and loud night, but by the morning most of the opposition military had backed away. A lot of people across the country ended up in jail or lost their jobs and careers.

I spent a lot of time checking in with the Canadian and American embassies and scouring the English news outlets for updates. After a few days the airports opened again, and I got a flight out to New York City. I had a weird sense of calm the whole time, that the baby bump could protect me from the madness outside my window.

I don’t feel invincible anymore. Like most parents, I am exhausted and preoccupied by how this virus might impact my kid. I know how lucky I am to have a job where I can work from home, and where I can spend time with my son throughout the day. But closed airports and quarantines make it hard for me to do my job well, and to understand what is happening on the ground.

While drafting a large grant for a national school meals programme in Côte d’Ivoire, I started to record the Zoom meetings that I knew I couldn’t miss. While I blamed my mediocre French, it was because half of my brain was wondering when my son would burst into the room demanding a snack or that I play with his dinosaurs.

I was supposed to go to Abidjan for a few weeks to see the project I was writing about, to meet with the team that I would work with to develop a strong argument for the proposal. It had helped a lot previously. But the trip was called off once the airports started shutting down.

My favourite part of the project in Côte d’Ivoire, besides giving poor kids a meal at school, is the government’s effort to encourage women small holder farmers. The majority of the country’s rural population survives on agriculture, and many live below the poverty line. Most food producers are women, but they are less likely to own land or have access to capital. The government provides women farmers with land and training and inputs (fertilizer)—increasing their productivity and independence. In exchange, the women give a third of the produce that they grow to local public primary schools for the school meals. Some of the women are taught how to read and write.

COVID-19 has hit Côte d’Ivoire’s economy hard and will make life for the poor more difficult. WFP’s strategy in the country is in part to strengthen support for the women farmers, to mitigate disruptions to domestic food supplies and to help continue serving nutritious meals at schools. The production by women has grown substantially with technical support, generating income to purchase their own seeds, fertilizer, and equipment. Bicycles, grain mills, and scales can help save time and money, and financial training and market access allows them to sell produce for a higher price at the markets.

I haven’t managed to go to Côte d’Ivoire yet, but everything that I have read and heard is that many of the women farmers wish they could have gone to school themselves and want their kids to go. Because motherhood is a powerful force, I just hope that some of them can make that happen. And I hope that next time, I can get on a plane and go see for myself.

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Fr. Alexander Laschuk, PhD is a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Toronto. He is currently the Interim Executive Director of the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute in the Faculty of Theology, in addition to his responsibility as Judicial Vicar of the Toronto Regional Tribunal. He lives in Trinity-Bellwoods with his wife and daughter.

Finding Stillness in Chaos

A woman and child place a small birthday cake with a candle on top on a desk in front of a computer, where a video call is in progress

I am a Catholic priest. Unlike most you know, I am married and have a six-year-old daughter (with number two on the way). Also unlike most priests you know, I do not spend much of my ministry in a parish. Instead, I live my priestly ministry in the curia, where I work as a canon lawyer. There are seven dioceses in Ontario for which I am responsible. Additionally, I seem to have a specific skill set—I fix problems. Sometimes those problems are in my own Eparchy, which extends from the Ontario border to the Atlantic. At other times my service is to the universal Church, which brings me to dioceses throughout the English-speaking world. My ministry means I am frequently away from home, which can add up to two or even three months in a year.

This all came to a crashing, screeching halt in March. I remember my last day in the office with my staff—we already were encouraging people to work from home. It was the feast of St. Joseph and there were zeppole on my desk. The State of Emergency was declared shortly thereafter, and we all began a brave new adventure.

In my case, this has meant being physically grounded—a real blessing in some ways as now I am home every day to put my daughter to bed. But it has also been chaos. When the Archdiocese moved to “remote work” except for essential staff it meant that in addition to my own job I suddenly had to keep 26 people busy. We were in the midst of opening a new tribunal office in the suburbs to remove the “physical distance” that, Pope Francis reminds us, prevents people from accessing the tribunal.

In our small Ukrainian Eparchy many parishes needed help applying for government support; I became the go-to guy with all these acronyms that soon became all too familiar: ROE, CERB, CEWS, and CEBA. At our parish in Trinity-Bellwoods, instead of hearing Easter confessions I became a videographer and learned far too much about live-streaming, while at my daughter’s school, the online class sessions every morning and afternoon became the anchor of her (and our) day. I realized how lucky we were when I spoke to other kindergarten parents whose children would only have one (or no) session a week.

My wife, who suffers from difficult pregnancies, was often bed- or couch-ridden and was, as I termed her, a “quarantine professional” who never left the apartment except for medical appointments. The usual downtown comfort of the constant hum of people and traffic turned into silence, and often the only sounds were screams in the night from the growing number of people on the street and in the park with nowhere else to go. As bedtime not so quickly approached for my daughter, there would be the silent prayer to God: just one more hour, Lord. Get us there, peacefully if possible. When she’d finally go down it would be frantic work until I fell asleep to catch up on all those things left behind in the workday.

More than four months have passed. The world is awakening from its pandemic-induced slumber. We have set up a chapel in the parish archives where I celebrate mass with my wife and daughter. For my daughter’s sixth birthday we ran around individual cakes for her party on Zoom. We’re getting really good at making dinner as a family instead of constantly eating out. I’ve started a new job as Interim Executive Director at the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute here at USMC. I can’t go into my office at Windle House and my predecessor can’t move out. I’ve not been on an airplane in six months. Our new home has been delayed nearly a year. The parish has spent thousands on PPE. I overhear my daughter giving her friends Zoom advice. My car dashboard is covered in blue masks. My wife rejoices that we’ve almost run out of hotel shampoo.

This time has left me frequently thinking of Elijah, who we call Elias in the East. When he went to find the Lord God, the Voice was not in the earthquake, nor the fire, but in the light breeze (3 Kings 19). Here, in the unnatural silence of abandoned downtown, the Voice of God blows with the breeze across the abandoned storefronts and the tents in the park. I hope we can all find a moment to stop and hear it, finding stillness in this time of chaos.

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Isabella Mckay is a senior student majoring in Book and Media Studies at the University of Toronto. Following her passions in marketing, communications, technology, and media, she has become the Vice President of TechXplore, the Director of Marketing of Data Science Toronto, and the Assistant Project Coordinator at the University of Toronto Faculty of Arts and Science Dean’s Office. Mckay looks forward to applying her passions and work to innovate the future.

Love and Happiness as True Measures of Life

The city of Toronto on a partly cloudy day

During the coronavirus pandemic, I have discovered that the principles of humanity, which are love, togetherness and health, exist as the ultimate purpose and meaning of life.

On January 27, 2020, the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg confirmed the first case of coronavirus in Toronto. Remembering the words of my mother to not fear and panic but be prepared and cautious in case of emergencies, I bought one of a few alcohol rub left at a pharmacy in Toronto. At my condo, I found one pack of 20 N95 masks for around 85 dollars with express shipping on Amazon. Although I could search for cheaper masks, future prices would likely increase, and then I might search longer to find no masks and sacrifice my health. I would work to recoup the price within hours; however, I would spend more time and energy to regain what was most important, my health. I purchased the N95 masks within three minutes.

When coronavirus cases rapidly increased after February 24, I had the proper procedures and supplies to calmly protect myself from the coronavirus while others began to panic. I still socialized with friends, studied at the libraries, and attended club events at the University of Toronto.

Then, the University of Toronto announced that, as of March 16, it would close, and move to  online courses and examinations to limit coronavirus cases. I wore my N95 mask as I walked around the campus and a downtown Toronto that resembled an abandoned town devoid of energy and emotion.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, I huddled in a tight and quick one-way line of students to attend my classes on time. Now, I freely and slowly roamed past three students on my way to the library. I used to walk around for five minutes to find an empty library seat and to hear pencils and pens scratching on paper during midterm and final exam season; now, however, I found an empty seat and heard the hum of the air conditioner as soon as I walked into the library. I used to sit next to students who flipped through pages of homework, wrote mathematical equations and assignments, and coded programs. As I sat in one of the hundreds of empty seats, I remained two metres or more from other students because of my own preferences or because of tape placed between every two desks and in front of desks.

With the cancellation of on-campus classes and exams, I returned to my family home in Vancouver on March 21. Although the Canadian government did not require citizens to self-isolate on a domestic flight, I feared that someone might have coronavirus on the plane. I wanted to ensure that I had no symptoms and that I would not transmit the virus to family, especially my single mother and grandmother. At a young age, my father passed away. My mother and grandmother raised my siblings and me. If I transmitted the virus to my family, I would fail to mend my shredded heart.

Although I talked to my family and friends through my phone during isolation, I became an outsider who might have a disease that everyone feared. I yearned to be near my loved ones, especially my family who sacrificed their time and health to care for me. I did not want, and  was not motivated by, my empty university scores and jobs, which for years  I had desired most; instead, what I wanted and was motivated by was familial love and unity.

Once I left self-isolation, my family revealed that they struggled to obtain essential groceries and supplies. Before the coronavirus, my family and I might spend half an hour choosing organic and natural vegetables among full shelves. Now I wore ski goggles, plastic gloves and a N95 mask as I social distanced to purchase any supplies at a local grocery market.

Similar to food and supplies, before the coronavirus stole the simplest moments, I took daily and normal activities for granted in order to pursue my career and high marks. I carelessly walked, compared to now seeing someone and moving to the other side of the road. I carelessly talked to others, compared to now yelling over two metres to discuss the coronavirus lockdown. I carelessly socialized with friends compared to messaging them. I carelessly went anywhere to perform multiple activities compared to restricting myself to my home and grocery trips. Appreciating people and the simplest things are blessings of happiness. I am not measured by what I have, but who I am and how grateful I am to have what I have.

Once the lockdown ends, I will refuse to let fear control my life and I will experience the meaning of life: to be around loved ones and increase happiness activities. When will I get another chance, and who foresees the future?

The coronavirus pandemic has taught me how health is the most important quality and how everything else is minor, how people, and the smallest and simplest things, deserve appreciation, and how love and happiness are true life measurements. These essential human qualities are the purpose and goals of an amazing life and these human foundations will support the fight to defeat the coronavirus.

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Martyn Jones is a content specialist in the Office of Communications. On a freelance basis, he also writes reported features, essays, and criticism for online and print outlets. Martyn and his wife Melanie’s toddler, Fox Jonathan Jones, turns 18 months old on August 2.

The Difference Three Hours Makes

A toddler rests face-down on a coffee table facing a man working at a desk in a closet.

In the endless domestic present brought on by COVID-19, I sometimes find it difficult to remember that going to work once meant going in to work.

A few months ago, my wife and I would kiss our toddler goodbye, trudge through the snow to a bus stop, and wait to be carried into the city alongside thousands of fellow close-breathing commuters. It was far darker then, and both our bedtimes and alarms were earlier. In the mornings we’d wake the baby around 6:30 a.m., pass him back and forth to allow one another to get dressed and brush our teeth, and then hand him off to his grandparents around 8 a.m. for safekeeping for the day as we began our commute.

During my wife’s maternity leave, I would often look down from my computer screen in my office to find a message from her that included a photo or video. These were digital records of Fox’s progress: first words, first steps, first instances of bizarre behaviours that would become characteristic. When my wife returned to work, she would forward similar notes from her parents containing records of Fox’s new experiences that we were both missing.

After work, we’d get home around 6 p.m., scramble to put Fox’s dinner together, play with him if time allowed, and put him to bed by 7:30. Our total allotment of time with the boy was about three hours a day—most of it spent performing necessary tasks, and relatively little spent in reading, play, or exploration.

When remote work began for both of us in mid-March, we entered into a family bubble arrangement with my wife’s parents, who continued to provide our toddler’s primary care during the workday. For the last several months, we’ve worked with Fox always within hearing distance, either downstairs in our own home or in another room at his grandparents’ house.

We are incredibly fortunate to be able to rely on our toddler’s grandparents in this way. For so many younger families, the closure of childcare centres and schools forced parents to look after their children while also continuing to work full time. We were shielded from this grueling scenario. For us, the silver lining has made up almost the entire cloud.

Atul Gawande notes in his book Being Mortal that one of the major domestic shifts brought about by modernization is the move away from multigenerational homes. The past few months have given us glimpses of that abandoned paradigm: during a break between tasks, I can join Fox at the keyboard where his grandpa is preventing him from striking the keys too hard, or peel an orange while listening to the toddler perform his mimicry of reading out loud for his delighted grandma.

He is a wild and energetic boy; his arms already have a shape that evokes the naturally athletic teenager, and as they grow will gain mass while retaining their rough proportions. He occasionally gets away from his grandparents and pounds on our office door until it opens for him, at which point he might walk to my desk, look at me silently, throw back his head, and laugh. While he’s interrupted his share of Teams meetings, my colleagues reassure me that his presence has always been welcome.

I have no truck with vulgar permutations of utilitarianism, the worst of which employ an actual calculus to determine the moral worth of an action, but I do find it useful to put a number to our experience: 270. This is a rough estimate of the number of hours my wife and I have gained back to spend with our boy during the portions of the day we would otherwise have spent commuting or having lunch at work. Our three-hour allotment has doubled for each workday, without even taking into account the random visits he pays us as we hunch over our computers.

Instead of receiving photos or videos through text or email, my mother-in-law can simply call me to come down, and I can be there to see my boy build a block tower or put on his own shoes. We haven’t yet reached the point at which his long-term memories are able to take root in his mind, but I hope that he will carry this period of special nearness into the later parts of his childhood, and know without knowing that we were close by.

For all the uncertainty and hardship brought on by the pandemic, COVID-19 has also shown us how flexible the world can be when the heat of necessity causes it to bend. There will not be a return to an earlier status quo after the virus subsides or vaccines are developed: instead, a new world will emerge. I hope that our new arrangements will make future virtues of past necessities, and that it will be possible for more working parents to experience the difference three hours makes.

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Noel McFerran has worked as a librarian at the University of St. Michael’s College since 1998. His current position is Theology and Rare Books Librarian.

“Be Right Back!”

Image depicts a student waiting for curbside pickup service assistance

I spent last Wednesday morning in the Kelly Library providing curbside pickup service to faculty and students. As a librarian, it was exciting for me to see the library taking further steps to provide library materials to patrons while maintaining the health and safety of everybody involved.

Since mid-March I’ve been working from home, keeping very busy responding to emails from faculty and students about their course work and research. Wednesday was one of my first times back inside the Kelly Library. The most important thing was to be trained in how to function in my regular work environment during a pandemic. I thought that I knew all about social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing hands—but it’s so much more important in a workplace where there are other staff using the same desk and equipment. Just like in the supermarket, we’re maintaining a one-way route in the library in order to reduce face-to-face encounters between staff.

Every day the Kelly Library receives a computer-generated list of books and DVDs which patrons have requested through the UofT Library Catalogue. One staff person looks for these items on the shelves. Most items are where they are meant to be, but occasionally we have to search for something which has wandered from its regular home. Items then get checked out to patrons. Right now all items are signed out until September 18, 2020.

Another Kelly staff person, working from home, sends personalized emails to patrons telling them that their books are ready to pick up. Sometimes patrons respond with special requests (e.g. “Can a friend get my books for me?”).

At present patrons can pick up their requested items at the Kelly Library anytime Monday to Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. The pick-ups ebb and flow. I filled the low periods with other library work to keep myself busy.

The first encounter between a library patron and staff is through a glass wall where the patron shows their library card. (I had real difficulty reading the card through the glass, so I might need to make an appointment for an eye exam!) You can’t really hear people on the other side of the glass, so we have various printed signs which communicate the most frequent things (like “Be right back”).

Staff retrieve the patron’s bag of books and place it on a table outside the library under the overhang. Even then there is reduced interaction between staff and patrons. Smiling doesn’t mean so much when you’re wearing a mask, so I tried to wave in a friendly way.

The response from faculty and students to the Kelly Library’s curbside pickup service has been very positive. My colleague Risa de Rege, who has worked many shifts in the past week tells me, “People have been very grateful that we’re offering curbside pickups, and are also respectful of our space and policies.” In the first week, 76 patrons submitted requests for 141 items. As more people learn about the service and how easy it is to use, that number is likely to increase. So far, though, we’ve been able to respond quickly to requests.

Nobody wants the COVID pandemic to go on any longer than it has to. But for the present and near-future, the Kelly Library is developing solutions to continue to provide library service to our faculty and students. I love being a part of that, knowing that my work contributes in a small way to the academic success of others.

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Emily VanBerkum (USMC MDiv 2015) is the Dean of Student Residence at Loretto College, and John Paul Farahat (UofT DMA 2019) is Director of Music and Principal Organist of Saint Basil’s Church.

Enjoying Life’s Quiet Moments

“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?” — Fred Rogers

Image depicts the interior of St. Basil's Church facing the altar from the back.

The story of the proposal is really a two-part saga. Last year around this time, we were vacationing in Chamonix, France. Standing at the base of Mont Blanc, eyes gazing up at the breathtaking alpine landscape with gelato and marzipan cookies in hand, we considered ourselves incredibly grateful.

