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The Question of the “Our Father” in the Ontario Legislature

I: Introduction

I am the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Toronto, and the President of the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops. I represent a religious community which has played a significant role in the history of our province, and which continues to do so. There are over 3.9 million Catholics in Ontario, or approximately 34% of the citizens of our province. I speak on behalf of one creed, but in my faith community the diversity of culture, race, and language that enriches our province is bountifully represented. Each Sunday, in the Archdiocese of Toronto, Mass is celebrated in 36 different languages. That means, by the way, that the Our Father is prayed in 36 different languages by the faithful of the archdiocese. There is religious diversity in our province, but even within particular religious communities, and this is spectacularly true in the Catholic Church, we celebrate the gift of diversity.

We Catholics, of course, rejoice in the spiritual and cultural contribution of our good friends and neighbours of many faiths. While approximately 74.5 % of Ontarians identify themselves as Christians, 3.1% do so as Muslims, 1.9% as Hindus, 1.7% as Jews, 1.1% as Buddhists, .93% as Sikhs, and .16% as members of other religions. All in all, most Ontarians identify with some religious tradition.

We cannot forget our friends and neighbours who make up the 16.3% of citizens who report no religious affiliation. It is not clear whether they do so because they are fervent atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists, or because they simply do not at this moment wish to reveal any religious affiliation.

II: Should Prayer have a place in the Legislature, and in the Secular World of Civic Discourse?

          As noted above, we live in a culture of significant diversity, but one in which religious identification is a factor in the lives of all but 16% of the citizens, and in which religious commitment of some kind is a significant factor in the lives of many citizens who contribute greatly to the well-being of our society. If you are vulnerable in Ontario, it is highly likely that those who are first on hand to help you, and to donate their resources to assist you, are motivated by religious faith. They often care for people that no one else will care for. Think of the religious social service organizations, and the religious volunteer associations that have historically cared for people of all faiths and of no faith.

          That is a point to note: the religious institutions that serve our community exist and flourish because of the time, talent, and treasure of people who are motivated religiously, and who are guided and energized by the principles of their faith, but they offer their assistance to everyone, not just to their fellow-believers. The motivation for the assistance arises out of faith, but the assistance itself is open-ended.

 Without that assistance, our whole society would be in deep trouble. People who are allergic to the visible presence of religion in the public sphere may tend to forget that.

As I walk past St. Michael’s hospital in downtown Toronto, and see on the wall facing Victoria Street the image of St. Michael, the “Urban Angel”, I am conscious not only of the marvelous ministry of that particular hospital and others like it, created by the Catholic Church to act in the name of Jesus the healer, but also of the healing activities of many institutions and organizations that bring comfort to the afflicted in our province, and which draw their inspiration from other faiths.

Religion is not simply a private, hidden, personal matter. It is not merely an individual pursuit, like a hobby, which satisfies a personal taste. Religion is social, and profoundly affects society not only through its influence on individual behaviour, but also through social action without which our province would be immeasurably poorer .

          My point is that religion is not marginal to our society, and it should not be marginal in the public forum of democratic discourse. People motivated by religious faith make a massive contribution to the common good of our province. 

          Of course one way in which they contribute, personally and through their faith communities, apart from charitable donations and volunteering, is through taxes. Many initiatives that benefit society, that were founded by religions, and that still draw inspiration from faith, are now largely funded by taxes. That should be no cause for concern, as these works benefit our province and, in any case, believers do pay taxes.  In fact, most public money comes directly or indirectly from people of faith.

          It is highly appropriate that the deliberations of those whom we elect as our representatives should begin with prayer. Religion is not alien or dangerous; it is fruitful and life-giving, and any effort to eliminate evidence of it in public assemblies is misguided. Surely there are occasions within the public life of the province when the spiritual tradition of our various faith communities can be recognized and celebrated. This should happen more often.       

          Sometimes people appeal to the ideal of the secular state. That is a noble ideal, if it means that we do not want to live in a theocracy, where the specific divine revelation claimed by one group of believers determines the resolution of mundane problems that affect all citizens.

