Archbishop Donald Bolen – St. Michael’s College Address

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen was awarded an honourary doctorate from St. Michael’s College in Toronto. (Photo courtesy Archdiocese of Regina website)

Previously published by the Archdiocese of Regina – LINK.

Archbishop Donald Bolen was awarded an honourary doctorate from St. Michael’s College in Toronto on Nov. 11, 2023. Citing his work in fostering a culture of encounter, dialogue, and peace particularly in regards to healing the Church’s relations with Indigenous people and his service to relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, the college awarded Archbishop Bolen with a Doctorate in Divinity.

On this occasion, Archbishop Bolen was also invited to share a few words with the 2023 graduating class of St. Michael’s College:

By Archbishop Donald Bolen

Twenty-seven or 28 years ago, a friend at Oxford who offered a good deal of moral support as I struggled to make progress on my doctoral thesis composed a prayer for me. It ended with the words, “and may all of Don’s future doctorates be honorary ones, for his friends’ sake, amen!”

The thesis was on the reception of the documents of ARCIC, the international dialogue between the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church. When I was invited in 2001 to work at the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, specifically to work on ARCIC and the Catholic Church’s dialogue with Methodists, everything I had learned in my studies got put to use, but the doctorate never got finished. So thank you for helping put an end to that sense of in-completion!

And thank you to St. Michael’s for your great contribution to the Church in Canada, a contribution I know personally through many people I have had the privilege to work with or learn from over the years, including Margaret O’Gara of blessed memory, and Cathy Clifford, who is representing all of us at the Synod these days, and several of the staff and friends at the Diocese of Saskatoon and Archdiocese of Regina, including Leah Perrault, Brett Salkeld, Nick Jesson, Tashia Toupin and Rae Horsman. St. Mike’s is a daily part of my life through these good people and gifted thinkers.

It is a privilege to say a few words today to those of you who are graduating with theological degrees, and the members of the College. I would like to offer you three thoughts, about three areas of theological and ecclesial life where I have felt the presence of the Holy Spirit at work, and summoning us to more work. One has to do with the past and how we deal with wounds and brokenness from the past; one has to deal with making connections between human experience and the paschal mystery; and one addresses how theology needs to be in a posture of dialogue today.

Let’s begin with the past. Theologically, when we think of the past, we think of the great treasures of the Church’s history and tradition, which we rightly lay hold of and which inform our daily life as a community of disciples of Jesus. But you are graduating and called to think theologically at a time when it is not the glories of the tradition but the struggles and failures of the past that are often confronting us. In many ways today, and from many sources, the Church is being called to account today, taken to task, because of failings in the past. Sometimes the narrative lays the brokenness and suffering of the world on the Church’s doorstep. And within the Catholic community there is discussion about how to respond, how to engage. When do we apologize, when and how do we engage when the narrative is lopsided, unfair?  I want to draw on some specific examples here, each of which could be the topic of an entire address, but in this instance, to shed light on the question of dealing with wounds from the past.

Sometimes dealing with the brokenness of the past means listening to victims of clergy sexual abuse and hearing their summons to accountability. Over the past seven years, I have had the opportunity to walk with and learn from victims of clergy sexual abuse. Victims, survivors of abuse, want to be heard, and want to have their experiences heard, including the devastating consequences and life-long trauma from what happened to them. And they want change. Pamela Walsh, who works with the Archdiocese of Regina in the capacity of Victim Services and Advocacy, posed the question in a recent article in America, what does accountability in the church look like?

She answers: “It is about clear polices, structures, and recourse. It is about requiring polices soundly based on best practices that will be used in a positive and life-giving way for victims, their families, and the larger church community.  It is about ensuring that the structures of the church are based on the foundational principles of the gospel of Jesus, principles of welcoming and seeking out those deeply wounded people and walking with them, instead of trying to silence them. It is about entering into dialogue, no matter how painful, to find appropriate recourse and justice for everyone who has been affected by clergy sexual abuse. Most importantly, it also means none of these steps are taken without the direct input from victims/survivors in order to guide, shape, form and direct the church in all matters related to clergy sexual abuse.”