Unbeknownst to one of us, an engagement ring had been discreetly tucked away in our luggage for a surprise proposal in the Alps. But that carefully chosen landscape would fall through following an ill-timed fall down an old stone church staircase moments before that destined date-night dinner. Instead of a picturesque engagement ring reveal in a historic gazebo on a crisp late summer night under a sky of twinkling stars…a torn ligament, a pair of crutches, and a wheelchair ride through the Geneva airport.

One month later—ankle reasonably healed—we took a relaxed evening stroll along Toronto’s Queen’s Quay. Nearing sunset, on an ordinary park bench looking out to the calm waters, a proposal happened at last. A wild success: two elated smiles (and no torn ligaments). It was a perfectly tranquil, joyful moment. We laughed at the story of the-Chamonix-proposal-that-almost-was, and exclaimed to each other that 2020 was the year to be married—a year of perfect balance and harmony. We unhesitatingly chose Saint Basil’s, a parish to which we have both happily belonged since our student days, and set a date for September, 2020.

Much has changed in the world since we made initial arrangements. While our 2019 selves were focused on venues, vendors, realizing the “wedding vision,” and planning for out-of-country family members to attend, our 2020 selves have been more concerned with health, safety, and grappling with our new reality.

Our new central question was shared with many others: do we go ahead with the wedding, or do we postpone?

Our engagement story provided us with a providential lesson. The elaborate getaway proposal in Chamonix—with bells, whistles, and grand gestures—was replaced with a quiet proposal close to home, with only the most essential elements: the two of us, the “big question,” and a whole-hearted promise to spend our lives together. Indeed, the most though-out plans do not always go according to plan. Often, it is the beauty of the “quiet” moments that we cherish so deeply. It’s these instances that capture a moment in time, leaving an indelible mark on our minds and hearts.

Therefore, we have decided to move ahead with the originally scheduled date.

Establishing a sacramental union in Saint Basil’s, even without the larger guest count, elaborate reception, or flourishes that we had originally imagined, allows us to be true to what is most foundational: that marriage is a vocation in which the couple is drawn together for a purpose greater than themselves. Just like the proposal, our wedding day will be a reminder to find joy and contentment in the quiet, less elaborately planned moments of our married lives.

The beginning of our married life, surrounded by a small gathering of immediate family, will be at the forefront of our special day. And while we know the wedding day doesn’t make the marriage, in the end, perhaps the apparent “quietness” of the day will be everything we didn’t know we needed.

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Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael’s College. She is also a double alumna of St. Mike’s, holding a B.A. in English and Mediaeval Studies and a Master of Divinity degree. That equals many hours in Kelly Library and many, many overdue fines.

Raising Our Voices

Image depicts Elmsley Place on a sunny summer day, with sunlight coming down through the trees.

It began—as many of the best things do—with someone volunteering an absent colleague for a little extra work.

Our new St. Mike’s blog, InsightOut, is the result of an after-hours conversation with Communications Director Laurie Morris and Theology prof Dr. Darren Dias on March 16, the last day we were all present on campus. Dr. Dias mentioned that his colleague, Dr. Michael Attridge, was self-quarantining at home after a research trip to Italy.

“It’s a good story,” Fr. Darren said. “You should ask Mike to write something for the website.”

Then the wheels began to turn. While not one of us could predict just how the comings weeks and months would play out, we knew we were facing an extraordinary moment in the university’s history. There would be value, we thought, in hearing each other’s experiences in, and thoughts about, living through such a momentous period.

Four months later, we now have a pattern established of InsightOut blog posts running on the St. Mike’s home page every Monday and Thursday. Each story, each opinion, is unique. And as the person privileged with soliciting and receiving submissions, I am humbled by the chance to be part of the process.

Graduate student Fr. Gustave Noel Ineza, O.P., for example, spoke about his childhood during the Rwandan genocide and urged us not forget the suffering of the broader world as we focus on local troubles.

Alumnus Dr. Christopher De Bono,Vice President of Mission, People and Ethics at Vancouver’s Providence Health Care, wrote about how moving he found his neighbours’ nightly ritual of banging pots and pans and making noise to celebrate the dedication of health care workers.

Interim Principal Dr. Mark McGowan, meanwhile, a professor of History and Celtic Studies, submitted a video explaining the typhus epidemic of 1847 in light of the current situation.

Professors have written about what their subject areas tell them about the pandemic, while students have talked what St. Mike’s means to them. And alumni members like Patricia Dal Ben, along with her colleague John Kostoff, a member of St. Michael’s Collegium, offered their professional wisdom on how families can keep a faith life alive when unable to get to Mass.

Some people have shyly offered to submit while others, when approached with a specific topic, agree with grudging good humour.

Coming posts will touch on the reality of working from home as a parent, how we are preparing for the coming academic year, and even how to get married during a pandemic. Pieces have ranged from moving to amusing.

Anyone who has worked through these past months will have experienced their colleagues in new ways. Zoom meetings reveal family photos or a glimpse of a partner or pet. A phone call might be interrupted by a delivery person at the door of what has become a home office.

For those of us working at St. Mike’s, the blog has taught us about family, we’ve heard admissions from those who miss their colleagues, we now know about our officemates’ hobbies, and we have gained insight into who we are as a community and what makes us unique. When we are at our best, it seems, we are closer to being family than colleagues.

But lest this sound like busy work or a grand vanity project, it’s anything but. While we’ve gained insight into our colleagues, the blog’s purpose is very much outreach. Having worked on planning various campus events, I know how people look to St. Mike’s to keep them engaged with the world and continuing on a path of lifelong learning. And if we can’t do that in person, some reflections and mini-online lectures are a sound alternative.

Parents of future students may come away from this blog reassured that not only are the people who’ll be working with their children skilled, capable professionals, they are also decent and caring people.

Future students can read the blog and find out some of the cool work happening on campus, and look forward to engaging in the kinds of discussions that make university a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And alumni can engage with InsightOut and know that their alma mater remains vibrant and in good hands.

One of the great ironies of this time of masks and social distancing is that through it we have been brought closer together. We now know more about each other and, more often than not, knowledge brings with it respect. We have learned to work together in new ways and have seen the value in teamwork.

As we approach the fall, this blog will begin to pivot toward other aspects of life at St. Mike’s, looking ahead to a time when we can put the pandemic behind us.

If you are connected with St. Mike’s and would like to participate in InsightOut, please send me an email to chat about a submission.

Having heard the stories of the St. Mike’s community, I am confident we will head into the fall ready to take on pretty much anything. As the hashtag says, we really are all in this together.

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Giancarlo Mazzanti is the Registrar and Director of Student Services at the University of St. Michaels College. Giancarlo is a graduate of the University of Toronto (St. Mikes) with an Honours B.A. in Political Science, and a B. Ed. from the Faculty of Education in 1985. He began his career in education at St. Michaels College School and has worked in student services for over 30 years.

Our Connection Is Just Fine

Image depicts a man's hands as he works on a laptop

It’s not like rumours weren’t swirling about a possible move to a primarily online mode of delivering the services of the Registrar’s Office and related Student Services. So it was with the better judgment of our team that we began preparations for what was beginning to look like the inevitable. It seemed like no time at all passed from those water cooler conversations with colleagues within the university community to when the email arrived from the Office of the President telling us that our offices were closing to in-person services. Academic advising meetings, learning strategist sessions, wellness appointments, and every other function and/or service would need to go online.

We received the call on the afternoon of March 17. Within minutes, Morteza was making sure e-tokens were good to go and that college staff in the various university offices were able to log in from home. Most were taken care of, but there were still a few to activate: no problem. Miranda, with Guillermo’s and Philip’s help, was making certain all students on the day’s docket were either seen or given a new appointment, all while planning for graduation scholarships and any number of the other responsibilities within our office. Nawang was ensuring that bursaries were going to get into students’ hands… yesterday! Next was getting ready for the hundreds of financial aid requests that would be submitted by our students, as well as the upcoming round of May admissions. Stephen was finalizing plans on how we were going to meet with future applicants, remotely, all while he and his wife were getting ready to deliver a future SMC student. Judy and Alex? Well, the newest members of our office were getting ready for the onslaught of student advising appointments which would fall on their shoulders as the various portfolios were being tended to. Hundreds of emails daily! Then, as the day turned into evening we packed our favourite mugs and our laptops and, with e-tokens in hand, we went home to our new offices!

All were confident as we prepared for remote delivery, even though the occasional nervous giggle could be heard. Gone were the commutes, the traffic, and the aggressive drivers. So was that horribly conspicuous dash to the only open seat on the train; everyone knows when you have designs on a seat in a subway train at 8:15 in the morning! Now it was simply a 12-second climb to the second-floor office, right next to the bathroom, and with a lovely view of the garden.

And so it was that practically overnight all university operations moved online, except for the staff in finance, the residence operation, and building services. They were our “hyflex” model pioneers. They were toughing it out on campus to make sure that USMC kept functioning and that students unable to get home had a room on campus, and that it was a safe space. The I.T. department stood on its collective head to make sure we had the hardware, software and in-servicing on the technology we had all dabbled in but which was not yet part of the daily menu. All of a sudden, Teams and Zoom were the plat du jour! And of course, the Communications team made sure there was an uninterrupted flow of information, essential to all parts of the community.

By the end of Day One of working from the home office, in whichever corner of the house we were assigned—or had earned over many years of squatting—many of the bugs had been worked out. It was quickly becoming business as usual for most, with the rest not far behind. Professionals who were accustomed to meeting in person were now looking at a screen with nothing more than a student’s initials in a small circle. Whether discussing course selection, scholarships, or convocation, all meetings were now being conducted via telephone or in a Teams meeting. Different delivery models, same great advice and suggestions.

And how appreciative our students were during those early days of the new, even if only temporary, normal! Every email or call we received began with “sorry to bother you during this very busy time,” and was often followed up with a lovely thank-you note.

Today, after hundreds of Teams or Zoom advising meetings, thousands of emails, dozens of website updates, countless online lectures and tutorials, governance meetings, a virtual Welcome Day for newly admitted students, two new Quercus courses to help transition our class of 2024, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency financial aid to our students, it dawned on me. I confirmed for myself what I knew all along. The people! That is the ingredient that is making all the difference.

The people I met on campus were important to me during my undergrad years, decades ago, and I understand far more clearly how important that is today: the staff, faculty, and students of the university. In these “interesting” times, we know we can rely on each other. Whether teaching or making sure we are well positioned to tackle the financial pressures of the coming year or helping a student find a course that will fill a final breadth requirement, we know each member of our community continues to do their utmost to make things work for our students—and for each other. I am confident that is why we were all drawn to this place, our community. That is why we will be ready for the coming year. Yes, a simple electronic screen will not get in the way. Our connection in just fine.

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Hi. Im Peter Mason, a first-year engineering student from the U.K. living in the Historic Houses. In the St. Mikes community, Ive loved everything from talking to film assistants on their on-campus sets to just being close to my friends. From my love of travelling, Im working on sustainability projects around Canada and the larger world, and supporting small Canadian businesses affected by COVID-19 by writing a childrens book, working with Always smiling.


Image depicts two of the historic houses on the St. Michael's campus on a sunny summer's day seen from the southeast

Our quarantine. We’re stuck at home, unable to travel freely and be together, but things are opening up soon. I’m from England, but I was in the GTA for quarantine until very recently, there for an extra three months, with a good friend from St. Mike’s. Aside from adjusting, I spent time thinking about my extended stay, what’s happened this past year and where my motivation has gone.

In my quarantine in Canada, I treated each day as its own, focusing on the super short term. I didn’t know when flights would open up, and so it was best not to think about being ‘isolated’, ‘stranded’ or any of the above. And I didn’t feel that way, but perhaps that’s because I’m pretty used to adapting. With this attitude, I was able to take each day, and I felt happier. Not every day would be productive but I’d learn something and take that positive step into the next one. I also meditated more. I’m grateful for the memories I’ve made and the people who were by my side this year. Meditating helps set up my day for whatever could happen. It also helps gradually inch away at hard thoughts and choices rather than reacting to them once they hit you all at once.

I received genuine kindness from my friend’s family during my extended stay in Canada, and this is a reflection of how I’ve felt throughout my time in Toronto so far. Unexpected, but I felt very welcomed and I can only be thankful. It was hard to say goodbye, but I know I’ll see them again. At the airport, I took extensive care to be aware and clean. Yet, there was no one there! I started to think there were more staff than passengers. It was a very eerie, silent experience and, I pictured what the deserted airport looked like the last time I was here five months earlier. I remember a lengthy Starbucks queue. It felt as if I was part of a TV show and I was left alone in an airport.

In the fall semester, I fell a little bit into the annoying trap of saying I had a lot of work. I’m in that small bracket of engineering students at St. Mike’s. Once I heard the same line from my roommate, I re-evaluated what I was saying. I began to balance classes, soccer and social activities in St. Mike’s better, and in a different way to the winter semester. However, I kept the same mindset. My attitude going into university was to hope to enjoy what I was studying, make some friends and keep on helping people. If I was smiling, I’d be alright. I would be pretty flexible to dip my toes into new things and meet new people and looking back I think I can say I met some pretty motivated people. They’ve introduced me to Canada and its culture, and I’ve shared what I’ve known.

I like to think I’ve done my best to contribute back to it, and hope my actions and words have helped people this year. Yet, I didn’t make it simple. For those who don’t know me, I end up balancing a lot and taking too much on my plate. The reality dawned on me, and my friend’s opinion was right. I couldn’t study and get the grades to retain my scholarship, play for three soccer teams, follow my passions, and be a part of St. Mike’s without burning out. I have those around me to thank. And for those of you I knew better, I miss your smiles.

As I look back, I do so looking forward. I remember how travelling used to be my goal, and I reminisce about St. Mike’s dynamic and vibrant individuals. Yet, I realize I shouldn’t wait, but keep making steps forwards. Whether that’s sharing initiatives, listening and learning and supporting my friends, I’m not 100% sure what’s ahead, but I’ll be ready. If this can get us closer to a future where we are proud to see each other again, I’ll keep trying.

For that future we are trying to chase, how do we try to define that? When Matthew McConaughey won an Academy Award for Best Actor in 2014, he spoke of his hero being himself in 10 years. He’d always look up to the future him, but never be his hero as he’d always be 10 years away. This is great on a personal level for moving forward. I couldn’t have imagined my life being like this 10 years ago, but I’d be proud of the big moments and the small laughs. I hope we can together reflect on the progress we’ve made in a year, or in a decade. We’re moving to Mars, we can produce more sustainable clothes, and we’ve reduced famines globally. We’re not there yet by a long way, but let’s appreciate our progress and look up to the community we will define together.

In the last few weeks, I read a lot, listened more and kept on learning. This helped me start my blogs on Medium and Vocal, and allowed me to grow. We’ve all grown, too. From the start of quarantine, I remember the social media shenanigans, sadness at missing basketball games, or waving a final goodbye. But look and think about what has happened since. My friends have made visors for fire stations, supported Black Lives Matters protests, and taken on leadership positions across so many different areas. We’re tackling mental health issues among ourselves and preparing ourselves for when we return. I’ve chosen to better myself and share that with others. It is the confidence I’ve gained from being at St. Mike’s this past year that I can use to make a longer lasting change, one that I couldn’t have made before meeting everyone.

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Jean-Olivier Richard is Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Christianity and Culture Program. A historian of science by training, his research and teaching interests include the relationship natural philosophy with Christianity with science in the early modern era, Jesuit history, environmental history, and the history of alchemy, astrology, and magic.

Night Sky and Quietude

Image depicts a view of the night sky full of stars

On June 17, I decided to set up a tent in the backyard of my partner’s parents, thereby adding a room to what was beginning to feel like a crowded house. My girlfriend and I brought mattresses, pillows, sleeping bags, and munchies. I also decided to install my Meade ETX 90, a reflecting telescope I had purchased a couple years ago and neglected to use since. I figured that on a clear night in Ottawa’s suburbs, it would find better use than in dazzling Toronto.

Around 3 a.m., we woke up to a starry sky, with Vega and Arcturus above our heads and a handful of planets lined up within the narrow band of the Zodiac. In the south, majestic Jupiter lorded at its zenith in conjunction with Saturn. Red Mars was lagging further to the East, next to Neptune, invisible. The waning crescent Moon, with Venus by its side, had yet to rise. Over the next two hours, we turned the telescope to each of these celestial bodies, trying different lenses and observing with childlike excitement. My girlfriend saw, for the first time, Jupiter’s four largest satellites—the same Galileo discovered with his spyglass in 1610—as well as hints of the giant’s darker belts. Even more delightful, to both of us, were Saturn’s rings, which we could see distinctly, like a pair of bright handles. Then, just before dawn, the ancient Moon’s familiar wink was made unfamiliar. Next to its shadowed face, Venus was showing its crescent. At that point, our excitement had ceded place to a kind of contemplative wonder, mixed with serenity and sunlight. With our naked eyes, we had observed and experienced what astronomers of old described as the wheeling of the celestial spheres around Polaris, the axis of the world. It was a wakeful night well spent.

