Conscience Conversations, Pt. 3: A patron saint for citizens

M:  If you’re okay with it, Brendan, I’d like to go one more round on the topic of saints for Catholic citizens.  There’s one in particular I’d like to mention.  He’s possibly a special one for Catholic Conscience:  Saint John Cardinal Fisher was a friend of Saint Thomas More, and was martyred with him.  He served as bishop of Rochester, England, and was chancellor of Cambridge University.

A quotation of his that I saw in Magnificat Magazine has caused me to wonder why he is not more frequently invoked, and what sorts of things we at Catholic Conscience might turn to him for. The quote was:

In the beginning of the world, almighty God made paradise a place of honest pleasure.  And from out of that place issued a flood divided into four parts, signifying the four capital virtues: justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude, with which the whole soul could be washed and made pleasant as with so many waters.  But contrariwise, the devil has conceived and made another paradise of bodily and sensual pleasure, and from out of that come four other floods, far contrary to the others:

  • the flood of covetousness contrary to justice,
  • the flood of gluttony against temperance,
  • the flood of pride against prudence, and
  • the flood of lechery against fortitude.

Whoever is drowned in any of these floods finds it hard to be turned to God by true contrition, for the raging of them is so great and overflowing…

What is the remedy for us who are in the midst of all these floods?  Where shall we fly?  Truly, God is the only remedy and refuge, for without his help none can escape without being drowned…

This Saint seems to me to have great potential for Catholic Conscience, especially as he does not yet appear to have been claimed as patron of any particular cause:  whereas St. Joseph is patron of workers and St. Thomas More is patron of lawyers and politicians, St. John appears to have been adopted only by individual schools, parishes, and dioceses.

What do you think?  Has St. John Fisher got things to teach us?  Should we consider adopting him, with St. Mary, as a patron of Catholic Conscience?

B: Your question has provoked the best kind of response—you’ve inspired some Googling! I have never heard of Saint John Fisher and so I’ve done some reading to see what I could learn. I’m so impressed by what I’ve discovered. So much of this extraordinary Christian’s life can act as a spiritual guide for all of us as citizens.

First, John Fisher the academic. He won the patronage of the King’s mother and used it to found Christ College and St. John’s College at Cambridge. He was famously Chancellor of Cambridge, and Bishop of Rochester. And so we start with the first great virtuous work of his life: the work of education, of teaching theology, of deepening the Christian understanding. We can take so much inspiration from his relentless commitment to spiritual formation and growth, which is so much part of our mission at Catholic Conscience.

Second, John Fisher the man of principle speaking truth to power. He incurred the wrath of his King again and again, particularly as Henry VIII marched Britain towards schism. Like Thomas More he eventually paid for his principles with his life. And like Thomas More we can be inspired by his example of refusing to violate the core tenets of his faith—of standing firm where moral clarity was needed.

Third, John Fisher the preacher. Apparently one of his great missions in life was to improve the standards of preaching in England. He was a legendarily charismatic and compelling public speaker, and his many sermons and books made him a leading European theologian. Catholic Conscience and its members dare to speak openly and publicly about Catholic social teaching and about building a society and culture of love and tenderness. We can learn from Fisher in this mission. Fisher is an example of a daring and thoughtful public persuader, who used the power of words to win hearts. Like Francis de Sales, he should inspire us in our mission of evangelization.

Fourth, and certainly not least of which, is John Fisher the citizen. What greater act of citizenship is there than speaking out against injustices promulgated by power? What greater act of love for neighbour is there in a democracy, than a willingness to speak up when the politics of the day is failing the public? In his principled stands on the issues of his time, John Fisher models citizenship—even to his death. And so, in our mission of forming good and active Christian citizens, we could hardly do better than such a noble model of Christian citizenship.

Matthew, what most struck you in reading about the life of John Fisher? And were it up to you what he would patronize, what would you choose?

