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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Where's the Imprint?

We were asking ourselves this question today. Like the other pilgrims we are meeting here in the Holy Land, we, too, are taking lots of pictures. After we've snapped the photo, the first thing we do is look at the camera screen to see how it turned out. Naturally, these are memories we want to preserve, so we want good and memorable images stored in our cameras. At the same time, however, we know that the most important place those images must be preserved is in our hearts. They are digitally held in our camera so that we can later keep, delete, or alter them as we please. We want the experiences etched indelibly in our hearts so that the Lord can change us in accord with his purposes. And we had many experiences to absorb today.

We began with mass at the site of the Transfiguration. There we heard the account of that wondrous event and heard anew the voice of the Father: "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." That listening is necessary, we know, but not always easy, because the voice of Jesus summons us to ever deeper conversion. That's the journey that lies before us as we descend from the mountaintop experience and return to our ordinary day-to-day living.

From there, and following lunch (I love shawarma), we made our way to the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish. The church there is built over the rock held by Tradition to be the "table" on which the multiplication took place. 

Before it, preserved in the floor of an ancient church once existing on the site, is a mosaic depicting four loaves and two fish. This is striking theologically, because the answer to the immediate question - but, weren't there five loaves? - is that the fifth is actually Jesus. The true meaning of the multiplication is given in the discourse pronounced by Jesus in the ancient synagogue at Capernaum: he is the Bread of Life that satisfies not for a moment but for all eternity, "bread" that is given to us as His true Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We were saddened to see damage left by a fire at the church, the result of arson perpetrated as an act of violent anti-Christian hatred. This gave us pause, and we took time to pray for those responsible.

Then we returned to the church of the Primacy of Peter. We had already celebrated mass there upon our arrival Sunday evening, but wanted to return to spend more time. This place is always a highlight among highlights. The pilgrims spread out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee as we read John 21 and reflected upon the meaning of the miraculous catch of fish and the beautiful encounter between Jesus and Peter. That arresting question - "Do you love me?" - is addressed, we know, not only to Peter but also to each of us. Like Peter, we know that our response is a weak one, but also that Jesus meets us where we are and leads us by grace to the answer of total commitment that he desires. We also took time to pray in the little church built over the rock upon which Tradition tells us Jesus cooked fish to share as a breakfast meal with his friends.

Finally, we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes. There we read aloud and reflected upon that first section of the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5:1-12). Here again, as at the beginning of the day, we knew we were listening to that voice of the Son whose words contain the call to a radical change of both mindset and action. Enlightened by Christ and his Word, we see reality as it is, and this makes clear just how radically different from human standards of judgment are those of God. 

While we were there, warplanes were heard far overhead, probably around the time we were listening to "Blessed are the peacemakers..." In addition, the Franciscan sister who welcomed us was from Iraq, where her family in Mosul recently had to flee for their lives to Kurdistan to escape ISIL aggression. Clearly, the Beatitudes are of timeless relevance and current urgency.

Cameras capture and preserve images instantly. Having them engraved on our hearts is another matter. The "shutter release" is the act of faith, by which we ask the Holy Spirit to use all that we are experiencing to bring about within us a heart thoroughly and permanently transformed.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at Basilica of the Transfiguration

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Act of Faith

What does it mean to believe? This is the question pushed to the forefront of our minds and hearts as we visited more holy sites today. It will remain the centre of our reflections as the journey continues.

Borrowing an expression I read in a work by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, I like to tell the pilgrims that we are on an "itinerary of conviction." As the apostles walked with Jesus and followed his "itinerary", they grew under grace in their conviction concerning the truth of Jesus. In our own way we are following the same itinerary and seeking that same grace. As we are led more deeply into the truth that Jesus alone is the Christ, we realize that this conviction of its nature demands a personal response, which is nothing less than the total gift of self, in love and trust, to him. Here we touch the nature of the act of faith.

Something of what this means practically was brought home to us in the events of today.

We began with a boat ride on the Lake of Tiberias, often also referred to as the Sea of Galilee. Once we reached the middle of the lake, the boat engines were silenced so that we could pray with the Scripture passage from Matthew that recounts the Lord walking on the water towards his disciples endangered by a storm on the lake (cf. Matthew 14: 22-33).

Particularly striking was looking upon the water - the very deep water - as we heard Jesus call Peter to step out of the boat. Geesh! Even on calm waters that call was arresting, to say the least. Yet that's what faith entails - trusting Jesus enough to obey his call to do the impossible, to undertake what we could never imagine doing, with confidence that he will hold us by the arm and never allow us to "sink".