Over the next couple of days, my mind was busy pondering Plato’s Timaeus, a speculative account of the creation the universe I teach in some of my Christianity and science courses. Therein Plato argues that the cosmos was made by the Demiurge, a divine, benevolent craftsman who ordered his materials mathematically and beautifully, in the likeness of eternal, unchanging forms. The Demiurge not only created the gods (including the planets) but also individual souls (each one tied to a guardian star), whose bodies He let the lesser deities shape from imperfect matter. Plato teaches that our souls, trapped as they are in their fleshy shells, tend to be confused and disorderly, having lost sight, from the moment of their birth, of the divine harmonies from whence they come. For Plato, contemplation of the wheeling stars—and by extension, the study of mathematical proportions—is the best way to quell our inner disturbances and to restore our quietude. Failing to do so is to risk losing clarity of mind, to condemn the soul to reincarnate in critters less suited for philosophy than human beings: birds, brutes, or—God forbid—fish!

For sure, contemplating the heavens was not a source of excitement for Plato in the way it can be to city dwellers today, but it was just as salutary. Plato’s great insight was that education is transformative: we become what we study, and we must therefore be mindful of our intellectual diet. In trying times, when we feel trapped in our heads and in our houses, it pays to look up, and emulate the stars.

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Matt Doyle, Advancement Officer, Special Projects, has worked in the St. Michaels Advancement Office for eight years, involved with a range of alumni and fundraising projects. A graduate of U of T (UC), he has studied business and project management. He lives in a place with way too many books and no television.

Living with Books

Image depicts staff member Matt Doyle's home bookshelf

A good friend of mine once said “you live with books,” and that sentiment has resonated with me, as I’ve been working from home for nearly four months now, surrounded by my books. COVID-19 has given me more time to spend with them, gazing at their spines neatly lined up on the shelves, knowing which ones have been read and which others will be enjoyed in the future. I’ve finally found the time to alphabetize them all.

I shared that statement with someone last year and she looked at me quizzically, wondering what I meant. For the bookworm like me, it made perfect sense, with no need for an explanation. Books are different than art. Art hangs on the wall, but books are something special in your house. They’re there to be enjoyed—pulled off the shelf, returned, moved around, sorted, read, and re-read.

One author represented on my shelves is Morley Callaghan, an alumnus of St. Mike’s who graduated in 1925. Sadly overlooked today, and more remembered for knocking down Ernest Hemingway in a boxing match refereed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, at one time Callaghan was one of the most popular novelists and short story writers in Canada. His novels and stories are written in a deceptively straightforward style which belies the deeper moral concerns underpinning each one. Toronto was still very much a part of the British Empire in the 1930s, and Callaghan’s dramas focus on the Catholic minority in a city that was beginning to lose it homogeneity.

Callaghan’s career began while he was an undergrad studying at St. Mike’s, writing for the yearbook, submitting short stories to publishers, and penning articles for the Toronto Star. Besides his writing, Callaghan also organized the St. Mike’s Literary Club, where he chose the books and plays to be read by the other students, with a heavy bent to the modernist writers who were his near contemporaries. Conrad, Fitzgerald, Tarkington, Galsworthy, Shaw, and O’Neill were some of the authors Callaghan chose, all of whom were giants in the early 20th-century literary world. One wonders if the Basilian Fathers who were teaching at the school knew who Callaghan was encouraging his fellow students to read.

Photograph of Matt Doyle's collection of Morley Callaghan books

Debating was a popular activity on the U of T campus in the 1920s, and Callaghan was a member of the St. Michael’s team that won several debates, which would help his studies when he went to Osgoode Hall Law School after he graduated. It should also be mentioned that St. Mike’s was not only the place where Callaghan started his literary career, but he was also awarded for his boxing skills while at the college, which would come in handy when he was later challenged to that bout by Hemingway.

That’s one of the things I enjoy most about working in the Advancement Office at St. Mike’s—learning the rich traditions and stories of the College’s nearly 170-year history. The pandemic has prevented our usual in-person events from happening, including Alumni Reunion, when alumni are invited to return to campus. I miss meeting with our alumni and hearing their stories about their time at St. Mike’s. I know it’s only temporary, and our alumni will be back on campus soon. Our recent grads are our newest alumni, and who knows—maybe someday one of them will be Canada’s most popular author.

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Sam Hodgkins-Sumner is the Executive Assistant in the Office of the Principal. He graduated from U of T last year with a Philosophy, and a minor in Christianity and Culture. Currently, he is in a cabin somewhere in the woods.

Cardboard, Thresholds, and Hope

Photograph of Odette Hall on the St. Mike's campus

If you’d told me in late February that assembling and packing boxes with Randy Boyagoda’s books and personal effects would be the highlight of my workweek, I’d have probably laughed (or maybe wanted to cry) at the idea. Yet that’s exactly how things turned out on June 11th. There I found myself sorting books alphabetically by last name—Ellison, Faulkner, Gaddis—and receiving instruction from the incoming FAS Vice Dean, Undergraduate on how to fold down cardboard flaps so as not to require any tape—a trick he learned working at a book factory in his student days. Only the crunch of the occasional Dorito break punctuated the thumps and thuds as we stacked pounds and pounds of American literature and Catholic tradition. Not a typical day at Saint Mike’s, but it sure beat Microsoft Teams meetings.

Why was this packing session so bittersweet for me? It had to be something more than working, eating, and chatting with our outgoing Principal, because I’d had the chance to do all of those during my year in his office. But in a sense, that was all it was about. For the preceding ten weeks, I’d missed the many interruptions by the people who show up at my door (who would have guessed that?), discussions of current events over morning coffee, and running into people on my way to the mailroom. My work hadn’t featured the conversation, shared meals, or other un-screen-mediated interactions that so make being a part of the USMC community rich and joyful.

We find ourselves in a liminal time. We’re passing between life before and after COVID as case numbers drop in many parts of the world, but worries of second waves and the absence of widely available vaccines or immunity tests mean that we haven’t crossed the threshold yet. We don’t know what life on the other side of that threshold will look like. Many have died; many have lost their loved ones, others their jobs. The pandemic, along with the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations and public discourse, has reminded us of racial and economic inequality in this American election year. We can only hazard guesses at the timeline that runs towards social and cultural normalcy, towards full concert halls, naves, patios, and any of those other places where we gather in embodied groups.

Further, we find ourselves in a spiritually liminal time. Our regular rhythm of movement about the city, with its many external distractions and stimulation, has been disrupted. The resonance between COVID workspace and monastic cell is evident for those of us with the privilege of working from home; we were afforded a lot of time for rumination and reflection, at least before summer weather broke. The occasional escape-via-HBO-binge notwithstanding, something has shifted inside of most of us.

Again, we wonder: what ramifications—social, political, economic, and spiritual—will result from this liminal time?

As another entry in this series reminded me, times of privation and uncertainty can also be occasions for memory and hope. One of the most enjoyable and memorable aspects of my time in the Principal’s Office so far has been serving as a staff member in the Gilson Seminar in Faith and Ideas. The Seminar is a synecdoche for St. Mike’s at its best: Gilson involves the integration of work, play, and friendship. Gilsonians study great texts together, enjoy pelting each other with dodgeballs every month, and share an experience of travel (barring pandemics). It’s been inspiring watching Professor Boyagoda offer his whole person to the Seminar as he led our office in its administration, taught students with the support of our two postdoctoral Fellows, and even brought his family to many of its events. Such leadership is among the many reasons we will miss him in the role of Principal. Although he’s moving on to the Faculty of Arts and Science, Professor Boyagoda will remain the instructor of the Gilson Seminar—an occasion for hope!

Another occasion for hope in our office lies in the fact that we’re gaining Principal Emeritus Mark McGowan on an interim term. Professor McGowan’s devotion to Saint Michael’s over the years, and his considerable institutional memory, will surely prove invaluable in the months to come.

I value working at a place like Saint Mike’s, a place that seeks to nurture the whole person in a community of study, service, friendship and spiritual practice. Although we can’t currently be together in the way we’d want, we can remember what USMC was like before our liminal moment, and look to the future with hope.

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Andrew Selvam is currently the Acting Chaplaincy Teacher at St. Joseph CSS in Mississauga. He is also a science and religious studies teacher with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. He is currently pursuing his Master of Religious Education degree at St. Michaels Faculty of Theology. He enjoys music, hanging out with friends and family, and travelling.

A Language of Love, Unity, and Joy

Image depicts MRE student Andrew Selvam taking a selfie with a group of students.

The day was March 12; I remember it clearly. I had just finished with our chaplaincy team meeting in the library when a student asked me if it was true…that they would be closing schools for three weeks because of COVID-19. I immediately went to my computer to confirm what I hoped wasn’t true and, lo and behold, it was. We would be away from school for at least three weeks. Immediately the news cycle was flushed with what was becoming a worldwide pandemic and, as each given week passed, it seemed more and more likely that the school year would happen away from the school.

After March Break, it was a very slow waiting game. Retreats, social outreach programs, and student engagement activities would have to be put on hold. The way relational ministry would have to be delivered would look very much different. I had been reading all the emails from our school board offering all of the different platforms for learning, but I stood there for a moment and wondered “How do I connect with students?” From the beginning, it became a get-go of mine to make sure that, in as many ways as possible, I was going to make it feel as much as it could for students like we had never left. My first digital daily reflection went out on the feast day of the patron of our school, St. Joseph, more important than ever as the patron saint of families and the universal church. The Holy Spirit that I always felt travelling through a school would be called upon to help me figure out this new upper room. And that was just my motivation. I needed the Holy Spirit also to do the work of expanding this upper room, now neighbourhoods apart from each other and along a digital superhighway.

As each new day rolled out, each reflection and activity would focus more on refocusing our “new reality” into something positive, something to come alive through the Spirit. Meeting with students using videoconferencing applications made it as close to kids coming by the office as I could. Three-and-a-half months later, it has transformed into an opportunity for us to hear each other, talk about the struggles of the day, of the week and of the month, and offer support when needed. With the chaplaincy team back in full swing, I was ecstatic that, more than ever, kids were looking for ways to be engaged outside of the classroom. Each discussion we had and prayer we said felt like therapy for the mind and the soul, for the kids and for me.

But distance-learning causing frustrations wasn’t the only thing on the minds of staff and students. The number of deaths of relatives of staff and students was on the rise, and I asked the Spirit to just give me the right words to say when I picked up the phone to offer my condolences and support in any way that I could. It also became apparent that many of our families had parents unable to work, raising the possibility of not being able to put food on the table. The St. Vincent de Paul society helped us out, as did our generous staff, to provide food and gift cards for our neediest families.

I have to say I had my reservations. I did not know what distance chaplaincy would look, but it has been more than enlightening. It has shifted me out of my comfort zone in a way only the Holy Spirit can, and moved me to find energy reserves I did not think I had. We had just celebrated Easter at the beginning of this pandemic, and we know that we are an Easter people called, as Christ did, to work to make anew. More than anything, though, we have been called to be a Pentecost people—gathered together, filled with our blessed gifts, so that people outside our Upper Room can hear us speak in a language that they could understand—a language of love, unity, and joy.

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Jessica Barr is the University Archivist and Records Manager for the University of St. Michael’s College. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto (New College 0T9, Faculty of Information 1T1), and spent much of her time as a student studying in the John M. Kelly College Library. Not much has changed, except her desk’s location in the library.

Archiving St. Mike’s in Quarantine

The University of St. Michael’s College Archives is tucked in a corner of the third floor of the John M. Kelly Library. The Archives preserves the official records of the University, including records from the offices of the President, Principal, Faculty of Theology, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, and Continuing Education program. We also have papers from faculty, records about some alumni, student publications, and an extensive collection of photographs. More recently, I’ve written a survey to capture the experiences of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic (but more on that later).

Much of my time includes hands-on work with the paper records that contain the history of St. Michael’s College: I arrange transfers of records from donors, I make sure the archival materials are properly housed so they can withstand many of the tests of time (including damage from light, pests, or mould), and I create digital inventories with written descriptions of the materials so they can be accessed by researchers. I also respond to reference requests from researchers near and far—some are looking for information on alumni who attended St. Michael’s, some are conducting academic research using papers written by faculty, and some are simply interested in our history as an academic institution.

Since mid-March, however, I have been working remotely, like many of my St. Michael’s colleagues. So how do I archive materials without physical access to the archives? With the help of the IT departments at St. Mike’s and the University of Toronto, I have been able to maintain access to my network drives and my digital records. These records include my digital inventories of the collections held in the archives and more than 1500 digitized photographs. This means I can continue to respond to many reference questions, including a recent query about the date the clock was added to the Elmsley Hall tower. (It was 2005, in case you are wondering.) I can also update inventories and spreadsheets to make them more accessible for future users, or upload them to the website; update policies and procedures; coordinate with colleagues on questions related to records management; finally clean up my hard drive; and convert already digitized materials to more usable file formats.

During this time of quarantine and pandemic, I have been wondering how the archives can preserve this point in history. I find myself asking: What do I wish we knew about the 1918 pandemic at St. Michael’s? What was that period like for our students, staff, faculty, and alumni? We are able to gather some information from administrative records and yearbooks, but we don’t have very many first-hand accounts. In response, I have been actively archiving the digital records created by the administration over the past three months, including public emails and the St. Michael’s website. In an attempt to gather eyewitness accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also written a survey to send to our community, with the goal of capturing information about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. In the future, researchers will be able to access these answers to learn what life was like for us during this particular moment.

We invite you to submit your own answers to the survey, and any photographs that capture this moment:

I’ve copied examples of my own answers below:

Name: Jessica

What is your current location: My kitchen table, Pickering, Ontario

How are you connected to St. Michael’s College? Staff

How have you, your family, and community been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? I have been working remotely since March 12th. A few immediate family members were temporarily laid off from work, but the rest have been working remotely. We have all, thankfully, remained healthy. Many of my neighbours have been home, so we see a lot more people on walks now.

Share your experience with teaching, learning, or working remotely: I was able to begin working remotely very early on, thanks to previously-set-up off-site network access, and troubleshooting with our IT teams. Transitioning to Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings was a bit of a challenge, since not all colleagues immediately had access to a camera or microphone. After a couple of weeks, though, we all got into a “normal” swing of things. I have really enjoyed meeting the pets and children of colleagues via web meetings.

What about your routine has changed? My gym is closed, but is offering Zoom classes to keep active. I just noticed that my bus line to get to the GO station has been shut down due to lack of ridership, so that will be a challenge when we’re cleared to physically go back into work. Beyond that, I’ve been reading a lot of cookbooks and testing out a lot of new recipes. Luckily, I have family nearby, so I can deliver some treats to nearby porches. I would normally have a day each month to visit with my father (who lives about six hours away), but we haven’t been able to travel since February.

For more information about the University of St. Michael’s College Archives, please check out this link:

Please email me you have any questions for the archivist:

And, if you’re interested in seeing digitized copies of historical St. Michael’s yearbooks, you’ll find some here:

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Luis Filipe graduated in 2006 with an Honours BA in History and Linguistics, and then completed a Bachelor of Education degree at OISE in 2008. He has been teaching for 12 years in the Toronto District School Board, the last three at Bloor Collegiate Institute as Department Head of Social Science, where he teaches law and history, and coaches girls soccer. He is also the president of the Toronto History, Humanities, and Social Science Subject Council.

A Father’s Inspiration

Vintage image depicts a man sitting next to his young son on a park bench. The son is holding a large drink in a takeout cup.

Navigating life through the new normal of social isolation and distance from family and friends has been challenging. In many ways my relationship with the world is linked to my father. The places and people I know all circle back to him. No place better exemplifies this than the University of St. Michael’s College.

My family is made up of a different kind of alumni. My father, Manuel Filipe, started working at St. Mike’s in 1975, eight years before I was born, first as a night caretaker, and then later as Senior Supervisor of Facilities & Services. In those early days he worked alongside my great-uncles and aunts—the patriarchs and matriarchs of our family—who arrived in Canada with the first wave of Portuguese immigration in the 1950s. So while I was the first in my family to attend as a student, I was the third generation to be a part of the SMC community.

As a child, I would visit St. Mike’s regularly with my father. Our weekends were bookended by trips to lock up Carr and Alumni Halls, shut off the lights in Brennan Lounge, and close the Elmsley and Alumni parking lots. Nights would end with a walk together to Dufferin station, where we awaited my mom’s return from work at St. Mike’s, or carrying me to bed after I inevitably fell asleep on the drive home when we picked her up directly. The college was where I watched my father play table tennis tournaments; where I spent March Break changing batteries and reprogramming electronic residence locks with him; accepting rosebud chocolates from the wonderful Mrs. Lee in Carr Hall when he wasn’t looking; and organizing keys and envelopes before the start of each school year. Like any home, the college also bore witness to more painful memories, like when, on my first day as an SMC student, I approached my proud father on the third floor of Alumni Hall to share the news that his father, my grandfather, had died earlier that morning in Portugal. All these experiences are the landscape of my life.

