Christmas reflections

For the past several months, despite continuing to edit this journal, I try to keep to the principle of moderation when it comes to Hungarian politics and political news emanating from Budapest. I do that by actively tuning out for at least part of each weekend. For one, I am reading many more books than before (primarily literary fiction) and I have started writing book reviews on a regular basis on my personal website. Additionally, I genuinely appreciate having the ability to get into my Jetta and drive around rural areas of eastern Ontario. Rural life is easily within reach from Ottawa and it can be such a welcome break from the city.

This past Saturday, I drove around the Pakenham area, just west of Ottawa, in Lanark County. The township of Pakenham, now formally part of Mississippi Mills, can be reached via a single lane, 7.6 metre wide stone bridge dating back to 1901. It was built by Scottish masons and is the only such bridge, boasting five arches across the roaring Mississippi River, in all of North America. It takes a polite Canadian to cross it safely: one must be circumspect before accessing the bridge, be on the look out for on-coming vehicles and yield to the vehicle coming your way.

Once you’ve crossed the bridge, you will find yourself on Pakenham’s main street. Above this modest strip, perched on a hill and accessible via a steep road, sits St. Peter Celestine Church–one of the most architecturally interesting and impressive churches I have seen in rural Canada. Built in 1892, the exterior takes inspiration from the 17th century stone churches of southern France (and rural Quebec), while the grand interior is a nod to Italianate architecture–quite unusual in Canada. Fascinatingly, the bell tower stands at a 45 degree angle from the rest of the church.

I happened to arrive a few minutes before the start of Mass on Saturday evening (which when celebrated after five o’clock in Catholic liturgical tradition, counts as Sunday Mass). As a sign of Canada’s diversity, the parish priest is a mild-mannered gentleman of Polish origins. Matthew Chojna arrived in Canada with his parents as a child, though perhaps then he still went by Mateusz. Undoubtedly, Fr. Chojna has had to expend much energy and effort in assisting English Canadians in pronouncing properly his surname. Perhaps that’s why the church sign and bulletin spells it phonetically as “Hoy-na.” He celebrated Mass, attended by around twenty-five locals and one “interloper” from Ottawa, and spoke completely unaccented English (if there is, indeed, such as thing). The first pews were empty, as the congregation occupied the back rows, as good Catholics from time immemorial are inclined to do everywhere. It was in the main during his homily that Fr. Matthew Chojna, speaking eloquently, focused heavily on Mary. His homily and, it would appear, his theology was quite Marian (Virgin Mary-centric), even from the perspective of the readings of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which naturally focus on Mary. I can’t pinpoint precisely why, but Marian devotion is somewhat foreign to me. Perhaps it has to do with the Protestant/Jewish heritage on my father’s side of the family or simply because Hungarian society and culture is far less Catholic and much more secular than what one might find in either Polish or traditional Catholic circles. At first, Fr. Matthew sailed on the waters of the mystical–establishing a dichotomy between Eve, from the Garden of Eden, who turned her back on the Creator, thus sealing the fate of Creation, and Mary who dedicated her life to Him. As Fr. Matthew’s ship arrived on the shores of more tactile ideas, I realized that his homily, at its core, was about unconditional love. That is certainly an apt message, especially at Christmas.

The following day, this Sunday morning, my membership at St. Joseph’s Parish in Ottawa meant that I attended Mass there too. St. Joseph’s is quite a large and very active community, and what one would call a “lay-led” urban parish, in the downtown core. On this fourth Sunday of Advent the pews and aisles were busy with the bustle of children, young families and volunteers participating in every aspect of the community’s life–both the faith-based components, as well as the social. As Mass ended, the choir and congregation sang the energetic Irish folk song “Canticle of the Turning.”

The Canticle of the Turning speaks of the revolutionary nature of the Christian message, when that message is loyal to the life and teachings of Christ, as we understand those to be based on historical and religious sources. Given the persistent nature of mass protests in Hungary this December against the so-called “slave law,” which renders employees more vulnerable to the whims of employers than ever before and also against the oppressive nature of the Orbán regime grosso modo, these lyrics from the Canticle seem especially relevant:

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
These are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all readers of the Hungarian Free Press! Let the coming months usher in more justice for Hungarian society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *