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

Monday, March 19, 2018

Course Correction

This blog is posted on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. He is the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Edmonton (under his title of Joseph the Worker), as well as the patron of Canada. I think we could also call him the patron saint of course corrections.

This “good and righteous man” offers us a beautiful witness. He sets out on a course of life together with Mary. While engaged to her, he learns that she is with child. Knowing that he is not the father, he draws what would be for any of us the obvious conclusion. He decides on a course correction and determines to “dismiss her quietly”. However, God reaches out and summons him to correct the correction. Through the message of an angel, who appears to Joseph in a dream, God calls him to stay the course, as it were, and take Mary as his wife. Yet through this call God also announces that there is, indeed a course correction about to happen, one that will impact not only the direction of Joseph’s life but also the trajectory of history itself. The child, Joseph is told, has been conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit and will save the world from its sins. In other words, the course of sin on which humanity had been launched by the disobedience of Adam and Eve is about to be corrected - indeed, radically re-directed - toward salvation. Joseph could not have fully understood what all this meant and how God’s plan would unfold. However, he trusted God and placed his faith in the ability of God to do all that he promised. In consequence, Joseph surrendered to the role he was called to play in the accomplishment of the loving and merciful course correction that would happen through the child now entrusted to his care.
What course corrections do we need? Do the directions we have set for our lives need to be changed? We achieve clarity answering these queries when we pose the question thus: are we moving away from or toward Jesus and his Church? That’s the issue in a nutshell. We engage the question with particular seriousness in the season of Lent, yet it is perennially urgent. Living apart from the grace of Jesus Christ is to be following a course that leads to perdition. That is what it means to say that Jesus is the world’s one and only Saviour. So, repentance and conversion mean surrendering to whatever course correction is necessary to begin walking with the Lord in the obedience of faith. Let’s not hesitate to turn to our patron, St. Joseph, and ask him to pray that the needed re-direction of our lives will take place.

He is also the patron of Canada. Let us ask him to intercede for our beloved country also, since it is manifestly in need of a serious course correction. This necessity has been on display for quite some time in for example the decisions of both Parliament and the courts to allow unlimited access to abortion, to change the definition of marriage, and to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia. In recent months, we are witnessing the country’s trajectory move - with alarming speed - in the direction of steamrolling over Charter rights, in particular that of freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. Just consider the moves in Ontario to force doctors to give effective referrals for practices that run counter to their conscience, or the intractable insistence of the federal government to link the granting of summer grants to the forced attestation of agreement to what it mistakenly claims is the “right” to abortion. A parishioner recently asked me, with obvious anguish, “When am I going to get my country back?” When, indeed? In our nation, which is supposed to be a liberal democracy, the State is leading us in a decidedly illiberal direction. The needed course correction cannot happen soon enough.
Good St. Joseph, pray for us! Lead us by your prayers to the setting of our lives on the right course.

Monday, March 12, 2018

More Light? Let Me Think About That

Well, we’ve “sprung ahead.” Through the early hours of Sunday morning the clocks were rolled ahead by one hour. It meant a bit less sleep, but the move will yield more hours of light in the course of the day. I love that. Particularly in the northern climes of Edmonton, it will mean in the summer months enough hours of light that I can tee off at 7pm and still get eighteen in.
More light is wonderful, right? Spirits lift, activity increases. Who wouldn’t want more of this??

