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

Monday, March 11, 2019

Chosen and Tempted

This past weekend we celebrated the Rite of Election. For the last months or even years, men, women and children have been following a catechumenal journey towards full membership in the Catholic Church. Now, having discerned with their sponsors and catechists their state of readiness, they were formally elected – or chosen – to proceed to the Easter sacraments. As I met each of them on the weekend, their joy was palpable! How could it be otherwise? Through the mediation of the Church, they have been chosen by Christ to be members of his Body.

I often say that the people who journey to the Church via the RCIA are wonderful witnesses before everyone who already are counted among her members. They remind us of the wondrous blessing it is to be chosen by our Lord, something never to be taken for granted.

The fact of being chosen both gladdens and astonishes. Throughout Scripture, narratives of call invariably recount the wonderment that seizes the one chosen. Think of Moses (“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” – Ex 3:11), Isaiah (“Woe is me! I am lost…” – Is 6:5), or Peter (“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” – Lk 5:8). As the Lord draws near and makes known to us his choice, we are instinctively aware of our sinfulness and weakness. This, in turn, makes us susceptible to the temptation to turn – even run – away from the call of the Lord.

On the same day that the catechumens were chosen for the sacraments of initiation, they and we heard the Gospel passage recalling the temptations that Jesus suffered in the desert following his Baptism. He was tempted by the devil in three different ways to surrender his trust in the wisdom and providence of the Father and turn away from the mission he had received. Of course, Jesus would have none of it and sent the devil packing.

To be chosen to live as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father is to be called to rely in all things upon his mercy and love, and not to rely upon ourselves. It is no surprise, therefore, that the devil will tempt us to run away from our call by substituting reliance upon God with dependence upon ourselves. This leads to disaster. Note well: the name by which the devil is usually called – Satan – means adversary. The evil one is in no way for us but entirely against us. His temptations aim at our ruin. He is also known as our accuser (cf. Rev 12:10), and thus will tempt us to make the reality of our sinful state – rather than the wisdom and mercy of God – the prime determinant of our response to the Lord’s call. With the strength that comes from Christ himself, in virtue of our union with him in Baptism, we can and must resist any seduction that entices us away from readiness, in faith, to accept God’s choice and call.

It is truly wonderful to be chosen by Christ. It is a joy to experience the healing power of his mercy, by which he enables us to live in accordance with this choice. Life in Christ is not without temptation, so long as we live in a world corrupted by sin. Yet, life in Christ is one in which we live by the power of his victory over sin and death. Therefore, let’s not be afraid. Let us welcome his choice and follow him in joy.

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Annual Checkup

It is that time of year again for that annual check-up we call Lent. This is a checkup of the spiritual kind, an examination of the soul.

When we go to our annual visit with a medical doctor, it often happens that he or she will send us for further examinations. The objective is to “look within” to see what is happening inside the body. This glance into the interior happens through blood tests, x-rays, CT scans and the like. The aim, of course, is to achieve a through and accurate diagnosis, so as to set out a plan for healing.

But what about the soul? Now, there’s a question we don’t hear posed quite often in popular discourse. There is no shortage of discussions around physical health and how to improve it. Yet, that dimension of our lives which must be healthiest of all – the soul – gets no attention at all.

Lent reminds us of the need for the spiritual checkup. It calls to mind that the soul grows very ill indeed when attacked by the virus we call sin. Here, too, an interior examination is required, but no lab test or x-ray will give us the information we need. The light that fully exposes our inner truth, and which points the way to both diagnosis and healing, is the Word of God. There we find all the elements of a good medical examination: symptoms, diagnosis and the way forward to healing and prevention of recurrence.

With regard to symptoms of a spiritual malady, we are invited by the Scriptural passages proclaimed on Sunday to take a look at how we speak and act. From Sirach: “When a sieve is shaken, the refuse appears; so do one’s faults when one speaks.” From Jesus: “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.” What is the quality of my speech? Do I disparage others? Do I use foul language? Do I gossip? These are symptoms that point to an inner problem. We also hear Jesus say, “how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?’” Am I living with a critical judgmental attitude toward others and not paying sufficient attention to my own need for healing? This, too, is symptomatic of a spiritual problem that needs attention.

As to diagnosis, we are given this repeatedly throughout Sacred Scripture. The disease is sin, the refusal to live in accord with the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and the choice to follow instead my own desires. The remedy is God’s mercy, which restores us through forgiveness.

