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

Monday, May 14, 2018

Communicating Truth

World Communications Day, May 13th, coincides beautifully with the Gospel proclaimed for the Solemnity celebrated by the Church on that same date, namely, the Ascension of the Lord. In the mass of that Sunday, we heard this command given by Jesus to his disciples just prior to his return to the Father: "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation" (Mark 16:15). This good news is all that Jesus has revealed to us concerning the truth of both God and human nature. In Jesus, we come to know that: God is love; that He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a perfect communion of love; that God has created us for Himself and has sent His Son to save us and His Holy Spirit to draw us to Himself through Christ. From this revelation, we come also to know that we are God's beloved children, created in His image and likeness; that we are radically dependent upon God for all things; that God has given us both a dignity and a destiny; that His commandments are given that we might know how to live in accord with our nature; and that He bestows upon us grace and mercy to enable us to do so.

This is good news because it is true. We can rely upon it as worthy of our full trust.

Sadly, there abounds other "news" that is entirely undeserving of our trust. It is that news we call "fake". In his message for this year's World Communications Day, Pope Francis draws our attention to this "fake news" and warns us against it. By "fake news" he is referring to the manipulation of means of communication so as to mislead people in the pursuit of a particular self-centered agenda. Whereas the communication of what is true, beautiful and good aims to unite people and fashion true community, the spread of falsehood separates people from one another and thus sows discord.

The Holy Father points out that, while we may think of this as a recent phenomenon, it is, in fact, nothing new. Humanity has had to grapple with the spread of the lie ever since the original "fake news" told to Adam and Eve by the devil. This renders the spread of the Gospel - the communication of truth - perennially urgent.

That urgency was underscored last week by the March for Life that occurred in cities across Canada. The thousands who march in this annual event are committed to communicating the truth of human dignity at each stage and in every circumstance of existence, especially since lies continue to be spread, such as the fiction that the child in the womb is not a person and the error that there is a right in Canada to abortion. These falsehoods are "fake news" that is lethal in its consequences. Let's continue to counter them by speaking the truth in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15), and by prayer that those who have surrendered to the "fake news", the lies used to justify abortion, will soon yield to the "good news", the truth of the wondrous beauty and inalienable dignity of every human life.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Heart of Lydia

My thoughts are inspired by a line from Sacred Scripture, given for the mass of the day today (Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter). Acts 16: 11-15 recounts the journey of St. Paul and companions to Philippi and an encounter that occurred between him and Lydia during his first days there. We are told that "the Lord opened [Lydia's] heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul." A simple sentence, but there is a lot happening here.

Ruins of Philippi today.
First of all, consider Lydia herself. She encountered Paul when he went to a place of prayer and spoke to women gathered there. Lydia, described as a "worshipper of God," was among them. She listened "eagerly" to "what was said by Paul." Well, we know what Paul was about. He spoke of nothing except the Gospel, and the Gospel in its fullness. In other words, he would have been speaking about all that God had revealed to the world in his Son, Jesus Christ, and the fulfillment in Christ's death and resurrection of God's saving plan for the world. He would have made clear also that the Gospel message calls the hearer to respond to it by faith and repentance. To all of this, Lydia listened "eagerly." Now, that kind of eager response has not always been universally shared. Quite the opposite. The call to conform our lives fully to Christ and to accept in obedience and trust the truth of his revelation is not infrequently met with rejection. Yet, Lydia, listened "eagerly" and, moreover, asked that she and her entire household be baptized. The key point to see here is that her heart had been "opened" by the Lord. This is a grace for all of us to seek, and constantly. Christians live by the Word of God. Whenever we encounter hard sayings and react with resistance, Lydia reminds us to seek from God the grace of an open heart, one that receives eagerly all that God says to us, especially those words that call us to repentance, to a renewing of our minds (cf. Romans 12:2).

The context of this narrative teaches us that acceptance of the Word of God has significant consequences not only for our personal lives but also for the life of the world. Paul had gone to Philippi at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. By his preaching the Word there and its acceptance by Lydia and her household, the Gospel put down roots in Europe for the first time. It was the beginning of a wondrous history that over the ensuing centuries transformed a continent and eventually the world. Neither Paul nor Lydia could have foreseen all of that. God, however, did. I am reminded of the teaching of St. John Paul II, who often said that, "in the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences." The meeting of Paul and Lydia may have been experienced as a chance encounter. Not so. It was part of the mysterious unfolding of God's plan for both Lydia and the world.

Site where Lydia was supposed to have been baptized.
So, Lydia's heart becomes enormously instructive for us. Let's pray that the same grace that opened her heart to receive eagerly the message of the Gospel will be at work in ours. That Word will surely transform our lives. It will just as certainly have an impact upon the world around us, even though, like both Paul and Lydia, we shall not likely see how that will eventually play out.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Tolling the Bell

I'm in Rome this week. There is a lot I love about this city. Among the things I appreciate the most are the church bells. They are rung often and their beautiful sound echoes throughout the city. I especially love to hear them on a Sunday morning, when they peal out the Church's joy at the resurrection of Christ and summon all who believe in him to worship.

The principal reason for my visit to Rome is to participate in a formation programme for persons involved in the leadership of Catholic healthcare. I'm glad to take part, because our Catholic hospitals and healthcare facilities are deserving of support. The ministry of Catholic healthcare should have its own bell! Lots of them, in fact. Sometimes it seems to me that it is among the Church's best-kept secrets, but it should be both widely known and joyfully celebrated.

We have Catholic healthcare delivery in many places across Canada. I am most familiar with the situation in Alberta, where Covenant Health is a partner in the province's fully integrated health system. Home to more than 11,000 employees and 2500 volunteers, Covenant Health carries on the tradition of Catholic healthcare inherited from the communities of religious women who initiated the province's health system more than 150 years ago. It is accountable to the provincial health authority via legislation and service agreements. It is also, of course, answerable to the Church. This latter accountability is exercised through its relationship with Catholic Health of Alberta, a sponsor organization whose board I am privileged to chair and whose members are the Bishops of Alberta.

I'm very proud of the organization and of all who work within it. Its mission is rooted in that of the Church, its vision is shaped by the Gospel, and its service arises from the command of charity, especially towards the most vulnerable of persons.

About ten years ago, Covenant Health was formed by bringing together what were then a number of Catholic hospitals acting autonomously. As the process of merger unfolded, we were keen to carry forward the legacy of the Sisters and, on that basis, forge our own. So, a question frequently posed was: "What was distinctive about the presence of the Sisters in our hospitals?" The answer I heard most frequently was this: "With the Sisters, we felt safe." I highlight this because the need to feel safe remains, and is, in fact, increasing. In many people I frequently encounter anxiety. The fear and angst have many sources, but there is one common desire: security. Of all places, it is in hospitals and healthcare institutions, where people naturally experience keenly their vulnerability, that they need most to be assured of their safety. They have this assurance in our Catholic hospitals, where the dignity of the human person must, in accord with our identity and mission, be fully respected and protected from life's very beginning to its natural end.

Let the peals ring out! Catholic healthcare is a treasure. It is worthy of celebration.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Works in Progress

On Sunday I visited St Francis Xavier Parish in Camrose, Alberta. The pastor, Fr Pederson, took me to the site of the new Parish church that he and the parishioners are building. Although it is clearly just a work in progress at this stage, nevertheless it is already beautiful and promises to be something of extraordinary beauty when it is complete.
This puts me in mind of the passage  proclaimed at mass that same day from the first letter of John (3:1-2). “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” We are works in progress. God has already made us something beautiful- his children! But he’s not finished with us yet. By his love and mercy he continually heals and transforms us, until we “see him as he is” and “become like him”. That is a state we cannot full envision, of course, but there is no doubt that the final version will be of a  beauty beyond all imagining. What a prospect! The parishioners of Camrose are understandably excited about their new church. This pales in comparison to the joy and anticipation awakened in us by the teaching of St John!

