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, June 27, 2016

Distractions

More than once I have witnessed a scene that, I am sure, many others have seen also. I can remember at least two occasions when I saw a young parent walking hand in hand with a very young child. In one hand the parent held that of the youngster. In the other hand was a smartphone. Can you guess where the parent’s attention was directed? Of course … the smartphone. Very sad, really. The unspoken message being given to the child is that she is less important at that moment than whatever message is coming across the smartphone. The parent was allowing the device to become a distraction from something of obviously far greater importance, namely, the little child.

The Scripture readings for last Sunday challenge us to look at the distractions that we allow to creep into our lives, those things that take our attention away from what is of greatest importance. In a sense they ask, “What is our smartphone?” “What do we need to put down or put away in order to fix our attention on what is most precious?

The Gospel account from Luke (9:51-62) tells us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”. It is a small phrase full of meaning. To set one’s face means to follow with firm resolution a particular path or direction, allowing of no distraction. Jerusalem is the place where he was to die and rise; the city, in other words, where he was to fulfill the destiny given him by his heavenly Father. At all times, not just in this episode recalled for us, Jesus was focused only on fulfilling the will of his heavenly Father. Nothing could distract him from that; nothing was more important; nothing was more precious.

And we are his followers. We are a people who have been given a destiny in Christ: eternal life. The life we live on earth is a pilgrimage under grace to the fulfillment of this destiny. We, too, are called to “set our face”, to be firmly resolute, in the pursuit of this goal. But, oh how we allow the distractions to creep in! In so many ways we “lift up the smartphone" and allow it to distract our attention away from the goal of eternal life that has been “placed in our hands,” as it were, by the gift of Jesus Christ.

St. Paul helps us to understand this. In the passage we heard from his letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-18), he teaches that the path we are to follow with firm resolution is that of love. “[The] whole law,” he tells us, “ is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” He explains that this path of love is the way of self-gift and self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, for the sake of the communion that God wills there to be among all people. Yet we allow self-indulgence to get in the way. To paraphrase, time and again we lift up the smartphone of selfishness and self-absorption such that its very enticing messages distract us away from what we should be doing: loving one another.

The consequences of this distraction of self-concern are dramatic and tragic. It causes division in the home as family members place individual pursuits ahead of their duty in love to each another. It gives birth to divisions and inequities in society as concern for the common good gives way to idolatrous worship of the autonomous self. It engenders fear and defensiveness among nations, as borders and walls are prized more highly than communion among cultures.

God’s Word is a clarion call to put down the “smartphone”, to put away from our lives all that distracts us from our destiny of eternal life. It summons us to do away with self-indulgence and to set our faces toward the immediate duty of loving one another as Christ has commanded us to do.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Internally Displaced

This blog is posted on World Refugee Day, 2016. The day lifts up to the world and its governments the heartbreaking plight of millions of men, women and children around the globe who have had to flee home and country to escape violence and persecution. To global efforts, the Church adds its own charitable works, undergirding everything with prayer to God that hearts and minds be stirred everywhere to work for peace and justice for all.

Among the refugees are countless persons designated as "internally displaced." They have had to flee home and town yet remain within their country's borders. They are caught in a kind of "no man's land," since the rescue efforts undertaken by nations often will focus solely on those who have crossed frontiers and thus qualify for the official designation "refugee". Yet these people suffer no less than others, indeed, perhaps even more, since they have yet to reach safe haven and danger to life follows them closely. May they, too, and find real help and rescue!

This special day can also serve to highlight a challenge that we face in our own homes. I've often thought that the term "internally displaced" and "refugee" can apply analogously to many family situations today. When I visit schools, I see children showing signs of their own internal displacement as, for example, when they come to school early and stay late because they find it safer or more comfortable at school than at home. Without leaving family, there is an "internal displacement" from a happy home life. Family dysfunction can leave people experiencing a kind of "refugee status" even while remaining within their own walls.

The millions of refugees in motion around our planet struggle mightily to keep their families together. Their sorry plight moves us to do all that we can to help them, as we must. Let's keep in mind also the families in our own country who need our prayers. May they, too, receive healing and a "return to home".