Yet, as we ponder our love affair with light, we hear Jesus say this: “The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). Pardon? I thought it was the other way around. But then he goes on to explain, saying “because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (19-20)
Ah yes. Exposure. Light does have that tendency to bring things into full view. Often there are some things in our lives that we would rather not expose, actions of which we are not particularly proud. Keeping them in the dark seems appealing.
But that’s not a good idea. As the saying goes, we are as sick as our secrets. Lent is a privileged time to look at the areas of our lives where we do, indeed, prefer darkness and shun the light, precisely in order to make the decision to expose them to light. Not just any light, mind you. The light to seek is that which “has come into the world,” a phrase used by Jesus to refer to himself. The call of Lent is to step out of the shadows into the light which is Jesus. To do so is to step into his love and into his mercy, so this kind of exposure is not to be feared. It is necessary for healing. It leads us to freedom.
The opposite to “springing ahead” is “falling back”. We shall say that in the autumn when we turn the clocks back one hour. The expression is telling. The last thing we want to do is to fall back into the darkness of sin and error, especially if we have sprung forward in faith by exposure to Christ’s light. So, let’s pray not only to step into the light this Lent but also to stay there.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Price of Exchange

A few weeks ago, I needed to get some American currency for a trip to the U.S. There was no time to get to a bank, so I decided to use one of those currency exchange kiosks at the airport. I was delighted to discover that the exchange rate they charged was actually better than I would have found at the banks. That delight, though, was short-lived as I saw that rate translate into actual dollars to be paid. Gulp. The price of exchange can be rather high.

On Sunday, we heard the account of Jesus encountering some money changers (John 2:13-25). It took place in the Temple, understood by the Jewish people to be the sacred dwelling of God, or, as Jesus referred to it, his Father's house. Jesus cleansed the Temple by driving out the money changers, since they had turned this holiest of venues into a marketplace.

As we ponder this scene, let's bring to mind the Christian doctrine that understands the human soul to be, itself, a temple in which God dwells, in virtue of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into our hearts by the Risen Christ. The question arises: what exchanges am I allowing within me; has my soul become a "marketplace" in need of cleansing?

The other two Scripture passages from Sunday's mass give greater precision to these questions. Exodus 20:1-17 recounts the giving of the Ten Commandments. We might ask, "Do I exchange obedience to the commandments of God for the following of my own whims and desires?" In his first letter to the Corinthians (1:22-25), St. Paul observes how God's wise and loving plan of salvation, because it is centered upon the Cross, can seem like foolishness in the eyes of unbelievers. This cautions us to ask if we are exchanging trust in divine wisdom for confidence in human logic. Other questions come to mind: do I exchange virtue for vice, holiness for sin, truth for falsehood, reality for illusion and so on. The fundamental exchange at the root of all these "transactions" is that of trading faith in God for reliance upon the Self. This is the essence of the original sin in the Garden of Eden, and the price of that exchange was high beyond measure: the entrance into history of sin and death. Every time we ratify the original sin by making it our own, each time we exchange good for evil, we take to ourselves some of this cost and defile the temple of our soul. The temple stands in need of purification.

This is exactly what Jesus wishes to do for us in this Lenten season. The instrument by which he cleanses our temples is not a whip of cords; it is the sacrament of Penance. There, by his tender love and mercy, our hearts cease to be a marketplace of unholy exchanges and become once again a sacred space reserved for the praise of God.

Monday, February 26, 2018

What to Give Up?

That question formed a large part of a discussion I had the other day in the course of a visit to an elementary school. I was gathered for a Q&A with students in grades 4-6, and they wanted to tell me what they were “giving up for Lent” and, of course, what I would be sacrificing.

At a certain point I asked if they would be able to give up Instagram for Lent. Well, that was met with loud cries of horror and gasps of disbelief! No way! Hmmm. What about Snapchat? Same thing. I had this sinking feeling that any goodwill I had built up with them was quickly vanishing. But the point was made: the Lenten fast aims at attachments, ie, at “giving up” anything to which we are clinging, to which we are inordinately attached, that holds us back from growth in our relationship with Christ.

So, what are some attachments we may want to examine in view of letting go of them, and not only in Lent but also beyond? The Scripture readings proclaimed at mass on the weekend suggest three “fasts” we may do well to consider.

