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

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons From Lebanon


In the course of a visit to Lebanon, St. John Paul II famously observed that Lebanon is more than a country; it is also a message. My visit there last week confirmed this insight. As I look back and reflect upon the experience of encountering the Lebanese people and learning a few things about their beautiful country, three aspects of that “message” stand out for me. 

Pope John Paul II with former Lebanese statesman.
1. Particularly striking in Lebanon is the way that faith is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Everywhere, one can find symbols of faith displayed quite visibly. Faith is openly practiced and one’s religious identity and background is readily acknowledged. The differences in the belief systems are quite marked, of course, yet the people are striving to live together as citizens of the one country. It is not easy, I’m sure, and far more complex than I can appreciate, especially given the rather tumultuous history of religious conflict. Yet, they are somehow making it work. There is an important lesson here for us. In the West we have somehow developed the strange idea that, in order for us all to get along, we need to hide our faith, to keep it private and not allow it to enter into public discourse. However, a pluralistic society such as ours should be just that: pluralistic, i.e., fully welcoming of the views and insights of all citizens, including those perspectives that are informed by faith traditions. Lebanon teaches that it is possible. Indeed, it should be expected. 

A typical Lebanese breakfast.
2. Lebanon is deservedly known for its hospitality. Every time we turned around we were offered something to drink (love the coffee!), and it felt like every second meeting was a multi-course meal! (That’s not a complaint, by the way. The cuisine is delicious. Who knew I would actually enjoy eating raw goat meat? But I digress.) Yet, as I mentioned in my last blog post, the real lesson in hospitality was given in the context not of the dinner table but of the settlements for displaced persons. Most of the displaced are from Syria, a country which only a few decades ago was waging a vicious war against Lebanon. In spite of this, the border has been opened to them. Furthermore, the presence of 1.5 million people from Syria (and that is just the number of officially registered; the actual count would be higher) in a country of only four million is placing an enormous economic and logistical burden on the shoulders of the Lebanese people. This situation is not, admittedly, supportable in the long run, and solutions will have to be found quickly, but the readiness of the Lebanese to welcome the stranger and, yes, the enemy to an extent that calls for great personal and national sacrifice is extraordinary. That’s hospitality. 

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
3. The third aspect of the “message” that Lebanon is came to me in a rather unique fashion. The hospitality provided to our delegation extended to assuring our safety. We travelled everywhere by military convoy. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve hurtled at breakneck speed along Lebanese roads or through Beirut streets in a multi-vehicle motorcade, sirens blaring, and manned by special forces commandos with weapons at the ready. I kid you not. One might reasonably expect that this might have left us just a little frazzled. Yet, it didn’t. The driving was clearly in the hands of professional and competent soldiers who obviously knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to get there safely. We just surrendered to the experience, let them do the driving, and were thus carried to whatever place we were intended to visit. On the last evening, one of the delegation, Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, commented on the lesson in this. We need to learn to let God do the driving in our lives. If we, by following the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon ourselves to God, who knows exactly what He is doing and where He is leading us, then we shall arrive safely at the destiny He intends for us. 

A beautiful country, and, at the same time, a profound message. That’s Lebanon, and I am grateful for the blessing of encountering it.

St Elie - St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral
 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yalla, Yalla! (Lebanon Visit Part 2)


I must say, after only three days here I've become rather proficient in the Arabic language. Well ... maybe with one word of it anyway. Yalla!
 
It means, "Let's go!" Saying it twice adds urgency and means "Hurry up!" We seem to be hearing it a lot from our guides, who are striving mightily to keep us on schedule.
 
Small wonder. The days are packed solid as we cross-cross the country to meet Bishops, political officials, and, above all, displaced persons and the religious communities and Catholic institutions that work with them.
 
There are over fifty religious communities of consecrated women and over twenty masculine orders in this country. Last evening a gathering was hosted in which a good number of their religious superiors gathered to meet with us. The range of their apostolic charitable works is breathtaking. This was followed by a separate meeting with representatives of Catholic charitable organizations working in the region: Caritas Internationalis, CNEWA, Jesuit Refugee Services, St Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Relief Services.  Each from its own perspective, they are all striving mightily to help people rebuild their lives. The latter  gathering also included a meeting with a high-ranking official from the Lebanese Ministry of Education, who spoke of the efforts they are making to include children of displaced families in the school system.
 
The problem faced here is enormous. This country with a population of 4 million people has opened its borders to receive 1.5 million displaced people, most from Syria. To put that in perspective, applying the same ratio to Canada would mean our country taking in about 13 million refugees. The strain on Lebanon's resources is immense.
 