Then we went to nearby Capernaum. We visited the site of the ancient synagogue where Jesus pronounced his Bread of Life Discourse, which we read aloud (cf. John 6: 22-59). These words pertain to the gift that he makes of himself as food - food unto eternal life - in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We entered into the mystery of that promise's fulfillment by celebrating mass.

The site was extraordinary. The church is built directly over the remains of the home of Simon Peter, where Jesus stayed, and where he healed Peter's mother-in-law as well as the paralytic lowered down through the roof to him by friends. Yet in this place noted for miracles of healing, the setting helped us realize that the rehabilitation Jesus wishes to effect in our lives reaches beyond the physical exterior to our inner depths. The site was made possible by archaeological excavations, whereby thousands of years of accumulated rubble were cleared away to reach and expose the original. By his love, mercy and forgiveness, Jesus works within the human heart to remove layers of pretense and illusion built up by years of mistakes, failures, and sins in order to bring to the light the beautiful, original and unique creation that is each of us.

Faith involves opening ourselves, in trust and humility, before this "excavation" by grace so that we discover who we truly are in the eyes of God. In the encounter with Christ and the acceptance of the truth of his identity, we discover the reality of our own.

We also discover our mission. This was the lesson of Caesarea Philippi, which we visited in the afternoon. While Jesus was walking with his disciples in this region, he posed the question of his identity as popularly perceived before getting to the heart of the matter by asking each of them: "But who do you say that I am?" (cf. Matthew 16: 13-20).

When Peter acknowledged the truth of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus assigned him his mission to be the "rock" upon which he would build his Church. It was truly stunning to hear this Gospel passage read with the area's massive rock formation in the background. The grace of the Holy Spirit makes Peter and his successors the rock that grounds what Tradition has since called the indefectibility of the Church. Just as Peter discovered his precise calling in the encounter with Christ, so, too, do we. Faith recognizes the call as right, just and good because it is pronounced by the Son of the living God, and then responds in love with the entirety of one's self.

By means of this pilgrimage adventure we are discovering anew just how wonderfully adventurous is life founded upon faith in Christ.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at Capernaum (starts with a few seconds of silence)

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Whisper Walks"

That's what our guides call them, and they're the greatest thing. I'm referring to a wireless speaking system commonly used by tour guides today when leading large groups like ours. Each pilgrim carries a receiver and headset by which we hear the voice of the guide "whispered" in our ear, so to speak, as the receiver picks up the words spoken by our leader into his microphone. Hearing that voice of the guide is critical, of course. It directs, informs, and keeps the group together. Even at a distance we can hear that voice, and - believe me - we are listening for it. None of us wants to miss anything important or to get lost!

 Most of today we spent reflecting upon the listening done by Mary and Joseph to the voice of the Guide above all guides. We were in Nazareth, and visited the sites indicated by tradition as the home of Mary and that of Joseph. In this locale Mary heard God's voice announce to her that she was chosen to be the mother of the Saviour. Joseph heard God's voice summon him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and to become a family with her and the child to whom she would give birth. The answer given by each was a complete "yes", born of a trusting faith. Each knew that God is the trustworthy guide. His choice of them for their particular roles, however wondrous and unexpected, could only be right and good. They listened to the voice of the Guide, they trusted and they obeyed. Had they not, it is clear that not only they but also the whole world would have missed out on something of extraordinary importance and remained lost. As we thought about this, it was clear that the same call is issued to everyone: to listen attentively to the voice of the Guide, to say yes, and to follow where he leads.

At the same time, the town itself had two important lessons for us. The first is what we can call the historical particularity of God's action. This hit home when we visited the grotto beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation. This magnificent church rises over a grotto held to be part of Mary's home, i.e., the place where she received the angel Gabriel's annunciation to her. The grotto has been fashioned into a chapel, whose altar has affixed to it a plaque with the words used by the evangelist John to capture the mystery of the Incarnation: Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh - John 1:14). But it strikingly adds a word: Verbum caro hic factum est ("The Word became flesh here). At the very spot we visited, God visited the world when his Son became one of us, conceived by the Holy Spirit within Mary's womb when she gave her fiat. I caught many of the pilgrims shaking their heads in wonder at where we were - the place where it all began. Me, too. Yet we can also rightly shake our heads in wonder at the fact that God continues to enter history - our particular history in the places we find ourselves - through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts. It falls to each of us to give our fiat, our "Let it be done" to the will of God for us.

