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, April 17, 2017

Hindsight Grounding Foresight

The Easter Vigil is a liturgy of extraordinary depth and beauty. The solemn proclamation of Easter (Exsultet) unfolds beneath the flaming paschal candle and announces the Risen Christ as the light that dispels all darkness. The expanded Liturgy of the Word traces the awe-inspiring course of salvation history leading to the wondrous event of the Resurrection. The Baptismal Liturgy extends to the recipients of this sacrament the gift of new life in Christ, and welcomes them into his embrace through membership in his Mystical Body, the Church. The liturgy culminates with the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the Risen Lord renders himself truly present in fulfillment of his promise always to be with us and as food for our journey toward the fullness of life in heaven.

I'd like to focus briefly upon the Liturgy of the Word proclaimed at the Vigil. The proclamation of the many Scripture passages is an exercise of what I like to call holy hindsight. This part of the liturgy looks back over history and sees it anew in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus. In this light, we see a history of wondrous and ineffable love. After God created the human family we abandoned him through sin. Yet he never abandoned us, but walked with us always, intervening in our history, both collective and personal, in order to draw us back to himself. When we erred, he did not turn his back on us, but worked to turn all to our good by transforming our wrong turns into right ones and our mistakes into blessings. His definitive and decisive intervention is what we celebrate at Easter. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, after having taken to himself all of our sins and dying on the Cross, rises from the grave, triumphant over sin and death. In this way, he reverses forever the downward trajectory on which our sin had launched human history.
This holy hindsight announces the steadfast love and mercy of God as always present and perennially victorious over evil. In this way, the holy hindsight grounds our hopeful foresight. We cannot see all that lies before us, but we are certain that in every event and circumstance our Risen Lord will be there, in the full power of his resurrection, to love us by guiding us, correcting us, forgiving us and leading us to eternal life. It is no wonder that our Easter liturgies resound with "Alleluia!" Christ is truly Risen and with his people. We are not alone; never alone. Let this conviction banish all fear as we place our faith fully in our Risen Lord and surrender our lives to him.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Follow or Flee?

The liturgy of Palm Sunday is dramatic. Recounting events in Jerusalem in the last days of our Lord's earthly life, it traces a path from triumph to shame. Scripture recalls that crowds of people hailed him as king upon his entry into the city, but that a few days later he was left abandoned as he hung upon the Cross. 

This commemoration poses a question that we would do well to carry with us into Holy Week: follow or flee? The crowds were quite happy to follow the Lord into Jerusalem when all seemed well. They wanted to benefit from the triumphal liberation that they supposed him to be bringing. At some point, though, it became clear exactly where the Lord's particular path was leading. The shadow of the Cross began to loom very large, and the enthusiasm for Jesus quickly evaporated. They fled. 

Entering Holy Week means entering Jerusalem with him. We follow him into the city through our participation in the solemn liturgies of the coming days. The story of the crowds in Jerusalem of old raises for us today the question of just how far we are willing to go. Will we follow or will we flee? Will we go where he leads us or will we choose to forge our own path? 

Faithful following of Jesus Christ leads to the Cross. We know that. Yet we also know that the journey does not end there. This Holy Week will culminate with the joyful celebration at Easter of the Lord's resurrection from the dead. The path of Jesus leads to the fullness of life, indeed, to eternal life. This is where he is leading us. Yet his journey also makes clear that this path passes inevitably through the Cross. The path followed by the disciple of Jesus is that of self-denial, self-sacrifice, indeed death to self so as to live for God and for others.

In our age that exalts personal autonomy to the point of idolatry, any idea of self-sacrifice or abnegation, even for the sake of a greater good, is for many incomprehensible. It is, indeed, something to flee. What Jesus teaches, though, is that flight into the self leads nowhere. That path finishes in a dead end. In light of the Resurrection we see clearly that only the Cross opens our lives up to a limitless future, to an infinite horizon. It is not something shameful from which to flee in terror but a wondrous mystery to be embraced with hope.

May the grace of the Holy Week celebrations free us from fear and strengthen our faith, so that we may follow the Lord in all things and never flee from his love.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Ad Limina (Final Part 5)

Well, today started off with a real treat for Bishop Greg and myself. Word had reached us through the week that a group of students from Austin O’Brien Catholic School in Edmonton would be in Rome for a couple of days. We learned that they had arranged to celebrate Mass with Fr. Michael Schumacher in one of the chapels in the crypt area below St. Peter’s Basilica. We wanted very much to see them, so we went over to the Basilica first thing and met up with them as they were finishing their celebration of the Mass. I must say, they are an ambitious group! They’re on a twelve-day adventure that began in Barcelona and passed through Venice and Orvieto (and probably a few other places that I didn’t catch) before coming to Rome. No wonder they looked so tired! Happy, but a little fatigued. It was a delight to be with them. 

As it turns out, this unplanned encounter set the stage beautifully for the meetings that had been planned. In our Catholic schools, we work very hard to create an environment fully permeated by the faith. The ultimate goal is to form our students as life-long disciples of Jesus, and throughout our history some of our students have heard the Lord call them to live out this baptismal call by means of a religious vocation. These were the precise themes discussed as we met, first, with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and, second, the Congregation for Catholic Education. In the former we discussed the challenge of a diminishment in religious vocations in certain areas of the world as well as the hopeful reality of an increase in others. We recalled the message of the Holy Father that we must at all times remain people of hope and never of resignation, since God is always present and at work in his Church to turn all things to the good. Therefore, we must never tire of promoting the joy, beauty and essentiality of vocations to priesthood and religious life. Our latter meeting at Catholic Education was an opportunity to affirm the great gift we have in Catholic schools and the joint responsibility shared by all believers to strengthen their identity and mission, especially in the face of the many pressures prevalent in the world today to insert into our classrooms ideologies contrary to the faith or to work against the very existence of Catholic schools. This Congregation is also responsible for Catholic universities and ecclesiastical institutes. In this respect, we spent time discussing among other things the good and challenging work of our chaplaincies, particularly where these operate in secular settings.
Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura
These were our final dicastery visits. We ended the day with our pilgrimage mass at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, built near the place where this great Apostle was martyred and where his bones are preserved and venerated. Here we brought to the intercession of the Saint the urgent need that emerged as a theme uniting all of our encounters and to which the Apostle dedicated himself fully: evangelization. To announce the Gospel is to proclaim to our suffering world the life and hope that only our Lord can give. It is a duty of all believers.
Tomorrow morning, we end formally our ad limina visit with our final mass at the Major Basilica of St. Mary Major, the Church built to the honour of Mary under her supreme title of Mother of God. There we shall entrust the needs of the whole Church, especially those of the people of our own Dioceses, to the powerful intercession of Our Lady.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
It has been a very effective and worthwhile encounter, a real experience of fraternal communion with the Holy Father and his closest collaborators. Having crossed this “threshold of the Apostles,” we now cross back again over those of our own Dioceses. It is always good to get back home, and this time we do so refreshed in the Spirit who unites and empowers us for the task entrusted to us as Successors of the Apostles at the service of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

See all more photos from Bishop Bittman here:

Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.
Part 3:
Part 2:
Part 1:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 4)

Icon of the baptism of Jesus at St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Parish.

Pope Francis has made clear from his pontificate that, in virtue of our Baptism, we are called to be missionary disciples. By “disciple” we mean one who has come to know the truth that Jesus alone leads to life and thus follows him by allowing his teachings and promptings to inform and shape every aspect of one’s life. By “missionary” we mean that Jesus “sends” those who follow him on mission with the message of the Gospel, especially to the poor and any who live on the peripheries of our societies. 

Monument in Piazza di Spagna

I mention this because “missionary discipleship” emerged as the unifying theme of our visits today to yet more Vatican dicasteries. The first was to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, located in the Piazza di Spagna, very near the famous “Spanish steps” and next to the extraordinary monument to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, visited by the Pope every year on December 8th. This congregation, since its establishment in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, has been concerned with the missionary activity of the Church throughout the world. It oversees the work of the Church especially in Africa, Asia and parts of Oceania. Yet, as we were reminded today by the Prefect, Cardinal Filoni, the entire Church is called to be missionary. 

The missionary activity of the Church has many facets. The multiform mission of the Church is made visible in the second dicastery visited today, namely, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. This is a new department, recently created by Pope Francis by bringing together the following pre-existing Pontifical Councils: Justice and Peace; Cor Unum; for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People; and for Health Care Workers. Here we discussed the need to protect and uphold the conscience rights of our healthcare workers, particularly those who are pressured to perform activities that are contrary to their religious or moral convictions. As one official rather trenchantly put the matter, “Doctors are not executioners.” We also touched upon the situation of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada, and the welcome, care and integration we are called to extend to immigrants in our land, especially to those recently arrived as refugees. Our country in particular was congratulated for the warm and generous welcome extended throughout our history, but especially recently, to people in need arriving at our borders. 

Since Christ died for all people of all time, the Church understands her missionary activity ordered to the fostering of deep and lasting unity among all peoples. This leads us into ecumenical dialogue, which was discussed when Bishops gathered in the afternoon at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. More broadly, the very important matter of interreligious dialogue occupied our attention when we met with the Archbishop Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In our gatherings, it has been noted that we Bishops of Canada offer a particularly wonderful and effective sign of unity in the communion we demonstrate among the Bishops of the Latin Rite and those of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This was underscored when we met with officials of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the dicastery that oversees the relations of the Holy See with the many Catholic Churches of non-Latin Rite who are in communion with Rome. 
Bishop Terrio, Fr Schumacher, Archbishop Smith, and Bishop Bittman at dinner in Rome.

At the end of the day Bishop Greg and I, in the company of Bishop Paul Terrio, met up with one of our priests doing graduate studies here in Rome, Fr. Michael Schumacher. We took him out to dinner in Trastevere, one of my favourite areas of Rome. We found a restaurant near one of Rome’s most ancient churches dedicated to Our Lady, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Its mosaics are of breathtaking beauty. 
Santa Maria in Trastevere

Missionary disciples. As has been observed and discussed more than once this week, humanity today knows great suffering. It is incumbent upon all followers of Christ to embrace fully our call and duty to bring the Gospel to all situations as thus proclaim real hope.
More photos from Bishop Bittman's Ad Limina album:
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Piazza di Spagna.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 3)

We are all called to be saints. That fundamental and universal call of all the baptized – to be holy, to be saints – was underscored by our visits today. At the Congregation for the Causes of Saints we met the Cardinal Prefect and some of his officials, who together govern this dicastery, which is responsible for guiding the process of discerning the possibility of blessedness or sainthood for candidates who are proposed to it.
Bishop Vital Grandin is laid in the crypt at St Albert Parish.
The meeting was very informative. They provided us with a list of Canadians whose 'causes' are currently under consideration by this Congregation. Of the three from Western Canada, two are connected with the Archdiocese of Edmonton: our first Bishop, Vital Grandin; and Brother Anthony Kowalczyk. Let’s continue to promote the advancement of these causes by our prayers. 
I happened to notice that my own name was not on the list. Must have been an oversight. Either that, or Bishop Bittman deleted it. 
Brother Anthony Kowalczyk's (aka Frere Antoine) grave at Mission Hill
Holiness, of course, is not something we can achieve on our own. That is impossible. Only God creates saints, and he continuously pours out his grace and mercy upon us in order transform us into the saints he calls us to be. The privileged place for the reception of this transformative grace of God is, of course, in the sacramental liturgies of the Church, above all in Baptism, Penance and, of course, the Eucharist. Thus, it was very appropriate that our next visit was to the Congregation dedicated to Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. There we brought to the Cardinal Prefect and his collaborators some liturgical questions that we are pondering, and received from them some very helpful suggestions and direction. 

Eucharist at St Peter's Basilica
The Eucharist cannot be celebrated without the ministry of the priest. Those called to the priesthood therefore exercise a very important role in our own ongoing sanctification. Indeed, the life and ministry of the priest was our next focus of discussion as we met with the top officials of the Congregation for Clergy. This gave us an opportunity to discuss the great gift that we find in our priests, as well as some of the many challenges they face, particularly when their ministry takes place in remote northern regions. From the responses of the Cardinal Prefect and those with him, it was clear that they took these concerns to heart and shared with us a deep appreciation for the faithful exercise of ministry exercised by the priests in our dioceses. 

At the end of the day we gathered at one of the major Basilicas visited on every ad limina visit, St. John Lateran. This is the Church of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Just as every Bishop has his cathedral Church in his diocese (e.g. S. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton) so, too, does the Pope in his capacity as Bishop of Rome. As such, this Church is yet one more symbolic reminder of our communion as Bishops with the Successor of St. Peter. Mass was presided by Regina’s Archbishop Donald Bolen, who invited us to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for his predecessor and our good friend, the late Archbishop Daniel Bohan. 

In these many ways, the events of the day were a striking reminder of the goal of every Christian life: growth in holiness. Especially during this season of Lent may our hearts be especially open to the mercy of God, without whom such growth is impossible.
To view an album of the Bishop Bittman's photos from the Ad Limina visit, click here:
The Apse at the Basilica of St John Lateran.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 2)

A particularly full day today, and wonderfully enriching. 

We began with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided by our Ukrainian brother Bishops, who are part of our regional episcopal assembly. Gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica, we offered the liturgy at the altar of St. Basil, where the mortal remains of St. Josaphat have been placed for public veneration. Ukrainian seminarians studying in Rome, together with the Vice-Rector of the seminary, joined us and led us in their beautiful singing of the liturgy. St. Josaphat was martyred for the faith in the 1600’s, in particular for his determined and courageous promotion of unity between Eastern Rite Churches and the See of Rome. Fidelity to Christ involves sacrifice, unavoidably; such sacrifice may also extend to the offering of one’s own life. I’m sure there were many prayers ascending from our hearts during the liturgy for Christians who, even today, are being martyred for their faith. 

