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

Monday, January 15, 2018

That Look

It used to instill terror in us as kids. We knew instantly we were in trouble whenever we were confronted by "that look," namely, the maternal glare. Our blood would run cold, our knees knock, and abundant prayers for protection went up to heaven.

Another kind of "look" meets us in the Gospel passage from Sunday (John 1: 35-42): the "look" of Jesus. We are told that Simon, upon having been brought by his brother Andrew to the Lord, meets the holy gaze. Jesus "looked at him." From that glance, life was never the same for Simon. "You are Simon son of John," Jesus says. "You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).

What is happening here? Jesus is seeing to the very core of Peter's identity and drawing it forth. Whatever others may have thought of Simon, regardless of how Simon may have seen himself, Jesus sees to the truth of his identity in God and names it: you are Peter. Whenever we place ourselves before the look of Jesus, the same thing happens; our full truth is laid open to view, and we find meaning, direction and destiny.
Somewhat reminiscent of the maternal glare, the look of Jesus might frighten us. After all, there is a lot in us that we would rather others not see, that perhaps we would prefer not even to acknowledge ourselves. Indeed, this also happened with Peter. After he had denied the Lord three times, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus turned and "looked at him." (Luke 22:61) Under that penetrating regard, Peter realized the horror of what he had done.

In other instances, the look of Christ will bring us to an awareness of something lacking in our discipleship and thus summon us to new depths of conversion. Not easy. Consider what happened when a rich young man came to Jesus and asked what more he should do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10: 17-22). Jesus, we are told, looked at him and told him that he must sell his possessions, give his money to the poor and follow him.
Important to note in the last example is that Jesus, in looking at the young inquirer, loved him. Indeed, the love of the Lord always stands always behind "that look" of his. For this reason, we can place ourselves confidently before his gaze. No need to be afraid. So, let's raise our eyes to meet his and ask him to look at us. In that encounter, we meet Truth and discover the truth of ourselves. That is what leads to the fullness of life and joy.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Light on the Radar

"The Church isn't even on the radar." That very sobering statement was made to me by a gentleman in the context of some listening sessions I've been holding throughout the Archdiocese around issues pertaining to family life. From one group, I sought their insights into the reasons some people stay away from the Church. I expected the participants to begin speaking about the hostility some people feel toward the Church, especially as regards aspects of her moral doctrine. One, man, though, responded by saying that, while such anger may apply to some people, for many others "the Church isn't even on the radar." I call that a very sobering statement, because it is accurate. As unfathomable as it is to me, the question of God, faith and discipleship has become so eclipsed from the consciousness of many people that, for them, "the Church isn't even on the radar."

I shared this with the fifty or so seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, as I led them in their weekend retreat. Their discernment of God's call has to take into account the pastoral challenges facing the Church in our day. So, seeking insight, we reflected upon the narrative of a celestial radar of old and the star that appeared upon it. In the story of the Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), we recognized the presence of the very same reactions to the Gospel that the Church faces today: hostility and indifference. We could see, too, that Epiphany helps us to understand not only the reason for such responses but also how best to respond to them.

What is the cause? Reactions of hostility and indifference have tragic consequences in the lives of people, so we need to understand why they come about. Consider what happened in Jerusalem when the wise men came to town with the news of the birth of the "King of the Jews." Herod wanted to protect his power, so he reacted to the news by beginning to plot the hostile and violent destruction of the child. The chief priests and scribes, for their part, were entirely indifferent, evidently moved by no desire for a change in their status quo. The reactions of Herod and the religious authorities showed that they were locked in upon themselves, entirely self-referential. What's behind all this?


The story of the Epiphany of Christ teaches us that the self-enclosure manifested in hostility and indifference is the result of fear, which is itself engendered by an awareness that what the Church proclaims is, in fact, true. How so?

Epiphany means revelation. In the Catholic understanding, divine revelation is directed to human reason. Since reason is itself God's creation, it is naturally disposed to apprehend as true what God reveals. This apprehension of truth necessarily embraces the consequence that the acceptance of truth entails, namely, a change of life. Indeed, this is precisely what the wise men went through. Having encountered and accepted God's truth in Christ, "they left for their country by another road," i.e., their lives changed direction. Well, recognizing as true that we are summoned to change whatever view or practice of life we have constructed for ourselves will often engender fear, which in turn can cause us to close us in on ourselves and express resistance through hostility or indifference.

How, then, to respond to this? If the reactions to the Gospel are, at root, a recognition of its truth, then our call is to demonstrate that the truth of the Gospel need not be feared; on the contrary it should be joyfully embraced. The wise men show us that this demonstration is given by the witness of worship and joy. Once they found Christ, they offered gifts and knelt down in worship and adoration. Here we see that worship, the act of self-surrender to Christ as God and King, is an act of surrender to the fullness of truth; it is thus an act which casts away any barriers of self-enclosure so as to turn toward the whole of reality. As such, worship gives birth to joy. Even as they were approaching Bethlehem, the wise men "were overwhelmed with joy."

So, then, let us worship Christ with the whole gift of self, allow his joy to arise in our hearts, and make that joy visible to others. Then, by God's grace, the star that appeared on the celestial radar of the wise men, the star that now shines in the witness of the Church, will begin to appear also on the earthly radar of those who do not yet know Christ and his Church, to lead them out of fearful self-reference toward the joyful embrace of God's truth revealed in His Son.

Monday, January 1, 2018

OK Google! Hey Siri!

Now this is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand. How it works is totally beyond me. Whether it is a smartphone or a special device for the house, one can now simply speak to these things and they respond with the answers sought or actions requested.

This fascinating computerized voice recognition and response technology raises important questions: am I able to recognize the voice of God when He speaks? When I do, how responsive am I to what God asks of me? The urgency of reflecting on these questions is dramatically underscored by current circumstances, which demonstrate the harm that arises when God’s Word is unrecognized and unheeded. Globally we see this in the numberless refugees fleeing persecution, unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, aggression in Ukraine, and tensions in North Korea. Closer to home we continue to live with affronts to the dignity of innocent human life, growing drug crises, particularly among the young, situations of dire poverty and homelessness, family dysfunction and so on.

At each marking of a New Year the yearning in every heart for an end to all of this and for the establishment of order and peace rises to the surface. The Church marks the New Year as the World Day of Peace, and responds to this deep desire with the sure affirmation that the peace we seek is possible if we but recognize the voice of God and do as He commands.

Recognition of God’s voice is possible. In the Christmas season, the Church proclaims that God's Word has become flesh in Jesus born of the Virgin Mary (cf. John 1:14). By hearing the words of Jesus, we recognize the voice of God. Yet, while the recognition is made possible by God, our culture renders it rather difficult. How so? Well, consider that, in order for me to use today's technology properly, my voice needs to be clearly heard. If my voice is garbled or there is background noise, I might very well get from the device answers to questions I am not asking. God's voice, speaking to us in Christ, is crystal clear. Yet today there is plenty of background noise. We live in a culture of chatter and babble, in a time when a multiplicity of voices bombards us daily. In the midst of this static, it can be very difficult to recognize the voice of our Lord. We can end up shaping answers to questions that God is not asking. What is required, therefore, - and here is a New Year's resolution worth keeping - is a determination to close out from our minds and hearts all noise we know is contrary to the Gospel and seek God's grace to help us truly recognize the voice of Jesus speaking to us in Scripture and the Church and echoing within our conscience.

