By Most Rev. Richard W. Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton

This picture shows one of the panels on the holy door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I have always loved it, and it speaks beautifully of the Good Shepherd reaching out to save the lost. That's the reason for hope.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Voice that Speaks of Peace

As commentator after commentator dissected the horrible events in Canada this past week - the killing of Canadian soldiers by what are believed to be "radicalized" Islamists, I found my mind going often to a beautiful - and now very timely - expression in the Psalms: "Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts." (Psalm 85:8). Among the questions asked in relation to these tragedies is that of the voices to which the killers had been listening. Who are they listening to? Who is influencing and warping their understanding of things? Clearly, they are voices of hatred, influences which have so twisted their minds as to lead them to kill, messages that turn their hearts to desire and effect acts of aggression.

Particularly perverse are the voices that justify and encourage violence in the name of religion. In stark contrast is the teaching of the Psalmist, who seeks to listen to the voice of the Lord, a voice that speaks of peace.

That divine voice has become incarnate in Jesus Christ. As we listen to this voice of the Lord, he makes clear what leads to true peace: love of God and love of neighbour. These two inseparable commandments are at the centre of his teaching in the Gospel of Sunday past. This love is not a "warm fuzzy" but a commitment that is truly "radical", i.e. from the very roots of our being. Love of God with all one's heart, mind, soul and strength means to accept God, his love and teachings as the foundation of our lives. Likewise does love of neighbour call forth from us a commitment that engages the entirety of self. Love of neighbour means to give of oneself fully to the other so that a society of true justice is formed. Love of God and love of neighbour is true religion. It leads to peace and allows absolutely no room for violence.

Who am I listening to? The events of this week underscore with dramatic clarity just how important a question this is. Let us collectively listen to - and follow (!) - that one voice that both speaks of peace and fashions it.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Let’s Band Together to Do Good

My day yesterday was marked by the same experience shared by all Canadians: shock and horror at the tragic events in Ottawa. I might have surrendered to the natural temptation to fear before the ugly face of evil, were it not for another experience that announced hope. Earlier in the day I attended a community breakfast in support of the Alberta Association of Community Living. There I heard wonderful stories of hope. People carrying crosses of unbearable weight due to family members suffering severe disabilities shared how they found hope from members of the community banding together to help them and give much needed support.

The contrast between the two experiences was striking, and reminded me of what the Christian tradition has long held and taught: Light and darkness are not of equal weight. Light dispels darkness and hope banishes fear. Light and hope have come to the world in Jesus Christ, and they are made both visible and tangible when people come together to overcome evil and suffering by the power of good. That is the lesson of the dying and rising of Jesus and we do well to remember it. In that light, we dare to live without fear.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dual Citizenship

Nice to have if you can get it. Most of us have citizenship in only one country. Rarely, a person may have citizenship in another at the same time. In an important sense, though, dual citizenship is not as unusual as one might think. In fact, the Scripture readings of this past Sunday teach us that God wills dual citizenship for all of his people. While we belong to countries in the earthly realm, we are called at the same time to citizenship in the heavenly, in what we call the kingdom of God.

Citizenship entails responsibilities. We pay taxes, we participate in the political process, we craft and obey laws, etc. What about citizenship in the Kingdom of heaven? Naturally there are responsibilities incumbent upon us in that sphere also.

God's kingdom has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. In virtue of our union with him - a union brought about by faith, repentance and baptism, we are drawn into that kingdom, even if only partially during our sojourn on earth, and are thus called to assume its responsibilities. We know these from the teaching of Jesus: love God and neighbour, have faith in Jesus, live a life of holiness, accept the call to evangelize.

Even though we know our duties as citizens, sometimes these responsibilities are not met. People will try to reduce the amount they pay in tax, sometimes even to the point of cheating; at times people do not even cast votes at election time, and we know from a drive around town that traffic laws are not always followed. Is there a similar shirking of responsibility as citizens of God's kingdom?

This is precisely what is at issue in the encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees and Herodians recounted in Sunday's Gospel (cf. Matthew 22: 15-21). They are trying to trap him with the question of payment of taxes to Caesar. If Jesus were to reply that it is not required that the tax be paid, he could have been brought up on charges of sedition; had he encouraged the payment of tax he would have lost credibility in the minds of many who hated the emperor and the oppression brought upon them by the Romans. Jesus deflects the question easily (give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar) and then takes it to a deeper level: give to God what belongs to God.

What belongs to God is the entirety of our lives. His claim upon us is absolute. Citizenship in this kingdom means the surrender of all into the hands of Jesus, in whom God's kingdom has broken into human history. The enemies of Jesus demonstrated their unwillingness to live as such citizens. They sought to keep Jesus at bay, even to the point of seeking to have him arrested and killed. They did not want to accept the radical change in their lives that would be the inevitable consequence of accepting and following Jesus.

What about us? Are we also keeping Jesus away, hesitant to accept his call to conversion? Are we afraid to live authentically as his disciples and thus as citizens of his kingdom? There is absolutely no reason to fear Jesus and his call. Discipleship is beautiful, and the acceptance here and now of the responsibilities incumbent upon us as citizens of his kingdom bring a joy and peace for ourselves and others far beyond the reach of any earthly power.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Missing Preposition

I listened for it but could not hear it. It just wasn't there. A radio news report during the Thanksgiving Weekend featured a number of people, young and old, rhyming off a list of things they were thankful "for". What I was waiting to hear was mention of being thankful "to", as in "to whom"? Gratitude arises from an awareness that I have received something from another. Thankfulness is therefore expressed toward the giver; it is a matter not only of being thankful "for" but also thankful "to". Why was this natural and all-important preposition absent?

St. Paul asks this arresting question: "What do you have that you did not receive?" (1Corinthians 4:7). In other words, all in life is gift, and the giver is God, who loves us beyond all imagining and who never fails to give his children what is good. So powerful is this love of God that it can transform even what is bad into the gift of something good. This is what Jesus did when he took pain, suffering and death upon himself and transformed it, through his resurrection, into the gift of eternal life. That little word "to" is of immense importance. It directs our attention - and our gratitude - toward the source of the gift, who is God.

The absence of this preposition in common discourse is perhaps a sign of the need to welcome God back into our lives. Of course, it is good to be thankful "for", but at the same time I really ought to direct my thanks to the One whose love is the foundation of all good things, even life itself. To forget this is to lose sight of the foundation of real hope.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Divine Vision for Human Growth

Construction! It is at every turn in this city of Edmonton these days. We can expect it to continue, given the 30,000 - 40,000 people that come streaming into this city every year. As we struggle to accommodate this exponential growth, the city is crafting plan after plan, dealing with land use, transportation etc. With this as a backdrop, the Scripture readings for Sunday pose some dramatic questions. As we fashion our plans for living together, what about God's plan for human relating? As we envision what our city might look like in the years ahead, what about God's vision for humanity? How might this divine vision guide our life together, not only here but also everywhere?

God's intention for the people he has created is given at many points in Scripture through the image of a vineyard. "The vineyard of The Lord is the house of Israel." (Psalm refrain) The image refers to the people God has created and makes clear God's expectations of us. God "plants" this vineyard deeply in the truth of his love; he provides the "nutrients" of grace and mercy; he builds a "protective wall" by speaking his Word, above all his Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, who by his dying and rising has destroyed the power of evil: and God expects from his vineyard a "harvest" of human solidarity, justice and peace.

The same imagery also conveys God's lament that his vineyard has not produced the expected harvest: instead of justice God sees bloodshed; in place of righteousness, he hears cries of distress. (cf. Isaiah 5: 1-7)

To receive this imagery and teaching at a time of rapid societal growth is to hear in it a summons to direct our gaze correctly. In the city at this time we seem rather preoccupied with the number of skyscrapers to be built and their height. Our gaze is directed skyward. God's vision for humanity calls us to direct our gaze not skyward but streetward, and not only in the city but also provincially, nationally and globally. Look around, open your eyes and see. There are many good things to discover, of course. At the same time we also see poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, family abandonment, domestic violence, missing and murdered women and children, and, on the world scene, the horrors of ISIL. The ancient lament spoken through Isaiah would be apposite in our own day.

How did we get here? Consider the teaching given by Jesus. (cf. Matthew 21: 33-43) He takes the same image of the vineyard and around it crafts the parable of the evil tenants, who, at harvest time, do not return the fruit of the vine to the landowner but keep it to themselves. Whenever we turn our backs on God's purpose; whenever we distort his vision to serve our own ends; whenever we take the gifts he has lavishly poured upon us to bear fruit in justice and use them for our own selfish ends, then we can expect a harvest of pain, injustice and suffering, which is the exact opposite of God's expectation.

