My Lenten promise extends to 54 Fridays

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on March 28, 2019

When I first started thinking about what I would do for Lent this year, the last thing I imagined was a fast that would encompass 54 Fridays, running until Easter of next year.

Then I met Erin Kinsella and the next thing I knew I was committing to meatless Fridays not only for this Lent, but for all of the coming year and right through Lent 2020.

Kinsella describes the 54 Fridays initiative as “an invitation to holiness.” She has taken the concept of a Lenten fast and expanded it to literally encompass 54 Fridays — from March 10, the first Friday of Lent, all the way to Good Friday on April 10, 2020.

The fast can encompass whatever gives participants a sense of not being fully satisfied in some way, as long as it is done as an offering to God recognition that only He can truly satisfy. It also includes a call to prayer, such as praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. After talking to Erin, I decided to give it a try. I’m not alone.

According to Erin, the Director of Campus Ministry at the Newman Centre Catholic Mission at the University of Toronto, 334 people have joined the 54 Fridays Facebook group. They are mainly from Toronto, but also come from places like Nigeria, Iran, Mauritius, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy and Peru.

“There have been new people added to the group every single day since we started, which is hugely encouraging because it seems that the call to prayer and fasting is deeply resonating with people who love the Church and want to respond to the challenges of our time, but don’t know where to start or what to do,” she says.

I’m participating by abstaining from meat on Fridays — a tall order for a carnivore like me — and by avoiding refined or added sugars. Not long after I started, I came across a reflection by Pope Francis from a recent Vatican summit on sustainable development. He said that in order to find a shared response to the cry of the Earth and to the cry of the poor, “those of us who are religious need to open up the treasures of our best traditions in order to engage in a true and respectful dialogue on how to build the future of our planet.”

Among the United Nations’ 17 sustainable goals to achieve “peace and prosperity for people and the planet” by 2030, responsible consumption and food production jumped out at me as being personally achievable through the practice of fasting — no doubt “one of the treasures of our best traditions.”

My initial reason to go meatless during the 54 Friday initiative was entirely spiritual, but now the environmental aspect has provided added motivation.

According to a recent United Nations report compiled by scientists from 70 countries, meat consumption is driving up carbon emissions, with beef production and distribution being the worst offender in generating greenhouse gases. As a society, we “plough through this planet’s finite resources as if there is no tomorrow,” said Joyce Msyua, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment.

North Americans are accustomed to abundance. Trips to the supermarket let us buy pretty much whatever we desire. But awareness of the planet’s environment should be spurring a mindset shift. We must practice the virtue of temperance when buying meat, realizing that the Earth’s resources are finite.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says we act as if there “an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed.” He calls it a false notion that should be reversed.

Responsible consumption should also include a commitment to cut food waste in half. According to Second Harvest, more than half of all food produced in Canada is lost or wasted. This spoiled food is responsible for 56.6 million tonnes of “carbon dioxide-equivalent” emissions. The need for change is critical.

My commitment to the 54 Fridays initiative came out of prayer and a sense of wanting to do something to support the Church in the midst of all its struggles. I began the fast hoping to reap spiritual dividends. It is an unexpected bonus to learn that, in my small way, I am also playing a role in improving the state and health of “our common home.”

There’s no true joy in consumerism

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on March 4, 2019

In a pastoral letter on stewardship, Cardinal Thomas Collins suggests that in order to discover what is really important to us, we should look at how we spend our money.

“I spend my money on what I consider to be important,” he wrote. “Look at the financial statement of any organization, or family, or individual, to find out what is considered important.”

That is to say, our Visa or MasterCard statements can be a guide when we try to understand what tangible items or causes we emphasize the most. For many of us, those statements would read like a menu of our favourite consumer pleasures.

Consumerism clutters our connection to God, and it degrades our inherent human dignity by elevating the premise that we must have certain material goods in order to measure up to societal standards. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Does it spark joy?” This is the fundamental question Japanese tidying expert and global sensation Marie Kondo enthusiastically poses to clients when helping them decide whether to keep or throw out clutter-causing items in a living space. Her strategic approach to doing something most people hate — getting rid of possessions — has come to life in her smash Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, based on her New York Times bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Kondo’s method is simple. Wade through your mess according to the following categories: clothing, then books, then paper documents, then komono — which translates to “miscellaneous” in Japanese — comprising items stashed away in the bathroom, kitchen and garage. 