To help us prevent recurrence, Jesus poses a question that should awaken in us much reflection: “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” In so many ways there is a blindness to truth and goodness that inhabits us. This can arise from inexperience, from lack of formation or, indeed, from sin. As we acknowledge our inability to see, we recognize the need for a guide to lead us along the right path, but following someone of equal blindness will get us nowhere. Yet, this is what is happening to us in so many ways. We choose to follow the multiplicity of “blind guides” that reach us with their messaging through the modern means of social communication. Anytime a person or message leads us away from the Word of God, we have the proverbial situation of the blind leading the blind.

The Word of God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. Only he can lead us in life; only with the help of his grace can we hope to avoid a recurrence of the disease of sin. This Lent, let us allow Jesus, the divine physician, to examine us closely by His Word, and then accept gladly and thankfully the medicine of his mercy and his help not to sin again.

Monday, February 25, 2019

And the Oscar Goes To …

I awoke this morning to the news that the Academy Awards had taken place last night. In the newspapers and online, headlines trumpeted the winners of the various awards. As I glanced at the names of the actors and films, I came rapidly to the conclusion that I live on another planet. I am not a moviegoer and the names were mostly foreign to me. Clearly, however, this is a big deal for many, many people.

Hmm. I wonder how many of the people enraptured by the awards ceremony were equally seized by the drama that unfolded in the Gospel passage proclaimed at mass that same day. Hollywood is the capital of the unreal, yet it garners an enormous amount of attention, commentary and money. The Gospel of Jesus Christ centers us upon what is real. The “screen” on display as we read its pages presents the fullness of life itself. What attention are we paying to it? How do we interact with it?

It is very easy for today’s individualistic mindset to shape our own. This tempts us to write our own “screenplay” and presume to assign to the Lord the role that he should play in our lives and the manner according to which he should act. Yet, Jesus is simply not to be scripted by us. As Word of God, he speaks to us what he has heard from the Father and makes known to us how we are to act in the drama we call salvation history. Moreover, as Word of God made flesh, crucified and risen, he assumes the lead role and thus, as our exemplar, demonstrates clearly how we, too, are to live.

My suspicion is that many people today, upon hearing the words of Our Lord, might be tempted to play the director and call out, “Cut!” “Do a retake!” “You’ve wandered off script!” Such a reaction likely inhabited the hearts of all those who first heard Jesus speak the words recorded in Sunday’s passage from St. Luke.

“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6: 27-31) I’m not so sure the listeners would have awarded an Oscar to Jesus for that! As Our Lord pointed out, we normally script our own lives by loving those who love us and lending to those from whom we are sure to receive back. Nothing extraordinary there, he said. Jesus is calling us to more; much more. Indeed, he is teaching that life in accordance with our identity as his followers will necessarily require a radical re-write of our mindsets and behavior patterns. The script to follow is not one of our own making but that which is given by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A world separated from God will not be inclined to give that script an award of any kind. But recognition of its beauty and veracity was, in fact, awarded when Jesus rose from the dead. That is the headline that should capture – and keep – our attention for all time.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Be Carried by the Tide

Over the last year and a half or so, I've been reaching out in a number of different ways to the parishioners of this Archdiocese to find out what's on their minds. I've hosted listening sessions for a variety of groups, as well as town hall gatherings on the occasion of parish visits. Weaving its way through everything I’m hearing is deep anxiety.

People have been sharing with me their concerns about things happening in the Church, our schools and our hospitals, as well as about recent trends in our society. They tell me about challenges at home. Young adults have been very open with me about their fears of not measuring up to expectations, or the angst that arises when they are told they need to create themselves. Of course, the economic challenges facing our province right now are foremost in people’s minds, especially when people’s livelihoods are on the line. These, and other circumstances are causing great and widespread worry.

At all times, but particularly in moments as difficult as these, we need to guard against an especially debilitating form of amnesia: forgetfulness of the providence of God. The love of God is beyond measure, and Jesus taught us to trust absolutely in the Father’s certain care for our every need (cf Matt 6: 25-34).