Today, though, we were reminded that we cannot speak of this issue solely in terms of numbers. We traveled to two locations in the Beqaa Valley, where we met families living either in settlements set up by government, or in simple homes opened up to them by the local Catholic population. The heart breaks when one sees scores of little children running around a big "tent city" in very difficult circumstances, or when one listens to a father recount the harrowing story of trying to eke out a living in between ceasefires until finally making the painful decision to uproot his family to escape the danger.

Location of Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.
The numbers are overwhelming and the complexity of the issues staggering. Yet it seems to me that the very place where today's encounters took place offers a way forward. The Beqaa valley is where, only a few decades ago, fierce fighting took place between Syria and Lebanon. In fact, the city in which I met the displaced persons was under siege from the Syrian army for a long time. Yet it is precisely the Syrian people who are now welcomed by the Lebanese into their country and provided with shelter and basic supplies. The way forward is to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to begin encountering the other as a brother or sister.
 
When that happens we naturally want to reach out and bring healing whenever the other suffers. In this particular situation it means providing those in danger with safety and then working to help rebuild their countries so that they can return once again to the place they have always called home and to where their hearts naturally direct them, as would ours.
 
The situation remains urgent and solutions need to be found and put in place without delay.
 
So, Yalla, Yalla!

 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Like a Cedar in Lebanon (Lebanon Visit Part 1)

This citation from Psalm 92 was in my mind today as I wandered through a grove of stunningly beautiful cedar trees in a high mountain area about two hours north of Beirut in Lebanon. That's the country from which I'm writing this blog post. Together with two other Canadian Bishops and some lay professionals who have been heavily involved in refugee resettlement in Canada, I'm here for the week at the invitation of the Maronite Catholic Church, headquartered in Lebanon. The visit will give us an opportunity to witness the impact massive displacement of peoples from neighbouring Syria is having on this country, and to learn firsthand of the outreach of the local Church towards them.

Harissa monastery overlooking Beirut, Lebanon.
Our travels today took us near an area dedicated to the preservation of this country's magnificent cedars, so we pulled in. I was glad to have this opportunity, since the Lebanon cedar is an important biblical symbol. There are more than seventy references to it in Sacred Scripture. Among those is the one that came to mind as I gazed upon their extraordinary size and pondered their longevity: "The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon." (Psalm 92:12) Some of the trees I saw today in the grove are more than 2000 years old; another at a stopping point nearby is reputed to be more than 4000 years in age. The image presented is one of steady growth, steadfast endurance and powerful strength. By means of this analogy, the Psalmist is describing "the righteous," which is to say, those who live by faith in the wisdom and providence of God by following His every commandment. The point is this: people who are rooted deeply in God and who stand firm in faith are enabled by God's grace to weather all forms of difficulty and eventually blossom into the full and beautiful life God intended in the very act of creating us.
 
It is important to take note of the reference to "growth". I was told today that these trees grow only between 6 and 12 centimetres a year. That's pretty slow. So, too, is our own growth as we seek the grace of conversion and strive by God's mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. God's grace interacts with our freedom, out of which we at times resist His love and turn away. Growth in the Christian life can thus be very slow, impeded by our weakness and tendency to self-direction.

This brings me to the Gospel text proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus is teaching of the need at times to exercise fraternal correction as we seek to help one another to grow in Christian faith. The question naturally arises: am I open to receive correction from another? If we want to grow in our faith and not come to a full stop or get into reverse mode, we will sometimes need one who knows and loves us to point out our faults. May God grant us the humility not only to receive words of admonishment but also to seek them out. Growth and resilience, powerfully imaged by the Lebanon cedar, require it.
 

The cedar tree is a symbol on the flag of Lebanon.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Obstruction Ahead



It never fails. Just when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, the sign appears: “obstruction ahead.” Ugh. So frustrating. They seem to be everywhere. Road construction season in Edmonton is short, I know. There is only so much time for the workers to get done what they have to do, so patience is called for. But still … Sigh.

Another kind of obstruction is addressed in the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus tells Peter he is an obstacle to him. Yikes!!! That is a serious accusation. Jesus is the Son of God who has come to reveal the love and mercy of God and save the world from the darkness of sin. Who would ever want to stand in the way of that?! Well, we know that Satan does. The Devil wants nothing more than to stand in the way of Christ. Notice, though, that the famous “Get behind me Satan” is spoken by the Lord when he looks at Peter. Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that, by thinking in accord with human, not divine logic, he becomes an obstacle, he stands in the way. The teaching here is sobering. We surrender to the demonic, we participate in Satan’s mission of obstruction, when we allow the ways of the world, and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to shape our mindset.

Peter’s error finds widespread repetition today, rooted in the prideful and illusory exaltation of the radically autonomous Self. The way of the Gospel is the path of humility, repentance and conversion, springing from a life-changing encounter with the truth of Christ. The way of the world is proud self-assertion, rooted in surrender to the lie that we do not need God. Adam and Eve were tricked into this error, and humanity has been seduced ever since to repeat their original sin and thus become an obstacle to the saving plan of God.