The final, and often hardest category, is sentimental items. At each stage, put all items in a pile and keep only what “brings you joy.” 

I can’t say that I’ve fully embraced this tidying method, but I have dabbled in it. Watching the series spurred me to clean my pantry and linen closet, which had both slowly been falling into a state of overloaded untidyness.

I can see why Kondo has a cult-like following of adoring fans. Developing a regular tidying strategy is a sound idea. But keeping a home organized will only work over the long-term if we acknowledge and work through our obsession with stuff. If we continually bring more and more into the home as a result of obsessive shopping habits, the clutter will soon re-emerge. The real solution is to buy less. 

As we enter the Lenten season, I’ve seen multiple calls to action on social media to try to avoid buying anything new during our pre-Easter fast, as a “consumer penance” of sorts. 

Consumerism is the root of the problem. It spurs our compulsion to buy because we mistakenly feel that buying things will “bring us joy.” Kondo’s series is powerful because it highlights how emotionally connected we are to our possessions.

In one episode, we meet Mario, who once owned more than 160 pairs of sneakers.

“When I became an adult and as I started having an income (shoes) were a priority,” he said. “And I started buying, and it got out of control. Ninety-five per cent of them were never used, never unlaced, let alone tried on.”

By the end of the episode, he reduced his prized collection to 45 pairs, and he and his wife created space in their home to welcome a new baby. 

In his pastoral letter, Cardinal Collins writes: “It is interesting that we are often called consumers. What a shame it is that we can be identified as people who are simply consuming the goods of the Earth. 

“Inevitably, if that consumption becomes the mark of a greedy life, then we will ourselves be consumed and possessed by the goods that we consume. It is far better to see all such things in proper perspective. The time, talent and treasure that we briefly enjoy are gifts to be accepted with gratitude, and used generously. If we do so, then that posture of detachment allows us truly to be free.” 

Pope Francis echoes these sentiments. “Consumerism is a great disease today” he said a couple of months ago during a morning Mass in the chapel of his residence. “I am not saying that we all do this, no. But consumerism, spending more than we need, is a lack of austerity in life; this is an enemy of generosity.” 

The notion that material objects can bring joy into our lives is no surprise — books can thrill, movies entertain and home furnishings help to enhance our living space. 

But when the continual accumulation of these items starts to take priority in our lives, they become little more than a distraction from what brings meaning — and true joy — to our lives.

Iceland offers a history rich in faith and harmony

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on February 5, 2019

In Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, the church of Hallgrímur (Hallgrímskirkja) towers above the city. It is the tallest church in Iceland, rising almost 75 metres. Locals boast that you can see its spire from almost anywhere in the city — like a compass of sorts.

It was designed to resemble Iceland’s basalt rock columns that were formed over the ages by the cooling and solidification of lava and are scattered across a landscape that is home to 130 volcanoes.

Lutheranism, a branch of Protestantism, is the country’s official religion. Iceland’s constitution enshrines religious freedom and requires the state to safeguard the Lutheran Church as the country’s national church. It is by far the most practised religion in Iceland, but Catholicism, while practised by a small minority of the population, has long and interesting roots in this island nation.

Hallgrimskirkja, for example, owes its height to the fact that the leaders of the Church of Iceland were determined to dwarf the historic Catholic cathedral. Known as Landakotskirkja in Icelandic, which translates to Christ the King Cathedral, it was built in the neo-Gothic style in the 1920s. The whole of Iceland is made up of one Catholic diocese comprising seven parishes with approximately 13,000 registered Catholics — with most of the country’s Catholic priests imported from Europe.

On a recent trip to the “land of ice and fire,” I was surprised to learn that Irish monks were likely the first inhabitants of the island, arriving in the ninth century. This is according to the Book of Icelanders, a medieval text that describes the country’s origin stories. Given the country’s link to Nordic paganism, this was unexpected news. After all, it’s common knowledge that Iceland was settled by Vikings who practised pagan beliefs in keeping with Norse mythology. The gods they worshipped included Thor and Odin, names most North Americans associate today with comic book characters.