Yet recognition in itself is insufficient. God’s Word calls for a response. Our world is obviously not doing very well on that score, so we need to pay special attention to the one to whom the Church directs our gaze every January 1st, the one whose response to God’s Word was perfect: Mary, the Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Regarding the words about her newborn son spoken by shepherds, we are told that she “treasured and pondered” all she heard (cf. Luke 2:19). This means that she thought deeply about everything pertaining to her son and delighted in it as not only his mother but also his disciple. She gave herself over completely to the task of understanding God’s Word, spoken about Jesus and in Jesus, in order to be completely obedient to it.

Here we find in Mary the example we are called to imitate, that we urgently need to follow in these troubled times. In a world where discourse is increasingly shaped by Twitter, Snapchat, Google and Siri we are rapidly losing the capacity to listen and ponder, to take time to treasure words and allow them to sink in. There are no words more beautiful and wondrous, there is nothing uttered more worthy of our trust, than God’s Word, spoken in Jesus Christ. The way to the peace for which we long is that of recognizing the voice of God speaking in Jesus, and then of responding to it by treasuring, pondering and obeying God's Word, just as Mary, the mother of God and mother of the Church, teaches us to do.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Some Assembly Required

It is pure delight to watch young children as they receive their presents on Christmas morning. Full of anticipation, they rip through any wrapping to get at the gift they have long awaited. Sometimes they can make use of the present without delay. At other times, the gift is accompanied by the words: “some assembly required.” The gift is fully given, yet it requires engagement on the part of the recipient (and usually also Mom or Dad) for its full realization. The child is usually impatient to get working at it, and, eager to make full use of the gift, will not rest until the assembly is complete.

This analogy can help us appreciate the gift we have been given at the birth of Jesus Christ, and the challenge that it places before us. This gift, long anticipated and earnestly sought, is peace. As Christ was born of Mary, the angels announced “peace on earth.” This gift of peace is fully given in Christ, yet there is “some assembly required,” i.e., the gift calls forth from us deep personal engagement for it to be fully realized.

The profound and beautiful texts of Sacred Scripture proclaimed at the solemn Christmas Mass of Midnight teach us why Jesus Christ is our peace. He is announced by the angels as “Saviour,”, which in the Bible means the one who will free us from the disease of sin by the balm of mercy. Precisely because Jesus forgives our sins, he is what Isaiah calls the light that dispels the darkness blinding our minds and hearts, the One who breaks the yoke of oppression and injustice. Sin shatters; love unites. Jesus Christ is the Son of God who breaks into human history with the love of God that destroys sin and thus restores people to unity with God and with one another. Jesus, and only Jesus, is our peace. In him, the long-anticipated gift is fully given.

Yet, there remains some assembly required; the gift of peace becomes real in our lives only when we invest ourselves fully in its realization. Here again, Sacred Scripture is instructive. It reveals a simple, yet very challenging, two-step assembly process.

When the shepherds heard the message of the angels, they went quickly to find Mary, Joseph and the newborn child. The astonishing message was of such importance that they had to see and experience it for themselves. This teaches us that Jesus Christ came to be encountered personally by everyone who hears the message. Here is step number one in the assembly of the gift: turning to Christ so that we each come to know personally the joy of a life-transforming relationship with him.

Step two is provided by St. Paul in his letter to Titus. Not only must we hasten to encounter Christ as did the shepherds, but also we need to receive and heed his teaching. In Jesus Christ, Paul says, God’s grace has appeared, “bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly….” Step two in the full realization of the gift of peace is to do what Jesus commands. To receive him as God means necessarily accepting his teaching. Only his words lead us to peace.

Here, though, we encounter a very strong temptation. The teaching of Christ calls us to repentance, to change, to give up all patterns of thought or behaviour that contradict it. There is no other way to peace. Yet, we instinctively resist such change, and from this resistance arises the temptation is to put up the sign, “No room in the inn.” Sadly, we see this all around us and within us. Our contemporary “inns” of political strategy, scientific research, economic policy, and philosophical anthropology all remain closed to his revelation. Even in our homes and our hearts we are experiencing a growing tendency to close out Christ and his teaching by the adoption of a cultural mindset distant from the Gospel. By making no room for our Lord and his instruction, we avoid step two, and the peace for which we long, the peace fully given in the birth of Christ, remains unrealized in us.

