An annual highlight arrives in the last days of the year. That's when Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) holds its annual conference for university students. They call it RiseUp, and it begins each year on Dec. 28 and runs through New Year's Day.
I first went in 2004 in Toronto, in my first year as chaplain of Newman House at Queen's University. Completely conquered by the experience, I have returned every year since as it has travelled around the country - Vancouver, Quebec City, Calgary, Toronto again, Winnipeg and 2010 in Montreal.
Not all Catholics in Canada know about CCO, but they should. It is one of the most powerful works of the Holy Spirit in our country, and a testament that the Gospel has not lost its power to attract souls - even those of the young.
Andre and Angele Regnier founded CCO in 1988 in Saskatoon, realizing that the university campus was indeed mission territory. While in previous generations it would have been enough to merely provide services for practising Catholic students, the current situation requires evangelization.
CCO's premise is that most students on campus - including those from Catholic homes - have never heard the "Gospel preached simply and clearly." So they do it.
CCO full-time missionaries are usually recent university graduates themselves, and they raise all of their own income personally. Can you imagine the zeal for the Gospel and the trust in Providence required to accept that mission? There are dozens of them at campuses from Vancouver to Halifax, and they are evangelizing thousands of university students. To be with some 500 of those students in Montreal was a pure gift; and why I have already booked the 2011 RiseUp in Vancouver on my calendar.
"CCO is a university student movement dedicated to evangelization," says the mission statement. "We challenge students to live in the fullness of the Catholic faith, with a strong emphasis on becoming leaders in the renewal of the world."
A key word there is fullness. They invite students to be more Catholic, not less. They understand that at the heart of the faith is the person of Jesus Christ. They teach people to pray. They encourage reception of the sacraments, especially promoting Confession.
Eucharistic adoration is central. The Holy Spirit is not neglected. They read the Scriptures devotedly. They present the magisterial teaching of the Church with confidence in the truth, not a grudging attitude. They present the Catholic faith as a joy to be embraced, not a burden to be borne.
They are a model for how the Church should evangelize a culture where God is at the margins. And if all this can be done on the university campus, where hostility to religion and scepticism about truth often dominate the local culture, then there are sure grounds for hope that the Gospel has not lost its power.
Bringing 500 faithful young Catholics to Montreal is a challenge. Montreal is likely the least-practising major city in the Catholic world. For generations in Montreal the only real question has been whether the Church would withdraw from the culture before it was pushed out, or vice versa.
The grand Notre Dame in Old Montreal now charges admission, exempting those who come to pray. Just like the admission charge at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's signals the collapse of the Church of England as a culture-shaping institution, so too does Notre Dame indicate a general attitude that what used to be, is not, and never shall be again. A culture that cannot support its principal shrines converts them to de facto museums, but they stand as tombstones - markers of places where the faith is dead.
So when a number of students at RiseUp went to Notre Dame for Mass, the cashier was skeptical that so many young people would actually want to do so. Surely it was some kind of trick to avoid paying the fee? Yet they prevailed, and it stands as a symbol of what these marvellous young Catholics do - overcome the skepticism of so many in the Church that the fullness of the Catholic faith still attracts souls to Jesus Christ.
To see the Oratory of St. Joseph and Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral both filled with young people on fire for their faith - this is what the Church in Canada needs. Whatever travails each year brings, at RiseUp the year ends full of Christian hope.
Fr. Raymond de Souza - firstname.lastname@example.org