Our bus driver, a friendly Icelander named Eavarr, said his ancestors many generations ago were part of the National Assembly, called the Althing, which decided Christianity would become the official religion of Iceland, replacing paganism around 1000 AD. He also tells us about ancient stones called “Christianity rocks,” lava rocks that have been around since that time. These rocks can be found in Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site where parliamentary meetings were once held.

According to a history compiled by the Catholic diocese of Iceland, the National Assembly contacted representatives of the world Church in Rome, asking them to bring Iceland under their ecclesiastical rule. In 1056, the first Icelandic bishop, Ísleifur Gissurarson, was ordained. The island remained Catholic for 500 years until the Protestant Reformation reached Iceland in 1550 and the king declared Lutheranism to be the state religion. 

When the Catholic bishop refused to renounce Rome, he was arrested and executed. All ties were then cut with Rome and Catholicism was outlawed until the second half of the19th century, when a small number of missionary priests and nuns arrived from Europe.

During our travels, we quickly discovered that because Iceland is an island and much of its food is imported, eating is expensive. Where a modest lunch in Canada costs about $10, in Iceland you pay about double that for a small sandwich. But one option for affordable meals we came across was a relatively new food hall in downtown Reykjavik. Upon entering, I noticed that the Mexican eatery featured a friendly painting adorning the front of its counter: Our Lady of Guadalupe. The man behind the counter said he had no idea why Our Lady was featured. To him, it was just art. Regardless, it was comforting to see a familiar face in such an unfamiliar place. 

Another familiar name we encountered was J.R.R. Tolkien, the Catholic author of The Lord of the Rings fantasy series. The story goes that Tolkien learned Icelandic — although he never visited the country — so he could gain inspiration from Icelandic Viking sagas, some tales of which are found in his novels. 

In 1989, more than 1,100 years after Catholic monks first set foot on the island, St. John Paul II became the first pope to visit Iceland. He acknowledged the past division but noted how Iceland’s history and culture were shaped by the Gospel since the arrival of the first Europeans.

“Because of the rich spiritual heritage reflected in the treasure of poetry and saga which your ancestors bequeathed to you, Iceland has much to say to a world that yearns to be inspired by the truth and to create a society of justice, peace and universal harmony,” he said.  

Visiting the island 30 years later, I think the same holds true today.

Forest bathing cleanses mind and body

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on December 17, 2018

Should doctors start prescribing a leisurely walk in the forest to improve health and well-being? According to researchers from Japan, the answer is a resounding yes. 

Forest bathing, which originated in Japan in the 1980s, is the practice of “bathing in the forest atmosphere” or “taking in the forest through your senses.” The term comes from the Japanese shinrin-yoku — shinrin means “forest” and yoku translates to “bath.” 

There’s no actual water — or traditional bathing — involved. The focus is on being present in nature in order to reap a variety of health benefits linked to silent contemplation amongst the trees. Whether breathing in the scent of fresh pine or admiring the beauty of rows of Douglas firs that seem to tower straight up into the clouds, researchers say the benefits include reductions in stress and blood pressure, stronger immune and cardiovascular systems, increased energy and improved mood and concentration. 

On a recent visit to Iceland I was struck by the absence of trees amidst a terrain of lava fields, fjords, glaciers and hot springs. In stark contrast with Canada’s lush landscape, the “land of ice and fire” is dotted sporadically with trees. Why? One explanation is that after Vikings discovered Iceland some 1,100 years ago, settlers axed most of the trees for firewood and to build homes and boats — and growing back the lush forests of long ago has been a slow process. 

In Canada, home to nine per cent of the world’s forests, the concept of forest bathing is gaining popularity. In September, Markham became the first city in the country to create a designated forest therapy trail that, in part, can be led by a guide from the Global Institute of Forest Therapy, a non-profit that promotes using nature to build mindfulness. 

For Catholics, escaping into nature for short periods of time is often an important component of taking a retreat, where peace and quiet allow us to discern more effectively. When I visited Villa Maria Guadalupe, the retreat centre run by the Sisters of Life in Stamford, Conn., one of the most effective aspects of the retreat was wandering the grounds amidst the trees as I contemplated an upcoming life transition. 

Spirituality and nature go together, as does the resulting sense of inspiration and renewal. In the Catholic tradition, trees signify the cyclical nature of creation — new life, but also death, as the cross on which Jesus was crucified came from a tree. 

When he was a young priest, St. Pope John Paul II often led groups of young people into the forests of Poland to help them feel closer to God through nature.