So, we know what we need to do for the full realization of the gift of peace: turn to Christ and accept in humble obedience and trust all that he asks of us. It is possible to do this. Aware of our weakness and tendency to sin we may be tempted to despair of our inability to follow Christ. Well, in spite of our weakness, it is possible because Christ makes it possible. He who was born of Mary in Bethlehem, he who gave his life on the Cross and rose from the dead, he who is our peace, makes himself present to us in the gift of the Eucharist. The Lord we receive in the Eucharist is the same Jesus born of Mary. He continues to come to us so that, by the gift of his grace, we can turn to him and follow his teaching. In other words, he not only shows us the assembly required to realize the gift of peace but also walks with us and enables us to do the assembling.

No wonder the angels gave their announcement to the shepherds as good news of great joy! Joy springs from the realization of true peace. This gift is fully given in the child born of Mary. With Christ and in Christ, let us assemble it as a reality in our day by turning to him and doing what he asks. Like the children eager to put their gifts together, let’s not rest until the assembly of Christ’s gift to us is complete.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

From Snowshoes to Smartphones

This past week the Archdiocese of Edmonton launched Grandin Media. A dimension of our Office of Communications and Public Relations, Grandin Media is a digital news portal aiming to tell the story of the beautiful things that happen when we discover the difference that Jesus Christ makes.

This initiative takes its name from Vital-Justin Grandin, the Oblate missionary who was appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of St. Albert, which later became the Archdiocese of Edmonton. When established in 1871, the Diocese covered a vast territory: large parts of the present Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Bishop Grandin needed to go where his people were, and much of his travel - thousands of kilometres over the years - was by snowshoe. Today we are motivated by the same need to reach people where they gather with the life-transforming message of the Gospel. However, the gatherings of today are increasingly virtual, largely facilitated by the omnipresent smartphone. Well, if this is where people gather today, we want to be there with them. Hence, Grandin Media.

The circumstances in which our evangelical task unfolds have changed dramatically, yet its urgency has in no way diminished. The exigency is underscored by a rich biblical image that we encountered in the Gospel passage on Sunday: the wilderness. The passage from the Gospel of John records the self-identification offered by St. John the Baptist: a voice crying in the wilderness (cf. Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28). The wilderness in which the Baptist lived, preached and baptized was the dry and barren Judean desert. That traversed by Bishop Grandin, though different, was often equally harsh. In our day, the Church, too, speaks into a wilderness, yet one of an entirely different order.

On the weekend after one of the masses I celebrated, I met a man who told me that his step grandson had died of fentanyl poisoning and would be buried later that day. How terribly and deeply sad and tragic. It is also darkly symptomatic of an underlying malady. Beneath all the glitz and glitter, the falsehood and pretence that mark Western culture lies a vast wilderness of the soul, to which not only drug addictions but also the growing pervasiveness of pornography, the feverish pursuit of material wealth, and the general experience of angst all point. It is the broad desert of sadness that arises from an inability to find truth, peace and happiness.

Into this wilderness we are called to speak. It is a mission that Grandin Media willingly undertakes, yet it is incumbent upon all disciples. Our message is simple and clear: things need not be this way! There is an alternative to the rapid desertification of the human spirit that is harming so many lives. The difference is given in Jesus Christ. His Incarnation and birth from the Virgin Mary, his death and resurrection, and his bestowal of the Holy Spirit has forever changed human history. His is a victory that no evil can diminish or take away. When we allow him to enter our lives, we share in that very same victory that he won on the Cross and our lives will never be the same; what was once barren wilderness becomes abundance of life.

From snowshoes to smartphones. The modalities differ but the message remains always the same: turn to Christ and find in him the truth that sets us free, the peace that nothing can take away, and the happiness for which we are made.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Ending on a High (Holy Land Blog 10)

Well, it just cannot get better than this.

Our final day of the pilgrimage began early - really, really early. We left the hotel at 4:30 AM and made our way into the Old City of Jerusalem to walk the Way of the Cross. The absence of light in the streets underscored rather dramatically the dark night of sin through which Christ walked and endured his passion for the sake of our salvation. In the silence of those early morning hours, we sang quietly “Behold the Wood of the Cross” as we moved from station to station. The hymn was well chosen. Not only by the prayerful re-tracing of our Saviour’s steps along the Via Dolorosa, but also by the faithful itinerary of conviction that marks the remainder of our lives, we lift up the Cross for all to behold as the instrument - once terrible, now glorious - of the world’s redemption.

Following this sacred route brought us to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the stations ended. Contained within the church are the sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. Upon entering this extraordinary site, we mounted the stone of Golgotha in order to touch the rock and so venerate the place where Christ gave his life on the Cross. We descended from there to the tomb, the emptiness of which proclaims the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. There, we celebrated solemn High Mass in the company of Franciscan priests, who offered the chants of the mass in Latin. When mass was completed, our group was able to enter the tomb individually to venerate the place where Jesus was buried and from which he rose again. Following a tour of other sections of the church, we walked back to our hotel for a very welcome breakfast.

The final visit of the morning and of the pilgrimage was to the Israel Museum. We saw some of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered at Qumran and were given an explanation of an enormous scale model of Jerusalem as it would have been at the time of Jesus. This is enormously helpful for placing all the sites in the Old City into proper historical perspective.

Now, our task, once we return home, is to keep all of the experiences we have had here in their proper spiritual perspective. It has been a very brief and highly concentrated itinerary of conviction, one that must now extend through the months and years ahead. We have been blessed - wondrously so - by an encounter with Jesus Christ in the land where he himself once lived. Henceforth, we must continue to seek the encounter in the land where we live. The encounter is not only possible but also desired, both by ourselves and by the Lord. He is risen, and he is with us daily. Only through a deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ can we understand and live the Christian life; only through knowledge of and communion with him can we know the fullness of joy he came to give. Something of that joy inhabited us as we journeyed in the Holy Land. By God’s grace, may we find ways to share that joy with others, and thus point them to its source; Jesus Christ, who came to us from the heart of the Father and “pitched his tent among us” in this land made holy by his presence.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Children of Our Heavenly Father (Holy Land Blog 9)

Today's events gathered around the theme of the relationship of Jesus with his Father in heaven. At the outset, we situated the whole day by reference to a line from the Gospel of John which has always caught my attention and left me thinking. At 14:31 we hear Jesus say, "I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father." In all that Jesus did and said during his earthly ministry, the purpose was to reveal to the whole world the unique relationship he has with his Father. The reason in so doing was to open our hearts to receive from him the wondrous gift of participation in that same relationship! Here we touch the heart of Christian revelation. In virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured forth upon the apostles at Pentecost and now first bestowed on us in Baptism in order to unite us to Jesus, we become by adoption what Jesus is by nature: children of our heavenly Father. Our appreciation of the significance of the sacred sites we visited today unfolded in this context.

The first was the Church of the Pater Noster (Our Father) on the Mount of Olives. It is built on the site of a cave, which tradition identifies as the place where Jesus would have often spent the night with his disciples, as was not unusual at the time, and where he taught them the Our Father. It was wonderful to gather as a group in that same cave and pray the Lord's Prayer, conscious that what we were doing was possible only because of Jesus's own gift to us of adoption. We prayed first together in English and then each in his or her mother tongue. What a beautiful sound that was! Then we visited the church, which has every available nook and cranny displaying the Our Father in about 170 languages. Among them we found the Our Father in Nakota Sioux, placed as recently as 2016 and the result of the hard work of our own parishioners from the Alexis First Nation!