Concrete, asphalt and steel hold our buildings and roads together. The only cement that can keep together the human family and assure its strength is the rediscovery and implementation of God's vision for his people. May we all, individually and above all in our families, truly live as the Lord's vineyard, peacefully and trustingly receiving from him all the gifts we need and using them for the accomplishment not of our own selfish motives but of God's saving purpose.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Matter of Translation

Like many others in this country, the Archdiocese of Edmonton is blessed with parishioners from a variety of cultures and languages. It is a particular joy for me to visit a parish and hear the people praying and singing in their native tongue (Cree, Vietnamese, Croatian, for example, and many more). Often, I don't understand a word of it. It sounds beautiful, but the meaning escapes me. To understand, translation is required. By means of a translator, sound becomes word, and perplexity is transformed into comprehension.

The Gospel passage for last Sunday (cf. Matthew 21: 28-32) is all about the need for clear translation. Jesus speaks of the need not only to say we will do the will of God, but also to accomplish that word in action. As Christians, we proclaim that Jesus is our Lord. For others to understand these words, they need to be translated clearly into not other words but actions.

By what acts, then, do we show clearly what is meant by the words we profess? The first, and font of all others, is the act of faith. We say that Jesus is Lord and Saviour. This translates into act when we place all of our hopes in him, surrendering with trust in his love and wisdom to the truth of who he is and what he reveals. It translates further into conversion. By changing our lives to live more in conformity with the teaching of Christ and his Church we make visible in act what we say in speech.

Because we believe, we pray. Recognizing that all comes from the goodness of God, we offer prayers daily in thanksgiving and petition, recognizing peacefully that God is our loving Father who will never leave us forsaken. The act of prayer embraces and flows from a reflective reading of the Word of God, undertaken that we might obey what we hear. This obedience leads us to participate in the life of the Church, since Christ gave his life to form us into a communion, which is his mystical Body on earth. This participation reaches its peak in the sacraments, especially in the frequent celebration of Eucharist and Penance.

A particularly clear action that translates our Christian words is service of others, especially of those in need. Pope Francis is demonstrating this to great effect. Our relationships in general will translate the faith we profess when they are marked by truth, honesty and respect.

Our actions will also translate back to us the degree to which we are allowing the Word of God to transform us. It is important to examine our actions daily and allow them to instruct us. In golf we say, "the ball doesn't lie." In other words, I might feel that my swing is good, but a slice or hook will tell me truthfully that there is something I have to do differently. Similarly, I might think I am a faithful Christian, but my actions don't lie. If I am not praying, meditating upon God's Word, participating in the sacraments, serving others, or dealing honestly in relationships, then those same actions are telling me I have to change. Let's pray this week for the grace to examine our lives, and ask God for the help we need to make sure that our words of faith find clear translation in our deeds.

Monday, September 22, 2014

What Really Matters

It was a remarkable phenomenon. Watching the news the other evening I saw a report about people - hundreds and hundreds of people in many cities - camped outside a store for as much as twenty-four hours in order to acquire a brand new version of a smartphone. Now, I like technology as much as the next guy, and I confess to being a little tempted to see what this new phone can do, but really! All that time wasted in a mall, all that energy spent in excited anticipation, for a phone! Moreover, for a phone that we know will soon be set aside in favour of the next upgrade to come along.

The perspective is distorted. This applies to all of us anytime we set our sights on what is passing, when we seek to fulfill our desires with what cannot for long satisfy. It need not be a smartphone; anytime our attention and energy are focused on things like money, possessions, prestige, reputation, the right location and so on, our outlook on what really matters has become terribly skewed.

The Scripture readings proclaimed Sunday serve to refocus our vision, purify our desires, and get our priorities back in correct order (cf. Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16). Isaiah cries out: "Seek the Lord!!" Seek not some worldly satisfaction that will leave us wanting. Seek, instead, to live in right relationship with God. St. Paul makes this very concrete by speaking of the desires of his own heart. His longing is to be with Christ. As long as the Lord has a purpose for him in this world, he will be content to live in the world and fulfill God's will. But his desire is to be with Christ forever. That's it! To be with Christ forever! For this we have been created; only in this, therefore, will our deepest desire find fulfillment.

How do we pursue the desire? Certainly not by camping out in a shopping mall. To be with Christ forever, living in him in the unity of the Trinity for all eternity, is what we mean by salvation. What Jesus makes clear in his parable of the vineyard labourers is that salvation is God's gift, pure and simple, offered to us out of the infinite depths of his  generosity. It matters not if we come to faith only "late in the day". When one is awakened to the joy of a life of faith is all part of the mystery of God's grace interacting with human freedom. What matters is that God holds out his gift to all equally. There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it.

What is required is that our lives be open to the working of God's grace within us, so that he can bring about in us the accomplishment of his saving will.

The one thing necessary is to live in union with Christ. May this truth so possess us that our hearts will always be set upon what truly matters, and open to receive his saving grace.