The second lesson came to us from Nazareth's silence. Today it is a busy and noisy place, so I'm not talking about that. I'm referring, rather, to the silence of Scripture regarding the years in which Jesus grew up in this place. We call these "the hidden years" because the Bible tells us nothing about them. In fact, we can also speak of them as "hidden" in another sense. At the time of the Holy Family, Nazareth was so small and insignificant as a town that many had not even heard of it. All of this speaks to the thorough "ordinariness" and simplicity not only of the town but also of the lives of its inhabitants. There was seemingly nothing to attract wide attention. Yet it was here that God chose to enter history, from here that he chose Mary and Joseph, and in here that Jesus lived his formative years. 

God's criteria are not our own. His choice is moved not by any qualities we may possess (which are his gifts to begin with) or by any worldly standards of notoriety, but solely by his love. God's presence makes the ordinary extraordinary; it sanctifies simple everyday life. This was true of Mary and Joseph and the lives they led in Nazareth.

It remains true for our ordinary living, which God makes holy as we welcome him.

After Nazareth we traveled to nearby Cana. At this place where, in the course of wedding celebrations, Jesus first manifested his glory by changing water into wine (cf. John 2: 1-11), many of the couples in our group renewed their wedding vows. This gave us the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty and dignity of the marriage of man and woman and the life that flows from their union.
 We recalled the teaching of Saint John Paul II that the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family, and so thanked God for the gift of marriage and family, and the families themselves for living it faithfully with trust in God's presence and guidance. What Mary said to the stewards at the wedding at Cana is the best advice possible not only for married couples but also for each of us: 
"Do whatever he tells you."

We may not always have "Whisper Walks", but God has given us listening hearts. So let us listen daily to the voice of the Guide, and do whatever he tells us.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Touchdown in the Land Called Holy

 We're here! And we hit the ground running. This is a resilient group, I must say: four-hour flight to Toronto; mass in the airport chapel (pictured at left); 10.5- hour flight to Tel Aviv; immediately onto the buses; off to Caesarea, then on to the Sea of Galilee where we celebrated Mass at the site known as the Primacy of Peter (pictured below), before - finally!! - checking in to the hotel. Something tells me all will sleep well through the night.

To me it is impossible to grow tired of this extraordinary place. I think this is my fifth visit, yet it does not fail to thrill. It is beautiful to see awareness dawn and excitement awaken, even in the midst of deep fatigue, among the pilgrims, especially those who are here for the first time. After all, we are now where Jesus once walked. Here in the territory sanctified by his very presence, he was born and grew up, preached and healed, gave up his life on the Cross and then rose again that we might live. God's plan for all of humanity for all time is to save us, i.e., to liberate us from all that separates us from him that we might live in blessed communion with him forever. The way was prepared through all that happened in the history of our forbears in the faith, the chosen people of Israel. The plan came to fulfillment in Christ, and continues to unfold in the hearts of believers through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, first bestowed in the Upper Room at Jerusalem.

Recalling the presence and action of God throughout history places all that we see in proper perspective. A lot of history has happened here, but the traces of that history are often ancient ruins. Things built with the intention of lasting a very long time did not. That's what we encountered at Caesarea, where only a few traces remain, much under the ocean, of a once magnificent maritime city built by King Herod the Great. This particular visit gave us the opportunity to recall the words of Jesus: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matthew 24:35) That which is truly lasting is the Word of God, which became flesh - here - so that God's eternal salvific intention might be accomplished. These words of the Lord teach us the true meaning of history. It is not a succession of events without ultimate purpose. It is, precisely, salvation history - God present and active in the times, spaces and places that he has fashioned in order to draw humanity to himself.

The Church of the Primacy was a beautiful place to celebrate our first mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This site recalls the encounter between Christ and Peter following the resurrection. "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Beautiful words to hear on the Feast of Christ the King. Jesus is, indeed, King; his dominion is the human heart, where he wills to rule by love and vanquish all that keeps us apart from him. We prayed during the mass that this love will fill our hearts anew during this pilgrimage, and enable us to give an ever deeper response of love in return.

We're launched! Great blessings await.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at Toronto International Airport

Homily during Mass Mass at Primacy of St. Peter

Monday, November 16, 2015

Darkness Is Not the Final Word

Some arresting imagery was heard in the Gospel passage of this Sunday (Mark 13: 24-32). 