Monday, June 13, 2016

What’s My Distance?

I played a round of golf the other day. One of the men in our group was wearing a watch that served also as a GPS. Extraordinary technology! For each hole it indicated the distances to the front, middle and back of the green. I usually try to judge those distances myself, with the help of yardage makers on the ground. Yet seldom am I right! So, it wasn’t long before I began to ask the GPS-touting player what my distance to the green really was. Invariably that day, I was told by the GPS that I was actually much farther from the target than I had thought. It enabled me to adjust my game accordingly.

How far are we from the most important “target” of all, i.e., the kingdom of God? How do we make that assessment? By our own estimation or with the help of a “GPS”, something that can pinpoint with accuracy our position and indicate to us how we are to adjust our lives?

The Gospel for Sunday recounted the story of the visit of Jesus to the home of a Pharisee. While dinner was taking place, a woman entered, and crying copious tears anointed the feet of Jesus. The words of the Lord served like a GPS to position each of these individuals accurately in terms of their proximity to God.

The Pharisee was one who judged himself on the basis of his relation to the law of God. Because he followed the dictates of the law, he assessed himself to be very close to the target, to be righteous in the sight of God. When he hears the words of Jesus, he finds, though, that he is further away, by a wide margin, than he had thought.

Jesus directs his attention to the woman, whose tears were ones of repentance, joy and love. She has been greatly forgiven, Jesus says, and so she is able to love greatly. He is indicating her closeness to God, that she is very near indeed to the “target”, because both her tears and her actions indicate that she has been touched and transformed by the mercy of God.

The Christian life is not one of merely external observance of laws. Of course, there are precepts that we must follow. They are given to us by God and handed on through the Church as a light to guide our path. We draw near to the target, however, when our external observance is reflective of an interior transformation of heart, when, under God’s grace, we realize our sinfulness, our great distance from God, and allow his love to reach us as mercy and forgiveness.

In a world that exalts self-absorption and absolute autonomy, the temptation to self-assessment on the basis of our own perceptions is very strong. But that assessment is likely wrong. We need that GPS which is the Word of God, the Word that became flesh in Jesus Christ, if we are to know our accurate position in relationship to God. Let us stay close to Jesus, allow his Word to situate us, and adjust our lives accordingly.












Monday, June 6, 2016

Pray for Canada

The contrast in message is dramatic. On June 6th, 2016, the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia as a response to human suffering comes into effect. The ruling contains within itself the message that there are some lives less worth living than others. The day prior, Churches throughout the world echoed with the teaching from Sacred Scripture that God responds to suffering with the gift of life. Implicit in this doctrine is the message that every life matters.

Three passages of the Bible recounted God's desire and power to restore the dead to life: the restoration of a dead child through the prophet Elijah (1Kings 17.17-21a, 22-24) and by Jesus himself (Luke 7.11-17), as well as St Paul's account of the new life that he, having died through sin, had received from his encounter with the Risen Lord (Galatians 1:11-19). To those who suffer, God responds with the gift of life. The response of the Canadian Supreme Court and (soon) the Canadian Parliament is death. Scripture thus makes very clear that the only mindset that can justify assisted suicide and euthanasia, and even hold them up as a good, is one from which any reference to the compassion and mercy of God, and consideration of God's will for his people in need, has been excluded.

We must be careful not to adopt this atheistic mindset as our own. Turning away from God leads inevitably to not only people turning against one another (e.g. legalizing euthanasia) but also individuals against themselves (e.g. normalization of suicide). We can do better than this! These choices for death follow naturally from the understanding that reality is what I make it to be, the product of my own (very limited) consciousness. When we allow God and his love to enlighten reality, our vision expands infinitely. We see that responding to suffering by killing the one who suffers is beneath our dignity as human beings. We become aware of our enormous potential as members of one human family under God to live as God would have us live and as his grace makes possible: together; in solidarity; ready to suffer with our suffering brothers and sisters; moved by the truth that every life matters and is worthy of being lived until its natural end.