This teaching is also a necessary corrective to a messaging that is causing great harm today, especially among our young adults. I became aware of this in the course of an encounter I held recently with some university students. They shared with me the great angst - even terror - they feel, stemming from the expectation communicated to them that they have to “create themselves”. This arises from the sea of extreme individualism in which they are swimming, the absolutizing of autonomy that severs them from tradition, robs them of objective reference points, and obscures from their view any destination toward which they might orient their efforts. They feel set adrift, not knowing what to do in this apparently necessary self-creating, and they are left feeling terrified.
But it is all artifice, a contemporary echo of the ancient deception. We are not creators of ourselves. We are creatures and, as such, radically contingent. To realize and accept this is to be set free from the fear induced by falsehood. We are already works in progress. We have been created in love, redeemed by mercy, and given direction in hope. This is all from God, who alone is Creator, and who constantly re-fashions us by his grace in accordance with his saving plan for each of us. Far from terrorizing, this truth is exhilarating! May God help us to embrace this truth, and so live freely and joyfully as his children, his beloved works in progress.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Jerseys, Sticks, Ribbons and ... a Piece of Fish

It has been a beautiful - and deeply moving - sight. Beginning locally, and then spreading across Canada and throughout the world (!!), people have been donning hockey jerseys, wearing green and yellow ribbons, and placing hockey sticks outside the doors of homes, schools, and offices. This movement is born of a strongly felt desire to manifest solidarity with the families and communities mourning the tragic death and injury that has befallen the Humboldt Broncos hockey team as a result of the terrible bus crash. The impact of the tragedy reverberates widely. At meeting after meeting, event after event, participants ask me to lead them in prayer for the deceased, the injured and their loved ones, as well as for the first responders, doctors, nurses, and medical personnel who tended to the victims. Even at great distances from the small community of Humboldt (as I write, an image is circulating in the news of a teenage child in Uganda donning a jersey), people everywhere want to draw near to the sufferers by both prayer and symbol. 

I found it particularly moving to see this at play in the schools I visited last week. Students wore jerseys, we prayed at mass for everyone impacted by the tragedy, and of course, there were lots of questions when I visited the classrooms.

Not surprisingly, most of those questions were variations on WHY: why did God allow this to happen; why did young lives come to such an end; why do people have to suffer so much, and so on. To such questions, it must be openly and humbly admitted that no answer will fully satisfy. We try to make sense of what is senseless, and our efforts always fall short. We are left with the simple fact that, in life, tragedies happen that are inexplicable. This does not mean, however, that God leaves us alone to grapple with them. On the contrary, he draws very close to any who are broken-hearted to comfort, heal and show the way forward.

On Sunday, we heard the Gospel passage from Luke (24:35-48), which recounted one of the appearances of the Risen Lord Jesus to the apostles. He addressed them in their condition of fright and doubt, and asked for something to eat. They gave him a piece of broiled fish and watched as he ate it. In this, Jesus showed clearly that not only had he risen bodily from the dead, but also that he would remain with them, always near and actively participating in the events that mark ordinary everyday existence.

Into that everyday existence, tragedy will sometimes enter. There, too, especially, we will find Jesus present with us. In these days, he is demonstrating his presence and love not by a piece of fish but by jerseys, sticks and ribbons. We are not alone.


Monday, April 9, 2018

The Door to Mercy and Hope

Like just about everyone, I always have with me a set of keys. I need them because I am always coming up against many locked doors. Without the right key, I won’t be able to enter. Sometimes, I fumble with the keys, forgetting which is the right one. I try one key after another, knowing that somewhere in the set is the one that fits the lock and enables the door to open.
There is one door that that we all seek to identify and unlock, that we all need to open, but to which we struggle to find the right key. That door is the one that opens to hope. We encounter many things that might tempt us to despair: tragedies, such as the horrible accident involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team; cruelties that human beings inflict upon one another, like the outrageous chemical attack the other day in Syria; illness; lack of employment, and so on. In the midst of so much suffering and pain, within ourselves and in others, where can we find the reason for hope? Where is the door? What key will open it? These are questions that have bedevilled humanity throughout history. Over time, we have used different philosophies and ideologies seeking to explain existence, striving to identify and open the door, only to find that the pathways upon which they open still leave us lost, wondering and confused.
As we ponder the Gospel passage from Sunday (John 20:19-31), the door to hope that we need to open becomes evident to us. It is Jesus. The narrative recounts for us the beautiful encounter between Jesus and Thomas, who is invited by the Lord to contemplate and touch his wounds. By contemplating those wounds, we see the truth of Jesus. They make evident to us the infinite depths of the love and mercy of God. They are the wounds of the Crucified and Risen Lord, who shows by his appearances to his apostles that he will remain with his Church always, as he promised. If we live by his love and mercy, we find in him the door that opens to hope, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
The key that opens that door is faith. “Do not doubt, but believe” is the command given by Jesus not only to Thomas but also to each of us. By faith we surrender the entirety of our lives into the hands of Jesus, with full trust in the power of his love and mercy. This is why St. John teaches that faith is the “victory that conquers the world” (1 John 5:4). It opens the door, which is to say, by faith our hearts open to Christ so that his mercy floods into our lives and thus grounds them in hope.
We might fumble to find the right keys that open the many doors we encounter on a daily basis, but when it comes to the key, which is faith, God gives us the help we need to be sure that we have that key always in hand. That assistance comes to us from the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is, as St. John tells us, “the one that testifies” to the truth of Jesus. In the Holy Spirit, we are able to say of Jesus, with St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
Let us, then, pray daily to the Holy Spirit, that he will continually deepen within us the gift of faith, the key that opens the door to mercy and hope, the door, who is Jesus Christ, our Risen Lord.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Very Welcome Breach

