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

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gospel and the Vuvuzela

By listening to the news reports of the World Cup now happening in South Africa I’ve learned a new word: vuvuzela. This is a long plastic horn that gives off a very loud and, by all accounts, unpleasant noise. I have also noticed how the soccer players complain about them. They have one goal: winning the World Cup. To accomplish this they need to be focused, work together and communicate with one another. However, it is said that, because of the vuvuzelas, they cannot concentrate and have great difficulty communicating with each other. That’s not surprising. Thousands of those things sounding off at once in a football stadium must create quite a racket.

The Scripture readings for yesterday’s Sunday Eucharist are all about remaining focused on a goal and not allowing the “vuvuzelas” of life to spoil our concentration or distract us from working together for its accomplishment.

The goal of the Christian is to do the will of God, to be faithful to Him at all times. Our model, of course, is Jesus himself. The Gospel passage from Luke speaks of Jesus having his “face set toward Jerusalem”. This means that he was resolutely determined to go to that city. Nothing could distract him from going there. The significance of this is that Jerusalem is his place of destiny. There Jesus is about to offer his life on the Cross for the salvation of the world, the mission for which he was sent by the Father. The fidelity of Jesus to the will of the Father is absolute and unconditional. Furthermore, it is clear in that same passage that he expects a resolute determination to be faithful from those who would be his disciples: “Let the dead bury their dead; no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus is saying in these responses to people who sought to follow him that no attachment, not even to family, should hold us back from doing the will of the Lord.

St. Paul reminds us in the second reading from Galatians what that will is: “love your neighbour as yourself”. Christ calls us to love one another as he has loved us, to place ourselves at the service of each other. That is our goal. Required for its accomplishment are focus, concentration and good communication – communication with God through prayer and communication with those we are called to love and serve. But there are many very loud “vuvuzelas” in our society that can spoil our concentration and inhibit our communication and communion with others. What might be some examples?

St. Paul mentions self-indulgence, by which he means love of self to the neglect of love of neighbour. That is a very loud “vuvuzela” in our day. Allowing that noise to distract us leads to indifference to the plight of the poor, to a refusal to forgive or apologize, to attacks on the dignity of human life, and to the fighting, devouring and violence that brands the relationships of far too many peoples and nations. It is a very serious distraction from our goal of loving God and others.
For many people today the “vuvuzela” is fear and anxiety, the loud distraction of worry. Life has a great many pressures, many of which are beyond our ability to handle. We need to be careful not to allow the noise of fear to drown out the message of the Gospel that invites us to trust in the love of God. Fear paralyzes and makes us slaves to ourselves. Paul reminds us that the love of God sets us free and liberates us to be servants of one another.

Particularly troubling “vuvuzelas” today are the lies that are told about human life: that one’s dignity is dependent upon usefulness; that we become burdens to society if we grow ill, weak or disabled; that we count and are worthy of notice only if we are beautiful, talented or have accomplished great things. This is a very loud noise today and an extremely ugly one at that. It can and does lead to a terrible sense of isolation and loneliness for many people. We cannot allow it to drown out the beautiful message of the Gospel that each and every person is willed and loved by God. Neither can we permit it to distract us from the truth that each person is deserving of our love, service and protection.

We can remain focused on doing the will of God, we can close our ears and our lives to the distracting noises of the world, only if we live in close communion with Jesus and share in his own fidelity to the Father. This is precisely what he enables us to do every time we celebrate Mass and are united to his self-offering to the Father. In our celebrations of the Eucharist let us pray for the grace of resolute fidelity to the will of God and for the ability to distinguish clearly the beautiful sounds of the Gospel from the ugly noise of self-indulgence, fear and falsehood.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Discovering Ourselves in Christ

This past weekend I enjoyed the unexpected blessing of spending time with my family in Halifax. I am currently in the midst of two weeks of meetings in Ottawa for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the weekend was free. Since it is only a one and one-half hour flight to Nova Scotia from Ottawa, I decided to fly home and spend the days with my family.

Whenever we are together as a family it does not take long before we start sharing family stories. I find it very enjoyable and instructive to watch the reactions of my nieces and nephews as they listen to the accounts of their “roots”. The children range in age from eighteen to two years old. As their grandparents and parents recount episodes of past family adventures or tales about growing up, they are absolutely riveted. They miss nothing of what is said, drinking it all in, and then light up when we begin to tell stories about them. The joy that they feel, it seems to me, is twofold: it is the joy of belonging, of being a part of something bigger than themselves, part of a network of relationships, and at the same time the joy of being noticed, of having a part, of counting. Even in the midst of a large family, they are not just a member of the group; they are, within that group, a someone whose very existence is celebrated and who matters just because they exist.

Our experience of discovering our identity in the web of family relationships prepares us to receive and celebrate our deepest identity that springs from our relationship with Jesus Christ. In him our deepest “family roots” are made known and we discover the truth of ourselves. Yesterday’s Gospel from St. Luke (cf. Luke 9:18-24) records the question that Jesus posed to his disciples, and that he puts to us now: “Who do you say that I am?” The answer of all Christians is that voiced by St. Peter: Jesus is “the Christ of God”. He is the One anointed by the Holy Spirit (the word “Christ” means “anointed”). By the descent of the Holy Spirit to Mary he was conceived in his mother’s womb; in the power of the Holy Spirit he announced the good news of salvation; by that same Spirit he was raised from the dead. In all of this Jesus revealed to us and to the world the wondrous love of God. That is to say, Jesus has made known to us our deepest roots. Those roots are the love of God. In love God has fashioned us; out of that same love, God has redeemed us in his Son and adopted us as his own.

Who we are in Jesus Christ finds expression in the words of St. Paul: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God through faith.” (cf. Galatians 3:26-29) Through our Baptism, St. Paul tells us, we have “clothed ourselves in Christ”. This means that the gift of the Holy Spirit in that first of the sacraments brings about a living union with our Lord. Since Jesus is the one Son of God, we are, by virtue of our union with him, sons and daughters of God. Within this network of relationships in God’s family lies our deepest identity. We are the beloved of God.

Pope Benedict summarized beautifully the significance of God’s love for us. In his first homily as Pope he said: “only where God is seen does life truly begin. Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” Let us pray always for the grace to discover ever anew this beautiful truth revealed in Christ and to live joyfully from it.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Encounter with Truth that Leads to Life

We all need a “Nathan moment”, perhaps many of them.

King David is experiencing one in yesterday’s first reading of Sunday Mass (cf. 2 Samuel 12: 7-10, 13). The prophet Nathan is sent by God to speak God’s word of judgment to David, and this word brings the king to a profound and terrible awareness of the depth of his sin. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. One would think that David would not have needed anyone to tell him that what he had done was horrible, and a grievous sin in the sight of God. