Can a fiction novel evangelize?
It all started with a ghostly face peering through the melting permafrost of an exhumed grave located in the Canadian arctic, the face of John Torrington. I saw his picture for the first time while reading, Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie and John Gieger when I was studying in university. John was a member of the doomed Franklin Expedition, sent by the Royal Navy in 1845 to find a passage through Canada’s arctic to the Far East, bringing glory and riches to the British Empire. The expedition ended in catastrophe, all 129 men dying due to a mix of disease, malnutrition, scurvy, starvation, and accidental poisoning. The human drama of the Franklin Expedition has fascinated me for most of my life, and as I’ve gotten older the thought of these men, and the suffering they must have endured has only tugged at my heart more fully.
I’ve been a consumer of Catholic literature for years, both fiction and non-fiction, so when I decided to challenge myself to write a novel it was clear to me that Catholic themes would be at the heart of the story that I would tell. I just needed to come up with the story! As a husband and father of five kids, I thought about sharing my family experiences, to write about what I know most intimately, but the pull of writing a story, a novel, was more powerful. Then I thought of that face!
Writing a novel was a “bucket list” thing for me. I wanted to discover if I had what it takes to write a full book, one good enough to get published. I also dreamed of looking at my bookshelf and seeing a spine looking back at me with my name on it! I’ve always loved reading, I consume books constantly, both novels, mostly historical fiction, but also every new Stephen King creation that is released, as well as non-fiction works of history. As the aforementioned Mr. King calls his fans, I am definitely a constant reader!
So, I would write a novel about the Franklin Expedition, but it would have Catholic themes embedded throughout it. In planning the book, I decided to focus on characters, because that is where much of the mystery of the event lies. Most of the expedition’s sailors are little known to history, so I could create backstories for them and imagine plausible events during their time stuck in the ice. I picked four names off the crew list and attached them to four basic personalities of fellow teachers I work with at St. Joseph Collegiate and worship with at St. Mary’s here in Brooks. Then, I imagined they were the last four survivors, living their last eight days at Starvation Cove, the most southerly point the crew advanced during their desperate death march south in search of deliverance, hence the name of the novel. I imagined their physical decline and what they must have had to endure as they slowly succumbed to the harsh arctic elements. I also thought about the spiritual reckoning they inevitably faced, and that is where our Catholic faith would become part of the story.
So many people, even my own teenaged children, ask me questions about God and His Church. They ask why bad things happen to good people. Why evil can exist in a world created by God. Why Christians can seem so indifferent to suffering, or even worse, be the cause of suffering. In the novel, the main character struggles with these questions his entire life. This character is Joseph Andrews, a real crew member of the expedition, a name I took off the actual crew list. It is also the name of my oldest son, Joseph Andrew. The character is a good man, honest, forthright, charitable, but disturbed at the hypocrisy he sees in the world. Disturbed by people who say one thing but do another. Before he dies, he finds some heavenly answers to these questions, allowing him to be at peace with his past and hopeful for eternity.
Catholic fiction can be a powerful tool for evangelization. It has been for me. A story written that can inspire the reader in their faith is a gift indeed. I have been blessed to read all the novels of Michael O’Brien over the years, arguably Canada’s greatest Catholic novelist and author of Father Elijah: An Apocalypse, among other great works. Every time I read one of his books, my faith deepens. The publisher of Starvation Cove, Ottawa’s Justin Press, is closely associated with Michael O’Brien and has published several of his works. I could not be more honoured to be associated with such authentically faithful people, people who have impacted my own Catholic faith so fundamentally.
I was speaking to a friend the other day who has read Starvation Cove. She is fellow teacher at St. Joseph’s and parishioner at St. Mary’s. I had asked her a few weeks ago what her favorite part of the book was, and she had a difficult time answering the question. She said she had indeed enjoyed the book, had read it quickly, but there was something about it that she needed to think about and would get back to me when she could more clearly articulate what she wanted to share. She approached me and recounted that it had finally come to her. She shared that what she most liked about Starvation Cove is that the character of Joseph Andrews reminded her of her husband. A good man, a great man actually, who struggles with his faith. Her husband is looking forward to reading the novel. With God’s grace, I pray that Starvation Cove may inspire this man as works of Catholic fiction have inspired me throughout my life. I’m looking forward to listening to what he has to say when he’s done.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 17, 2021) and for each Sunday of the season of Lent, Bishop McGrattan is offering spiritual renewal reflections for individuals, families and communities in the Diocese as we prepare to celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This 8-part video series of Lenten Spiritual Renewal (15-25 minutes reflection) is a part of the Diocesan Spiritual Renewal “Duc in altum | Put out into the deep”.
Upcoming reflection themes on Sundays of Lent:
On his first reflection (Ash Wednesday), Bishop McGrattan calls for a personal renewal, for us to recognize or reimagine the deep gifts we received at our Baptism
First Sunday of Lent | The Primacy of Grace
"Opening our lives and receiving God's grace... This is how the church grows, not because of human's effort, but by us being open to receive the grace of God, and to be drawn to Christ." In today’s reflection, Bishop McGrattan speaks of the primacy of grace, that it's always God's initiative that draws us to Christ.
