Central Europe, walks, talks and Mozart

Train station in Berlin

My wife Martha and I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe, focused on Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We also paid brief visits to Leipzig and Dresden in Germany and to a small city called Debrecen in Hungary. We were tourists of course and can claim no specialized knowledge of these cities or of European countries, but there are certain immediate observations that one can make. Here are a few:

Public transit

The public transit is great, at least in the cities that we visited, especially Berlin but also the others. In each of these cities there are subways, surface trains and street cars. In every major city we visited we were able to use public transit to get from the airport or train station to our downtown apartment or hotel.

When we flew into Berlin we caught a bus from the airport to a stop for the U-Bahn subway. We took it to a downtown station and there we could easily have transferred to a street car to within a block of the apartment we rented. We choose instead to walk from the station.

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Vic Toews, code words on prison chaplains

Vic Toews, talking in code

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews decided recently to cancel the contracts of all 49 part-time chaplains in Canada’s federal prisons. Eighteen of those chaplains are non-Christians. Another 80 full-time chaplains remain; 79 of them are Christians. That leaves only one non-Christian chaplain, an imam, in the entire federal prison system. The public reaction, at least as expressed in the media, has been almost entirely opposed. Even the Conservative-friendly Calgary Herald was mildly negative.

Toews may (or not) care about negative public comment – he has had plenty of that in the past few years. But he has also won five federal elections in a socially and religiously conservative area of Manitoba and he knows well how to play to his political base. He also speaks in a code that they understand and he is doing that in the narrative of dissed prison chaplains.

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Canadian immigration, Hungary and thin ice

Parliament in Budapest

I spent four weeks recently in Central Europe and while in Hungary I spoke to a university audience about how Canadians view immigrants, refugees and multiculturalism. One is always on thin ice, to use a Canadian metaphor, when speaking in a country where you are a tourist and may offend sensibilities. But I believe that Canada’s experience with managing ethnic diversity might be of use to other countries.  I took as my point of departure the 1950s in rural Saskatchewan. I grew up in a farming community that had been created as part of a great human migration late in the 19th and early in the 20th century when the Canadian government settled the West with farmers. My small village was diverse for its time. There were Germans, Ukrainians, French, Hungarians and others. In fact, I discovered upon rereading our local community history book that when it was created one of the names being considered for my village was Budapest. The village was eventually called St. Benedict, to recognize a religious community of Benedictine monks that had been established nearby – but Hungarians were significant in our population.

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Jason Kenney at CCCB plenary

Joe Gunn on Jason Kenney and CCCB

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is scheduled to speak to the annual plenary meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) in October. Joe Gunn, a former director of the CCCB’s Social Affairs Commission, says the appearance of a cabinet minister at a  plenary is unprecedented in recent memory. Gunn is now the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,  an ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation. His article appeared in the August 29 edition of the Prairie Messenger and is reproduced here with Gun’s and the paper’s permission.

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Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politician

Ernesto Cardenal, priest, poet, politiciancirca 1979

I took the photo that you see here of Nicaragua’s Father Ernesto Cardenal in the Mexican city of Puebla in February, 1979. Catholic bishops from all over Latin America were meeting there and the new pope, John Paul II, was on hand to inaugurate the gathering. I was there as a freelance reporter for Maclean’s magazine. The Vatican had already begun the process of reeling in its priests, theologians and some bishops from pronouncements that had been made at a similar meeting in Medellin, Columbia in 1968. There the bishops had promulgated a “preferential option for the poor” — not a popular thing to do in a continent where the division of wealth was scandalous and dictators sat in many of the palaces.

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Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish falsely criticized

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish has some critics

I was interested to read a recent Toronto Star column by Haroon Siddiqui about the Palestinian medical doctor and peace activist Izzeldin Abuelaish. Dr. Abuelaish was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in promoting peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Siddiqui says that in spite of those credentials (or perhaps because of them) some Palestinians in Canada think that Abuelaish is being used by Israelis and the West in a propaganda war against Muslims, and that he is selling out.

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Mar Musa cleric Paolo Dall’Oglio tours Canada

Frescoes at Mar Musa monastery, Syria

Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, an Italian Jesuit priest who spent decades restoring the ancient Mar Musa monastery in Syria, has taken the unusual step of touring Canada to call for action that would …

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Bill McKibben on global warming catastrophe

Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone magazineon global catastrophe

The American teacher and environmentalist Bill McKibben is one of the most convincing writers around on the topic of global warming. He has just published an article in Rolling Stone magazine in which he talks about “three numbers that add up to global catastrophe.” Let’s follow him through those numbers but a couple of preliminary points before we do.

Global warming occurs when carbon dioxide and other gases pumped into the atmosphere heat up the planet as a by-product of our burning fossil fuels. There is by now a growing and near overwhelming scientific consensus about this reality. There are to be sure those who continue to deny the science, much as some people still deny that the handling of asbestos causes cancer.  Some of them are sincere but frequently the claims are made by or on behalf of industries that profit from business as usual.

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