So much of what I know about my father as a person is shaped by his relationship to his work at the college. My father doesn’t have many friends outside of its buildings; he doesn’t go out or really have any hobbies. His role at St. Mike’s was an inextricable part of his identity. He is proud of the work he did each day and proud of the life it provided us. It gave him a chance to serve a community, and Catholic faith, he cared about deeply. As I grew older, and my father’s academic expectations came into greater focus, the relationship I had with my father and the college helped to make me feel at home on campus, as a student carrying the weight of my entire family’s academic expectations. It’s easy to see yourself belonging in an institution when you have already been in its buildings.

My father has been retired from St. Mike’s for 11 years now, but that relationship remains an influence in our lives, as father and son. Almost two years ago I also became a father, when my son Mateo was born. I have thought a lot about the relationships my son will forge through me, the way I did with my father. Before the pandemic, my son regularly visited me at Bloor Collegiate Institute, where I teach, interacting with staff and students alike. In those exchanges I caught myself thinking back to those early days at St. Mike’s, where I was carried around campus by my father, meeting the Professor Ann Dooleys and Father Maddens of the world. I wonder whose names my son will remember, and what memories will linger for him.

So while there is some physical separation between us today, because of social distancing, our experiences and memories remain connected, and centred on the college. I’m looking forward to visiting St. Mike’s some day again soon with my father, but this time with his grandson in tow, watching the two of them share spaces he and I did so many times before. And maybe after this is all over, our family’s presence, and my father’s connection to St. Mike’s, will grow by another generation.

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Dr. Darren Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michael’s) entitled: “One Canada, Two Catholicisms: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”

When the Monastic Cell Meets a Zoom Meeting

Black and white image of a nun holding a rosary

When someone enters a religious order or institute for consecrated life they begin with the novitiate. Monastic orders like the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Trappists, mendicant orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans, and Carmelites, or apostolic congregations like the Basilians, Sisters of St Joseph and the Lorettos—everyone begins in the novitiate. This is an intense period of no less then twelve months when the novice is removed from his or her normal life and confined to the novitiate community. The novice leaves behind his or her job, or studies, and the comfort of one’s usual network of relationships, and enters into something new. One is suddenly disconnected and inserted into a foreign reality. Novitiate is the beginning of a process of formation into a particular history, charism, spirituality, theology and way of living.

My novitiate was spent in the Priory of St. Albert the Great in Montreal. The large priory was built to house about 100 friars in 1960 (just before the exodus of so many religious). The complex includes a large conventual church, refectory, community rooms, ‘cells’ (bedrooms), pastoral institute, administrative offices, even a pharmacy, swimming pool and its own postal code. Although on the campus of the University of Montreal, St. Albert seemed like an oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of urban university life. One could easily survive without leaving the complex for weeks, maybe months.

St. Albert seemed to have preserved much of the medieval character of the Order of Preachers: a separate choir for the religious in the chapel, long refectory with an alcove for the reader, silence in the halls, habited religious moving from choir to refectory, etc. The rhythm of my day unfolded according to the schedule of the liturgical hours (prayers): lauds and Eucharist in the morning, mid-day prayer, and vespers; after each hour, the appropriate meal was served. Between prayer and meals there were blocks of time for contemplation and meditation (naps); study, common and individual; and work, on-site labor to meet the needs of the community (cleaning, gardening, snow removal, etc.).

The imposed confinement in March due to COVID-19 has felt in many ways like a return to my novitiate experience. The rhythm of life that developed in the wake of the confinement was not unfamiliar. My life was not punctuated primarily by apostolic activities—teaching, lectures, parish ministry—but around common prayer. Always being home has meant that morning or evening activities no longer make it possible to skip common prayer for a different “priority.” Of course, through technology many of activities continue, but in drastically different ways. The sacrosanct private space of the “monastic cell” has been displayed on Zoom for all to see.

For centuries, religious have in some way retreated from the world, for love of it, into a voluntary confinement. Withdrawal means making space for the other, especially for the most vulnerable and in need. This is not a space of escape from the world, but a space of intimate encounter, where the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties” (Gaudium et spes) are appropriated and placed before the Triune God in prayer. Since COVID-19 began, this prayer has been mottled by petition and supplication for healing and reconciliation.

Religious communities, even ones rooted in monastic or medieval notions of “separation from the world,” are not unaffected by pandemic. In 1918 Archbishop Paul Bruchesi of Montreal wrote a pastoral letter praising the work of many religious communities during the Spanish Flu epidemic. Apostolic religious communities were on the frontlines of health care and social assistance then. In these twilight years of religious life in Canada, religious communities experience solidarity with the victims of COVID-19 differently. Less than directly serving those most affected by the pandemic, many religious have become its victims.

If religious communities were aware of their vulnerability before the pandemic, how much more keenly are they aware of it today? In 2014, Canada counted about 11,600 religious. Of that number 50% were over 80 years old and 44% between the ages of 60-80. Already in 2014 fully 25% of all religious lived in long-term care homes. Many religious communities have been devastated by the coronavirus. In Ontario, the Jesuits temporarily shut down their retirement facility. Half of the residents in the Residence-De-La-Salle, a mixed religious community care facility in Quebec, have died. Some religious communities have lost up to one third of their members due to COVID-19.

My return to my novitiate experience, coupled with the witness of those who have been affected by the disease, reminds me that religious life is an ongoing process of becoming ever more vulnerable. A voluntary confinement does not separate religious from the world around them, but brings the vulnerability of that world into the heart of who we are.

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Today, we hear from two of the voices working to keep the campus in safe and beautiful condition. Angela MacAloney-Mueller is Physical Plant Coordinator. Shes been a part of the USMC community since August 1994, and notes that the comfort of students and staff are her top priority. Michael Chow is the Director of Facilities & Services. He joined the USMC community in August of 2019, and is dedicated to making USMC the most beautiful campus in Canada.

The New Normal on the St. Mike’s Campus


Photograph of Elmsley Place in springtime
Photo by Sheila Eaton

Anyone who’s visited my office knows how much of a Harry Potter fan I am. During the last few weeks a line from one of the movies keeps running through my mind. In Order of the Phoenix, Mrs. Figg assists Harry in escaping two Dementors—flying, soul-sucking monsters—who have attacked Harry and his cousin, Dudley. Dementors in Little Winging! Whatever next? The whole world’s gone topsy-turvy!” Some days it does feel like that.

In early January, the coronavirus was something discussed but not really worried about—at least not by me. Then I was asked to source order hand sanitizer for the campus. It was then I started to worry a little; it wasn’t as easy to source as I had thought, although I was able to order some. Once it arrived I distributed it to various departments. At that time, I think we were all hoping the coronavirus wouldn’t affect our lives—it was happening “out there.” February came, the virus became more widespread, and senior managers discussed emergency plans.

Then everything seemed to happen so fast. Students were asked to move out early, classes moved online, and plans were made for the staff who could to work from home. I woke up one March morning to find myself using a laptop for the first time, logging in remotely from my kitchen. It took a couple of weeks to get used to working from home. I still get up at the same time and follow my morning routine. I do this for two reasons: one, my cat won’t let me sleep in and, two, I know it is better for me mentally to stick to my regular routine wherever I can.

I am grateful I can work from home and don’t have to take public transit, but I miss the camaraderie with my coworkers, going to lunch at my favourite sushi place, and just being on campus. I have worked on campus for more than half my life. Sixteen years at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, and it’ll be ten years this August that I have worked for the Facilities Department. The campus is like a second home, and it’s taken some adjusting to not being there as often.

This time of year is normally one of the busiest times for the Facilities Department. Students move out at the end of April, and we do room inspections and repairs in May, when we normally prepare to host summer camps. I missed the hustle and bustle of that this year. Still, we must keep moving forward, so we are now getting some work done in the campus buildings.

I go to campus once a week to do paperwork and other tasks I can’t do from home. I always go for a walk around the mainly quiet campus. Signs of spring are everywhere. The lilacs are in bloom, the birds are singing, and the tulips planted last fall are showing off their lovely colours. The day I’m in the office feels the most normal. It’s nice to see and chat with a couple of coworkers, to have a sense of normalcy, even if only for a day.

I don’t know if we will ever go back to the way things were, but I know we will all adjust to a new normal. Yes, it does feel very “topsy-turvy” right now, but we must keep going and not let fear take away the joy in our lives. I know this is not forever, and I need to keep reminding myself of that. I look forward to the day we are all on campus together again.


Photo of St. Mike's campus welcome sign

The campus and the world are not the same today as they were three months ago.

As a commuter, it is now hard for me to believe I had problems finding a parking spot at the GO train station ahead of my 6:28 am train. After March 12, parking was no longer the issue, but rather the frequency of trains. Ridership dropped drastically, which I originally attributed to March Break but quickly learned was a sign of people staying away from the “germ tube.” I followed suit and decided to drive to campus. To my surprise, I was able to make it to campus in about 25 minutes or so, the equivalent of making the same drive prior to sunrise on a Sunday morning.

Self-isolation, self-quarantine, border closures, and a state of emergency were the hot topics in mid-March, replacing the usual campus discussions surrounding mid-term results, lectures, final exams, and convocation. After the campus closure was announced and the majority of the students had moved out, a surreal dream started playing out in Technicolor.

Imagine walking through Canada’s largest university campus in March and only encountering three people. Weird and eerie are two words to describe the overall ambiance.

While other USMC staff were able to work from home, the same opportunity was not available for the Facilities & Housekeeping staff. The courageous and dedicated staff from F&H persevered, and many of them braved public transit to ensure uninterrupted services for those students unable to return home due to travel restrictions.

Behind the scenes—and often unnoticed—the F&H staff have faced the challenges of the pandemic as essential staff and turned them into opportunities as guardians for the university. Deep cleaning and disinfecting of all campus spaces, polishing and waxing of large common floor areas and meeting rooms, lowering utilities by managing equipment set-points and turning them off where possible, and pushing forward with maintenance projects which might otherwise not be feasible with a full campus.

As we all try to predict what the “new normal” will look like, the staff and students can be assured that the USMC campus will continue to be one of Canada’s most beautiful, safe and ready to welcome everyone back once we are able to.

A card in the Facilities office from the Dons of 2019/2020 reads: “Not all superheroes wear capes.” Please stop a F&H staff member upon returning to campus; a simple heartfelt “thank-you” will have a lasting impact.

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Educators and alumni members John B. Kostoff and Patricia Dal Ben are the authors of One Home at a Time: Realizing and Living Out Our Domestic Church, Novalis 2019. John, who is the Executive Director of the Ontario Catholic Supervisory Officers’ Association, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1977 and now serves as a member of the University of St. Michael’s College Collegium. Patricia, who is Curriculum Consultant: Religious Education, Family Life and The Arts with the Halton Catholic District School Board, graduated with a Master of Theological Studies degree from the Faculty of Theology in 2017.

Building the Domestic Church

Aerial shot of the city of Toronto with a neighbourhood in the foreground.

Since the beginning of this pandemic, home is where we have been called to “stay safe” and where we have been staying for weeks on end. Home has never meant so much to so many people. It is the place we have baked, binged, and worked. It is the place we have homeschooled and the place where we have celebrated virtual mass. It is also where we have wept and worried and then worried some more. So how has your notion of home changed during this time? Or has it?

Long before this pandemic, home was, in part, where mass was celebrated; not the way we celebrate it today or with hope in the near future, in our bricks and mortar churches, but celebrated nonetheless. The Apostles sat in the upper room after the crucifixion trying to reimagine what this “new” life was going to look like. Luke the Evangelist recounts in the Acts of the Apostles that “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home.” (Acts 2.46a) The Catechism of the Catholic Church also reminds us that,

“In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centres of living, radiant faith. For this reason, the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the Ecclessia domestica.” (1656).

The home church or domestic church has a long-standing tradition in our faith experience, and this notion was reignited by Bishop Fiordelli at the Second Vatican Council. St. John Paul II called the family “another invaluable expression of the apostolate of families” (Letter to Families, p. 16, 1994). The Church has continually valued and called on the faithful to create anew the reality of being home.

Article after article, post after post, people are reaching deep to look at what matters and realigning how we project into the world and how we deal with all that is happening and all that is still unknown. Missing our churches, the community, THE celebration is important, but never has there been such a time to reinvigorate our home churches. What we do now in our domestic church will have a profound effect on the future of our universal Church. We have a responsibility to develop the domestic church as authentic projections and expressions of our collective baptismal call.

As we celebrate Pentecost and the birthday of the Church, let us not forget how important that first house church was, and the responsibility we all have to nurture and support that growth and faith development in our own homes with the people we call family. The domestic church has been instrumental in laying the foundation of what is most important to this temporal life. From those early moments of gathering and now, thousands of years later, without a church building or the ability to gather in our places of worship—how then do we claim to be Catholic? How do we delineate in our homes that our faith tradition matters? The new evangelization has come to us in a bold and enticing way. How we understand what is happening in our world will forever change how we participate in Church. There has never been a better time to be taking stock of our domestic church so that when we unite once again to the source and summit we will have done our best to proclaim as good and faithful servants in our homes and beyond.

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Julia Orsini is a member of the graduating class of 2020. On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, she was granted an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree with a Major in Political Science and Double Minor in English and Italian Culture and Communication. She will be pursuing a Master’s Degree in Marketing at Schulich School of Business in September 2020.

Double Blue Forever

Image depicts Class of 2020 St. Michael's graduate Julia Orsini in an academic gown.

Coming from a long line of family members with double blue running deep in their veins, I was so excited to carry the torch in my academic journey and become a St. Michael’s College student myself. By reflecting on my time working with USMC Orientation, teaching chants like Hoikity Choik and Bubbaloo, I couldn’t help but remember learning them at a young age and wearing my dad’s oversized SMC sweater. For decades, St. Mike’s has influenced education through Basilian teachings to transform young enthusiastic student minds into great leaders, and the university welcomed me with open arms the fall of 2015 with opportunities to grow and develop.

At USMC we are always quick to discuss our tight-knit community. It is no wonder the place quickly became the home that I had been expecting on my arrival, and hence why it will be so difficult to leave now that I have graduated. I learned early on that your university experience will be whatever you put into it, and I knew being heavily involved in the USMC community from the start was integral to my five years here. As I prepare to leave the gates of USMC behind I am confident that my time and experiences here have helped me mature in ways I could have never imagined when I first stepped foot on campus. My time with the St. Michael’s Troubadours Drama Society and The Mike are notable memories, including having the opportunity to find creative ways to connect the Young Alumni community as a work-study student at the Office of Alumni Affairs. The latter is now becoming reality for me as I become part of the Young Alumni Community myself.

Although our USMC Class of 2020 had the unconventional experience of graduating via a YouTube Convocation, I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and that God does not give you more than you can handle. I believe that the Class of 2020’s unwavering determination to continue learning without a traditional university experience is a testament to our strength as a community capable of accomplishing greatness.

Despite not having the traditional convocation, the University of Toronto administration still managed to recreate the procession, which I watched as I gathered with my family at home on the couch. Instead of wearing fancy heels that bore the impact of walking across campus from USMC to Convocation Hall, I opted for comfy house slippers. Rather than trying to find my parents in the sea of people as I waited for my name to be called out, we screamed, celebrated and cried when my name appeared on our television screen, and we held each other tightly. It turns out our unprecedented virtual convocation allowed me to celebrate instantaneously with my family in a way that transcended distance, continents and time zones.

I am proud to be a St. Michael’s student turned Young Alumni member, and share with the graduating class the optimism for a better and safer future as we continue to form new knowledge, skills and experiences to keep the world on turning.

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John Montefiore is a member of the graduating class of 2020. On Tuesday, June 2, 2020, he will be granted a Bachelor of Arts degree with a Double Minor in Education and Society and Human Geography.

Walking Away—and Coming Back

John Montefiore graduation photograph

My relationship with St. Mike’s goes back to 1995, when I first began my university career. I abandoned my pursuit of a university degree, however, after I was found I was unsuccessful in performing academically while also being a varsity athlete with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues football team. I walked away from both my academic and athletic dreams, primarily because I was unable to face and overcome the adversity and difficult position in which I had put myself.

Decades later, in the summer of 2018, I returned to the University of St. Michael’s College to explore the possibility of returning to school to complete my university degree. The staff at the registrar’s office were so helpful, accommodating, and supportive of me in my goal to complete my studies! A special thank-you goes out to Associate Registrar Miranda Cheng. She helped me plan my return and directly contributed to my success. I will be forever grateful to her and to the entire St. Mike’s administrative staff for helping me erase decades of feelings of regret and disappointment.

Today, I am proud to be a graduate of the University of St. Michael’s College. My feelings of pride, however, would have been delayed if not for the flexibility, actions, and commitment the entire University took to ensure that the academic year would not be lost due to COVID-19. All my professors went above and beyond to transition to a virtual format to help complete the winter term. Considering my own experience with adversity, seeing the University of Toronto react so positively in a time of crisis was inspiring. As such, I have decided the best way I can repay both St. Michael’s and the University of Toronto for their efforts is to aspire to be the best version of myself in spite of being faced with challenges that may arise, and to “pay it forward” to anyone that can benefit from any assistance I can provide.