M:  I think maybe you’ve suggested the answer yourself: my answer to both questions is citizenship.  Specifically, I would nominate Saint John Fisher as patron of Christian citizenship, because it strikes me forcibly that he used the full range of his prodigious gifts, to the limits of his strength—to the extent of laying down his life—to bring Christ to others, to everyone around him in society: to the students and the diocese he was given to oversee, to his peers in academia and the Church, and to the secular powers above him.  And on that basis, it seems to me that you have made a great case for naming him one of the patrons of Catholic Conscience.

Do you agree?

B: I couldn’t agree more.

Saint John Fisher, pray for us!

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, a partner at a major Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

 Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

Conscience Conversations, Pt 2: Saints for Catholic Citizens

One of the greatest spiritual tools afforded to us as Catholics in our journey towards God is the inspiration offered by the lives of saints. The saints are not just close to God in a special way, and people we can reach out to as a path of prayer. The endless array of saints and their stories reminds us of the diversity of ways people find God throughout history, the great continuum of vocations and missions God imparts to his children, and how all of us—in our own time, in our own way, in our own actions—can become saints.

Brendan:  Catholic Conscience is devoted especially to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But we too can draw from the blessed example of many saints. So, when you think of our mission as an organization—and the mission facing all Catholics, of becoming well-formed Christian citizens—who are the saints who inspire you the most? Who are the saints whose lives have special relevance to our work?

Matthew: A great question, worthy of thought.

Along with faith in special works and graces empowered by God—typically called miracles—the Catholic concept of saints is something that sets us Catholics, and our Orthodox sisters and brothers, apart. To me, that’s sad. Too many people are missing out on a good thing. The cause, I think, is that too many people, Catholic and otherwise, confuse the concept of saints with devotion to plaster statues, images, and other objects. Such objects, which can best be thought of as tools for devotion, can be wonderful helps in focusing, contemplation, and the creation of beauty. Misused, they can lead us apart from the real idea of saints, and through our actions, maybe even help drive others further away from God.

Really, the concept of saints is pretty simple. Like many people, we Catholics believe that when an individual’s life ends, her or his spirit, or soul, continues along its journey, hopefully moving in a new way closer toward God. In the larger sense, all of these souls who continue their pilgrimage can be thought of as ‘saints’, the more so as they grow closer.  Those whose cases have been carefully investigated and approved by the Church for general reverence are typically capitalized as “Saints”, with a capital “S”.

The key is our belief that although we can no longer see or touch those pilgrim souls, there’s nothing to say we can’t continue to speak with them, through prayer, and ask them to help us by joining in our prayers.  Presumably the most holy and devoted of these saints, being ever closer to God and being more practiced at prayer, have a better chance of being heard than we who are still at some distance, in the “living” world we know.

There’s nothing scary or illogical about it at all.

This means we have lots of choices for people to turn to, both as individuals and as a society.

In addition to our Immaculate Mother, her husband is a great choice, particularly for Canadians: St Joseph is patron of our country. Being one of the world’s quiet, devoted workers, he seems an excellent choice for Canada, as someone who is likely to have found very great favor with God. I recommend him heartily.

There are many saints for special causes—they can be so effective, in fact, that they get relegated to somewhat narrow channels for petition, and sometimes become almost like family members.

In 2000, Pope St. John Paul II declared St Thomas More to be the universal patron of statesmen and politicians.  At his execution by Henry VIII, St Thomas declared himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first. Truly “a witness to the truth that man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.”  Obviously a great resource for Catholic Conscience and others interested in politics and proper social order.

It’s interesting to note St Thomas More was executed in 1535, just four years after Our Lady commissioned St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin for the building of a chapel near Mexico City. Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of all the Americas, which makes her another great choice for us, and is part of the reason Catholic Conscience is consecrated to her Immaculate Heart.

There are many, many choices beyond that: basically, any good person who has gone ahead in his/her pilgrimage is a candidate. I, for example, pray to Juan Diego for humility; to my Uncle George, who died before I was born, as my guardian angel; and to my father and brother to keep an eye on my children. And I pray to a (very good Catholic) baseball player named Charlie Gehringer for the help in obtaining the grace to shut up and work hard.

B: I did not know St. Joseph was patron of Canada! And patron of hard work, the ever-needed virtue in the task of building a better world. A very appropriate saint for any Catholic citizen to keep in mind.

I suppose I’ll add a couple more for consideration. In the work Catholic Conscience does in forming Christians in the wisdom of Catholic social teaching, I look to the example of Saint Francis de Sales. I knew of Saint Francis de Sales before joining Catholic Conscience. He is, after all, the patron saint of writers–a good saint for a writer to keep at heart! He is famous for a few things. As Bishop of Geneva, he was a gentle evangelizer during the Reformation. His pamphlets and other written materials helped persuade thousands to rejoin the Church. He was, in that way, the progenitor of a democratic citizen in fine form—someone who seeks to peacefully persuade, who is open to conversation, encounter, and conversion. Saint Francis de Sales comes to mind when I think of ideal citizens. I also appreciate deeply his practical approach to the task of living a Christian life. His Introduction to the Devout Life is a very pragmatic approach to deepening faith, a guide which embraces the philosophy that sustained, disciplined action over time can change hearts and souls. Such a perfect metaphor for the work of being a virtuous Christian citizen. I find all the great civic virtues are learned through good practice. And, of course, Catholic Conscience seeks to gently persuade others of the wisdom of Catholic social teaching—a work Saint Francis de Sales would appreciate, I’m sure.

I admire greatly Saint Ignatius of Loyola as an institution-builder, constructing the Jesuits from the ground up through work, commitment, and of course the grace of God. I think of him often as we build the works and mission of Catholic Conscience.

So much of being a good Christian citizen depends on fighting for the preferential option for the poor. Though not (yet, I hope) a saint, Dorothy Day’s work for the vulnerable and abandoned continues to inspire me. I likely wouldn’t be involved in the causes I am involved in, were it not for her example. Dorothy Day’s example of Christian citizenship reminds us brilliantly: to be a Christian in community is to prioritize the good of others over ourselves. We must constantly remember that Christ is closest to the least, and to be close to him, we must be close to them. We must find the hidden corners where injustice thrives, and bring in the light.

You also mentioned some personal examples. My grandmother Rose, who passed many years ago, exemplified a gentle wisdom and piety that burns a fire in my heart as if she were alive before my eyes today. When I need patience, when I want to do the just thing, when I feel penitent for sins, when I want to have an open heart instead of a closed one, her example continues to inspire.

 M: Excellent examples.  St Francis de Sales and saint Dorothy both have much to teach us, and I expect they are eager to help us move our prayers along.

The only further examples I can think to add are two named Francis—our current Pope, and the original, from Assisi.  I think the world needs both very badly.  Pope Francis, of course, is still with us – but that just means we should pray that God help him in guiding us, and gathering souls to Christ.

We talked earlier about the different “ages” of humanity.  It’s interesting to me that St Francis of Assisi came to prominence at the end of the Church’s first millennium; and that it was only at the end of the 2nd millennium that the first Pope to adopt his name appeared. It’s a powerful name, and the world needs it sorely.

Let’s pray that these holy people will watch over us, and guide our efforts with Catholic Conscience.

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

 Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, a partner at a major Toronto law firm, and a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

 Brendan Steven is a director with Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

Effective Participation in Political Parties

Catholic Conscience and the Newman Centre at the University of Toronto presented a panel discussion on effective participation in politics and political parties on May 30, 2019 at the Newman Centre.

Members from each of the major political parties discussed the proper roles and purposes of political parties.

Political parties and civic engagement matter. The visions for society that parties support have an enormous effect on nations, particularly when they take up the reins of power. How do we, as citizens, engage with parties, and help shape those visions? How can engaged citizens make a difference in the political process?