Second Sunday of Lent | The Call to Holiness
"The acceptance of God's grace is the beginning to the call of the path of holiness. It's the response that each of us are called to make in our lives." In today’s reflection, Bishop McGrattan speaks of the call to holiness. He reminds us of ways to reintensify or redevelop the call to holiness that we received in our baptism.
Third Sunday of Lent 2021 | Lent
“Prayer is this lifting of mind, entering into this conversation and relationship with God, lifting our heart and wanting our heart to be one with God.” In today’s reflection, Bishop McGrattan reminds us that amidst our busyness and distraction, we must always try to seek silence and solitude, to focus our minds to God. But how? Watch the video to get thoughtful examples and ideas from the Bishop.
Fourth Sunday of Lent 2021 | Listening to the Word of God
“To receive, to hear, to listen to the Word of God is the essential nature of the Church.”
In today’s reflection, Bishop McGrattan reminds us that scripture must be at the forefront of our activities and endeavour as Christians, and invites us to renew how we listen to the Word of God. “Through the scripture, we are introduced to the very life and the mysteries of God.” The listening of the Word of God through praying, reading, studying and meditating with scripture is equally important and necessary step of preparation for when we gather as a community, and when we engage in pastoral activities.
Bishop McGrattan shares the 5 steps of Lectio Divina, divine reading praying with scripture.
1. Lectio - reading of text, looking at the words we’re reading, the images of text, and to see the significance of the text and image.
2. Meditatio - what does this passage say to me, or to the early church?
3. Oratio - how does this passage of scripture move me to respond?
4. Contemplatio - how is this word of God forming in me the mind and heart of Christ?
5. Actio - how is this word making my life a gift for others?
To study Verbum Domini, download the file below.
Fifth Sunday of Lent 2021 | Proclaiming the Word of God
"..being sent forth is part of the nature of the Church. We call it the essential mission."
In today’s reflection, Bishop McGrattan brings to mind that faith is often formed by secular values or opinions of the world. As missionary disciples, we are called to recognize these limitations, to understand the challenges we face in proclaiming the Word of God, as we go forward to convey a message of love.
Lacroix’s interest in church history turned into a mission to restore the cairn, replacing the fencing, enhancing the landscaping and even designing a new highway sign. He navigated government and ecclessial regulations, rallied together benefactors, organized tradespeople, poured over legal documents, befriended local landowners and contributed a substantial personal financial investment. He persevered for seven years to see his vision realized.
“It should be on every tourist map,” said Lacroix. “Once you are up there with the ranchlands all around, you are transported a 100-years back because it’s not much different probably from that period in the 1870s.”
The historical site is located on a small 24-by-24-foot patch of land in Rockyview County, 3 km off The Cowboy Trail, just north of the Hwy 22 and Hwy 8 roundabout, between Bragg Creek and the TransCanada Highway.
Metis layman Alexis Cardinal built a log cabin there in 1872. The following year Fr. Constantine Scollen OMI, established the mission, and Fr. Leon Doucet OMI joined him two years later in 1875, at which point the mission was moved near Fort Calgary.
Extraordinary Missionary Month
As we approach Extraordinary Missionary Month this October, Pope Francis has asked the Whole Church to revive its missionary commitment and reinvigorate its work to bring to the world the salvation of Jesus Christ. We’ve compiled some resources to help you prepare for this revitalization in your missionary work. You can also share what you believe is your life’s mission and then post a picture or video with your mission to your social media account (download here). Let’s show our solidarity with the global Church by participating in an activity and sharing on social media by using the hashtags #MyMission and #CatholicYYC.
Please access the resources for the Extraordinary Missionary Month here:
It may be unusual for a Catholic parish to host its own radio show, but that’s exactly what Mary, Mother of Our Redeemer has done for the past 22 years.
The one-hour Spanish radio program “Es Tiempo De Vivir” (A Time To Live) airs every Friday from 6-7 pm on 94.7 FM. Mary Mother Our Redeemer Pastor Fr. Shibu Kallarakkal and a team of about five parish volunteers air programming aimed at evangelization through testimonies, Bible study and catechesis.
“The aim is to reach out to the people with the message of Jesus Christ and His love and mercy,” said Kallarakkal. The multilingual priest, of The Congregation of the Sons of the Immaculate Conception, has served the Spanish/Italian community of Mary, Mother Our Redeemer since 2013.
The former pastor, Fr. Salvador Ahumada, founded the radio station in 1997 with about a dozen parishioners, many who had formerly worked in radio in South America before coming to Canada — some fleeing conflict in their home country.
Ingrid Trewin is both the radio show promoter and parish secretary. She’s been a parishioner at the parish since she was 11 years old, after she moved to Calgary from Nicaragua with her family in 1992. She recalls how the radio show drew her family to Mass.