In the last while my mind has taken me back to a beautiful teaching of St John Paul II, in a document I number among my favourites: Novo Millennio Ineunte. In paragraph 38 he says this: “This is the moment of faith, of prayer, of conversation with God, in order to open our hearts to the tide of grace and allow the word of Christ to pass through us in all its power: Duc in altum!” Here is the remedy for our fears. There is at work in the Church and in the world a great “tide of grace.” Our Lord will never abandon us, and without cease pours out his love to carry us along and provide for our needs. Let’s not swim against the tide by self-reliance or by stubborn persistence in sinful patterns of thought or behaviour. Instead, let’s open our hearts to him, listen attentively to his Word, confess our sins, and worship Him alone so that we will know the joy of being carried by this tide of grace to true peace and joy.

Monday, February 11, 2019

World Day of the Sick

Every year on February 11th, feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, the Church marks the World Day of the Sick. In our churches around the world we offer prayers to Almighty God for healing of those suffering from disease. This day is also an occasion to thank God for the gift of Catholic healthcare, and to ask his blessing upon the countless thousands of people who work or volunteer in our facilities.

Mary's Grotto Shrine in St. Albert built as a model of Lourdes.
In Alberta, we owe the beginning of our own provincial hospital system to communities of Catholic Sisters who gave of themselves heroically to establish good quality healthcare, especially for the poor and most vulnerable. Continuing to build upon their foundation today is Covenant Health. Fully integrated into the provincial system of healthcare delivery, it operates seventeen sites in twelve communities, all under the sponsorship of Catholic Health of Alberta. Globally, the Catholic Church manages approximately one-fourth of the world’s healthcare facilities, and is the largest non-governmental provider of healthcare worldwide. Healing, both physical and, above all, spiritual, was central to the mission of Jesus. It remains at the heart of the Church's ministry.

We ask God to bless the work of our physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and other healthcare workers, as well as those who serve through governance, administration and general support. We pray, too, for the chaplains who accompany the infirm with spiritual consolation; for the many priests who, while attending to their parochial duties, are also on-call day and night to respond to urgent sacramental needs; and for the numerous parishioners who volunteer to visit the sick and home-bound with Holy Communion.
Grey Nuns Community Hospital is a Covenant Health facility.
Implicit within the variety of activity, there is one common message that everyone involved in Catholic healthcare brings to any sick person entrusted to our care. It is, in the words we heard from St. Paul on Sunday, "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas and then to the twelve" (1Cor. 15: 3-5). In other words, we carry to the infirm the sure conviction that Jesus, whose healing of the sick foreshadowed his definitive victory over sin and death, remains with us always and calls us to surrender our weakness and need to the power of his love and mercy.

Finally, this day is an occasion for all of us to reflect upon our own spiritual health. In his 2019 Message for World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis praises the selfless generosity of those who volunteer in healthcare, and then turns the focus upon our own condition with this striking statement: "The joy of generous giving is a barometer of the health of a Christian." The good health of a Christian disciple is shown in selfless concern for others; the need for healing of the soul is manifest when we live only for ourselves.

Covenant Health's Misericordia Hospital in West Edmonton.

As we bring Christ's healing to the infirm, may his grace be a remedy as well for our own spiritual debility. As the Lord himself said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." (Luke 5:31) In one way or another, that's all of us. We find our healer in Christ.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Stay Tuned In!

In the course of many parish visits over the last year and a half, I've been repeatedly drawing attention to the message at the heart of the pastoral letter Living in the Word of God. I do this by asking the simple question: "Who are you listening to?" Many voices compete for our attention, but only one is worthy of our complete trust, namely, the voice of Jesus. It is he to whom we must listen, since he alone has "the words of everlasting life" (John 6:68). So, read the Bible; remain focused on the teachings of Christ; allow them to permeate the entirety of our lives, that they may serve as the lamp for our feet and light for our path (cf. Psalm 119:105).

The Gospel passage we heard at mass on Sunday is a reminder that listening to Jesus will at times be very challenging. Those who were listening to him preach in his hometown synagogue at Nazareth at first were pleased by what he had to say. But then, they turned on him, violently. What happened? His word struck a sensitive nerve as he challenged prophetically certain assumptions they held about what it means to be the chosen people of God and the recipient of divine blessing. His word was a clear and direct summons to a painful self-examination and subsequent renewal of their minds, and they didn't like it. In fact, so intense was their anger that they sought to throw him off a cliff!