Panelists include:

  • Jo-Ann Davis, former TCDSB chair and 2018 Liberal MPP Candidate for University-Rosedale
  • Brendan Steven, former speechwriter for Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver
  • Dave Szollosy, former president OECTA, and 2018 NDP MPP candidate for York Simcoe
  • Nick Wright, member of the Governing Board of the Law Society of Ontario and 2014, 2015 Green Party candidate
  • Moderated by Matthew Marquardt, Executive Director Catholic Conscience

Canadian Bishop urges Renewal of Catholic Education

Accepting Pope Francis’ invitation for bishops to be bold at the Synod of Bishops underway in Rome, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Dowd of Montreal told the assembly Oct. 16, “If I was pope – I know I’m not, but if I was – I’d write an encyclical on four basic questions” all human beings ask in one way or another.

The four, he said, are: “Who is God? If God is good, why is there evil in the world? If God is good but there is evil in the world, what has God done about it? If God is good but there is evil in the world and God is doing something about it, how can we be part of it?”

The answers, Bishop Dowd suggested, should be the foundation of Catholic education.

More signs of trouble in Ontario

Canada, like the US and Mexico, continues to reflect troubles with democracy.  In the province of Ontario, each of the major parties – Liberal, Progressive Conservative, and New Democratic – appears to be encouraging parliamentary candidates to step back and stop talking, apparently with the idea of allowing leaders to keep party communications strictly ‘on message.’  Obviously, this severely limits the abilities of voters to explore broader ranges of parties’ positions on issues of importance to them.

However, it is important that Catholics follow up with individual candidates during the campaign process:  across all parties, some nominees, generally driven by a sense of civic duty, will ignore instructions and respond to requests to meet with voter groups.  Our own meetings, for example, which are purposefully non-confrontational, seem to be appreciated by voters and candidates alike.  And while, for the first time ever, none or our meetings in Ontario has had representation from all parties during the current campaign, we do have commitments, at different meetings, from candidates from all parties.

It is contrary to principles of federal or parliamentary democracies for party leaders to attempt to horde all attention to themselves, to set themselves up as sole points of party communication and contact.  Obviously, this puts them in the position of deciding what information is to be shared, with whom, and when, and it can be used to avoid answering uncomfortable questions – even when the questions are entirely proper.  In April, for example, we proposed a Q&A session for Ontarian party leaders, and were utterly ignored by all parties – despite the facts that our meetings are entirely non-confrontational and that most of the leaders met with leaders of other community groups shortly thereafter, in the same geographic area.

The problem is aggravated by new tactics of all parties to make both their platforms and direct contact information for candidates difficult to find.   It’s not always possible for candidates to accept all invitations.  But it is possible for them to acknowledge invitations and explain why they can or cannot accept, and it is not only possible, but is a positive duty for them to make their platforms easily available to voters.

As Catholics, we have a duty to participate in society, in order to ensure that all people are given opportunities they need to fulfill themselves and their duties before God.  Get involved.  Speak up.  Vote – and when you vote, stop to think for a moment about which individual candidates are willing to spend time speaking to you, and listening to you.

We live in dangerous times for democracy.

TRUTH, WISDOM, AND RESPECT FOR ONE ANOTHER. We live in dangerous times for democracy. The assumption that elections in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere will continue to produce wise and effective leaders, who are willing to work with members of other parties when it makes sense; or that parties in such countries will offer platforms or candidates that are in the best interests of the people, is no longer a safe assumption

We have been warned throughout history – by Plato and Washington, for example – that democracy will not work if voters decline to understand and face the issues, of if we fail to participate in the process of selecting and supporting leaders.

Look at recent elections in the US and Canada: it is no longer true that political parties offer comprehensive, balanced plans for building what they believe to be fairer, wiser governments. Rather, their sole preoccupation is to acquire power, and then keep it, at whatever cost to truth or wisdom. Too often, their party conventions focus on discussions of ‘how we can beat the other guys’, rather than affirming those things which are wise and just, and working with other parties toward improvement of that which is not. When was the last time any party or politician acknowledged those parts of its vision that were consistent with those of the other side, or worked in quiet cooperation when it was in the interest of the people to do so? Instead, they criticize one another relentlessly, and turn elections into hideous popularity contests.

We citizens, we voters, can and must insist that those who seek office begin formulating and cooperatively implementing visions that are in the best interests of the people, rather than themselves.

We can do it. In a democracy, it can be simple.

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