“Our very contact with nature has a deep restorative power; contemplation of its magnificence imparts peace and serenity,” he once said.

Historically, hermits who desired prayerful lives of seclusion would retreat to the forests. For me, this brings to mind St. Giles from Greece, well-known as Giles the Hermit, who spent many years living deep in a forest “engaged in the contemplation of heavenly things.” 

While Pope Francis doesn’t mention forest bathing in Laudato Si’, he writes that St. Francis of Assisi asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, “so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.” 

Scientific researchers are proving the health benefits from spending time in nature, but the realization that nature is a beautiful gift from God should be enough to fill us with immense gratitude, a feeling linked inextricably with elevated levels of happiness. That spending time in nature makes us feel good is no surprise. For science to now assert the positive impact this has on our health is a bonus and should keep us going back for more. As Canadians, we’re surrounded by trees and should take advantage of the many accessible forests, parks and ravines. 

Mother Teresa once said: “We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature — trees, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…. We need silence to be able to touch souls.”

As the darkness of winter descends, we should consider forest bathing as a way to optimize the fleeting hours of sunshine. With a good pair of boots, I know I will. 

Moms don’t kid around with Macron’s musings

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on November 8, 2018

During a recent speech, French President Emmanuel Macron made a statement that hit a nerve with moms around the world. 

Speaking at an event organized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Macron wanted to make the point that parenthood should be a choice.

“One of the critical issues we have regarding the African demography is the fact that this is not a chosen fertility,” he said. “Present me the lady who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight or nine children.” 

In response, about 20,000 perfectly educated moms — largely from the United States and France — mobilized on Twitter. They used the hashtag #PostcardsForMacron to post photos of the large families they chose to have, along with details of their educational backgrounds. The hashtag started with Catherine R. Pakaluk, a professor of social research and economics at the Catholic University of America, who shared a photo of herself and six of her eight children. Accompanying the snapshot, she wrote: “PhD Harvard (2010), AM Harvard (2002), BA UPenn (1998). Eight children by choice. Keep it going ladies, add your own.”

As I watched post after post flood social media, it was clear that these bold women who opted to have large families should be celebrated — not judged — for committing to family life. Motherhood, after all, is the very definition of selflessness. 

Pakaluk has a vested interest in this subject. Catholic News Agency reported that her academic research area focuses in part on the effects of fertility on economic development. And while she acknowledged that Macron’s words may have been taken out of context — he was referring to women in the developing world, not the United States or Western Europe — she said his comments “represent an underlying view common in contemporary culture,” namely that no intelligent woman would want to have a large family.

Perhaps Macron had no intention of belittling the many women who make the choice to have large families, but he unwittingly highlighted the issue of how these women have been judged by society. His statement was simply a tipping point. 

No doubt, having a large family is countercultural in the 21st century. As of 2016, the fertility rate in Canada had dropped to 1.54 children per woman. There are a multitude of reasons for this trend. One of them is that Canadian women spend more time pursuing higher education and wait to get married until they feel established in their careers — that is, if they’ve found a mate by that time. From there, it can be a race against the biological clock to have one or two kids — let alone seven or more. 

One Canadian mom who defies the status quo is Lisa Canning, a Toronto mother of seven children under the age of nine. Canning wears many hats as an expert in parenting, interior design and lifestyle. She posted using the #PostcardsForMacron hashtag, saying: “I run a business with my seven kids in tow so I’d like to say to Monsieur Macron that it’s very possible to have a large family and be an educated woman. I think people don’t realize the incredible work that goes into mothering and the incredible fulfillment that can come from motherhood.”

When Canning got married in 2007, she says she was terrified of having one child, let alone seven. But she and her husband used the skill of discernment carefully — taking it “one glorious babe at a time.” She describes her family life as “full of joy,” and relies on the emotional, spiritual and physical support of family, friends and other caregivers as she and her husband navigate the ups and downs of life. 

Has she ever felt judged by society for having a large family? You bet. 

“When I was a younger mom, I felt judged for being open to a large family,” she said. “I would take comments about my lifestyle quite personally, and often the comments of others would weigh heavily upon my confidence level. 

“But now with more experience, not only in parenting children, but confidence in feeling comfortable in the person I have become, the comments don’t bother me as much. I think the more confidence we have that we are walking the path that God has intended for us, negative comments get easier to put aside.”