 “Secular”, however, properly means that we celebrate the society that exists in the “saeculum” – in this present age, in this world. I myself am what in the Catholic Church we call a “secular priest”: I was ordained as a secular priest of the Diocese of Hamilton on May 5th, 1973, to serve the people living in this age, in their day to day struggles.

          It is important not to be befuddled by a distorted view of “secular”, one which holds that all life in the public realm must be meticulously sterilized, lest a hint of faith intrude.

          In the secular assembly of the Ontario Legislature, in which our representatives most surely deal with the issues of this age, it is highly appropriate to begin with a prayer asking God’s blessing upon that vital work. I do not think that at least 84% of the citizens of Ontario would find anything amiss with that.

III: Should the “Our Father” continue to be used in the Ontario Legislature?

          The next question that arises is: if there is to be an opening prayer in the legislature, what should it be?

          Traditionally, the prayer used in the Ontario Legislature has been the Our Father. This is part of the historical heritage of our province. It is, of course, a Christian prayer. In other words, it is taken from the spiritual tradition of three quarters of our citizens.

 About one tenth of our citizens are people of faith, but are not Christian. I obviously would not presume to say what they would wish. From the public discussion of this matter, however, I have not sensed a great call among them for the current practice to be changed. 

If, which does not seem to be the case, there were a consensus that the prayer historically used in our province should be replaced, then I suppose an alternative would be to rotate among prayers from different faith traditions, perhaps in a way that roughly reflects the proportion of Ontarians found in the various faith communities. Unless, however, there actually is a call from Ontarians to change the historical practice, the best solution is to keep the Lord’s prayer.

We Catholics commonly call this prayer “The Our Father”, from its opening words, rather than “The Lord’s Prayer”, which refers to the fact that Jesus gave it to His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.  There is another version in the Gospel of Luke. It makes no difference what it is called, but I would note that the title “The Our Father” leads to reflection on the wide applicability of the contents of the prayer, while “The Lord’s Prayer” stresses its origins.

          The prayer is clearly Christian in origin. It is not, however, a narrow assertion of the doctrinal beliefs of Christians. In fact, it is rooted in the Jewish tradition, and its words are open to a wide application:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.” Most religions stress the awesome holiness of God.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” People of different faiths have different views of God, but most if not all find it important to emphasize doing God’s will.

Give us this day our daily bread.”  That line alone makes the prayer appropriate for a legislature. It should help the members think of their responsibility to care for the practical needs – such as food, housing, health care, and security - of the most vulnerable in society, those who are most in need of “daily bread”. Concern for social justice and respect for the common good should guide the legislative activity of our representatives, and it is good for all of them to be reminded of that.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We all need to be called to forgiveness and reconciliation. People of all faiths, and of no faith, surely have no objection to that idea, and to the degree that it is made real among us, our province will be a better place.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” It is healthy for legislators to pray to be protected from temptation – an important point for those entrusted with power – and to be delivered from evil. I would hope that all citizens want that. Prayer alone will not guarantee that people will not succumb to temptation, but it is a call for help from God, and a reminder both of the dangers of public office, and of the standard expected of those entrusted with it.

Granted that prayer is important in the assembly of our legislators, the Lord’s Prayer has the advantage that it is part of our historical tradition, it is a contribution from the spiritual heritage of almost three quarters of our citizens, and it is at the same time open to wider application by any people of faith, and, in fact, by anyone.

          Certainly it is fitting for the meetings of our representatives in the secular assembly of the Ontario Legislature to begin with prayer, for they are entrusted with wisely discerning the best response to the challenges facing our province in this present age. The practice of reciting the Our Father is most appropriate.

          It is also the responsibility of all of us to pray that our legislators govern justly, and with special concern for the most vulnerable in our community, for those most in need of “daily bread”.

June 2, 2008
Thomas Collins,
Archbishop of Toronto,
President, the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops

 

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