As I said at the opening of our holy door to launch the Year of Mercy, by the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, Canada is opening a very unholy door. It is a door of astonishing arrogance, fashioned on the presumption that we can judge the quality of another's life or determine on our own when life is no longer worth living. It claims to be a door of mercy, when in fact it is one that opens onto a room with no floor, a vast abyss in which fundamental respect for the sanctity of human life falls away and the weak and vulnerable are left with no sure foothold. Even though the State may open this door, we must be clear that it should remain solidly closed and have nothing to do with it.

Pray for our country. We are fashioning a culture of death and despair. This need not be. By allowing our minds to be enlightened anew by Christ and our actions by his grace, we can create instead a civilization of life and hope.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Learning Again How to Die

The month of May draws to a close. In the Catholic tradition, this month, together with October, is a time to highlight our devotion to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. Yet this is a tradition with an importance that overflows the bounds of Catholicism to confront with hope and meaning the troubling trends of our society.

Mary's universal significance was brought home to me simply and directly by the prayer of a priest last November. We were together with many fellow pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land. Among the sites we visited was the Church of the Dormition, the place honouring Mary's "falling asleep" in death and subsequent Assumption - body and soul - into heaven. At that place we prayed together the "Hail Mary", which ends with this petition to her maternal intercession: "...pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." Afterward, the priest told me that he found himself spontaneously praying to Our Blessed Mother that she "teach us how to die!"

I knew right away what he meant. In Canada we are having to deal with the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. This represents the adoption of a new and frightening approach to death. What have always been considered grave evils and sins against the love of God - suicide and the intentional killing of the innocent - are now being normalized and held up as good in response to human suffering. Clearly, we have forgotten how to die. This amnesia gives rise to the presumption that we can pre-determine the time and method of our death, and effect it on our own terms.

The Catholic tradition speaks unhesitatingly of a "happy death" or a "good death". In fact, the Church has for centuries prayed for this at night prayer to conclude each day: "May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death (in Latin: perfect end)." God makes our death "happy" or "good" when we allow him, by his mercy, to prepare us for that moment. This preparation is not to be understood as occurring only "at the last moment" but also as unfolding throughout our entire lives.

This means that, if we have forgotten how to die, it is because we have, first of all, forgotten how to live. The life God creates and intends for us is lived fully only in loving relationship with him. Mary serves as the perfect model of such a life. When we allow this love, revealed in Christ and poured out in the gift of the Holy Spirit, to take root in our hearts and blossom through prayer, obedience, worship, witness and charity, then we grow in the life that God wills for each of his creatures - we truly live. Living rightly and fully means surrendering with trust to God's saving will and purpose at each moment and in every circumstance. The moment of death is no exception. Indeed, death is the final act of surrender to God and of trust in his love. We give expression to this trust by allowing it to occur at a time of God's choosing, not our own. Such a death is, truly, a happy one. It is the exact opposite of one used as a final expression of self-assertion and self-determination.

Mary, our Mother, do, indeed, we pray, teach us how to die by teaching us first how to live.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Cold and Wet - Great!!!

Cold and wet. That's been the weather throughout the long weekend here in Edmonton and other parts of Alberta. Everyone's happy about it! Keep in mind this is the time of year many are setting out for the first camping trip of the season or opening up the cottage. Typically, we want the weather at such a time to be warm and sunny. It's been the opposite, and everyone welcomes it. The reason is obvious. The terrain has been dangerously dry, and we have been living daily with worry about damaging fires and low crop yields. We needed moisture desperately and are now happy to receive it, even when our plans and hopes might be inconvenienced or dashed by it.

In this situation, present hopes and desires have been weighed against greater and future needs; personal plans for recreation have been recognized as having less urgency than the requirements of others; what is unwelcome from one point of view is recognized as a good when placed within a larger perspective. It is a moment of recognition that the world does not revolve around me; that I am part of something bigger than myself, a something that calls me to a vision far broader and more expansive than my normal sight line that rarely extends beyond the tip of my nose.

Sunday's celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity had implicit within it a summons to an infinite vision. The mystery of the Trinity reminds us that the need to look beyond ourselves and the demands or hopes of the moment is not periodic but perennial. God, who has revealed Himself as a perfect communion of love - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - wills that we share in that very same divine life for all eternity. That this might be possible, He sent to us His Son and Holy Spirit. These wondrous gifts by which God, in fact, communicates His very self, draw us out of ourselves and towards God; they grant us a participation, even now, in God's own life! This astounding truth of God's desire for us fashions the horizon against which we view our lives correctly. We live not for the moment but for eternity; we are concerned not with the fulfilment of self-centered and transient desires but with allowing God to fulfil His will in us.

Within this perspective, even suffering and difficulty find meaning. Regularly we have to grapple with things far worse than cold and wet weather. Yet, when we recognize that, by the water of God's grace and mercy, suffering can lead to the blossoming of a soul desiccated by self-absorption, that it can thus further us along the journey out of ourselves and towards God, then even the hardship can be welcomed as a good. To be sure, this is a perspective that is granted only by faith, yet this does not render it unreal. On the contrary, by the gift of faith we perceive things as they truly are and are enabled to order our lives, and our response to adversity, accordingly.

Bad weather is not necessarily bad. A truth to bear in mind in the pilgrimage of our souls.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Change Is Possible

As I entered a church on the weekend, I was greeted warmly by a parishioner, who said, "I hope you give us a long homily this weekend!" He was serious. I thought to myself, "Now, that's a first." Usually the sentiment moves in the opposite direction. In fact, I remember one time years ago a parishioner offering "an extra twenty in the collection if you keep it short!" Jokingly, of course. (I think.)

As we celebrated this past weekend the Solemnity of Pentecost, the homily did not need to be long at all to convey a point necessary for our times. In fact, that point can be summarized in three simple words: "Change is possible."

This message arises from the experience of the apostles when they received the promised Holy Spirit. They were transformed by this wondrous gift from on high. Simple, fearful and uneducated men all of a sudden became filled with clear understanding and remarkable boldness. They who had remained locked behind closed doors for fear of the authorities now were stepping forth with great courage to proclaim the truth of Christ.

Change is what we seek today, in many ways. We know that, as Christians, we are called daily to holiness, expressed in our embrace of God and his commands and through our rejection of Satan and all that is bad. Yet due to our inclination to sin we often get it backwards and, in our actions, say yes to Satan and no to God. This leaves us wondering, "Will I ever change?" Similarly, we are aware of our call to be witnesses before the world of our faith in Christ. Yet, in a society which seems increasingly allergic to the Gospel, we are tempted to shrink back in fear and to stay quiet. Will I ever change and start to speak and act in accordance with my faith?

More broadly speaking, we can crave change in our family lives. Difficulties with employment, with relationships, with children and so on can at times seem intractable. WE wonder if and how it could ever change. Think, too, of our culture and the trends within it that are opposed to what is true and right. We anguish over the usurpation of God's rule by the will of the autonomous self. The forces behind this are powerful and we wonder if anything can be done to reverse the situation. Global unrest is pervasive and massive. It is tempting to give into despair when we see the enormity of the problems and the inability of world powers to stem the tide. Can any of this change? Is hope for change realistic?

It is. Hope for change is reasonable not on the basis of our limited capacities but on that of the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. Consider the supreme confidence of the Psalmist who praised God for the power of the Spirit to "renew the face of the earth!" Change is, indeed, possible, in all aspects of our lives. As it was with the apostles, so it is with us. Change is possible. Complete, radical change.

All that is needed of us is one little yet powerful word: "Amen." When at Confirmation the Bishop says to the recipient "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit," the response given is "Amen." That is to say, "So be it; I open my life here and now and every day thereafter to the power of the Holy Spirit in my life." Let this be the prayer on the lips of all believers as we commemorate Pentecost. God wills to clothe us with his power so as to renew us and, indeed, the face of the earth." May our hearts and lives be fully open to this transformative gift so as to experience the truth that change - real, profound and surprising - is possible.