Throughout the day, we visited four Vatican dicasteries, where discussion was held of topics relevant to the competency of each. In the morning, we began with the Congregation for Bishops, where we discussed various dimensions of the episcopal ministry. It was a special delight for us to meet with the prefect (head) of that department, our Canadian brother Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who shared with us memories of the ministry he exercised in Western Canada, especially as rector of St. Joseph’s seminary in Edmonton. This gathering was followed by a session at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where we brought to them our assessment of the theological and philosophical issues that impact our current life of faith, and heard from Cardinal Mueller and his collaborators their own insights and questions about the situation of the Church in our country.

The afternoon and evening was entirely taken up by visits to three dicasteries. At the first, the new Secretariat for Communications, we learned of the exciting work that is being undertaken to integrate the various communications vehicles of the Holy See and their future plans. We were very impressed and encouraged by their vision and competence, and now look forward to discovering ways in which our own diocesan communications departments and networks can collaborate with this Secretariat. Then we visited the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, where the officials shared with us the various positive initiatives they have undertaken for an effective and attractive announcement of the Gospel. At that same department, which was responsible for organizing the recent Jubilee of Mercy, we spent a fair amount of time sharing with them our own many positive experiences of the way the Year of Mercy was received and celebrated in our respective dioceses. It was clear to all of us that this particular moment in the history of the Church was a special moment of grace for the People of God. 

Finally, we returned to the Apostolic Palace, where yesterday we had met with the Holy Father. On this occasion, we visited with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States (Foreign Minister). With him we discussed a number of issues that, while experienced globally, also impact our local lives: e.g. freedom of conscience and religion, human trafficking, refugees, and the persecution of Christians. 

At the end of this last session, we arranged to go out on a small terrace overlooking St. Peter’s Square and looking almost directly down upon the fa├žade of St. Peter’s Basilica. The view of the Square, Rome and the distant mountain ranges was stunning. We then were led on a visit to a special private chapel of the Holy Father within the Palace. Named the Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) chapel, it is entirely decorated with the mosaics of the celebrated artist Fr. Marko Rupnik. The beauty of this sacred space takes one’s breath away. The images give expression to the whole of salvation history, centered upon and fulfilled by Jesus Christ. One could take a whole week simply to meditate upon this artistic treasure, but we were certainly grateful for the few minutes we were able to spend there.

Our reception here in every department is warm and fraternal; a real experience of the communion of the Church. I’m looking forward to the blessings that yet await us.
Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 1)

The Bishops of Western and Northern Canada are here now in Rome for what is called our visit ad limina apostolorum. This means, literally, “to the threshold of the Apostles.” Bishops are required by  canon law to make a pilgrimage to the tombs in Rome of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The requirement historically is to do so every five years, but with the growing number of Bishops such frequency is not possible to maintain. The last time the Bishops of Canada made such a pilgrimage was in 2006. We do so by region, and these days it is the turn of the Bishops of Western and Northern Canada.

The visit comprises Mass not only at the tombs of the two greatest Apostles and at the two other major Roman Basilicas (St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran), but also an audience with the Holy Father and sessions at a number of dicasteries (Vatican departments) whose officials form the Roman Curia. Our pilgrimage runs from today to this coming Saturday.

So, today it started. And what a beginning!!! We began with the celebration of mass at the tomb of the Apostle Peter beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Then two hours later we were ushered into the office and library of his Successor, Pope Francis. He met with us for two and a half hours!! Before anything else, this unusually long period of time speaks volumes about his desire to learn from his brother Bishops about the situation of the Church in our part of the world and of the needs of God’s people. We were all flabbergasted by such generous availability.

There was no set agenda. The Holy Father simply left it to us to share our experiences or pose questions, and he adapted himself to our needs. We talked about many things, including the reality of migration, the lived reality of our Indigenous peoples, the hopes and pains of our young people, and the challenges of secularization. He listened carefully throughout the encounter, and offered responses, insights and his own experiences, which gave beautiful voice to his pastor’s heart. He encouraged us to stay close to our people, to accompany them with the truth and beauty of the Gospel, freely and willingly to enter into dialogue, even (and especially) with people who are far from the Church, and above all to continue to be men of deep prayer, attentive and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to serve free from fear. Seated next to him, I was able to see clearly his facial expressions as he listened and responded to what he heard from us, particularly when we spoke of hardships and suffering among our people. He truly has the heart of a shepherd and feels deeply, even from a distance, the pain of God’s people. I saw, too, his joy as he listened to the good things that God is doing for us and among us, a joy reflected in a beautiful and spontaneous sense of humour.

Of course, the Holy Father is the Pope, the one to whom, as Successor of Peter, we have pledged our obedience and who has the final word in the Church. At the same time, we were welcomed by him as brother Bishops who share a common mission, and I’m sure we each left his presence encouraged and affirmed by the encounter.

Now, for the rest of the week it is a host of meetings with his curial officials. Please keep us in prayer, and above all pray for the needs and intentions of Pope Francis. 

Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.
Part 3:
Part 2:
Part 1 (this post):