St. Paul echoes to all of us the warning Jesus gave to Peter. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) How does this renewal of our minds, and hence our whole lives, happen? By embracing the Cross of Christ. There God reveals the logic that shapes our mindset in accord with the Gospel. To take up our cross daily as disciples of Christ is to make of our lives an obedient self-gift to God for the sake of the world. As St. Paul puts it, the embrace of the Cross finds expression when we offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1) Renewal happens when every aspect of our lives is an act of praise to God instead of to the ego.

We understand road obstructions due to construction. Let there be no tolerance in our lives for obstacles to the will of God.

 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Making Jesus Known - Our Urgent Task


On Sunday we heard the account of Jesus gathered with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where he posed to them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is the heart of the Church’s faith and the reason for her mission. Notice that Jesus poses the question publicly, and that the response of St. Peter is also given in the hearing of others. The public question seeks a public response. In other words, the conviction deep in our hearts concerning the truth of Jesus must be made visible in the way we live our lives in the sight of others.

The importance of this in our day cannot be overstated. As I ponder the encounter between Jesus and Peter, I go back in my mind to a moment that impacted me deeply. I was together with hundreds of thousands of young people at the World Youth Days (WYD) in Toronto, listening to Saint John Paul II. Noting that the beginning of the new millennium was heralded by two contrasting images - on the one hand the millions of pilgrims who flocked to Rome in celebration of the Jubilee of Redemption and, on the other, the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre in New York, - he said this to the gathered young people, and to the world:

"The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century? Is it enough to rely on the technological revolution now taking place, which seems to respond only to criteria of productivity and efficiency, without reference to the individual’s spiritual dimension or to any universally shared ethical values? Is it right to be content with provisional answers to the ultimate questions, and to abandon life to the impulses of instinct, to short-lived sensations or passing fads? The question will not go away: on what foundations, on what certainties should we build our lives and the life of the community to which we belong? ... Christ alone is the cornerstone on which it is possible solidly to build one’s existence. Only Christ – known, contemplated and loved – is the faithful friend who never lets us down, who becomes our travelling companion, and whose words warm our hearts (cf. Lk 24:13-35)."

Here we have stated in a contemporary context the implications of acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only sure foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ. He who is the Son of the living God brings to light the meaning of our existence and makes known its definitive direction. Sadly, however, some fifteen years after WYD in Toronto, world events continue to manifest a turning away from God and thus from hope. They demonstrate that too many people are building their lives on foundations other than the person and message of Jesus Christ, which is to say they are constructing the edifice of their existence upon nothing more than shifting sand (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Therefore, Jesus must be made known to others, proclaimed with the joy that springs from knowing, contemplating and loving him.

“Who do you say that I am?” Let us ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the same insight and conviction that inspired Peter’s response, and the boldness to give our answer publicly by living as Christ’s disciples.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reaching Across the Divide


 
We’ve witnessed some terrible things over the last few days: terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Spain and Finland; and the expression of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville. These are events and attitudes that must be denounced without ambiguity in the strongest possible terms. In the light of Sunday’s Gospel, I focus here upon a troubling reality that these occurrences place in high relief: division among peoples. Denunciation of hatred is necessary but insufficient. The events of these past days also summon us to work for reconciliation. The divides that separate us must be healed.
 
Separation of people from one another due to hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, bigotry and the like is not new. Neither is it always as dramatic and visible as we’ve seen in last week’s events. Even in our homes family members can become separated from one another. Whatever the circumstance, the heart instinctively yearns for the divide to be healed. The Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) teaches us how to reach across the divide to find the reconciliation we earnestly seek.
 

Church in Canaan.
Everything in the Gospel story points to a situation of division. The narrative recounts the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Strikingly, this meeting takes place near a border, i.e., close to a point of separation. Yet this geographical barrier signals a far more serious racial and religious divide. As a Canaanite, the woman is a non-Jew, a member, in fact, of a people who had been pagan enemies of God’s people. In addition, women were often held by men to be inferior. Thus, for many reasons, the separation between her and the Jewish people of that day was vast, a yawning chasm.
 
This woman of old becomes our contemporary teacher by reaching across the divide. The complexity of the separation and the breadth of the division do not hinder her. Her reaching has a very specific goal: she reaches across the divide to Jesus. Her motivation is faith that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks for her daughter. By her action, the woman invites us to share her conviction that the deepest and most long-standing divisions separating people need not stand. They can be overcome if we reach across the divide to the One who came to heal all division, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” by his death on the Cross (Ephesians. 2:14).
 
There is still more for us, in our current troubling circumstances, to learn from this encounter. At a time when we are hearing many people shout at one another with name-calling and expressions of hatred and racism, our attention is drawn to the use in the Gospel passage of a terrible slur. By grappling with this, an important lesson emerges.
 