That is a solid road map, and it begins with listening, with accompaniment, and with a readiness to make changes. The way we exercise authority is of immense importance, and abuse of authority can be devastating and can completely undermine the Gospel.

Sometimes dealing with the past means accompanying survivors of residential schools, and engaging in the walk of truth and reconciliation, as we have done in this country and in our Church over the past few years, culminating in the papal visit of 16 months ago. Sometimes, and for the theological community this is an important piece, it means dealing with documents such as the papal bulls of the late 15th and early 16th century which provided moral justification for colonizing powers to take Indigenous lands and marginalize Indigenous Peoples. The work of telling the story of the past, of ‘truth telling’, often takes us into the complexities of political motivations, cultural attitudes, and legacies of inequality and injustice. Current work towards a symposium on the doctrine of discovery is going to need to navigate layers of investigation: historical research on the relationship between colonizing nations and the Holy See in the 15th and 16th centuries; the legal development of an agreed international principle that colonizing powers could claim as their own land that had been occupied by Indigenous Peoples for millennia; and with the legacy of those actions as they impact Indigenous communities in the present.

There are certainly times when articles in the media or statements of political leaders present a simplistic narrative that casts blame indiscriminately and doesn’t accurately communicate the nuances of history. We have learned that the more we present a defensive posture, the more that a skeptical world around us follows with a desire to expose our failings. That is a destructive cycle that damages our efforts to speak good news to our time and culture, and in its own way fuels a polarization which hurts us all. Not to respond is equally problematic.

Where I would like to land in this large discussion is to say that we have work to do as Church: in owning our failings in an honest and transparent way, with a readiness to share in the pain of others who carry wounds as a result of them; in finding a way to communicate our failings that doesn’t sound evasive or defensive; in engaging in complex historical conversations such as around the colonization and the principles used to justify it in order to come to a deeper understanding of the truth; and in discerning a path where genuine ecclesiological humility and a rightful confidence and trust in what God is doing in the Church can go hand in hand. I hope that some among you will take up or continue this work, and find blessing and grace in it.

The second area has to do with communicating the richness of our faith today in ways that can engage the mind and heart and imagination of people. Here, let me just plant a seed of a conviction I have, that theology has more work to do in exploring fundamental human experience as a place where the mystery of God touches and forms us. The question of why God has authored human experience – the breadth of it, from life in the womb and birth, to the experience of growth, of relationship and love, of struggle and suffering, the experience of loss, of awe and beauty and joy, the experience of diminishment and dying, of wonder, of mystery – why God has authored human life as it is, this is I think one of the most important questions to ask. And with it, to ask and inquire into the deep reciprocity between human experience as God is revealed in it, and Christian faith in the incarnation and paschal mystery of Jesus, where we see most clearly God’s face.

Over the past few years I have had a few occasions to enter into dialogue with rabbis in Saskatoon and Regina about the songs and writing of Leonard Cohen. One of the fascinating things about Cohen’s lyrics, as a topic of Jewish-Christian dialogue, is that Cohen, clearly a Jew and not a Christian, so clearly uses imagery which evokes incarnation and paschal mystery. There are so many examples of this, but here are three:

Come Healing:

O gather up the brokenness

And bring it to me now

The fragrance of those promises

You never dared to vow

The splinters that you carry

The cross you left behind

Come healing of the body

Come healing of the mind

Show me the place:

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone

Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone

Show me the place where the word became a man

Show me the place where the suffering began

The window:

Then lay your rose on the fire

The fire give up to the sun

The sun give over to splendour

In the arms of the high holy one

For the holy one dreams of a letter

Dreams of a letter’s death

Oh bless the continuous stutter

Of the word being made into flesh

If you don’t know these songs, I invite you to discover them. And not because it’s an interesting thing that a Jewish songwriter seems to write quite a bit about Jesus; but rather, because in his religious quest, Leonard Cohen is taken, intrigued, attracted, by the idea of the Word of God becoming flesh, of the Word of God being broken out of love, of the stone before the tomb being rolled away.