1. Fast from self-reliance. The Gospel account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-10) recalls the Father’s identification of Jesus as his well-beloved Son, together with His command: “Listen to him.” There is a general tendency today to listen not to Christ but to ourselves, not to his words but to our own desires, not to his will, but to our own determinations. At a time when the culture encourages a false sense of autonomy and control, we can grow attached to self-determination and self-reliance. From these we need to fast in order to place our reliance where it belongs: on God’s providence.

2. Fast from fear. There is no shortage of events or circumstances that can leave us anxious. It is good to keep in mind these words of St. Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... [In] all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35-39).” Let go of fear. Replace it with faith.

3. Fast from doubt. I participated in a prayer circle last week with some Indigenous people. One of the elders offered a prayer for something clearly impossible by human reckoning, and then concluded, “I know it’s asking a lot, but I somehow think it’s possible.” Exactly. The perfect stance before God. Nothing is beyond God’s reach. With God, nothing is impossible. Do we believe this, or do we doubt? Listen again to St Paul: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom 8:32). God’s love is without limit; so, too, is His power. Give up doubt for Lent. Give it up, period. Trust in the love and care of God.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Renewal of the Mind

As we embark upon the holy season of Lent, I suggest that the following exhortation from St. Paul's letter to the Romans inspire our prayers for the grace of conversion:
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Rom 12:1-2)

In Lent, we seek to be changed by God's grace. We are painfully aware of the sin and disorder in our daily living, and thus earnestly desire to turn our lives around (repentance) so that they be in accord with the will of God. We know that such change is not something we can bring about by our own efforts; we need God's healing and forgiving grace for it to happen. St. Paul offers a helpful focus when he speaks of our desired transformation occurring through "the renewing of your minds."
Our mindset - the way we think - determines the way we act. If our patterns of speech and behaviour keep us from presenting ourselves to God in a manner "holy and acceptable" to Him, then we may well want to examine very closely the patterns of thought that shape our actions.
It seems to me that we cannot exaggerate the importance today of such self-examination. I often pose the question, "Who are you listening to?" So often, in fact, that for many people I am sounding like a broken record. Yet we have to ask this, because the voices competing for our attention and seeking to influence our mindset are many. Just think of the variety of messages with which we are bombarded daily through the Internet, television, radio, social media, newspapers, magazines at the checkout counter, etc., etc. To the degree that I allow their messaging to shape my way of thought I give to them my trust. Yet, are they trustworthy? Do they lead us toward what is true and right? An easy way to discern the answer to this question is to ask, "Do they lead us toward Jesus and to an acceptance of what he has revealed in his words and deeds, or do they lead us away from him?" I once posed the question in this way to a group of grade-twelve students, and they answered right away that most of what they listen to today would seek to lead them away from the Lord. We can all see the sad truth in this, so we have to ask, "What voices am I allowing to shape my mind? Why?"
In these circumstances, a good Lenten practice would be to take up the reading of the Bible on a daily basis. Using the Scripture readings assigned for daily mass is a good way to do this. God's Word is trustworthy. Jesus, God's Word made flesh (Jn 1:14), speaks to us the words that lead to everlasting life (Jn 6:68). As we read the Bible, let us ask the Holy Spirit, who has inspired the Scriptures, to guide our reading and awaken our understanding, so that God's Word itself will heal and renew our minds and thus transform our lives into living sacrifices pleasing to God.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"Bishop Greg"

That's how he is referred to around here.

Today it was announced that the Holy Father Pope Francis has named the Most Reverend Gregory Bittman as Bishop of Nelson, in the province of British Columbia. In the nearly six years that he has served as the Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton, he has been for us "Bishop Greg." That says a lot about the love that the people of this Archdiocese have long had for this good man of God.

There is no doubt that the Archdiocese of Edmonton will miss his presence and ministry. Whether in the capacity of Pastor, Chancellor or Auxiliary Bishop, Bishop Greg has served God's people with devotion, warmth and joy. For me personally, he has been my most trusted advisor, and I have relied heavily and confidently upon his counsel. For these reasons, it is difficult for us to see him move on to another place.