Jesus speaks very perplexing words to the woman in response to her request; perplexing because they are harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was not unusual for Jews of that day to refer to non-Jews as “dogs.” But is Jesus actually calling her this??!!
 
Archbishop Smith in Canaan.
Crucial to bear in mind here is an important principle of biblical interpretation, namely, that any one particular passage of the Bible is only correctly interpreted when placed in the context of the whole biblical message and viewed in that light. The overall message of the Bible is clear: everyone, without exception, is made in the image and likeness of God; in Jesus Christ, God has come to save all people. The divine saving will is universal, affirmed by Jesus himself when, after his Resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out to all nations with the saving grace of Baptism (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). From this perspective, the words of Jesus to the woman have the sense of “I know that people are saying this of you (i.e., calling you and your people “dogs”); do you nevertheless dare to believe that I have come for you, too?” In other words, Jesus is testing her faith. She remains steadfast in her plea and her conviction that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks. Jesus is moved by her strong faith and heals her daughter. Far from adopting as his own the denigrating language, Jesus uses it in such a way as to distance himself from it and demonstrate that he has come for all people, to bring an end to all division.
 
Thus does the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach that we, too, must separate ourselves from all that separates - derogatory attitudes, hurtful language, presumed superiority and the like - and dare to reach across our divides by reaching first toward the One who can reconcile us to one another and enable us to live as the brothers and sisters God made us to be.

Top image: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Monday, August 14, 2017

Follow Us!


Few organizations these days would have websites that did not issue this invitation: Follow Us! It usually means choosing to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. At least, those are the social media places I've heard about. No doubt there are, and will be, many more.

It is an interesting phenomenon, this following. Very popular. It certainly doesn't demand much to become a follower. Click of a button, occasionally check in to see the post, and that's about it. Why we choose a person or organization to follow is another point. The motivation is usually interest or curiosity. Tellingly, the act of following really does not require anything of me in terms of commitment to the one I choose to follow.

I wonder, is anyone asking the question: to where? Following usually indicates movement behind a leader toward a goal or destination. That really does not seem to be in play in the world of social media 'following.'

How different this all is from choosing to be a follower of Jesus Christ! Just consider what the Scripture readings from Sunday teach us about following the Lord. They clarify the motivation, and then highlight three fundamental aspects of this 'following.'

The Gospel narrative recounts the familiar yet ever wondrous event of Jesus walking across a raging sea to rescue his disciples at risk of perishing (Matthew 14: 22-33). After he calms the sea, they exclaim, "Truly you are the Son of God." That is precisely why we follow Him, and no other. Not only did he calm the wind and sea and perform other miracles, but also he himself rose from the dead and opened for humanity the doors to eternal life. He makes clear our destination, our destiny, and he himself is the way. No one else to follow.

The episode from the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in the first reading (1Kings 19:9, 11-13) teaches us that following the Lord begins with encountering him. There is a really important lesson here for us. Notice that Elijah recognizes the presence of God not in the noise of wind, earthquake and fire, but in "a sound of sheer silence." How alien silence is to much of our lives! This seems especially the case when we try to be still in prayer. Instantly we are beset with the wind of expectations, the earthquake of failures and the fire of anxiety. Yes, God may well choose to speak to us in all of this, but often they are distractions of human origin, often that of our pride. To follow means first to ask for the grace of inner stillness, that we may truly encounter the Lord speaking to us in his Holy Word and follow where he leads.

The experience of St. Paul, narrated by the Apostle himself in the passage from Romans (9:1-5), exemplifies the need was we follow the Lord for trust in God's fidelity to his promises. In this passage and the two chapters that follow, St Paul is grappling with the rejection of the Gospel by his fellow Jews. In the end he finds consolation In the truth that God does not revoke his call and is never unfaithful to all he has promised, and that, therefore, God will use even this rejection for the accomplishment of his saving plan for the whole world, including, of course, for God's chosen People.  How often are we, too, in anguish at the rejection of our Gospel proclamation, especially when this involves members of our own family! We trust in God's fidelity, and so are confident that He is at work in the lives of all, leading them to the Gospel. Thus, as followers, we continue to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed, trusting the consequences, even rejection, to God and consoled in the knowledge that God will turn all things to the good.

Finally, following Christ means inviting Jesus into the boat of our lives, asking him to calm whatever storms beset us. In other words, it means giving up all illusion of self-reliance. In addition, it also means being ready to step out of the boat, as St Peter did. Concretely, this means being willing to step out into the uncertain and frightful, acutely conscious of our vulnerability and weakness, yet joyfully aware that the Lord always holds us by the arm.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ is entirely different from being a social media follower. To follow him is to give him our all. May he grant us the grace to do so.