How do we respond when we find our mindsets and behaviour patterns challenged by the words of Jesus Christ, whether we encounter them in the sacred texts or handed down to us in the teaching of the Church? A habit many of us develop in our multi-channel universe is to "surf" through the many messages on offer in order to remain tuned in only to those we find to our liking. Those which displease us are tuned out by changing the channel, moving on in the news or Twitter feed, and so on. When the word of Jesus challenges us, do we stay on his "channel" or switch to another; do we remain tuned in or turn off the broadcast, the digital equivalent, as it were, of casting Jesus aside?

For help in remaining faithful to the words of Christ, however difficult, it is good to have examples of people who have remained always focused upon Jesus, riveted to his word. I'd like to hold up for consideration the perfect model.

I just returned from eight days of retreat at the shrine in Mexico City dedicated to our Blessed Mother under her title of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary is a perpetual source of help for the life of discipleship centered on listening to and following Jesus. Scripture tells us that she pondered deeply all that was said about her son during the events surrounding his birth (cf. Luke 2: 19, 51). We can be sure that she continued to ponder deeply all that unfolded in his life, above all his crucifixion and resurrection. No change of channel in her life! She remained always focused on her son, the Word made flesh. Now, in her maternal love for the world, she wants nothing more than that we do the same and be always ready to do whatever Jesus tells us to do (cf. John 2:5).

Centuries ago, Mary appeared to San Juan Diego. She caused to be imprinted on his tilma an image that presented her son to the Indigenous peoples as the answer to their deepest longings for God. May Mary present him anew to all of us in our own day so that, by her intercession, we will stay focused on his every word as he leads us to salvation.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Justice and Only Justice

We are now in the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). The theme for the week of prayer in 2019, "Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue ..." is inspired by Deuteronomy 16:18-20. I gathered on Sunday evening at St John Bosco Church in Edmonton for prayer with ecumenical leaders and members of their communities. It was an opportunity to reflect prayerfully upon the theme in the light of the Gospel, particularly Luke 4: 14-21. In the words spoken by Jesus in his hometown synagogue, we are taught precisely what it means to pursue justice as his disciples.

“He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We are all aware of the real poverty that afflicts so many of our brothers and sisters, even in our own city and country: those who cannot find affordable housing, or who are, in fact, homeless; or the working poor who find it almost impossible to make ends meet. Then, too, there is the poverty of loneliness and isolation, especially among the immigrants to our land. Neither can we forget that particularly debilitating poverty that is engendered by the lack of meaning and direction in the lives of many. To all of these we are sent to announce the good news of the wealth of God’s mercy and love revealed in Christ.

“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” Certainly, there are many who inhabit our prisons and detention. But we can think also of the many today who are locked behind walls of fear and anxiety in the face of life’s many challenges; or the numberless people who are held captive by a lie, or by the many illusions that masquerade as reality. To these we are sent to announce freedom and release; to proclaim that true liberty arises when we place our faith in Christ and live from him who is the truth.

“He has sent me to proclaim ... recovery of sight to the blind.” The Gospels record many miracles by which those who could not see were restored by Jesus to physical sight. Yet the words and actions of our Lord were also aimed at healing a deeper and more dangerous blindness to moral truth that leaves people unable to discern right from wrong and causes them to present one as the other. Nor can we fail to notice that the mystery of transcendence is eclipsed from the view of many who insist that only what is empirically verifiable qualifies as real. To this darkness, we are sent with the announcement that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the light that enables humanity truly to see the beauty of God, the mystery of creation, and the divine saving plan for humanity.

“He has sent me to ... let the oppressed go free.” Relief for the oppressed is an urgent concern for the disciples of Jesus Christ. Here the Holy Spirit prompts us to embrace the truth of our solidarity with all of suffering humanity. The Son of God emptied himself and became incarnate so as to enter fully into deepest solidarity with those destined to be his brothers and sisters. He assumed to himself the sin, pain and suffering of the human race, even to the point of death, and revealed by his resurrection the victorious power of love and mercy. Living in and from Christ, therefore, we too must unite ourselves to all who suffer, at home and abroad, and by our acts of mercy give witness to the power of the Cross to overcome evil.

By faithfully responding to the call that is ours in virtue of our communion with Christ, we seek to bring relief to the poor, blind, oppressed and captive. This is the way we are to pursue justice as the Lord himself would have us do.