My point, and invitation, is this: that theologically I don’t think we ponder enough about the way in which there is a longing embedded in human experience which finds its fulfillment in Incarnation, in Paschal Mystery. I think there is an apologetic to be drawn out there, a possibility of giving an account of the hope that is within us, by attending more deeply to the way in which human existence, fundamental human experience, embodies a question which finds an answer in Incarnation and Paschal Mystery.

My third point, of which much could be said but I will say a little, is that Pope Francis is calling us – and more foundationally, the Risen Lord is calling us – to be a Church in dialogue. Soon after Francis became Pope, in an address in Brazil, he stated: “When leaders in various fields ask me for advice, my response is always the same: dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. It is the only way for individuals, families and societies to grow, the only way for the life of peoples to progress, along with the culture of encounter, a culture in which all have something good to give and all can receive something good in return…. A country grows when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, art, technology, economic culture, family culture and media culture, when they are in dialogue with each other.”

And just 10 days ago, in a Motu proprio issuing new statutes for the Pontifical Academy of Theology entitled “Ad theologiam promovendam” (Nov. 1) (also cited in Archbishop Leo’s message in your programs), Pope Francis again summons theology to that posture of dialogue:

Theological reflection is therefore called to a turning point, to a paradigm shift, to a “courageous cultural revolution” (Encyclical Letter Laudato si’, 114) that commits it, first and foremost, to be a fundamentally contextual theology, capable of reading and interpreting the Gospel in the conditions in which men and women daily live, in different geographical, social and cultural environments, and having as its archetype the Incarnation of the eternal Logos, its entering into the culture, worldview, and religious tradition of a people. From here, theology cannot but develop into a culture of dialogue and encounter between different traditions and different knowledge, between different Christian denominations and different religions, openly confronting everyone, believers and non-believers alike. Indeed, the need for dialogue is intrinsic to human beings and to the whole of creation, and it is the particular task of theology to discover “the Trinitarian imprint that makes the cosmos in which we live ‘a web of relationships’ in which ‘it is proper to every living being to tend toward another thing’” (Apostolic Constitution Veritatis gaudium, Proem, 4a).

I particularly appreciated the way in which Pope Francis points to the Incarnational and Trinitarian foundations of our faith which are to shape and inform theology’s engagement in dialogue at every step of the way.

This summons to dialogue has been a strong part of papal teaching over the last 60 years, most notably since the publication of Pope Paul VI’s Ecclesiam Suam (1964). I encourage you to be well acquainted with that call to dialogue, and the guidelines which come with it, in Church teachings since the Second Vatican Council. Dialogue can be both a form of evangelization and a path to enrichment and renewal for the Church. When dialogue attends to the suffering of the world, when it seeks paths of understanding instead of polarization, when it invites creative solutions and shows a way of living constructively with difference instead of resorting to conflict and war, it can be a witness to the world and a means by which the Holy Spirit brings healing and reconciliation. To draw on the beautiful Jewish phrase, it is to participate in God’s work of ‘tikkun olam’, the repair of the world.

I invite you then, as theologians going forward into new fields of work in the Church and in the academy, to bring the riches of our Tradition into conversation with the blessings and insights of others. Hold fast to the depths of our Tradition and bring them into dialogue with the many expressions and elements of the culture in which we live. I hope and pray that you will also find joy, creativity and life in that dialogue, which invites our deepest thinking, and is worthy of our greatest efforts as theologians and as disciples of Jesus.

Graduates, go bravely in all that you do, trusting and manifesting God’s mercy wherever you go. God bless you on your journey.