At the same time those same reasons lead us to rejoice for the people of the Diocese of Nelson. They are about to receive an excellent Bishop to serve as their spiritual Father and Shepherd. This appointment to Nelson constitutes, I would say, a continuity of excellence, since he is succeeding Bishop John Corriveau, whose capacity for clear and effective leadership has long been held in high esteem by his brother Bishops.

A few tips for the people of Bishop Greg's new Diocese: look for him not only in Church or the office, but also on whatever jogging trails you have; make sure the office is well stocked with coffee and food, especially sweets; do not make any jokes about cats; and if he hasn't yet shown up for an event one minute before it starts, don't worry - he'll be there, and on time.

Bishop Greg, thank you for your exemplary service to the people of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. It is clear to us that you are a man who loves the Lord, loves the Church and loves God's people. We wish you God's abundant blessings. Know that you undertake your new episcopal responsibilities surrounded by our prayers, gratitude and support.


Praying together at the Red Mass in 2017

Monday, February 12, 2018

Archbishop Joseph N. MacNeil (1924-2018)

Yesterday, the Archdiocese announced with deep sadness the death of the Most Reverend Joseph N. MacNeil, Archbishop Emeritus of Edmonton. He would have turned 94 years of age in April of this year.

Archbishop MacNeil served the Church of God with great devotion throughout his seventy years as a priest and nearly fifty as a Bishop. The Archdiocese of Edmonton has been the beneficiary of his many gifts ever since he came to us as Ordinary in 1973. He is rightly celebrated across the country as an attentive and caring Shepherd of the people entrusted to his care, a distinguished churchman and servant of God, and a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Here in Edmonton, while we experienced and were grateful for all of that, we came to know and love him as something more. He was our father, and, in his later years, our grandfather. That's how we are mourning his death.

Our grief, of course, is that of Christians. It is tempered with the joy that springs from faith in the triumph of Jesus Christ over death. We are sad for ourselves, but rejoice that he is with the Lord he has long loved and served. Archbishop MacNeil chose to follow Christ as his Lord and Master and did so with wonderful fidelity, dedication and love. By his death, he enters into the Master's joy! How can we not rejoice with and for him?

I admired many things about Archbishop MacNeil. He was a true friend and reliable confidante, always ready to listen and offer advice, quite often over some very fine Scotch. What has really stood out for me is the deep knowledge he had of the people he served. He not only remembered names. He could also tell you where they were from, their family background and profession, and, not unusually, even the names of their cousins! There was more to this than just an excellent natural memory. Jesus named as the essential quality of a shepherd the knowledge he must have of his sheep (cf. John 10:14). The Archbishop took this to heart. We knew that he knew us, and, knowing us, loved us. We loved him in return, and delighted in what we were privileged to know of him.

And we got to know a fair amount, because of his penchant for stories. In any gathering, he quite naturally "held court" as he regaled us with story after story, usually leaving his listeners breathless from laughter. What fascinated me was that as I listened to them - and I heard plenty of his narratives - there were never any repeats. His treasure chest of experience was seemingly inexhaustible. Particularly deep, though, was the love which animated his telling of the great story, namely, the Gospel of his Lord, Jesus Christ. Now, that story he did repeat often, relating it in both word and witness. A Bishop is successor to the Apostles, and is thus sent to tell the good news of salvation in Christ. This, too, he took to heart, and dedicated himself so to proclaiming the Gospel that we might all grow in Christ. In this way, he lived out his episcopal motto, Crescamus in Christum, "Let us grow into Christ."

Well, his own growth into Christ now continues as he passes by God's grace from this world to the next. We are grateful to Almighty God for the countless blessings poured out upon us through the person and ministry of Archbishop Joseph N. MacNeil. May our Blessed Mother, together with all the angels and saints, now "receive his soul and present him to God the Most High," who we know stands ready to receive "Joe N." with tender mercy, and perhaps also an ear eager to hear some more stories.