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, July 25, 2016

Lead By Example

Sharing and discussing faith with friends is a great joy. I learn a lot from them.

The other day, for example, i was speaking with a friend about the Gospel passage that was proclaimed at Mass on Sunday (cf. Luke: 11:1-13). It is the familiar account of Jesus teaching his disciples the “Our Father,” in response to their request that he teach them how to pray. My friend was drawn to that which prompted the disciples to make this request: they saw Jesus at prayer. Observing Jesus at prayer led them to ask how to do it. His example awakened in them the desire to know how to pray correctly.

This underscores the power of example to communicate and influence. It raises the question of our own example that we give to others. Christians are called to “give witness” before others. As Jesus himself taught us in the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. …[Let] your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 14, 16) This happens most effectively when we demonstrate both by words and deeds that our lives have been touched and transformed by Jesus Christ. Among the most effective ways we can give witness to our faith is by the example of prayer. Because we believe, we pray.

Of course, we must be on guard that we do not give example in order that we be seen, i.e., in order to draw attention to ourselves. Vanity and pride can so easily creep in here. Indeed, Jesus himself warns agains this in the same Sermon: “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 5-6). Going into one’s “room” does not mean here some space in our homes. The Lord is teaching that prayer arises from the secret depths of our hearts, is fully known only by the Father, and is undertaken not in order to be seen by others but so as to give glory to God. Understood this way, it is possible to “go into our rooms” even when we are seen praying “on the street corners”.

What example of prayer is given in the home? Do children see their Dad at prayer? Do the kids see Mum praying? Do they ever witness Mum and Dad praying together? Kids notice everything, of course, and the observation of parents at prayer will surely awaken in the children the desire to do the same and to know how to do it.

What example of prayer is given outside the home? One time I was chatting with another friend, who asked, “Have you noticed that Catholics don’t go out to eat at restaurants any more?” He saw my eyebrows shoot up at that remark, so he explained what he meant. “I go out to eat at restaurants quite often,” he said,” and I never see anyone blessing themselves with the Sign of the Cross before they eat their meal.” Hmmm. Very good point. This is an opportunity to give example, to “let our light shine,” and point by our prayer to the One in whom we believe.

Let’s not hesitate to lead by visible example, especially as regards our prayer, so that our Father in heaven may be glorified.



Monday, July 18, 2016

Sorting Out Necessary from Unnecessary

As we ponder the Gospel we heard on Sunday (cf. Luke 10: 38-42), there arises one question that the Lord poses to each of us. It is a simple question, yet a challenging one: Who do you listen to?

The Gospel account recalls the visit of Jesus to the home of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha is very busy with all the household work. Mary simply sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to what he has to say. Martha is really annoyed by this and complains to Jesus, who says very straightforwardly: "There is need of only one thing...Mary has chosen the better part."

The words Jesus spoke to Martha are meant for us as well. There is only one necessary thing. That one thing necessary is to make time and to listen carefully and obediently to what Jesus has to say to us.

Martha stands as a symbol for us in so many ways. Our lives are increasingly busy, hectic, sometimes frantic with activity. This constant and diverse activity springs from our very busy minds. Day in and day out we are bombarded with many voices and messages, all clamouring for our attention. We need think only of news reports, television and radio shows, Internet websites, magazines staring at us from the checkout counter, the various forms of social media: Facebook. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and now Pokemon GO (whatever that is!). Everything has its own message, telling us where we should direct our attention, what we should think, the opinions we should hold, and what our priorities really ought to be. This fracturing of our minds leads to lack of focus in our actions, and we can soon feel as if we are running around in circles, going nowhere and accomplishing nothing.

The one to whom I listen is the one to whom I give my trust. The one to whom I listen is the one that I allow to have a directive influence upon my life. For the Christian, the one trustworthy voice is the voice of Jesus. There is only one thing necessary, and that is to listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, who is God's Word made flesh in order to speak to us the words that lead to everlasting life.

This does not mean that there is to be no activity in the Christian life! Far from it. The point is that the actions we undertake are not of our own devising but spring from our contemplation of the Word of God and our commitment obediently to put that Word into practice. There needs to be something of Mary and Martha in each Christian life, i.e., both contemplation and action. The latter flows from the former.

From this other questions arise. What time do I make each day to listen carefully and deliberately to the words of Jesus? Am I so busy with unnecessary things, with distractions, that I take no time to spend with the Word of God? The disciple is one who listens, who makes time to "sit at the feet of Jesus" and listen obediently and lovingly to everything that he has to say to us.