From this site, pilgrims began the walk down the Mount of Olives, following the Palm Sunday road toward the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as Jesus did when he approached Jerusalem, we stopped at the place where Scripture tells us he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). Prompting the sadness of Jesus was the fact that the people had not recognized "the time of [their] visitation from God." Signs abound still today that this recognition has yet to happen in many peoples and nations: the tensions surrounding us during our visit; the directions taken by our own country that demonstrate estrangement from the Gospel; decisions by our own family members to stray from the practice of the faith, and so on. These are, indeed, reasons to weep, but do we? Children of the Father will have hearts and minds attuned to the suffering of the day. Do our hearts weep, or have we grown cold and indifferent? Here we prayed for the grace of tears that would unite with those of Christ, poured out from the infinite depths of the Father's compassion.

As we continued along the Passover Road, we sang our Hosannas, just as the crowds did that accompanied Jesus along his triumphal entry to the city. At the foot of this roadway, we reached the Church of All Nations, built in the Garden of Gethsemane directly over the rock on which Jesus prayed on that fateful night following the Last Supper. Here our call, as children of the Father, to trust fully in the Father's wisdom and providence, was brought dramatically into high relief. At this place, Jesus fell prostrate upon the rock and poured out his entire self into the prayer he made to his Abba. Fully aware of the pain and death that assuredly awaited him, Jesus asked that the cup be taken away. Once he placed his full trust in the love of the Father, he was able to stand up and face his destiny. Upon entering the church, we, too, approached the rock. In our minds was the teaching of St. Paul that the Holy Spirit within us enables us to make the same prayer that Jesus offered, calling out Abba! Father! (cf. Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6) As we touched the rock, we brought to the Father all the burdens that weigh heavily upon us, all the circumstances from which we would prefer to escape but cannot, and sought from him the grace and strength to stand and face with confidence and trust whatever is before us.

The next site we visited was the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, erected on the site of the house of the high priest. Jesus was brought to this place following his arrest to be judged by the Sanhedrin. It was here that Peter denied Jesus. We reflected upon this, noting that it was the look of Jesus that brought Peter to a terrible awareness of his sin of betrayal. Although it is a difficult grace to seek, nevertheless we prayed that Jesus would so cast his gaze upon us as to give us whatever "salutary shock" we need to grow in our conversion to Christ, our love for him, and our commitment to him.

Especially moving at this venue is a dungeon discovered by archaeological excavations beneath the high priest's residence. This discovery answers the question about the "missing hours" in the Scriptures pertaining to the time between his judgment by the Sanhedrin at night and transfer to Pilate the next morning for Roman condemnation. The answer is that Jesus would have been lowered down into this small dark hole to await, bereft of all companionship save that of his Father, the encounter with Pilate. We gathered together in this dungeon and prayed Psalm 88.

In early afternoon, we celebrated the Eucharist at Dormition Abbey, site of the end of Mary's life and her assumption into heaven. This was a double blessing, given that today the Church celebrates the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Here we pondered the example she gives to all of God's children, namely, to live out our adoption by constant docility to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Our final stop was to the Upper Room. Well, not THE upper room, since that, sad to say, was destroyed like so much else in Jerusalem, during the destruction of the city in 70 AD. Available to the pilgrim is a room, dating back to the crusader era, built over the site of the original cenacle. Nevertheless, this was an occasion to thank God for the gift of the sacrament of the Eucharist, without which we cannot live fully our identity as the children of our Father. Since the event of Pentecost also occurred while the apostles were gathered in the upper room following the ascension of Jesus, we offered thanks as well for the gift of the Holy Spirit that animates our life of discipleship.

Final day tomorrow. We are really tired, mostly from the emotional exhaustion that comes from trying to absorb all that has been offered to us. Yet, that fatigue, I know, will stand as no obstacle to the grace that awaits our tracing of the Way of the Cross and solemn High Mass at the empty tomb.