It may not be the path for everyone, but for those who follow a vocation of exponential motherhood, I say kudos. Mothers, after all, have enough to worry about without having to answer to the President of France. 

Experiencing life and toxicity during the Season of Creation

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on October 15, 2018

As celebrations for the Season of Creation unfolded over the past month, I was struck by two vastly different experiences: one life-giving, the other literally toxic.

The annual Season of Creation, launched in 1989 by the Eastern Orthodox Church and endorsed by Pope Francis in 2015, calls on Christians worldwide to pray and take action to help care for the gift of creation. It wrapped up on Oct. 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.

Embracing the spirit of the month, I joined a friend at a do-it-yourself evening called Plant Nite, where people gather to create tabletop mini-gardens. Our materials included a vintage-looking wooden drawer and a variety of exotic-looking succulents, decorative rocks and stones, colourful reindeer moss and a tiny hedgehog to sit atop a piece of bark to give the display a woodland feel.

The instructor, or master gardener, led the groups of millennials through our steps. We started off by lining the bottom of the drawer with small rocks for drainage and then adding a type of cactus soil that provides the dry conditions these plants require. Then we planted our succulents and arranged the moss to create a mini-garden which, although no Eden, was nonetheless a proud creation. We left feeling refreshed and renewed, and somehow closer to nature after an evening of casual conversation and exercising our green thumbs.

At complete odds with this creative experience was a situation I had been trying to resolve in the previous days. I had purchased a couple of yoga mats for pilates and general exercise.  I was left breathless by what came next — and not in a good way. Removing the mats from the package, I was overwhelmed by the smell.

To rid my living room of the strong odour from the synthetic material, I busted out a home-made, essential-oil and sprayed this lemon blend directly on the mats. It was to no avail. They mats still reeked, so I left them on my balcony overnight hoping to remove the stench. Nothing. 

It was an unnatural stench, which I thought can’t be good for human health. I was right.

I was disheartened to discover that plastic mats like these often are made from polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC — widely considered to be the most toxic consumer plastic on the market. I also learned that this type of plastic is softened with phthalates, a group of carcinogenic chemicals linked to reproductive abnormalities and infertility, according to Environmental Defence Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society’s website indicates that phthalates aren’t chemically attached to the plastic products that contain them, which means they can leach into the air we breathe. 

It’s shocking that this toxin is in products being sold to unsuspecting consumers. It’s a particularly hard bitter pill to swallow when these chemicals are found in products intended to improve health. This material also harms the environment. You can’t recycle it and disposing of it by incineration releases the cancer-causing chemical dioxin. 

Six days later, the mats still stunk, so I returned them. 

It’s not just some types of workout mats that contain phthalates. The chemical is found in an array of products, including shower curtains,  toys, clothing, paint, cosmetics, bedding and food packaging. 

According to Health Canada, current evidence indicates the level of phthalates most Canadians encounter is not harmful. This opinion is not shared by Environmental Defence, a Canadian advocacy group which claims we’ll pay a health and environmental cost by failing to ban phthalates. Via email, I was told, “Health Canada continues to review the scientific literature on phthalates and monitors the actions of its international regulatory partners.” 

We often place trust in brands we know well, but this isn’t enough to ensure products are free of toxic materials. The lesson here is that it’s up to us to become smart shoppers. I’ve learned, for example, there are PVC-free mats out there, but it takes extra leg work to find them.

The month-long Season of Creation may be over, but my appreciation and enjoyment of the natural world didn’t end with it. I have resolved to be more aware of how the products I use daily impact my health, the health of loved ones and the long-term health of the planet.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions…. We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”

We all are called to be responsible stewards of God’s creation.

Audiobooks are a feast for my ears


Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on September 24, 2018

I officially jumped on the audiobook bandwagon about a year ago. 

I tried reading e-books, with no success. The digital pages always felt cold and uninviting, lacking the sensory experience that comes from the feel of holding a traditional book in your hands.

But I’ve had a much different experience with audiobooks. Quite an opposite one, in fact. Audiobooks are a total feast for the senses as an engaging narrator — sometimes a well-known actor — brings stories to life through the performance of different voices, dramatic pauses and the like.

My first audiobook was A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, read by popular British narrator David Timson, a seasoned narrator who has made 1,000-plus broadcasts for BBC Radio Drama. 

I dove into this new literary format on the subway in an effort to make my commute more enjoyable. It worked, and I now let narration carry me home. 

I’m not alone. Audiobooks are having a moment. According to a study by BookNet Canada on the state of digital publishing, 61 per cent of Canadian publishers now produce digital audiobooks, up from 37 per cent in 2016. It’s not surprising. They’re a convenient way to fit books into a busy lifestyle — especially for this bibliophile. From topics such as spirituality and sports to health and fiction, there’s something for everyone. 

For those so inclined, they can even listen to the Bible as an audiobook, as well as a wide range of audiobooks from Catholic writers such as G.K. Chesterton and Henri Nouwen.

Reflecting on the increasing popularity of audiobooks brings to mind the words of famous Catholic media theorist and public intellectual Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase “the medium is the message.”

In McLuhan’s Understanding Media, published in 1964, he explained: “The medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium … result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”

So, how does the shift to an audio medium impact our lives? Audiobooks allow us to maintain a reading hobby at times when reading a traditional book would be difficult to manoeuvre. For example, on a crowded subway train where there is standing room only, or while exercising, or doing chores around the house.

My go-to app for audiobooks is Libby, by Overdrive, a service created by libraries. By downloading a free app, your library card becomes your ticket to access thousands of audiobooks, e-books and magazines that are literally at your fingertips.

Interestingly enough, humans may be genetically hardwired to listen as opposed to read. Oral storytelling was well established long before the marvel of written words. According to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, as quoted in a piece in The New Yorker: “Language comprehension and production evolved in connection with hearing probably 150,000 years ago and to some extent is ‘hardwired’; whereas writing is 5,000 to 7,000 years old…. So it’s possible listening to speech is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres — hence more evocative and natural.”

We’re living through a moment in time in which too many of us spend endless hours consuming snippets of information on social media — fragmented and not necessarily composed by credible sources. Our moments “in between” are swallowed up by a seemingly endless cycle of scrolling through a barrage of viewpoints without disclaimers, context or, in most cases, substance. It’s to our detriment, as countless studies suggest that this information overload is slowly eroding our attention spans.

The consumption of any and all forms of books — whether they be print or digital — is much needed. But audiobooks have a certain charm about them. Being read to evokes warm feelings of childhood when story time was a listening time. Audio books are another way to remind us of the power of storytelling, and why we fell in love with books in the first place.

They remind us, too, of the importance of finding time to sit down and savour that irreplaceable feeling of enjoying a good book — in whatever form it comes.

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Food and family creates a perfect recipe

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on August 13, 2018

Pesto tastes like summertime to me.

A special recipe for this delicious basil-based, garlic-infused sauce has been honed over
the years by my maternal grandmother, my nonna. Around this time of year, when her garden is in bloom and her basil plants are booming, she whips together her signature mouth-watering pesto as part of an annual quest to stock her freezer for the winter months.

In my experience, food and family go hand-in-hand, and the preparation of that food is a very intentional act of love. Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we invite friends for a meal, we do much more than offer them food for their bodies. We offer friendship, fellowship, good conversation, intimacy and closeness…. We offer our guests not only our food and drink, but ourselves. A spiritual bond grows, and we become food and drink for one another.”

The same can be said of cooking for family, whether on a regular, day-to-day basis, or for special occasions. From a young age, I have fond memories of summer days assisting my nonna in the family kitchen as she canned peaches and made tomato sauce, which we’d enjoy throughout the year. So having grown basil this summer in a modest herb garden on the balcony of my new apartment, I visited my nonna to learn her secret to making pesto from fresh ingredients. 

The recipe she uses was passed onto her years ago by “some of the girls at the club,” nonna told me, referring to a social club in Toronto she still frequents. The club was started by immigrants from Italy’s northeastern province of Friuli, which borders Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea, the area where nonna was born. When she made the trans-Atlantic voyage to Canada in the 1950s, she brought with her a joy of cooking and an appreciation for home-grown food that hasn’t diminished, even as she approaches her 89th birthday this September.

In the kitchen, she takes her time and doesn’t rush, giving the recipe her full attention. She measures every ingredient carefully. To her, this care is no different than the care and precision of a sculptor in creating a work of art.

When it’s time to add my freshly picked basil to the other ingredients, she tells me to fill the food processor (“Inpinisila,” she instructs, in her native dialect). Then we share a hearty laugh when she tells me to remove the garlic’s “heart” — her at my look of bewilderment and me at what seems an incredibly odd request. Apparently, the “heart” is the small piece in the middle of a clove (sometimes light green in colour, depending on the freshness of the garlic) that is revealed when garlic is sliced in half lengthwise. By sliding the heart out along a little groove, the garlic becomes easier to digest, nonna says.

She tells me that a former co-worker introduced her to pesto when she first arrived in Canada. The co-worker hailed from the Italian region of Liguria, where pesto as we know it today was born in the mid-1800s. She assumed my nonna was familiar with pesto but, funny enough, my nonna had never tried pesto even though it was invented a mere 400 kilometres away from where she was born and raised. 

I’m not at liberty to share her particular recipe as I’ve been sworn to secrecy. But the original Italian recipe is so imitated that the Chamber of Commerce of Genoa has published the “official recipe.” It comprises seven ingredients: Ligurian basil leaves, cloves of garlic, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, pecorino sardo cheese (made from sheep’s milk), coarse salt and pine nuts.

As for the pine nuts, nonna specifies, they must be bought from Bulk Barn, as that’s been her go-to store over the years. The pine tree that towers about 10 feet above her house is full of them, too, she admits — but those are for the birds. 

When the blend was ready, we removed the lid — and the payoff was instant. A fragrant aroma filled the kitchen. After scooping the pesto into a jar, nonna grabbed a piece of bread and handed it to me. She added a drop of extra-virgin olive oil to the remnants in the food processor and we hungrily scooped it up, enjoying the fruits of our labour.

This shared experience is like a bridge to connect the gap of the “old world” of my nonna and the world she shares with me. Recipes like these are the culinary roots of our family heritage — and bring to life the sounds and smells of home.

At the core of Tolkien is a dedication to faith

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on June 14, 2018

It’s big news for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien that Amazon has made a billion-dollar commitment to bring to television a five-season series based on the epic Lord of the Rings fantasy saga.

While the characters and storylines remain secret — except for rumours that a main character in this prequel will be a young Aragorn (one of the heroes in the Lord of the Rings) — we do know that the content will be drawn from the six “Appendices” that appeared at the end of the last book in the Catholic writer’s trilogy. The Appendices, comprised of material Tolkien chose to leave out of the main narrative, add details about the early lives of the characters and the history and culture of the fictional land of Middle-earth, a fantastical world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and even talking tree-like characters called ents. These early years will form the plot of the series.

Tolkien, who became a Catholic at age eight after his mother joined the faith, tackled the timeless battle of good vs. evil in all his writings. Guided by his faith, he skillfully weaved Catholic symbolism throughout his work.

One notable Catholic parallel — and a character I hope to see in the upcoming series — is Lady Galadriel, who has a very Marian feel about her. Sometimes referred to as Lady of Light and often described as being bathed in light, she is a source of guidance and maternal comfort and is considered the “greatest of the elven women.” It is Galadriel who provides the hobbits with the gift of lembas bread, a life-giving food that sustains Frodo and Sam on the path to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings tales. Symbolic of the Eucharist, it keeps them physically full and, one could argue, spiritually full as it fuels their hope and inner strength.

I’m looking forward to seeing this type of symbolism come to life on the small screen. It would be a disservice to Tolkien if this were not the case. These Catholic connections are fundamental elements of Tolkien and the characters he created, so to exclude this element in the upcoming series would be to undermine the very essence of Tolkien’s tales.

The faith references throughout Lord of the Rings were absolutely intentional. In a letter to Jesuit priest Fr. Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote: ‘’The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out practically all references to anything like ‘religion,’ to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and symbolism.”

Tolkien has always resonated with me. He writes on universal themes of hope, friendship and love, all the while creating an unparalleled world of fantasy, chock full of new languages and mystical races and creatures. That is why stories published in the 1950s remain relevant today.

His tales act like a timeless moral guide. We’re introduced to characters who face one peril after another and, in the end, choose to do what is right, rather than what is easy. We see this when Aragorn meets his future wife Arwen. He no doubt wants to stay with her. But, given his important obligations as the next king, he places the well-being of Middle-earth first. “He went out into the wild. For nearly 30 years, he laboured in the cause against Sauron,” a Satan-like character who is the epitome of evil.

The producers at Amazon have a wonderful opportunity to create meaningful television by going to the heart of Tolkien’s works. We’ll have to wait and see how it all comes together, but one thing is certain: If done right this series can ensure that a new generation will be introduced to the wonder and parable-like quality of Tolkien’s tales.

But just as art can be interpreted in many ways, bringing literature to film is a subjective undertaking. So there is no way of telling how Tolkien’s work will be presented to a television audience. There is already skepticism. John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli the dwarf in the movie trilogy, called the venture a “disgrace” and suggested “poor Tolkien must be spinning in his grave” over a project motivated by an obvious lust for money. Amazon is slated to begin production over the next two years.

Meantime, I’ll eagerly await the release of the next wave of Tolkien’s timeless tales of Middle-earth — and I’ll be on the lookout for the thread of faith that is sewn like a strong seam into the fabric of Tolkien’s storylines and characters.

Plastic pollution a sign of failing stewardship

Written by Vanessa Santilli-Raimondo for The Catholic Register on May 17, 2018

When I was 10 years old, I’d spend hours creating posters that screamed out in bold letters: “Save the Whales!”

Chock full of whale drawings and facts about whales being at risk due to the actions of humans, I’d hang the posters at my local park with the hope that the community would, somehow, heed my Crayola-infused call to action. But my message was usually short-lived as, inevitably, after each session of postering every hydro pole in sight, rain would follow and wash away my whale-saving pleas. But the rain never dampened my enthusiasm for environmental activism.

Saving the whales was a hot topic during the 1990s, after the International Whaling Commission imposed a commercial whaling moratorium in the mid-’80s. But although whales were big news for a while, the concern was eventually overtaken by other issues. Fast-forward to 2018 when the devastating effects of plastic pollution on the health of the oceans and marine creatures has become one of the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Whales are back in the news.

We live in a throwaway culture of convenience, where using plastic is embedded in our everyday life — from plastic bags and takeout containers to water and pop bottles. But this convenience has come with a cost. National Geographic reported that eight million tons of plastic is dumped in the ocean annually, with 5.2 trillion pieces of plastic currently polluting the seas. This entirely man-made issue has underlined how humanity has failed in its responsibility to be a good steward of the Earth.

I recently watched the popular BBC documentary series Blue Planet II, which chronicles the state of the oceans. It was devastating to see a baby albatross that had choked to death by ingesting a plastic toothpick and a pilot whale carrying around her dead newborn, who may have died from drinking the mother whale’s contaminated milk. Without drastic change, reports indicate there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

It’s not just the oceans and the creatures within them that we’re harming. Plastic pollution is bad for human health. When fish eat plastic, the contaminants move through the food chain — and into our bodies. Aside from food, the oceans also provide a wide variety of other benefits: they produce more than half of the world’s oxygen, they regulate our climate through the transport of heat from the equator to the poles and they provide us with ingredients used in some medicines.

At the consumer level, we have a moral responsibility as people of faith to change our habits in order to minimize plastic use. Personally, I’m making an effort to be aware of my use of single-use plastics by carrying a re-useable water bottle — working to eliminate the need for plastic water bottles completely. That’s just a start. As a society we need to rethink our use of convenience items like plastic straws and takeout containers.

At the government level, there’s even more that needs to be done. In Canada, it’s disturbing that less than 11 per cent of plastics are recycled. The system needs a major overhaul.

It’s been reported that the federal government plans to use its G7 presidency to further the fight against plastic pollution at the upcoming June meeting in Quebec by putting forward proposals for a “zero-plastics-waste charter.” This is a step in the right direction. But I’m a bit of a skeptic, given that the Liberal government gave a $35-million grant to a chemical company that makes plastic resins the day before the G7 announcement.

Apathy and convenience have led to us to this particular moment in time — and only the recognition of the world as a gift to be protected can alter the path we’re on. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’: “Since the world has been given to us, we can no longer view reality in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit. Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

I no longer use pencil crayons to draw save-the-whale posters, but environmental stewardship remains dear to my heart. I haven’t lost my school-girl certainty that people need to be made aware of the damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world. And I believe more strongly than ever that together we have to do something about it — before it’s too late.