In the light of this Gospel message, let's examine our lives and ask: Am I making time each day to read the Bible? It need be only five to ten minutes, reading just a few pages of Scripture at a time. Perhaps one way to do this is to read every day the Gospel passage assigned for the daily mass. Do I allow his Word to challenge me and transform my life? The important thing to establish is a pattern of listening to what Jesus has to say and putting his Word into practice. That is the one thing truly necessary for daily living. His is the only voice which we should hear and follow, because his is the only voice that leads to eternal life.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Holding It All Together


News reports are filled these days with evidence of an unravelling of the social fabric. Foremost recently is the string of shooting deaths in the United States. As we know, we are not immune to gun violence in Canada either. It leaves us deeply unsettled, feeling like things are pulling apart. Global developments are also unnerving, as for example when we see NATO allies uniting in response to Russian military manoeuvres, or as the insanity of terrorism continues to wreak terrible carnage. We witness all around us a tendency, even among friendly neighbours (e.g. Brexit), for nations and peoples to pull away from one another in mistrust and self-preservation.

The social fabric is under pressure at home in Canada, too. The legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia is, in effect, the abandonment of the one sure principle that, if commonly heeded, can enable us to live together in community, i.e., respect for all human life and the conviction that no one life is more worth living than another, regardless of circumstance. Many families live with pressures and tensions that threaten their unity, and parents and children yearn deeply to keep the home together. Psychologically, individuals can have a hard time “holding it all together” when the difficulties of daily living just seem to be too much.

So, how do we hold it all together? We long to see an end to division on all levels, yet the unravelling just seems to keep on going. The answer to this dilemma comes to us in the Scripture readings that we heard on Sunday.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians (cf. 1:15-20), teaches that, in Christ Jesus, “all things hold together”. In him God has been made visible to us; through him and for him God created “all things”. Jesus is both the centre and the meaning of human history. If all things hold together in him, then, apart from him, all things fall apart. When we can no longer hold it all together (and when have we been able to do that??!!), then it is clearly the time to return to the One who can.

Returning to Christ means acceptance in faith the truth that he is God made visible. This, in turn, requires an acceptance of the words he speaks. In fact, the words of his recorded in the Gospel passage from St. Luke (cf. 10: 25-37) provide the remedy for the illness that plagues us. In the familiar and well-beloved parable of the Good Samaritan, the man beaten, robbed and left for dead represents broken humanity. The Good Samaritan is Christ himself, who heals with the ointment of mercy. Obedience to His command to “go and do likewise” is the abiding antidote to the ever-present virus of division. Mercy heals; love unites. Bitterness separates; hatred divides. As Pope Francis recalls often in this Year of Mercy, the call of Christ is for all of us to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.

This call is not impossible, because the Lord grants us the grace we need for its fulfillment. Moses foresaw this long ago when he said “Surely this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” (cf. Deuteronomy 30: 10-14.) God renders possible the life to which he calls us. That life is one of unity and peace, made possible by the gift of His mercy that he asks us to extend to one another. How do we hold it all together when forces threaten to tear us apart? Live by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Falling like Lightning

This striking expression is used by Jesus in the Gospel account from Luke that we heard proclaimed at Mass on Sunday. He is addressing his disciples, who have just returned from a mission. They had gone forth on the strength of his command, relying not on themselves or their own resources (“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals”) but only on the power of his message that the kingdom of God has drawn near in him. They have now returned, rejoicing that “in your name even the demons submit to us!” 

In response Jesus replies, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” (cf. Luke 10:17-20)

Jesus grants to his disciples a share in his mission. That mission, as put rather bluntly by St. John in his first letter, is “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). It is this victory over evil that Jesus sees unfolding in his contemplation of Satan falling like lightning as his disciples preach the kingdom in the power of his Word. That power won the decisive victory over the Evil One when Jesus, the Word made flesh, nailed humanity’s sin to the Cross and then rose triumphant from the grave. It remains for the grace of that victory to reach human hearts via the Church’s preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments.

This passage from St. Luke is a wonderful source of encouragement and hope for the Church of every age. Throughout history, and still in our own day, the surrender of human hearts to sin plays no small part in causing terrible human suffering and dark moral confusion. By times it can seem as if this darkness has the upper hand, and it can be tempting to get discouraged. Yet Jesus is teaching us here that the “ruler of this world” is no match for the King of heaven and earth (cf. John 12:31), whose Word echoes in the preaching of the community of his disciples. His victory ultimately cannot be thwarted. Since the mission in which he has a granted us a participation is his, and since he remains always with us, our call is to remain steadfast and confident as we follow him in faith, preach his Word with fidelity, and give witness in our own lives to the transformative power of his love.

The Scripture passage also contains a salutary warning. Jesus cautions against looking for success. When the disciples return to him they are rejoicing in what they saw as a “success”, namely, the submission of the demons to them. But Jesus tells them not to rejoice in that but in the fact that “your names are written in heaven.” We live in a culture of “deliverables”, “measurables” and “outcomes”. Against these standards of human logic and measure we rate the success or failure of various endeavours. This can engender the temptation to “measure” the “success” of our ministry. That judgment, however, belongs only to God. I am reminded here of the famous saying of Mother Teresa: “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.” The source of our joy is that we are called by the Lord, a call in virtue of which our “names are written in heaven”. That is enough, more than enough, to give birth to true joy in our hearts. So let us be faithful and joyful, trusting at all times that the grace of the Lord’s victory is at work in and through us, even when our work may not seem particularly “successful”.

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.