As for not having an in-person convocation, well, I do feel somewhat disappointed. More so for my family, who would have loved to experience a moment that I failed to deliver to them decades ago. But it is just the cherry on top of the sundae! As I reflect back on my academic journey, I am reminded that it was the journey itself, the knowledge gained, the friends I made, the personal growth, and my sense of accomplishment that was the ice cream, chocolate sprinkles, whipped cream and nuts that made up one delicious dessert. I am so grateful for being a part of the class of 2020, and will always remember graduating during the COVID-19 crisis. So, instead of using crisis as an excuse, I will use it as a reason, a reason to rise above it and do interesting things during these interesting times.

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Grace McSorley (USMC Class of 1995) is a lawyer and Deputy Ombudsman at the Ombudsman for Banking Service and Investments. She is currently on the USMC Senate and previously served on the Collegium as a student and later as an alumni representative.  

A Virtual Check-in with Classmates

Photo of alumna Grace McSorley

Hello St. Mike’s community!

Since we can’t catch up in person at reunion this year—and by now most of us are “zoomed-out”—it is great we can use the St. Mike’s blog to hear about what people are thinking and how they are doing. I thought I would share my experience as a work-from-home parent during the COVID-19 crisis.

My husband, Michael McCarthy (USMC Class of 1994), and I are fortunate in that we are both able to work from home. I work at OBSI, the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments, a not-for-profit that resolves disputes between banking and investment firms and their clients when they can’t resolve them on their own. This is a busy time for us, and for our stakeholders. Fortunately, OBSI had practiced a scenario where we would have to work from home on short notice, so our transition was seamless and our work was not interrupted.

Things were not as seamless on the domestic front. The day the COVID-19 shutdown started, our laundry machine broke so, for the first three weeks of the shutdown, I did laundry in our bathtub with my feet, which can only be described as a joyless task. It is amazing how much laundry a family of four still generates when they are hardly leaving the house.

In the early pandemic days, I worried my family wasn’t active enough. This was reinforced during a game of charades when one family member mistakenly acted out the song, “I’ve Been Sitting on the Railroad” instead of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Shortly thereafter, family walks became mandatory and longer.

For the most part, I’m impressed with the way my family has adapted to new activities. Mike successfully joined the ranks of the sourdough bread bakers. He and the boys play Dungeons & Dragons with a neighbour via FaceTime. My youngest son dug a hole as deep as he is tall in our tiny backyard. He jokes that other kids will return to school telling stories of how they learned to play guitar and wrote “Coronavirus the Musical,” but he’s going to tell everyone he just dug a hole. He’s actually done a lot more, including making me the beautiful Mother’s Day necklace I’m wearing in the picture accompanying this piece using lapis lazuli from his rock collection.

Like many, we’ve had a lot of low points over the last few weeks—but I will spare you the details of our internecine quarrels. We know we are fortunate that we are healthy, employed and able to work from home. Still, it is hard not being able to do important things like be with my mother, or mourn with friends who’ve recently lost parents. My mother recently had to go into full quarantine because three personal support workers from her residence tested positive for the Coronavirus. It is my understanding that they are well and no one else has tested positive, but this is still upsetting for everyone.

We are happy to have backyard social distancing visits with my mother-in-law, during which my boys regale her with jokes they research ahead of time. She has now twice told us how much she misses hugs, and it breaks my heart that we can’t give her one. On our last visit she said that as soon as this is over, she is going to run to the closest intersection and hug everyone she sees. This makes me imagine my mother-in-law in a photo like the iconic WW2 VJ day nurse and sailor image, only in this photo, she is the one dipping another reveller who is also out celebrating the end of COVID-19 times.

I hope everyone is well and I look forward to catching up in person!

The University of St. Michael’s College is keeping the members of all our honoured classes in mind. We look forward to the day when we gather again!

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Dr. Stephen Tardif is an Assistant Professor in the Christianity and Culture Program at the University of St. Michael’s College. He also offers courses in the Book and Media Studies Program. This spring, Dr. Tardif was named as co-editor of The Hopkins Quarterly, an international journal of critical, scholarly, and appreciative responses to the life and work of Gerard M. Hopkins, S.J., as well as to those of his circle. 

Reading Hopkins in Quarantine

A portrait of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

By April, the poet was already sick; in June—just six weeks shy of his forty-fifth birthday—he would succumb to an infection for which, within a decade, there would be a widespread, life-saving vaccine. The death of the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, from typhoid fever in 1889 appears to present a number of grim contrasts: a young man cut down in the prime of life, who dies from a soon-to-be cured disease. And yet, as his illness worsened, Hopkins’ mood seemed to lighten: the last letters to his family offer consolation, his reported last words, “I am so happy,” offer inspiration.[1] And his last poem, which he sent in April to his best friend, Robert Bridges, offers an “explanation”—this, indeed, is the poem’s last word. Although typhoid is certainly very different from the pandemic we face today, we can take a lesson from Hopkins about how to endure both the disease itself and the disruption it continues to cause, especially from his final poetic achievement.

This poem, a sonnet entitled, “To R.B.,” is, in fact, addressed to his best friend, and it ended what Bridges later recalled being “a sort of quarrel” between them, one precipitated by a joke and some hurt feelings.[2] Hopkins had teased Bridges about the small run of a forthcoming collection of his poems; Bridges parried with a reminder that Hopkins had published virtually nothing at all; with the peacemaking poem that Hopkins sent his friend, he provides a kind of alibi for his silence. Hopkins, who had only sporadic poetic inspiration for years, turns this privation into an invitation to imagine the very impulse that he lacks. The result is one of the most successful examples—and accounts of—poetic creation in the English language.

Signature of Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J.

Hopkins’ poem is thus a reminder of the abilities that we possess, even in times of quarantine, confinement, and infirmity. While we might not all have be able to describe the artist’s creative act, we do have the power to maintain and renew the social bonds between us. While the sonorous, Latinate rhyme-words which end the poem —“inspiration,” “creation,” and “explanation” (ll. 10, 12, 14)—might seem to rise with the first two words but fall with the last, this word is really its pinnacle. After all, this explanatory poem, which reconciled friends who would soon be separated by death, precipitated the experience of inspiration that it captures so well. Above even the poetic muse, then, Hopkins elevates our power to write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to the family and friends from whom we have been separated—or estranged.

But there is another lesson to take from “To R.B.” In a winning, lyric passage from her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson describes a counterintuitive relationship between presence and absence:

For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it…and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole.[3]

Hopkins, too, turns his lack of inspiration into the subject of his poetry; the absence of that affect becomes the thing which he describes in verse. The poem confirms the otherwise paradoxical insight of the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil: “Every separation is a link.”[4]

Sooner or later, the restrictions and precautions which have been adopted during this pandemic will fade, and we will no longer measure the minima of social distances or the concavity of curves. But our appreciation for the things and the people that we miss—those that will be restored and those that won’t—need not wait on any government policy or public health finding. As Robinson reminds us, “the world will be made whole.” Until then, in the “winter world, that scarcely breathes that bliss,” (l. 13) we can yield explanations to each other and embrace the strange gift of separation which is already a foretaste of that ultimate completion.

[1] See Paul Mariani, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life (New York: Viking, 2008), 425.

[2] Mariani, 418.

[3] Housekeeping (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), 152-153.

[4] Gravity and Grace, trans. Arthur Wills (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1952), 200.

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Dr. Mark McGowan is a Professor of History and Celtic Studies, and the Interim Principal of the University of St. Michael’s College for the 2020–2021 academic year. Dr. McGowan is an historian renowned for his work on the Catholic Church in Canada and the Great Irish Famine, as well as the lasting impact that the Famine’s mass migration had on Canada.

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Michael O’Connor is Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, in the Christianity and Culture program and Book and Media Studies. His research interests include music and liturgy and he is director of the St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum and the college Singing Club.

Saturday night, Sunday morning

Saturday night

Close up image of a violinist

You were lucky the get tickets for the Tafelmusik late-night concert. You arrive an hour early for check-in, as required, and stand in a well-spaced line in the cordoned-off section of now pedestrianized Bloor Street. Your mask is inspected, your temperature taken, you are asked some routine questions about your health (all rather reminiscent of flying to the US in the old days—when we could do that), and are then directed to your seat, four seats away from the next person, empty rows in front and behind. The tang of bleach competes with wood polish. At least there’s space to put your coat, scarf, and mitts (it has been an especially cold March). You nod at your nearest neighbours, an indistinct gesture that could mean “Why on earth are we here?”

The tiny orchestra is spread out over the whole dais. The string players are all wearing masks, the harpsichordist is wearing gloves, and the oboist is inside a plexiglass booth, standing on a disposable absorbent mat. The choir, of course, has been furloughed—they are supervectors. According to the program notes, which you read on your phone, you’ll be hearing music from seventeenth-century Venice composed in thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague. The oboe gives a note and the strings begin tuning up; at this sound, neither music nor noise, you shiver with unpremeditated delight. It has been almost a year since you heard any live music—other than the neighbour’s daughter practising clarinet. You realize in that instant how heartsick you have become with the diet of autotuned, click-tracked, virtual ensembles.

You can’t take you eyes off the three-dimensional, flesh and blood performers. They make occasional eye contact with each other at beginnings and endings but for the most part, like geese in formation, they sense together the music’s flight, bobbing and weaving as one. Carried along with them, your spirit soars, your pulse quickens. Behind your mask, you chuckle with nervous joy. They play for an hour (no interval, no washrooms, merchandise for sale online only) but it passes in moments. Your final applause is exuberant, reverberant, as you try to fill the space with the appreciation of an absent crowd.

Sunday morning

At St. Basil’s, you join the ticket-holders for the 11:07 mass (“enter through the west door, please stand on the red dots”), where your mask is inspected and your temperature taken. Once the 10:30 mass is over, you file up the stairs into church. Household groups sit together; others sit in isolation. You choose a spot in the sightlines of the camera live-streaming the mass on the parish’s YouTube channel. Your mother will be watching (“No, not lingering adolescent guilt,” you insist: “it will lift her spirits to know she has a proxy at mass”). You greet parishioners whose names you now know from Zoomed faith-sharing sessions. Stilted remarks are exchanged across the voids but, like teenagers, you have learnt to save your most vulnerable conversations for social media. Gloved sacristans lay out all the necessaries next to the altar; there will be no servers.

The entrance hymn is sung by an unseen cantor and although the words are projected onto two large screens, you are encouraged only to hum along quietly (“Singing is worse than coughing”). This suits you, since you are a reluctant singer—unless it’s “Come all Ye Faithful,” “Amazing Grace,” or that bit from the Mass of Creation that everyone knows. You recall the choir director who insisted that singing is all health benefits and no side effects—you wonder how he’s enjoying his humming. Readers proclaim the scriptures from individual iPads. The priest’s homily is polished—which is not surprising given the number of times he has preached it today. Occasionally he turns to the camera to address the over-60s watching from home. He looks tired. You enjoy the reminder that the collection basket has been stood down (“temporarily, of course”), and nag yourself (again!) to go online as soon as you get home to make your donation.

Bread and wine are prepared at the altar. The organ plays softly, a half-disguised melody accompanied by the clink of the cruets on the chalice. The sight of the empty seats conjures up the parishioners who normally occupy them, and your mind’s eye is flooded with images of warm, colourful, singing bodies. In among them, you wonder if you really do see faces of angels, apostles, martyrs—a shimmer of countless holy ones.

Photograph of St. Basil's Church steeple between trees
Photo by Sheila Eaton

Communion is a regimented, high-alert manoeuvre. You make your way forward biddably. Against all reason, you lower your mask. As the social distance collapses to near-zero, the minister deftly drops the host onto your well-scrubbed hands. You exhale your Amen. Back in your seat, you savour communion. You think of those you love, those in need, those who have not made it this far. While the invisible cantor reminds you to taste and see how good the Lord is, your prayers rise on clouds of Purell and latex powder.

After the closing devotionals (St. Michael has been joined by St. Blaise and St. Roch), you leave the church in an orderly fashion (“exit through the east door”). The organ postlude is almost loud enough to drown out the sound of disinfectant being sprayed on the pews as the church is made ready for the 11:44 mass, the last one before the lunch break.

On the long walk home, your mind is a-chatter: yes, togetherness is in your genes, primates love to sing and laugh together, to feast and embrace. But as a rational primate, you have been hearing for months now that your neighbour is a potential biohazard—that you could be a biohazard—and that the only safe space is the digital universe, where viruses are metaphors.

When you get home and inside, you slump against the door, pull off your mask and take several long breaths. You’re exhausted. You’re blessed. You just might be hungry (you’re never sure these days).

The lockdown was not easy; but the opening-up feels much harder.


Guidelines for rehearsals and concerts during the pandemic have been issued by the German Orchestra Association’s Health and Prophylaxis Working Group and by seven orchestras in Berlin. Two bodies in the US have produced guidelines for the celebration of sacraments: the Thomistic Institute in Washington and the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions. An alliance of singing groups sponsored a webinar on the near future of singing.

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Silvia Vong is Head of Public Services at the John M. Kelly Library and oversees the Access and Information Services department. Her research interests include critical reflective practice in academic librarianship. Currently, Silvia is a doctoral student at OISE in the University of Toronto working on research related to equity, diversity, and inclusion issues in higher education.

A Critical Reflection on Virtual Libraries

Image of Kelly Library bookshelves

In my first year of the library and information science program at Western University, we were introduced to the idea of a code of ethics in librarianship. A code of ethics guides the values of a library professional and can manifest into actions such as advocating for open access or teaching critical thinking skills. Currently, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) outlines six codes, and the one that holds the most weight for me is responsibilities towards individuals and society. This has led me to practice critical reflection in the classroom, and with our online library services.

While the coronavirus does not discriminate, people experiencing income inequalities, the digital divide, racism, and domestic violence have particularly suffered during this exceptional time. As the pandemic began, librarians began to critically reflect on access and service. Brookfield (1995) and Tripp (1993) offer insight into ways of critically reflecting, first by reviewing incidents and interactions, and then asking the following: What is the dominant view? How does this view silence other views? How does this dominant view ignore or serve dominant groups? How does it impact disadvantaged groups and what can we do to create a socially just structure to address this oppression?

In the first three weeks of the shutdown, I thought about how online access and research may inadvertently exclude some of our community members. Patrons may face financial stress during a pandemic and, in turn, not own laptops in good condition with proper software. Some patrons may not be home due to domestic violence, or be in places without Internet access. In addition, some of our patrons may not have the ability to access mental health services and other resources in the community that allow them to focus and succeed at learning. While e-books and online journals in some ways increase access, they can also create barriers to some of our community members. With social distancing restrictions in place, I struggled to find solutions that could help our marginalized community members.

As I continued to look for ways to be more inclusive, the University of Toronto was offering a session on COVID-19 through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. Income inequality and mental health were major themes of the presentation. However, the main takeaway was that under all the stress and anxiety that we all feel during this time, we need to remind ourselves to approach every decision-making process with empathy so that we can make socially just choices for our community.

My very inquisitive 4-year old daughter, Isabella, had overheard the webcast and peppered me with why, where, and how questions related to inequity and inequality in the university and the world. One evening, while munching away at her green beans with a furrowed brow, she paused suddenly, and her little face lit up. Isabella turned to me and said, “Mama, I know how we can make the world better. If we, and anyone with a little extra, could give it away…people with nothing would be safe from bad things.” Oh my heart! My enlightened little one was absorbing my conversations and reflections on the ethical responsibility that we, as members of society, all have during this pandemic.

To put her idea to practice, Isabella and I identified a way to safely help others. We decided to donate to the Daily Bread Food Bank to give our “little extra” to someone in need. Isabella’s reflective thoughts on the pandemic reminded me that while I could not make one big change to help others, I could still find several small ways to reach out and help our community.

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Professor Emeritus Dennis Patrick O’Hara is the former Director of the Elliott Allen Institute for Theology and Ecology at the St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, where he taught from 2002-2019, and directed many theses in ecotheology and ethics. He was also an associate member of the graduate faculty at the School for Environment at the University of Toronto. In addition to teaching courses in ecological theology, spirituality, ethics, and sustainability, he has worked for the World Health Organization and Health Canada researching and preparing policy positions. He regularly delivers both popular and academic lectures in Canada and the USA but has also lectured in Europe and South Korea. Prior to becoming a theologian, he practised as a chiropractor and naturopathic doctor, and taught at colleges of both of those professions.

Moments of Grace and COVID-19

Image depicts a glass marble on a mound of dirt. The marble gives an upside-down reflection of the sky and ground in the background.

Basil of Caesarea, in Rule LV: Whether the Use of Medicinal Remedies is consistent with the Ideal of Piety, instructs that a serious illness can be sufficiently disruptive to our normal patterns of living that it can force us to consider the circumstances that led to our illness and to re-evaluate our choices so that we can once again align our life with the telos of God’s creation. This opportunity can be identified as a moment of grace, on a religious level.

Thomas Berry notes that moments of grace can also occur on cosmic and historical levels, such as the dispersal of primary element via the explosion of stars or the development of photosynthesis. Throughout the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe, change occurs when systems reach the most tension that they can creatively endure. At that point, systems evolve irreversibly by transforming into a new level of order and complexity by resolving the dangerous tension in an unprecedented way. In many respects, we are at such a moment, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in part due to an ecological crisis magnified by climate change.

The people who are suffering the most due to the ecological crisis with its complex interwoven array of hardships will undoubtedly be least able to withstand the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic with its threats to personal health and reduced access to supportive infrastructures. Both the ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are anthropogenic crises on a global scale, and both require a commensurate response. This pandemic has demonstrated the enormous actions we will take when we decide to act for the common good as a single Earth community. Despite decades of exasperating delay to curtail climate change, when faced with this pandemic, nations rapidly instituted measures to restrict travel, pause economies, enforce physical distancing, and impose domestic isolation. Perhaps such a collective and purposeful response could become a rehearsal for addressing Earth’s ecological challenges as we creatively seek ways of being that are mutually enhancing for us and the rest of the Earth community.

Pope Francis, in an interview with Austen Ivereigh from the University of Oxford concerning this pandemic, noted that the great uncertainty of this present moment is “a time for inventing, for creativity” because “every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger” through conversion, including “the decisive step to move from using and misusing nature.” Ecotheology reminds us that we have a common origin and share a common sacred story with all of Earth. We need to reframe our choices to better align with the creative dynamics and the telos of that story for we will go into the future as a single Earth community or not at all.

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Dr. Callie Callon is a New Testament scholar at the Faculty of Theology who has also taught at the undergraduate level for St. Michael’s. She is an expert in ancient physiognomy, looking at how early Christians used appearances to praise or impugn others. Her book, Reading Bodies: Physiognomy as a Strategy of Persuasion in Early Christian Discourse, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

Healing Moistly in Ancient Times

Image depicts the painting "Healing the Blind Man" by Václav Mánes, 1832.
Healing the Blind Man by Václav Mánes, 1832.

Recently, Prime Minister Trudeau rather infamously suggested that wearing masks during the current health crisis will help prevent the transmission of the virus through saliva, or, as he phrased it, by speaking moistly on others in close proximity. As cringeworthy as this terrible image is to a contemporary audience, it likely would not have evoked the same reaction in an ancient Mediterranean one. In this context the use of saliva was considered by some to be highly efficacious in treating a number of various ailments. 

Perhaps the most famous examples of this are found in the New Testament, where Jesus is depicted as using his own saliva in conjunction with healing some sensory afflictions. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus heals a person with hearing and speech impediments through his touch, prayer, and by spitting (7:31-53). Visual impairments are healed by him with the assistance of a topical application of his saliva in two accounts. In Mark, Jesus spits directly into the eyes of a supplicant prior to laying his hands on him (8:22-26). In the Gospel of John Jesus forms a paste made from saliva and earth which he the applies to the blind mans eyes before instructing him to then go and wash in the pool of Siloam (9:6-7).  

However, these were not the only people who were held to have regained their vision through the application of saliva in ancient texts. According to the first/second century historians Suetonius and Tacitus, the emperor Vespasian accomplished a similar feat through the use of his saliva (Vesp., 7.2; Hist., 4.81). Pliny the Elder, a natural historian from the first century, also attests to the use of saliva for ocular disorders, asserting that ophthalmia could be remedied by daily application of the spittle of a fasting person (N.H. 28.7). According to him, a fasting womans spittle was considered an extremely effective treatment for bloodshot eyes (N.H. 28.22) 

Beyond eyesight, Pliny further relates a tradition that seems to have held the application of spittle from a fasting person as a particularly effective treatment for a variety of different complaints.  To cite but a few examples, it was thought that the application of this type of spittle behind a persons ear would soothe a disordered mind (N.H. 28.5), could be used to treat boils (N.H. 28.7) and to remove leprous spots (N.H. 28.7), and that a crick in the neck may be got rid of by carrying fasting spittle to the right knee with the right hand, and to the left knee with the left (N.H. 28.7).   

Non-topical uses are also attested for a host of different ailments, ranging from warding off snakes to prevent poisonous bites (although should it enter their throats it purportedly destroys them [N.H. 7.2]), as a preventative against contracting epilepsy (N.H. 28.7), and as a means to secure the desired outcome of a healing incantation regarding foot pain, with the rather interesting stipulation that the accompanying words must be recited sober (VarroAgr. 1.2.27).  

Far from being a transmitter of health complications, in some ancient Mediterranean thought saliva was viewed as a means to resolve or even prevent them. While our present circumstances necessitate keeping our saliva to ourselves, there is still a wealth of actions drawn from the gospels that we can, have been, and should emulate: compassion, faith, love and care for others. And of course, social distancing (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16; Matthew 14:13)!  

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Ann Mathew graduated from St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, in 2019 with a double major in English and Christianity & Culture. While an undergraduate, she served as an editor on Saeculum, the student peer-reviewed journal associated with the Christianity & Culture program. She has just completed her first year of the three-year Master of Divinity program at the Faculty of Theology. A member of the Faculty’s Student Life Committee, she also sits on one of the subcommittees preparing for the coming visit by the Association of Theological Schools, the Facultys accrediting body. 

Adjusting to the New Normal

Image depicts the inside of an empty subway car in Toronto

Writing this draft in the glory of the Risen Lord, I am also thrilled to have completed my first year of the Master of Divinity program at the Faculty of Theology at St. Michaels College. Although this global situation of the COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected all of our lives, taking a special toll on the state of classrooms, the fact that I had enrolled in a couple of introductory online courses at the Faculty meant I was quite prepared for the virtual classroom setting. That being said, this shift in ones surroundings was indeed surprising.  

Being a commuter student, this change was admittedly rather welcome. To avoid rush hours and wind chills between home and campus for the second half of the Winter semester was an unexpected blessing in the present circumstances. The faculty and administration were rather prompt in addressing us about the changes that were about to take place. In light of the various final papers and deadlines, I recall the commute to campus to hoard up on library books before the closure. While many online resources have been made accessible to us by the university, there were still a few books that I needed to check out. My transit experience on March 16th was interesting, insofar as that, during what would have been an otherwise crowded morning commute, the TTC subways ran almost barren to the bones. Strategically planning my time between the Emmanuel College and John. M. Kelly libraries, I managed to bring home some 12 books. The ride home was eerie in that many at Union Station were homeboundluggage and neck pillow-clad, with no return date in sight.  

The remaining four weeks of classes flew by and we all seemed to adjust to our Zoom meetings, despite technical difficulties with Internet crashes at home, screen shares and background noises. Given the limited access to research materials, my professors graciously agreed to deadline extensions, along with concessions to primary sources. Throughout my undergraduate years, the Kelly Library gave witness to my eremitic lifestyle as each semester concluded. This time, however, my family got to experience my two weeks as a recluse. Truth be told, I rose with Christ on Easter Sunday as I submitted my final research paper.  

The whole world has more or less been brought to a halt. Each one of us plays a crucial part in maintaining normalcy, and the community at St. Mike’s has helped me adjust to this new normal, especially during the most stressful time of the semester. Currently, I am awaiting the commencement of online courses in the summer. Until then, I am passing time by engaging in some leisure reading, creative writing, family prayer, card games and such. As Archbishop Cardinal Collins often mentions in his daily homilies, let us continue to demonstrate our “love for our neighbour” in these days of keeping to our homes. May we find inspiration in the most trivial of things, all the while getting a step closer in knowing ourselves and emerge out of this phase as finer human beings.  

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Rev. Dr. Marc Doucet is an alumnus of the Faculty of Theology, graduating in 1980 with a Master of Divinity degree. He earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from St. Stephen’s College in 2018. He is a Registered Psychotherapist with the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario. He is also past Chair of the Education Standards Commission and past President of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care. He currently serves as the manager and CASC Clinical Educator at Toronto’s University Health Network.

Pastoral Care in the Midst of a Pandemic

Image depicts a folded piece of notebook paper sitting on a table.

I was sitting on the window ledge in the hallway of one of our ICUs checking in with one of my staff spiritual care practitioners to see how she was doing in the midst of COVID-19 and what support I could offer her and the rest of the team. As we talked she held a folded piece of white paper in her hand. After we chatted for a bit, she told me that she had an older male patient who had come in COVID+, was vented, and would probably die in the next few days. His adult son could not come to visit because he was quarantined. In checking in on his elderly parents who lived on their own, the son had found his father collapsed on the kitchen floor and his mother dead in bed from COVID. The piece of paper the spiritual care practitioner held was a letter written by the son: he had asked her whether, if he wrote a letter of goodbye to his dad, she would take it in and read it to him.

As I left her and walked down the hallway I was struck by the profoundness of the moment, and what it means, and calls for, to minister in the midst of a pandemic. I reflected on the strength and conviction she has to be able to walk into a patient’s room and read such an intimate letter—a letter that will be the last contact a father has with his son—a letter that will have lasting impact on a son; to do this not once but to be called on again and again in the coming weeks. This has become a major role for us to play: to connect families with their loved ones because of “no visitor” policies. People are going to die without their loved ones there in their last moments of life, and this will make grieving more difficult and complicated for families and loved ones. But spiritual care practitioners will be there!

We often use images such as “being present with people”—“journeying with people”—when speaking about pastoral care. But the presence we’re being asked to provide, the invitation to journey with patients during a pandemic, calls for something else from within. It’s not so much about creating a therapeutic relationship, drawing upon psychotherapeutic modalities for interventions (as important as all of these are); but to read a letter to a dying patient from their loved one requires a deep personal spiritual well, out of which flows this desire and willingness to “show up” and journey with, not with theory and knowledge to support us, but with a sense of commitment and purpose in our own lives.

I hear echoed in our work the words of Paul in Philippians when he speaks about the Christ event: He “did not regard equality with God…but emptied himself…taking on human form.” There is something incarnational about this work. It is literally giving “flesh”—not from some distant, safe place (phone, FaceTime, etc.)—to minimize the distance, the safety, and to enter, not only experiences, but literally into patient rooms, and nursing stations. In the midst of a pandemic spiritual care practitioners are leaving their security and walking into the devastating humanity of others.

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Dr. Reid B. Locklin is Associate Professor of Christianity and the Intellectual Tradition at the University of Toronto, a joint appointment with St Michaels College and the Department for the Study of Religion. His research focuses on a range of issues in Comparative Theology and Hindu-Christian Studies, particularly the engagement between Christian thought and the Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He also writes on the scholarship of teaching and learning in theology and religion. 

Catholics and Hindus, Together Alone

Pope Francis delivering a special Urbi et Orbi blessing to an eerie, empty St. Peter’s Square.
Image: Vatican Media

Like many Toronto Catholics, I began my observance of Holy Week this year in front of my family’s television, watching the Cardinal’s celebration of Palm Sunday in St. Michael’s Cathedral. A little over a week earlier, on March 27, I sat transfixed in front of my laptop computer as the pope pronounced a special Urbi et Orbi blessing to an eerie, empty St. Peter’s Square. My devotional life has moved nearly entirely online.

Catholics, of course, are not unique in this respect. Consider an “e-Satsangh” hosted on Facebook Live by the New York City-based Hindu movement Sadhana on April 2. In this event, a pandit offered a ritual puja in his apartment, presenting Sanskrit verses, water and other offerings to several Hindu deities well suited to the present crisis. These included the elephant-headed god Ganesha from a local temple in Flushing, New York; Arogya Lakshmi, the Goddess in the form of mother, health and power; and Sudarshana Vasudeva Dhanvantari, the god Vishnu in the form of a medicine healer. Following the puja, from a different apartment, one of Sadhana’s co-chairs guided virtual participants in a short meditation and hymns for the flourishing of all living beings. Discussion followed, ranging from the visceral—one participant sought advice on grieving the loss of a friend to COVID-19—to broader questions of advocacy and political organization. The focus here was on action: pragmatic service to those who are vulnerable, and also ritual action for their health and well-being.

Still more direct is the approach taken by residents of the Indian city of Mumbai, according to a widely circulated report. There, it seems, the Novel Coronavirus has been personified as an antigod or demon (asura). On the eve of the popular festival of Holi, effigies of this antigod—called Coronasur—were created and ritually destroyed, in an effort to halt the virus.

Statue of the Hindu God Ganesha.

As a Catholic, I admit some discomfort with these rites, at several levels. But, also as a Catholic, I am obliged to approach such discomfort with an attitude of dialogue and exchange, rather than fear or condemnation. What might I learn from my Hindu neighbours about being a person of faith in this time of pandemic?

I think that the examples of Sadhana and even the Coronasur effigy offer an important reminder that Catholics, no less than Hindus, believe in the authentic power of ritual prayer. When Pope Francis raised the Blessed Sacrament and pronounced the Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27, he was flanked by two icons that had defeated plagues in the past, Mary Salus Populis Romani and the Crucifix of San Marcello. This was a spiritual blessing, to be sure, an indulgence for those unable to receive the Rite of Reconciliation. But it was also an invocation of the power of God to intervene on behalf of those who are sick, and to arrest the devastation of COVID-19.

In the present crisis, some voices on the secular left and the religious right have called persons of faith to make a false choice: to follow the recommendations of public health officers, or to trust in the power of our shared prayer. Most Catholics, like most Hindus, refuse this choice. We embrace both the best science and the deep wisdom of our ritual traditions.

And so we vacate our churches and temples, and even St. Peter’s Square, to “flatten the curve.” But that need not, and cannot, stop us from persisting in our prayers. In this, Catholics, Hindus and many other others stand together, even while we are alone.

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Dr. Christopher E. De Bono is Vice President of Mission, People and Ethics for Providence Health Care (PHC) in Vancouver. A practical theologian, a Clinical and Organizational ethicist, and a certified Spiritual Care chaplain, Christopher earned his BA and PhD at St. Michael’s. 

A Novel Ritual for a Novel Virus

A close image of a person drumming on bongos

In the densely apartment-laden West End of Vancouver where I live, a ritual erupts every night at 7, when for between three and five minutes, people open their windows, go to their balconies, or congregate at a safe distance on the rooftops of their buildings. Why? To make a lot of noise.

Some clap, others shout. Many just bang kitchen pots and pans. Some even bring loudspeakers and drums and beat out a rhythm.

The result, which you might think should be cacophonous, is neither harsh nor discordant, but almost harmonious. I find it strangely comforting. And it has become something I prepare for every night.

But before I decided to become an active participant, I first heard this now-ritual noise-making on my walk home late in the evening. It was early in this crisis. After a long day working in health care to “flatten the curve” and to plan for those who would soon arrive at our hospitals with the novel corona virus, I wearily headed home for some much-needed rest.

As I left the hospital, I found myself surrounded by the noise of this novel ritual that has emerged as a reaction to a novel virus. Immediately I felt deeply happy, more resilient. I felt proud to hear the community acknowledge so many courageous frontline staff in acute and community care, so many researchers seeking solutions, and so many long-term care staff courageously limiting the spread among those individuals most at risk.

As a senior leader at Vancouver’s Providence Health Care, a Catholic health system famously known for its downtown St. Paul’s hospital and its long history of innovative work with marginalized groups, I already felt called to do my best. I also already knew the seriousness this novel virus posed and continues to pose.

So while we—and so many health care and essential care workers across the country—continue to work tirelessly to prepare for the surge, planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I take solace in this noisy and celebratory end-of-day ritual.

As a practical theologian, I am reminded of what I learned during my undergraduate and post-graduate student days at St. Michael’s: Rituals bring comfort. Rituals help us find meaning. Rituals bring connection. Rituals also give us a sense of control, because they are predictable.

Right now, we need all four of these things. This new virus has disrupted our comfort and has destabilized our sense of who we are. It has interrupted our very ability even to be physically close to human beings. It has increased our feelings of helplessness. And so much more. And this is why I am grateful for the creativity, hope and affirmation this new ritual offers.

A novel virus needed a novel ritual.

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Fr. Gustave Noel Ineza, OP, is a doctoral student at St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology. Born and raised in Rwanda, he lived through the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi and went into exile for a month in what was then Zaire. His family left the refugee camps and returned to Rwanda after three members of his family developed cholera. He studied in the minor seminary and joined the Dominican Order in 2002. He studied Philosophy in Burundi, and Theology in South Africa (SJTI/Pietermaritzburg) and the UK (Blackfriars/Oxford). Ordained in 2014, he worked for Domuni ( and was a chaplain to university and high school students. In 2018, he came to Canada to pursue studies in Christian-Muslim dialogue. He is currently reading on post-colonial approaches to the taxonomies assigned to religious traditions (Muslims and Christians) by colonial powers in Rwanda.

In Solidarity with the Suffering

Image shows a person cupping their hands against the sky, creating the illusion that they are holding the setting sun

When it was announced in Canada that COVID-19 was knocking at the door, multitudes rushed to shopping malls to buy as many provisions as they could, to be “prepared” for the pandemic. One item in particular was a major target of the worried crowds: toilet paper. Looking at images of people with trolleys full of toilet paper, one thought came to mind: “People are planning to eat a lot.”

I was reluctant to write this post because it is not easy to introduce a distressing subject in the middle of a global lockdown caused by a pandemic. It would be adding distress to distress. However, anyone interested in humanitarian crises has to know that disasters differ in intensity.

As I write this reflection on April 7, the whole world has started commemorating the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi, one of the worst genocides of the history of the world. Twenty-six years ago, in 100 days, about a million people died in a genocide, yet the rest of the world seemed disinterested by — or unaware of — what was happening there. Nations sent contingents of soldiers to Rwanda to remove their citizens from what the world knew to be genocide while at the same time trying to ignore the plight of the Tutsi for reasons no one has yet managed to logically explain to me.

After the genocide, masses of Rwandans moved to what was then Zaire – now, the Democratic Republic of Congo – seeking refuge. For a couple of weeks, we thought the world did not know that Rwanda existed. I was 11 years old.

Today, as the world closes in on itself to fight a ruthless pandemic, it is easy to forget there were ongoing crises around the world before COVID-19. No one forgot, I suppose, that Syria was in the middle of a bloody war, that Yemen never saw the end of another almost internationally ignored horrific conflict.

As a young child in Rwanda during the genocide, I would spend the day looking up at the sky to see if planes would bring United Nations troops. A few months later, in the refugee camps, I saw UN workers and knew we would get food soon if cholera did not first decimate my family, as three members were already infected. There was hope because, at that age, I knew that there were not so many crises going on in the world. I can imagine there is nothing as frightening as knowing that you may die soon of hunger or be killed, and that no one will even know about it because the whole world is afraid of something you consider a minor threat to you in light of all the other challenges and threats you face. Today, the UN relief agency UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are reminding people that crises are still happening around the world and that charitable people should not forget those who are hungry, in refugee camps,or being persecuted because they belong to minorities.

Charity tables set up in Cairo during Ramadan
Charity tables in Cairo. Photo by Otto J. Simon / CC BY-SA (

Consider this pandemic as experienced by poverty-stricken families in extremely poor countries. After the confinement began in Canada, it took only a couple of days to have African countries announce total lockdowns. In most African countries, a lockdown means staying inside your compound-house, your hut, or just in a small house that hosts more than eight people. A five-week confinement without a job for a family of five is nothing less than a death sentence. Fortunately, some countries have started distributing food, but very few people manage to get it. Worse, all those without homes and who had relied on charitable people’s provisions will have to find other means to feed their families. The city of Cairo has announced that the famous charity tables (mawa’ed al rahman) that adorn the streets during Ramadan for poor people to eat after a day of fasting were not going to be set this year. Having been in Cairo during the 2012 Ramadan month and having shared food at Al Abbasiah and Midan Al Tahrir with people from all strata of society, I understand how this will impact poor communities.

It would be inconsiderate to end without mentioning another shared worry for African people around the world. Two French doctors, Dr. Jean-Paul Mira, head of the Intensive Medicine and Intensive Care units at Cochin Hospital, and Professor Camille Locht, director of research at INSERM, discussed on a French talk show the plausibility of testing COVID-19 vaccines on the African continent. The suggestion raised an outcry from many who did not grasp there are many other places where testing is in progress. The overall perception from both ordinary people and many African celebrities, including the WHO’s Director-General Mr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was that Africa would once again be that continent where people are considered lab-rats, where foreign countries go to test their unsure economic and political theories, drugs, or just to dump hazardous industrial wastes. The WHO Director-General called those French doctors’ attitudes a colonial hangover. Whatever intention those doctors had, their statements were inappropriate enough to worry an entire continent and all those who care for its inhabitants. Would that mean that when a vaccine is finally discovered African countries will still need to overcome trust issues before making it available to their people?

As we struggle to accommodate the strenuous new routines caused by home confinement, let us think of all those dealing with COVID-19 while facing greater and deadlier calamities. May solidarity with those who suffer be the major lesson we may take from these distressing times.

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Alison More came to St. Mike’s from the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Kent, where she designed and taught core courses on Latin and palaeography. She studied Latin in Rome with Reginald Foster, and has further developed her skills through teaching and research fellowships at Harvard, the University of Edinburgh, and Radboud Universiteit. A passionate Latinist, Alison is interested in alternative interpretations of absences and inconsistencies in the historical record. In particular, her research investigates the intersections between social and religious culture in Northern Europe from 1250 to 1450.

Sancta Corona, ora pro nobis

c.1350 altarpiece painting of St. Corona by Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna
St. Corona by Master of Palazzo Venezia Madonna, c. 1350

Medieval saints were often hailed as powerful intercessors in particular situations. Even today, St Anthony of Padua is a faithful helper for finding lost things; St Apollonia helps those in dental distress; and St Joseph of Cupertino is invoked by students taking exams. Recently, St Corona has re-entered popular religious consciousness as a protector against plague, pandemics, and infectious disease. After years of relative obscurity, Corona’s relics are now on display in a reliquary in Aachen Cathedral in Germany. Also, versions of her legend have been re-written for the Internet. While she is undoubtedly happy to intercede for the sufferings of the earthly Church, our health was not one of Corona’s traditional concerns. Her story is an interesting example of the ways in which saints’ cults adapt in accordance with the social needs of the day.

The tales of early Christian martyrs are generally formulaic. They contain little precise information and emphasize the gruesome deaths of their subjects. Corona’s tale is no exception, and we have little historical information about the saint. Her date of birth has been placed anywhere between 161 and 270 CE. She was married to a soldier named Victor at around the age of 15 and martyred one year and four months later. The Bollandist catalogues record more than 50 manuscripts of her vita, but all seem to be brief. Her short Passio in the Acta Sanctorum tells us that Corona’s profession of her illicit faith was an act of solidarity with Victor. After refusing to renounce Christ, Corona was tied to two trees, which her captors had bound together. When her tormentors cut the trees apart, Corona was ripped in two. Victor was then beheaded.

Until the current pandemic, there was little to connect Corona to viruses, plagues, or illness. Instead, her cult which existed primarily in Italy and the German regions appears to have been associated with the pursuit of fortune. Her name “Corona” is Latin for crown. In his work on treasure hunting, Johannes Dillinger points out that “corona” or “crown” was also the name given to a unit of currency in several countries. Whatever the reason, Corona found herself being invoked as the patron of treasure seekers. Dillinger points out that “Corona books,” texts midway between prayers and spells, circulated widely. Like prayers, they directed the supplicant to request Corona’s intercession. Like spells, the texts often seemed to depend on specific rituals and were even tailored to the amount of money in question. Later Corona texts even included methods of divining the lottery numbers. Not surprisingly, the lottery soon became another area of Corona’s patronage.

There does not appear to have been any association between Corona and plagues until 2020 when a virus that shared her name showed modern society to be less than invincible. Like our ancestors, our response was to seek divine aid and find a saintly intercessor as patron. Saints such as Roche and Sebastian were frequently invoked for protection against the plague in the 14th century. Their counterpart, the 12th-century St Rosalia of Palermo was called upon during an outbreak of illness in her native city during the 17th century. Notably, Rosalia has recently been featured in The New York Times as “The Saint Who Stopped an Epidemic on Lockdown in the Met.” In our current hour of need, those with an interest in saints discovered the existence of St Corona. As has been true of the cult of saints throughout Christian history, her devotees found a suitable association to declare her informally a patron of a crisis affecting the modern world. Her relics in Aachen, originally intended for a display on medieval metalwork, became a focal point for prayer and intercession. After several hundred years of relative quiet, she found herself being called upon as an intercessor.

Saints cannot exist in isolation. Instead, like all aspects of popular religion, their cults adapt to meet the needs of the society that venerates them. Throughout Christian history preachers and hagiographers have included imagery, allegory, and etymological devices based on saints’ names to communicate particular messages. The cult of saints has long illustrated the ways in which devotion could be incorporated into daily life. The case of Corona is no different: her name attracts attention and there is no reason to doubt her intercessory power. Perhaps this Easter Vigil, she will quietly be added to our litanies: Sancta Corona, ora pro nobis.

Works referenced:

“De SS. Victore milite et Corona martyribus in Ægypto,” AASS, May, t. III, pp. 265-67.

Johannes Dillinger, Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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Dr. Felan Parker is an Assistant Professor in the Book & Media Studies program specializing in digital media, video games, and media industries. His current research explores the production, distribution, and reception of independent or indiegames.

The profile picture you see is Dr. Parker’s self-representation in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Comfort Games

An avatar from the game Animal Crossing
Dr. Parker’s self-representation in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Given the requirements of social distancing, it’s not surprising that people are turning to art and media of all kinds for much-needed escape. Video games are no exception: the industry is experiencing a not-insignificant sales bump, and game scholars and health experts are highlighting games as a way to stay connected and ease loneliness.

When we think about video games and escapism, most likely what comes to mind are action-oriented games of spectacle and hyper-masculine violence, and indeed those kinds of games loom large in the industry and culture of games. When I teach my first-year and fourth-year game studies seminars, part of the goal is to challenge this narrow mainstream conception of games as a cultural form. In that spirit, here are some reflections on three games in which I’ve found comfort and escape.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the latest entry in Nintendo’s popular franchise, was serendipitously released just as social distancing measures came into effect. New Horizons has resonated widely thanks to its gentle, colourful simulation of small town life (with anthropomorphic animal neighbours), its local and online multiplayer mode, and its “invest and express” customizability. I’ve been playing with my partner and six-year-old, and dressing up our cute little avatars and homes, sending in-game messages and gifts, and running around collaborating on projects together has been a joy. Part of what makes Animal Crossing so compelling is that it never ends, reliably changing in real time with the seasons; an ideal virtual getaway for an uncertain world (albeit premised on a peculiar utopian fantasy of resource extraction and consumerism).

A screenshot of gameplay from A Short Hike
A screenshot of gameplay from A Short Hike.

A Short Hike, by Toronto game developer Adam Robinson-Yu, is a delightful pocket-sized world that takes significant inspiration from Animal Crossing but can be played in just an hour or two. The player takes the role of a young bird-person searching for cell phone reception in a provincial park. Along the way, there are numerous quirky characters to chat with, errands to run, and secrets to discover. The game shines in its ability to cultivate curiosity and encourage exploration, reinforced by the relaxing musical score and wonderfully pixelated natural environment. The hiking and climbing is complemented by a flying/gliding system, and I found the feeling of soaring across the landscape below deeply satisfying in this period of confinement, in particular during the game’s unexpectedly poignant climax.

A screenshot of gameplay from Sanki.
A screenshot of gameplay from Sanki.

The free browser-based tobogganing game Sanki is one of the purest distillations of that same feeling of speed and movement I’ve found in video games. Polish indie developer Krystian Majewski strips away all extrinsic goals and story until all that’s left is the hill, the snow, and the sled. The game is tiny, but has tremendous clarity of purpose in its muted palette of ultra-minimalist pixels and limited controls, perfectly capturing the serene sense of velocity I strongly associate with childhood winters in the Gatineau hills. The music is a bit giddy, so I turn it off and imagine the stillness interrupted only by gasping laughter. Each Sanki run is over in seconds, but I keep coming back to it for just one more.

Although quite different in form, content, and mode of production, each of these games offers an accessible, easy-to-play escape into gentle, comforting imaginary worlds. This is not to dismiss more fantastical and spectacular forms of escapism, but in this strange, liminal moment in time there’s something special about video games that playfully defy cultural expectations and embrace the simple pleasures of nature, movement, and everyday life.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons can be purchased digitally or physically for Nintendo Switch.

A Short Hike can be purchased digitally for Windows, Mac or Linux.

Sanki is playable for free in an ordinary web browser.

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Because public masses have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemicDr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for Easter.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St. Michael’s) entitled: One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”

Seeing the God of Life

Easter Morning: John 20:1-18

Image depicts flowers blooming in full sunlight on the St. Michael's campus.

The resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel account centres around the words “saw/look.” In the lection today we hear multiple instances. Mary Magdalene arrives in the dark, sees the stone removed from the entrance from the tomb and runs. The beloved disciple sees the wrappings in the tomb, but does not enter; he stops at the entrance. Peter goes into the tomb and sees the wrappings and the cloth rolled up. And then the beloved disciple enters the tomb and sees and believes. Mary stands outside the tomb weeping, and looks in and sees two angels there; she turns and sees Jesus but does not recognize him. And what are Jesus words to her?: “Whom are you looking for?” And when Mary realizes that she has encountered the risen Jesus she declares: “I have seen the Lord.”

The contrast of light and darkness, blindness and sight runs throughout John’s Gospel account. Today we discover what, ultimately, John is speaking of: the darkness of Good Friday to the brightness of Easter; from Mary initially arriving at the tomb in the dark, a darkness that left her unable to see, to her encounter with the light of the risen Christ that enables her to declare: “I have seen the Lord.”

Mary’s declaration is not only testimony of the man Jesus being raised from the dead, but a witness to something more. Indeed, the God and Father of the risen Lord is our God and Father, too. A new relationship has been established in the cross and resurrection that we have all been made children of God: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Celebrating Easter during the global COVID-19 pandemic raises many questions for us. Some of us stand at the entrance of the tomb staring in; some are looking at the linens confused; some have witnessed miracles and are still unsure of what’s going on; some have had a profound encounter with the Lord and don’t know which way to run. Each of us is on a unique journey of faith, a journey that is a constant back and forth from the darkness of Good Friday to the light of Easter. We all stand in the empty tomb this morning and ask ourselves: what’s going on? What could this mean?

In the midst of a health crisis that has resulted in suffering, illness, anxiety, and death, a situation that has affected every aspect of our daily lives —even our ability to celebrate Easter as we normally do—it may seem difficult to find God. But our narrative today reminds us that we are often unaware that what we are looking for in right in front of us. Like Mary who is looking for the dead body of Jesus when she is staring right at it—fully alive. The resurrection surely teaches us that ours is a God of surprises. None of Jesus’ followers ever expected him to be crucified, and even less could they imagine a resurrection. The God of life is often revealed in the places and spaces beyond any expectation or imaginings.

Today we stand at the entry of the empty tomb, the linens are wrapped up, and we don’t quite know what to make of things. All the resurrection accounts we read this Easter season are the stories of coming to see with the eyes of faith, whether Doubting Thomas next week or the Emmaus narrative the week after.

This morning the reality of the empty tomb confronts us. The experience of the risen Lord and the reality of COVID-19 empower us to see the world and our own lives like never before; to declare: I have seen the Lord.

Fr. Morgan Rice is the pastor of St. Basil’s Church, the college parish. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Theology, where he earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2009. Fr. Morgan arrived at St. Basils after serving as Associate Pastor at St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Rochester, New York, for eight years. Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, Fr. Morgan studied mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia and later worked for six years in the engineering field in Houston, Texas.

Vulnerability and Life

Image depicts Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples, a painting by Jacopo Tintoretto circa 1547
Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples by Jacopo Tintoretto, 1547

Last Sunday, the first segment of CBC’s The Sunday Edition featured Yale University historian and professor emeritus Frank Snowden, who spoke on how pandemic diseases have shaped human history by exposing and taking advantage of weaknesses, or vulnerabilities, in human society. He said that COVID-19, like other pandemic diseases, “is showing us what our deepest vulnerabilities are in the world that we’ve made.” Capitalizing on those vulnerabilities, the disease is altering life and relationships across the globe.

Vulnerability can be viewed in different ways. If seen as opening us to hurt and loss, we have good reason to avoid it. However, vulnerability, especially in the context of a safe environment with people we trust, can open us to some profound experiences and relationships.

The Triduum that begins tonight with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and ends with the Easter Vigil invites disciples of Jesus to consider vulnerability as a necessary disposition that leads to life in the fullest. Three months ago, I would never have imagined that I would be celebrating tonight’s Mass in an empty church without a congregation, without music, and without the washing of feet, one of the most moving aspects of the liturgy. Over the years, I have come to realize that asking individuals to have their feet washed is asking them to be vulnerable—to bare their feet, thus exposing any imperfections, and allow me to touch and wash their feet as I humbly kneel before them. However, taking that risk opens them and me to a powerful experience.

Jesus insisted he wash the feet of his disciples otherwise they would have no inheritance with him (John 13.8). They were to do likewise. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13.14). This lesson foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate act of love and vulnerability as he submitted to the Cross, which led to the new life of the Resurrection.

COVID-19 has altered life as we know it and likely will continue to do so for some time. While it is showing us vulnerabilities that have opened us to great losses and pain, how might we use vulnerability differently? Jesus shows us the way and that is through relationships—by choosing to be vulnerable with each other, offering our lives in service and love, washing each other’s feet so that all might experience greater life.

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Dr. Jean-Pierre Fortin is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology in the Faculty of Theology. Dr. Fortin teaches the Theology of Ministry and Reflection Seminar classes and also oversees field placements, an essential aspect of the Master of Divinity and Master of Religious Education programs at the Faculty. His research includes work in ecumenical dialogue.

Challenging Our Usual Ways of Living

A painting called “What is truth?” Christ and Pilate by 
Nikolay Nikolayevich Ge, 1890
“What is truth?” Christ and Pilate by 
Nikolay Nikolayevich Ge, 1890

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, he tells the Roman governor: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37, NRSV). Jesus was born, came among us to bear witness to the truth. For Christians, who profess to be followers of Jesus, a fundamental task and challenge is to bear witness to Jesus. As it invites us to experience and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, death and resurrection in particular fashion, the Lenten/Easter season is a most suited time for us to reflect on the quality of the witness we bear to Christ.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has so challenged our usual ways of living, relating to, and serving one another that we are summoned to be creative and devise new ways of being faithful disciples of Christ. What does it mean to bear witness to Christ, celebrate and give praise to him in times of social distancing and isolation? How is the truth about the human condition (flaws and blessings) unveiled when humankind is confronted with challenges such as a global viral pandemic?

The recent closing of the USMC campus and the transfer of courses to online platforms have enabled me to witness both the turmoil that such a sudden change creates: administrators, professors, staff and students struggling to learn how to give/take courses, hold/participate in meetings, and host all sorts of academic activities online. The cancellation or postponing of so many public events, lectures, conferences, liturgies—even pub nights—led me to perceive that this year’s Lenten season would in a very real sense last much longer than 40 days. The extent of the transformation to which my working environment was being subjected fully came home when I realized I no longer had access to campus libraries and my office. At the same time, I have also witnessed how instructors and students have managed to break through technological walls to recreate communities of learning that enable insightful reflection and sharing.

In a time such as this, when we are likely to feel deeply unsettled, inadequately equipped, and summoned to take initiative and exercise leadership in unprecedented ways, we may relate to Pontius Pilate, who admits to being profoundly challenged by the person and words of Jesus when he responds to his testimony with an honest question: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) Pilate opens himself to the fact that he is encountering a reality he did not foresee. This encounter with truth in person may alter who he is in profound ways.

During this Holy Week and the following Easter season, then, as we face the COVID-19 pandemic, we may reflect on the ways Jesus questions our assumptions about our usual way of living and following him. We may also think about the questions we have been carrying with us for some time (perhaps a long time) which we know we should ask to Jesus in person. What are the questions that would liberate us, allowing us to pursue the truth revealed in Jesus in more faithful, complete fashion—especially now, in challenging times? We may bring these questions before Jesus in our prayer, with the desire and hope of being transformed so as to be able to bear witness to the truth that he is in and for times such as these.

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Dr. Iris J. Gildea is an Associate Professor at the University of St. Michaels College and teaches in the Book & Media Studies Program. Dr. Gildeas areas of interest include Comparative Literature, Media Studies, Community Education and Expressive Arts.

A Collective Witness to our Interconnectivity

A view of a forested valley extending into the distance, with a lake and mountains at the far end.

The week before our classes went online, my 4th-year seminar in the Book & Media Studies Program explored the topic of interconnectivity. We read a piece on the interconnection between humans and the environment by the American Buddhist and Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy. We went on a land walk in Queen’s Park and spent time alone in silence. Disconnected from technology and the need “to be somewhere,” we worked experientially with Macy’s theory.

Afterwards, back in the classroom for discussion, I quickly became aware that interconnectivity as a concept would take far more than the two hours I had scheduled for it! We’d spent the better part of the semester looking at art as a means of interrupting cycles of cultural violence. My students rightly pointed out that oppressions such as racism, colonialism and sexism are very solid impediments to the idea of connection that I was trying to invite through the Macy reading. I became aware that I needed to be more intentional about how I introduced her claim that despite such real oppression there is an inherent fabric of life woven together by the spirit of all that is. That this fabric is a connective tissue more primal than all the socially rooted injuries we create for each other and for this earth. To see why compassion is, for Macy, our route into becoming aware of such interconnection. Awareness, she claims, allows us to heal the world’s collective wound, a wound of which we are all a part. I was left feeling that I needed another route into opening up these topics.

Then our global crisis erupted.

Suddenly, we were thrust into a very clear example of how the actions of one person affect another person, of how people affect other people, of how changes in one system implement changes in another system. Our global community began to collectively witness and feel the impact of interconnectivity on so many levels.

Speaking of the world’s woundedness, Macy says that “Until we can see the world and touch the world, we cannot be part of its self-healing.”

“What does she mean?” I had asked my class.

It is a big question, and that day, in response, my students and I shared in a deep contemplative silence. A few days later, I could not help but feel that the very fabric of connection that deep ecology speaks of was answering us quite loudly as we began to witness the reality of pandemic and the collective suffering it manifests. “Is a deep wound asking us to help heal it?,” I wondered alone at home, reflecting on the class I had just taught in the face of what was happening in the world.

Joanna Macy also says, “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.” As we re-emerge from this isolation, be it in weeks or months, healing, individual and collective, seems inevitable to me. I work in trauma theory and sometimes new and present traumas open older wounds buried beneath the surface, hidden and ignored but not forgotten. Sometimes doing the work to heal the present is how we heal the past. I cannot help but think this current crisis is also allowing us to access a deeper sense of interconnectivity, one whose roots take us beyond this present moment into the very fabric of relational life. Macy teaches that choosing love over fear cultivates the compassion that bridges the physical and emotional isolation that so many of us feel right now. I am sure it will be the bridge the heals us as we emerge changed, but not lost.

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Because public masses have been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemicDr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for Palm Sunday.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michaels Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michaels) entitled: One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 19651985.

Plunged into the Reality of Suffering and Death

Today is “Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord.” It juxtaposes two events: Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and the immediate events surrounding his betrayal, arrest, trial and execution (Passion of Our Lord). These two contrasting events are captured in the liturgical celebration that begins with the proclamation of the Gospel narrative about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem (this year Matthew 21:1-11). Normally this is followed by a joyful procession from outside the church to inside or within the church itself. We ritually perform what the evangelist describes: a rather chaotic scene of crowds, animals, cloths being thrown down, people chanting and waving branches.

But the exuberance of the triumphant entry into Jerusalem is short-lived. In the reading from Isaiah we are introduced to the maltreated teacher-servant and in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a theological reflection on the death of Jesus. By the time we read the second Gospel lection, the passion according to Matthew, we are plunged into the reality of death. The lection ends with Jesus’ lifeless body being guarded in a sealed tomb.

On this Sunday, we go from the joyous chorus of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven” to the solitary cry of Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” to the silence of the sealed tomb.

Death is an inescapable, existential, and mysterious experience. Yet it often catches us by surprise, no matter how prepared we think we are. When my own father died after a lengthy battle with cancer, knowing he was palliative, it still came as a shock. Nothing really prepares us for the mystery of death. In Matthew’s Gospel account the death of Jesus is predicted several times (Mt 16:21-28, 17:22-23, 20:17-19, 26:1-2), and yet we stand at the tomb plunged into the silence of this existential, inescapable and mysterious experience.

A few weeks ago the whole world was plunged into the reality of suffering and death as the COVID-19 virus swept across the globe. Though there were many warnings, no one seemed really prepared for the novel reality we are now living. We still don’t really know what will happen, we don’t yet have control of the situation. Today we stand in Golgotha, at the foot of the cross, lamenting that many have become ill and many have died, anxious because even more will become ill and die. We stand silent at the tomb.

Our Western culture has an odd relationship to death. We try to escape the reality of death and aging, celebrating youth, and constantly chasing after it. We sanitize our field of vision from human misery and suffering, yet we are bombarded with images of violence and death on our screens. Our fear of suffering and death is evidenced in our attempts to control death through the legalization of assisted suicide.

COVID-19 forces us to confront the inescapable, existential, mystery of death. We should not be too quick to say this will pass, that we will get through it, true as these sentiments may be. We want to get hurriedly to Easter and to the empty tomb, without keeping a long vigil at the foot of the cross. This year will be a long Good Friday. Jesus’s cry from the cross resounds with our own: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In many societies and communities around the world, suffering and death is sadly the norm. Latin America theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, draws our attention to the plight of so many millions who live in situations of death every day. For Gutierrez, the poverty he lives means death, lack of food, housing, education, healthcare, respect, dignity, freedom. Exploitation of the vulnerable and systemic violence is the never-ending lot of so many. He asks: how can we proclaim a God of life in this situation of death?

We are plunged into the reality of suffering and death in today’s liturgy and in our lived experience. I invite you to listen to Anton Bruckner’s moving setting of Philippians 2:8-9, Christus factus est, performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. This music draws us into the depths of the mystery of death and into the God of life.

Dr. Michael Attridge teaches historical and systematic theology at the Faculty of Theology. Recent courses he has taught include theological foundations, Christology, ecclesiology, 19th and 20th century theologians and movements, and the Second Vatican Council in Canada. He is currently involved as a co-investigator in a four-year, SSHRC-funded research project comparing the different forms of catholicism in Ontario and Quebec in the period following Vatican II through the lens of liturgy and catechesis, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and socio-political engagement. 

Today’s piece was written in the midst of his self-isolation.

A Time for Gratitude

A coffee cup sits on a table, viewed from directly above.

For each the past few years I’ve been fortunate to have travelled to Italy for short periods of time for research and study. Although I often make trips to Rome and Milan while I’m there, my home base is Siena, staying with the friars in the convent of the magnificent mediaeval basilica of San Domenico. Daily life is as peaceful as it is regular—liturgy, meals, study, and work. When I arrived, there were only a few cases of COVID-19 in Italy. All of this, though, changed quickly. On March 4, the government closed schools and universities, but we were still able to work online. On March 8, it locked down 16 million people in the north and, the following day, it did the same for all of Italy—restricting travel throughout the country. Within hours the airline emailed to say it was now only flying out of Rome. I knew I needed to leave immediately. A friend who works in the Lisbon airport was able to get me to Portugal the next day, March 10, on the airline’s last flight out of Italy. With the help of family, I self-quarantined in a small town near Fatima where my wife, Isilda, was raised. On Sunday, March 15, the day before Canada closed its borders, I caught my return flight home.

For the past nine days, I’ve been in self-quarantine in the same room in our house, staying apart from Isilda and our two teenage daughters. I can watch the news, work, read and stay in contact with colleagues and students through email and Zoom. In many ways life is as regular again as it was in the convent in Siena. But I’m realizing, too, how much my sense of time is also marked by daily movement—going to the kitchen for breakfast, walking to work or across campus, going for groceries in the evening. Time seems to be measured as much by going from place-to-place as it is by minutes and hours on the clock. Not having the same obligations of places to go or errands to run, has displaced this sense of time, and instead, I find myself feeling grateful—grateful for the people and communities that are coming together; grateful for the healthcare workers around the world who are treating the sick and the vulnerable. I’m even grateful for the political leaders at all levels in the country who are putting aside differences, following the scientists, and working together for the well-being of everyone.

Above all though, I’m grateful to Isilda and our daughters. Every morning, she and I have a coffee together, with her at one end of the hallway and me in my room. I’m grateful to her and the girls for doing what needs to be done around the house and to our younger daughter who’s been working overtime at our neighborhood grocery store. Last night the four of us sat together—again, them at one end of the hall and me inside my room, having dinner, laughing and sharing stories. I was reminded of Pope Francis’ tweet in October 2015, where he challenged people to “waste time” with others. It’s one of the most important things we can do. These days, as the entire world grinds to a halt and most of us are in social isolation, perhaps this is a moment to embrace our lack of movement, recalibrate our sense of time, reflect on those around us, and be grateful for one another.

Read other InsightOut posts.

Because Sunday Mass has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemicDr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for this, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michaels Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michaels) entitled: One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 19651985.

Tears of Compassion

John 11:1-45

“Jesus began to weep” is the shortest verse in the NRSV English translation of the New Testament. Yet this short verse says something terribly important about Jesus and his solidarity with us in our moments of difficulty and suffering.

In John’s Gospel account, Jesus’ friend Lazarus is ill and Jesus is summoned to his side by his sisters, Martha and Mary. But instead of hurrying to be with them, he waits another two days. He says that the death of Lazarus is an occasion for Jesus to be glorified. Jesus confidently refers to Lazarus’ death as “merely sleeping” and even says, “I’m glad I was not there so you may believe.” Jesus is strangely sanguine about his friend Lazarus’ death.

But as Jesus’ gets closer to the tomb, he becomes increasingly emotional. Twice, the Gospel lection says, “Jesus was greatly disturbed.” And then he began to weep. But why how do we account for this change of emotional state? One moment he seems placid and confident and the next he weeps. Does Jesus not think he will be able to “awaken” Lazarus anymore? Does Jesus suddenly doubt the life of the resurrection? Or the power of God to be glorified? Why the change?

In the Gospel lection, we read that “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved…Jesus began to weep.” It was in his encounter with those who suffered loss and were grieving that Jesus began to weep. He is not weeping for Lazarus. He is weeping with, sharing in the suffering of others. Compassion is the source of Jesus’ tears.

Though Jesus is confident in his belief in the life of the resurrection, it doesn’t negate the real suffering of those who loved Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, their friends, and Jesus himself. At the coming celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday we will read about Jesus in the letter to the Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way.”

Compassion comes from the Latin word “to suffer with.” We often experience the suffering of others, whether vicariously or else because we have memories of similar suffering. Suffering is part of our human condition. And solidarity in suffering reveals the depth of our humanity.

The current COVID-19 crisis reminds us how interconnected the human family really is. We are “deeply moved” by the dedication of medical professionals and other front line workers. When I’ve gone to the store to buy necessities, I’ve been struck by the friendliness and dedication of workers in drugstores and grocery stores in very difficult circumstances. We are “disturbed in spirit” by the lack of ventilators for all those who may need them. We “weep” at the deaths of so many around the world, and of their families who are unable to bury them at this time. We are experiencing a deep sense of togetherness around the globe because we are all affected, and we all wait with some anxiety, for an unknown future. As we stand at the entry of the tomb, we ask what will Easter look like this year.

Our Gospel lection today reminds us that the God of life is not unaffected by our situation. Indeed “the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” our “high priest” weeps with us, with compassion for the suffering, anxious, sorrowful and grieving.

Because Sunday Mass has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemicDr. Darren Dias, O.P., has shared his homily for this, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Dr. Dias teaches in St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology, specializing in Trinity, Religious Diversity, and teaching methods. He is currently working of a SSHRC funded project with colleagues Gilles Routhier (Laval) and Michael Attridge (St Michael’s) entitled: “One Canada Two Catholicism: Divergent Evolutions in the Catholic Church in Quebec And Ontario, 1965–1985.”

Finding God in Challenging Times

John 9:1-41

Amid this global COVID-19 pandemic, isolation and physical distancing are necessary to diminish the spread of the virus. In our time we can definitely understand the link between illness and isolation. In Jesus’ time, illness, and particularly something like blindness, was believed to be a punishment for the sins of one’s parents or ancestors. Thus, the question of the disciples to Jesus about the man born blind: “Who sinned this man or his parents?” Of course, Jesus’ answer is neither one; the very question misses the point. The man born blind would have been marginalized because his blindness was thought to be the product of divine punishment and so he would have been excluded from the normal network of social relations. We read that he had to beg for his livelihood. Like many other healing accounts, when Jesus heals this man he not only cures him physically but removes the reason for him to be excluded and isolated from his community. Jesus heals him and tells him to purify himself in the pool of Siloam so that he might be re-born into his community. 

In the narrative the man born blind is cured of his blindness but only gradually begins to see. When initially questioned by Jesus’ critics about who opened his eyes, the man responds rather journalistically by recounting the events as they happened, not even mentioning Jesus by name. When pressed his questioners ask, “what do you say about him?”  The man responds with the conviction: “He is a prophet.” His questioners react with a strong judgment against Jesus, calling him a sinner because he works on the Sabbath. Yet again they ask the man how is it that he now sees. Seemingly frustrated by their criticism of Jesus — and with firm conviction — the man says that Jesus is not a sinner but one who obeys and worships the true God of Israel and to whom God listens. The man’s questioners, those in power and authority, are scandalized that this poor beggar, a man born in sin else he would not have been blind, someone neither named nor vouched for by his own parents, would dare to teach them and so “they drove him out.” The man born blind, cured by Jesus, about to leave the isolation of his blindness behind, on the cusp of entering into social relationships, is driven out of the community he was never really a part of but longed to have a place. It is at this point, a low point for the man who has just been healed of his blindness, that Jesus seeks him out and finds him. In the brokenness and vulnerability of the man born blind, someone who has just gone from marginal to outcast, Jesus shares himself by revealing who he is: I am he, the one speaking to you is the Son of Man. Jesus chooses to reveal his true identity not to the powerful but to the outcast. Because of this intimate moment the man can finally answer the question that had been put to him throughout the narrative about the person who cured him. The man now sees who Jesus really is.   

In our Gospel selection today the man born blind, though he had a powerful experience of healing, is only gradually able to see God’s vivid presence in his midst in the person of Jesus Christ. In these days, weeks and even months ahead, many will experience the difficulty of isolation and loneliness, and be challenged to see the God who seeks us and finds us in our vulnerability and fear. But just as Jesus revealed God’s presence in his very person, maybe God’s presence reveals itself to us in the midst of this present crisis: in the selfless dedication of medical workers; in the store workers who ensure our access to food and other supplies; in neighbours who check in on the elderly or vulnerable; in our prayerful solidarity with those who are ill from the virus.