Jesus is speaking of signs that will accompany his return at the end of time. The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give out its light, stars will fall from the sky, and the Son of Man will come in the clouds in power and glory. The language is highly symbolic, as is typical of biblical vocabulary used to refer to the end of times. In the minds of many at the time of Jesus, the sun, moon and stars were celestial forces that guided and shaped history. The Gospel tells us that at the coming of the Lord, these phenomena will be seen as having no power at all. In other words, history is not in the control of any earthly or celestial reality. That control rests solely in the hands of God, who has given over the unfolding of all human history and its fulfillment into the hands of his Son Jesus.

This is very important to keep in mind as we are striving to interpret not future signs but present ones. In our day events are unfolding around us that feel as if the sky were falling, that all is turning dark and that forces inimical to us are in control of things.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Welcoming the Refugee

It was quite moving. On Sunday I visited Our Lady of Good Help parish, home of members the Maronite Catholic Church in Edmonton. In fact, this parish serves as the spiritual home for many Christians of Middle Eastern origin, including the countries of Syria and Iraq. During the reception following Mass, I was introduced to refugee families, who had recently been sponsored by the parish to come to Canada. I can't even imagine the hardship they've faced, so it was especially edifying to see them surrounded by a community that has made a commitment to welcome them, surround them with support, and help them start a new life.

This outreach has been undertaken by a number of parishes in this Archdiocese. I am proud of their efforts. It is a ministry of solidarity, justice, charity and mercy that is being replicated in parishes and communities throughout the country.

At the same time, much more needs to be done. The number of refugees across the globe is vast. Recently the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on the refugee crisis. Entitled "I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me", it invites Catholic parishes across Canada to discern what they might be able to do in support of welcoming refugees.

Care of the refugee, which springs so clearly from the demands of the Gospel, has an impact not only upon persons and families who receive support. It also serves as a source of consolation and hope to others who are unable to leave their homeland. One of the parishioners told me today that he will be sending back to the Middle East many of the pictures that were taken at today's Mass and reception. It is a great encouragement, he told me, because those remaining in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are given concrete assurance of the love and concern of people elsewhere. They know they are not alone, not forgotten, because they are carried in the hearts and prayers of brother and sister Christians.

My visit to the parish was also an occasion for me to share with the parishioners the statement issued at the end of the recent Synod on the Family by the participant Bishops on the situation of persecuted Christians. If you have not yet seen it, you can find it here.

There is, obviously, widespread suffering across the globe. One can easily imagine the frequent temptations to despair among those directly affected by various conflicts, or among loved ones who are anxious about them. Through actions such as the care and support of refugees that I witnessed today, people are encouraged not to give in to this temptation but to remain steadfast in hope. They are concrete signs of the mercy of God, whose love ultimately prevails over all evil.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Saints ... In Progress

That's us. Or should be. Saints in progress. On Sunday the Church marked the Solemnity of All Saints. This celebration reminds us that the call to holiness - to sainthood - is universal, addressed to all. When we examine our lives honestly and humbly, we can wonder if sainthood is possible. We are only too well aware of the sin and failings of our lives. But we need to keep in mind one important fact: it is God who makes us holy. Sainthood is not something we achieve by our own superhuman efforts. That idea is something the Church has long identified as heresy. Throughout our lives God is at work in the hearts of those who open their lives to his grace through faith. He liberates our freedom and enables us to respond to his call. Growth in holiness is a lifelong journey. This is what it means to say we are saints in progress.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis was asked by an interviewer to describe himself. His instinctive response, spoken from his heart, was: "I am a sinner." Here is an important lesson for all of us. The inescapable starting point on the path to holiness is the recognition of one's need for God and his merciful love. The Church proclaims Jesus Christ as universal Saviour. This means there is no one who is not in need of his mercy. Those whom the Church has recognized as saints would be the first to tell us this is so.

Think, for example, of some of the greatest saints. St. Peter, chosen to head the Church, betrayed Jesus. St. Paul, chosen to be the greatest preacher of the Gospel, persecuted Jesus by attacking the Church. St. Augustine, one of the Church's greatest teachers, was in his early years mired in a life of sexual license, far from the Gospel call to chaste living. Everything changed when they met Jesus, and allowed him to change their lot and make them into the people he called them to be. They teach us, as do all the saints, that holiness comes about when we allow the love and mercy of God to triumph in our hearts.

The journey to holiness is the greatest of adventures. Along this path we discover the true measure of human dignity and the wondrous mystery of human destiny. At the heart of it we encounter God, who in Jesus, has revealed Himself as a loving Father, who wants us, his children, to be with him forever in the communion of saints.

Yes, sainthood is our common vocation. As we honour the saints, let's pray that our own progress continues apace.