Lately in the news we've been hearing a lot about Facebook. What has caught everyone's attention is the enormous privacy breach that has occurred. Personal data has been harvested, and then exploited for commercial and perhaps even political gain. Privacy is important to us and we rightly expect it to be honoured. Our assumption is that firewalls will be built up around our personal information to protect it from predatory practices. That wall, however, has been breached, and many people are justifiably outraged.

Easter is all about a breach, the crossing of a boundary. This, though, is a breach that fills us not with righteous indignation but unbounded joy.

Ever since the first sin of Adam and Eve, humanity has been steadily building a wall, a barrier of separation, between ourselves and God. The wall grows higher and thicker each time we repeat in our own lives their sin of refusing to trust in the love and providence of God and to rely instead upon ourselves. The foundation of the wall is the lie that we do not need God. By surrendering to that falsehood and building the barrier upon it, we end up barricaded in upon ourselves. The result is tragic. The barrier closes out God's light, and in the ensuing moral darkness we lose sight of the truth of things and end up doing great harm to ourselves and others.  We need this wall to be breached if we are truly to live. We need the barrier to be destroyed if we are once again to live in communion with the love of God. Yet, our experience shows clearly that this is something only God can do. On our own we succeed only in building the wall higher.

The great news of Easter is that God has breached the boundary, that God has acted to destroy, indeed, to pulverize the wall constructed by our sin. He did this definitively by raising Jesus from the dead. As we ponder this, our hearts are filled not only with joy but also with astonishment at the way God has acted. God does not need any tech company to harvest our personal data and create personality profiles. He knows us through and through, better than we know ourselves. He is God, after all, the One who has created us. The personal information of each of us, indeed of all humanity through the ages - the stories of our sins, mistakes, failures and betrayals, of all the things that we regret, and from which we cannot break free as long as we are enclosed within our self-imposed barricade - is known immediately to God. He acted upon this information not to exploit but to save us. He sent his Son to become one of us, Jesus, so that he could take all of that "data", the whole history of human sinfulness, in order to erase it forever. By his willing submission to death on a cross, Jesus took to himself our sins. By rising from the dead, he nullified their power, destroying even death itself, so that we all might live again in communion with the very life of God. In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the wall has been breached, and we are set free! No wonder the Church cries out, "Alleluia!"

The breaking down of the wall happened uniquely in Jesus. It remains for the liberating power of his death and resurrection to take hold in each of us. How does that happen?

Consider again the Facebook scandal. It has angered millions because the data harvesting and exploitation occurred without users' permission, an act that violates human dignity. Well, God will never act in our lives without our permission. In creating us, God has bestowed upon us the gift of freedom. In redeeming us, he acts in accord with that gift by respecting our freedom absolutely. We give God permission by choosing to believe, by the act of faith. When we turn to God in faith and in repentance for our sins, his love breaks down the wall by the power of his mercy, and his light and grace come rushing in to transform our lives. The more we each do this, the more we shall also find that the walls that separate us from one another - the barriers of hatred and injustice - will themselves come crashing down so that all can live in the harmony and peace God intends for his children.

Everything hangs upon our decision to believe, upon our choice to live in joyful dependence upon the love and power of God. This is why we renew the act of faith every Easter Sunday. With the help of God's grace, we re-affirm our faith, we profess once again our belief in God, and are thereby renewed in the joy that comes from seeing the barrier breached and the opening up before us of the gift of eternal life.