“When we first moved to Canada we didn’t know there was a Spanish community, we didn’t speak the language, we didn’t know the city. Then, we found out there was a Spanish radio show once a week. The radio program team did everything to get us to church,” said Trewin.
“I would encourage everybody to listen, especially newcomers, people looking for a place to belong or people feeling like they are lost coming to a new country,” she said.
The radio show serves the Spanish-speaking parishioners of Mary Mother of the Redeemer, but it also attracts international listeners from the United States of America, Mexico and throughout Central and South America.
A few years ago, Fr. Kallarakkal started to question the viability of financing the weekly program and committing the volunteers to maintain the ongoing programming until a female listener from Colombia called to thank him for saving her life. She was about to commit suicide when she turned on the radio and heard Fr. Kallarakkal’s voice. She called him, and after speaking together for an hour, she changed her mind.
“She told me: Father for one reason or another I was turning to music before committing suicide and I heard the Word of God from you; probably this is a sign from God. I’m not going to do whatever I was planning to do.”
Fr. Kallarakkal is convinced that the effort it takes to maintain this parish-run show hosted at Fairchild Radio, a multicultural station in the northeast, is worth the time, energy and tithe.
Trewin also agrees: “It’s very helpful to have that little bit of God injected into you on a weekly basis. If you are not able to come to church due to illness, it’s a good way to get connected to God through prayer and song and the sharing that people do.”
Written by Sara Francis for Faithfully
Evangelization on two wheels
The biggest attraction at the 2019 God Squad men’s conference was a colourful, powerful motorcycle. This was no ordinary motorcycle on display. It was a custom-built machine by world-famous Orange County Choppers with a Pope John Paul II theme.
The presence of the vehicle was a good fit for a conference, at St. Peter’s Church, whose theme was Be Not Afraid To Be A Saint. When Pope John Paul II stepped onto the balcony facing St. Peter’s Square in 1978 when he became Pope, his first words were ‘be not afraid.”
Father Mariusz Sztuk, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Church in High River, will be using the motorcycle to evangelize.
“Sean (Lynn of the God Squad) and I ride with Jeff Cavins (a Catholic speaker and author) every year and I remember Jeff was talking to me one year and he said ‘you need to look at this bike’. I told him I don’t need to look at the bike because I had my own bike.
“When he showed me the picture, then I said ‘I need that bike’. So I got this bike through Jeff Cavins. There’s a lot of stuff that is very Catholic on that bike.”
It has a portrait of Pope John Paul II on its tank. It also displays numerous Catholic symbols such as the coat of arms, the eucharist, Mary and a cross.
“It’s a very Catholic bike. So when you ride the bike people always ask ‘who is that guy on the tank?’ That’s the beginning of the conversation about John Paul II and about Catholics. It is more of a kind of witnessing than anything else. I’m planning to take this to the school and talk to the kids about . . . religion, faith all of that . . . You can take pieces of the bike and talk about certain aspects of the Catholic faith,” said Sztuk.
Sztuk, who was born in Poland, came to Canada in 2001. He has a passion for his faith, for St. John Paul II, who was from his homeland, and of course for motorcycles.
“Since I was a kid I always had a motorcycle. It gives me that relaxation. I can jump on the bike and go,” he said.
The story of the unique motorcycle, which is worth about $110,000, is intriguing.
“There was a lady out in Syracuse, New York who had the bike. It’s called the John Paul II Tribute Bike. It’s one of a kind,” explained Cavins. “It’s very unique that everything about it is related to John Paul II in his pontificate. She knew I was a motorcycle enthusiast and I take ultra rides around the country . . . I went to speak in Syracuse not knowing about this bike. A deacon picked me up at the airport . . . and he said he wanted to take me somewhere and show me something before going to the hotel.
“My first thought was oh no I just want to go to the hotel. I’m tired. Been flying. I’ve got to speak tonight. And he said I think you’re going to be interested. He took me to this warehouse. He showed me a bunch of Bibles in boxes on the wall. I thought, that’s what he wanted to show me? . . . Then he introduced me to the lady and I realized there was a sheet over something. I could tell by the shape of it that it looked like a motorcycle underneath a sheet. They took the sheet off and I was blown away by what I saw. An unbelievably beautiful piece of art. I thought, man I’d love that for a teaching tool.”
The bike was originally commissioned for a church fundraiser. But that never took place, and it was sitting in storage with nine miles on it.
Nine months later Cavins was on a ride with Father Mariusz and Lynn when the woman called him, wanting an answer on if he was interested in buying the bike.
“I looked at Father Mariusz and I knew he would want to use this as well as myself and maybe we could do a joint venture on it where we would both use it, ” said Cavins, adding that he bought the bike for “way, way less” than its value.
Both Cavins and Father Mariusz will be using the bike on both sides of the border for evangelization. It’s a teaching tool. You can stand there and teach many aspects of John Paul II’s theology. His Marian theology. Suffering theology. Eucharist. Don’t be afraid.
Written by Mario Toneguzzi
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers