What defines a nation? What separates one national culture from another?
Is it language, geography or shared experiences? Could it be the nation's unique foods, dress, songs and dances?
To some extent, it is all of these things . . . and more. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that any society is rooted in the spiritual. "The primary characteristic of a people is the sharing of life and values, which is the source of communion on the spiritual and moral level" (n. 386).
This is something the Islamic world knows well. Too well at times, we would say. Religion is the glue that holds nations together. Disagreements about various aspects of religion tend to tear countries apart.
What about Canada? Where do we find our identity? At one time English Canada was largely Protestant and French Canada was strongly Catholic. But that has all changed: Religion has lost much of its influence as Canada has become a potpourri of people from widely varied ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds.
Is, then, our very multiculturalism the source of our identity? That is, does Canada's identity lie in the reality that people of varying backgrounds cooperate with each other?
When Pope John Paul II visited Canada in 1984, he was impressed with how people from all over the world have come together to build a unified nation. Many countries are multicultural, he said in a homily in Winnipeg. But in Canada that characteristic has acquired "singular eloquence."
Multiculturalism, the pope said, must be rooted in the law of love. "You must love your neighbour as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). "To detach culture from the Gospel commandment of love would be to make impossible the multicultural interplay which is characteristic of Canada."
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The deepest meaning of a political community lies in the extent to which it embodies charity.
This "multicultural interplay," this obedience to the law of love, is not a one-time accomplishment which persists forever. It must be constantly renewed and reinvigorated.
The Compendium says cultural minorities have a right to exist and to maintain their cultures, including their language and their religion. But those minorities also have a duty to work for the common good of the land in which they live.
A society flourishes when it is characterized by "civil friendship." Such friendship is selfless and detached from the possession of material goods.
Canada is an enormously prosperous nation. But such prosperity is all for naught if we do not have a culture of "friendship." The deepest meaning of a political community lies in the extent to which it embodies charity.
Daily, we learn of new incidents of violence. We witness road rage and other uncivil behaviour. Greed, indifference and ingratitude are ever before us.
Perhaps none of these things should be a surprise. What is a surprise is how much kindness, selfless initiative and self-sacrifice for the good of others that we encounter. The mystery is how lazy, rebellious creatures like human beings can stretch beyond themselves.
Can this be understood without the grace of God, without faith that there is something much greater than one's tender ego? I don't think so.
The love of God impels us. For a society – any society, not just a multicultural one – to thrive, it needs a widespread love that only faith and hope can stir.
The greatest richness of any political community is the willingness to reach out and help others. Reaching out cannot be sustained on self-interest alone. A nation must find its identity through faith.