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, February 20, 2017

Bad Tasting Medicine

There is a lot of cold and flu going around, so it’s not surprising to see many cold medications advertised on television. One in particular always captures my attention. It makes no secret of the fact that the medicine it is trying to sell tastes positively awful, but is effective. They’re right. I’ve tried it. Every spoonful is time off from Purgatory, but it does seem to do the trick.

In the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 5:38-38), Jesus prescribes a remedy for a disease far worse than the cold or flu. It is a malady of the soul, which currently is infecting vast swathes of peoples: anger and division. Symptomatic is the harsh bitterness with which people are fighting over political policies, warring over territories, closing borders to refugees or attacking people because of their religion. It spreads like a virus, often through means of social communication, which bring far-away conflicts into our own living spaces and engender doubt, confusion and anger within our own hearts. Commonly prescribed is the medicine of vengeance, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yet this is no remedy at all. It serves, rather, to exacerbate things and causes the virus to spread even more rapidly and widely.

Jesus gives us the medication, which alone can effect a cure. Yet, it can seem very bad to the taste, indeed, almost impossible to swallow: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Here we might easily be tempted to find another doctor. Yet it is precisely here that we find an example of what St. Paul means when he says that divine wisdom can seem like foolishness to purely human ways of thinking (cf.1Cor 3: 16-23). Is it not natural to want to hit back? Is it not simply a matter of weakness to forgive?

In point of fact, what Jesus demands of his followers requires great strength. He is not asking us to be wimps. Our call, in the face of anger, bitterness and attacks, is, in fact, to stand our ground and say we shall have nothing to do with this kind of behaviour and thus refuse to return it in kind. The easy way out is vengeance. To meet hatred with mercy is the far more difficult road.

Is it even possible to take this medicine? Yes, but not without the help of Christ. On the Cross, he absorbed the worst of human malice. His response was mercy and forgiveness, which halted the evil in its tracks. It cured the disease.

Let’s pray that this grace of the Cross of Christ enable us take the medicine he prescribes, even if ill-tasting, and thus become his true disciples, agents not of bitterness and division but of mercy and communion. Love of the other, especially the enemy, is needed is very large doses right now.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Playing by the Rules

It was a blast!! You may have read on our Twitter accounts (@CAEDM, @archbsmith) that the Archdiocese of Edmonton teamed up last Friday with the Edmonton Oil Kings to host a Faith and Fun night at Rogers Place. Nearly 1000 parishioners gathered for the Oil Kings game against the Regina Pats, as well as for a pre-game event. Lots and lots of fun. I must admit that part of the fun was watching all the double-takes among the people as they saw priests in collars and friars in habits walking in the corridors and seated in the stands. They must have momentarily wondered if they were in the right place!

As I watched the game unfold, I found my attention drawn to two things. First was the way the game flowed freely as the players exercised their considerable skill in skating, handling the puck etc. Second was the keen and practiced awareness that the players had of the rules of the game. The two are obviously connected. What made the game flow freely was adherence to the rules. When the rules were infringed (offside, penalty) the free flow of the competition ended as the game was brought to a halt.

What was at work in the game is a principle by which we live daily: rules (or law) make freedom possible; they do not inhibit its exercise. To take just one other example, the free flow of vehicles on our roads is made possible by common adherence to traffic laws.

This necessary relationship between law and freedom is the heart of the message proclaimed by the Scripture readings of Sunday, specifically the inseparable connection between God’s law and human liberty. It is also at the centre of dramatic events unfolding in our society.

God fashioned us with the gift of freedom. This is implicitly affirmed by the passage from Sirach (15:15-20), which calls to mind the human capacity for choice. The ability to choose presumes freedom.The ultimate choice God desires from us is that by which we choose to love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul. That we may know how properly to use the gift of freedom, God has given us the gift of his law, particularly as expressed in the commandments. As it is true in our daily experience of human relating, so, too, and all the more so, in our relationship with God: God’s law enables our freedom; it is not opposed to it. The goodness of God’s law, and the necessity of adherence to it, is affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel. He, who has come to liberate from the hold of sin our God-given freedom (cf. Galatians 5:1), teaches that he has come not to abolish but to fulfil the law of God (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). 

The words and deeds of Jesus Christ underscore with brilliant clarity the truth that we cannot live fully and freely the human life God intends for us apart from adherence to the divine law. We have to play by the rules of the game.

Yet it is precisely this truth that we see challenged today by a mindset that understands God’s law as an infringement upon my liberty. According to this way of thinking, the law of God must be ignored if I am to find fulfilment, to achieve my desires. The legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the service of “autonomy” is the latest lethal consequence of this. Yet, if I am a law unto myself, then I am no different than a hockey player who makes up the rules as he goes to suit himself. This is not freedom; it is license. It causes us to bang into each other and brings the game very quickly to a halt. We experience not freedom but slavery. We become enslaved to the pursuit of desire, and the “game” of life generally is held captive to competing self-interest.

To paraphrase St. Paul, we cannot even begin to comprehend the wondrous and beautiful things God is holding in store for us, his beloved children (cf. 1Corinthians 2:9). Out of trust in his love and providence, we allow God to guide our lives by adhering to his law, which is, in fact, the gift of his love. Let us embrace his commandments! Only thus shall we truly be free.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Salt is Good for Us

Now, before all the health experts get too upset, let me explain: by the title of this post I am lifting up a teaching of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel, not offering an assessment of the place of salt in our diet.

In the Gospel passage proclaimed on the weekend (Matthew 5:13-16), Jesus is teaching about the mission he is entrusting to his disciples. He begins by comparing them to salt, of all things: “You are the salt of the earth.” To those whose thoughts might turn immediately to a salt shaker in the middle of the kitchen table, the analogy might seem rather strange. At the time of Jesus, salt exercised an extraordinarily important role, not only as a seasoner but also as a preservative (no refrigerators then!), keeping food from corruption. In this way Jesus is underscoring the great importance of Christian mission. The follower of Jesus is called to preserve the truth of God’s love and of his universal call to salvation, and, in this way, to guard against the corruption that arises from the lie that God does not care, that God limits our freedom, or even that God does not exist.

How to do this? Well, to answer this Jesus makes use of another analogy to describe the life of the disciple: “You are the light of the world.” We preserve truth and guard against the lie by reflecting to our world the light that Jesus is. I love the way the Fathers of the Church explained the mystery of the Church by comparison with the moon. Just as the light that shines from the moon at night is but a reflection of that of the sun, so the Church gives light by reflecting that of the Lord himself, who alone is Light for all people. We reflect this light by our good works. “[Let] your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That this light is urgently needed in our time escapes no one, I am sure. Things seem very dark and dangerous in our world right now. Angry protests mix with fear of terror to create an environment of division and toxicity. Only when light shines to dispel this darkness will hope arise in our hearts. Our role as followers of the Lord is to be this light by so embracing the truth and shunning the lie that we are free to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, right injustices (cf. Isaiah 58:6-10 - first reading on Sunday). By allowing these good works of ours to “shine”, we show that there is another way, a clear alternative to the moral darkness and confusion that abounds, namely, the way of the Gospel. This light places everything in proper perspective, gives understanding, and demonstrates the reason for hope.

Pass the salt, please. Humanity needs Christians to embrace their mission.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Rather Unusual C.V.

Job applications are often accompanied by a curriculum vitae that typically brims over in expressions of self-confidence and accomplishment. That's expected. A prospective employer wants to know the applicant's skill sets and talents. How different is the C.V. for a disciple of Jesus Christ!

In the first place, one does not apply for discipleship; rather, one is called. Furthermore, those called by the Lord to follow him are those very much unqualified to do so. That's the point St Paul makes in the second reading we heard on Sunday (1Cor 1:26-31): God chooses the "foolish, weak, low and despised." Not something that would occur to me to put on a vocations poster.

Yet, this is obviously true and profoundly liberating. You may have come across the oft-quoted saying: God does not call the qualified but qualifies those he calls. He summons us to holiness of life, a state no one can achieve unaided by God's grace. He calls to various forms of discipleship, the demands of which lie beyond human capacity. Yet God is merciful and provides all that is needed.

Indeed, as St Paul puts it, God is the source of our very life in Christ Jesus! In other words, Jesus is our curriculum vitae. In him we have the source of all inspiration and the power of any accomplishment. While a usual C.V. is replete with self-promotion, that of the Christian boasts of natural weakness and joyful reliance upon the goodness of God.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Inauguration Day

No, I don't mean that inauguration day, the one that occurred Friday in Washington. I'm referring to the one recorded in the Gospel passage proclaimed at Sunday mass yesterday, which, in turn, invites us to recall our own.

By the act of calling his apostles and their act of acceptance, Jesus inaugurated their mission. In our own lives, our mission as followers of Christ was inaugurated at Baptism, and is renewed and strengthened in every celebration of the sacraments, especially Eucharist and Penance.

The Friday event in Washington was accompanied by a speech, in which listeners expected to get a sense of the direction that the newly inaugurated mission will take. The roadmap we follow is the Gospel, the teaching of Jesus Christ as handed on in the Church.

Are we faithful to the responsibility accepted on our inauguration day? We know we have responsibilities as citizens to hold our elected officials to account for the trust we place in them, and are usually quick to do so. Do we hold ourselves to account? This is an important question. Indeed, Pope Francis is continually asking us to recall that moment of our "inauguration" through Baptism into the life of faith and to examine our fidelity to our baptismal promises.

St. Paul draws our attention to an inescapable aspect of such a self-examination. Writing to the ancient Christian community at Corinth, and through that letter addressing all Christians, he makes the appeal that there be no division among the followers of Christ. Since Friday's inauguration we have witnessed protest marches that lay bare rather dramatic societal difference. Sadly, divisions in the Church (!!) long predate those of any country. The letter to Corinth shows clearly that the tendency to separation goes back to the Church's very beginning. This is clearly not the will of the Lord, who gave his very life that all may be one.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we do well to remember that the one Baptism inaugurated Christians into unity with the one Lord and the one Faith, and, therefore, with one another. As we ponder the impact of a political inauguration, let us not forget our own far more important theological one. By God's grace, may we accept and faithfully follow our Baptismal call to be one in Christ, and thus serve as a sign and instrument of unity in a world whose very visible divisions are causing very real harm.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Avoid Fake News

Much is being made recently of so-called “fake news”. It is the Internet phenomenon that is catching a lot of attention. There are websites, and users of social media, that deliberately fabricate falsehoods and seek to present and spread them as factual, reliable “news”. Easy to get taken in, sometimes with tragic results.

In fact, of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The proliferation of the lie has been with us ever since the serpent first seduced Eve. It just assumes ever more sophisticated forms. Living as we do surrounded by falsehood and illusion, we can be easily misled into pain and anguish, leaving us wondering where is the truth? On what can I truly rely?

Enter the Gospel and its proclamation of Jesus Christ. This is true because He is truth (cf. John 14:6). But do we accept it as true, or do we choose to listen to some other voice, some other “news source”?

Consider what we heard in the Scripture readings on Sunday.

In the Gospel passage (John 1:29-34), John the Baptist points to Jesus and identifies him with two extraordinary titles: Lamb of God and Son of God. Jesus is the Lamb of God because he offered himself on the Cross as the sacrificial lamb, whose death makes possible our passover from this life to the next. We know he is the Son of God because he so identified himself. As the Son sent from the Father, he has come to make possible our very participation in the inner life of our Triune God!

Throughout history, fake news has spread the idea that Jesus is less than he truly is: either he is not fully God or not fully human. This falsehood reduces Jesus to a moral exemplar that we could - but need not - follow, or so separates him from our human reality that we cannot follow him.

Or read again the passage from Isaiah (49:3, 5-6). He prophesies that the One to be sent from God will be given as light for all nations, that is to say, as Saviour for all people. The Gospel identifies Jesus as the coming of this light (cf. e.g. Luke 2:32). Fake news would have us hold that Jesus is not for everyone.

The truth broadcast by Sacred Scripture pertains to us as well. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor. 1:1-3), teaches us that we are all called to be saints. God calls us to a very high standard - the measure of holiness - and grants us the gifts we need to live this life of joy and peace. Fake news will tell us that holiness is only an ideal, that we are not really expected to live this way, and that we can settle for a life of banality and mediocrity.

What newscast do I accept as reliable? Which source of news do I allow to help shape my mindset and worldview? We know we can rely fully on the news of the Gospel. There is nothing fake about it at all! We have always called this good news, good because it is true and inspires with real hope. Any “news” that separates us from the Gospel and directs us along a different path is “fake”, a present-day echo of the ancient deception of the serpent. Let’s be sure not to give it any attention.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Need to be De-Iced?

I'm writing this post as I watch the de-icing machines clear away snow and ice from the wings of our plane before we take off. In fact, the de-icing is occurring IN ORDER that we can take off. Ah, winter travel. Gotta love it.

As I watch the process I'm thinking of the Gospel passage for yesterday's celebration of the Epiphany. As the story of the journey of magi to the manger unfolds, it contains an account of a certain de-icing that needs to take place, but in fact doesn't: de-icing not of airplane wings but of the human heart.

King Herod heard the news of the birth of a king. His already cold heart went into deep freeze. No heaven-ward ascent of the spirit in him! He remained solidly frozen to the ground of his worldly and self-centered concerns. His heart had become so solidly encased in the ice of self-reference that he could understand the newborn child only as a threat to his authority and power. His icy self-regard rendered all else expendable, even the innocent children he had slaughtered in his desire to destroy the child born in Bethlehem.

And what about those chief priests and scribes, who learned the news of the birth as Herod consulted them? It seems they could have benefited from some of the de-icing formula as well. The account does not record any effort made on their part to see for themselves what was unfolding in Bethlehem. They were grounded by the ice of indifference. Extraordinary, really. They who knew the prophecies, they who heard that what had been foretold from of old might now be fulfilled, never budged off the tarmac.

All of this raises the very important question of our own response to all that has been proclaimed about Jesus Christ throughout the Christmas season now concluded. The full acceptance of the truth that he is the Son of God made flesh for our salvation causes one's life to soar to unimagined heights of peace, hope and joy. What area of my life needs de-icing? Am I frozen by fear of the change Jesus will ask of me? Does the frost of bitterness grip my heart and freeze out others who seek my forgiveness or whom I must forgive? Has the ice of complacency settled upon me rendering me indifferent to the abundant new life Jesus holds in store?

The glad tidings of Christmas position us for takeoff. By his mercy, may Jesus clear away the ice and thus enable us to follow him.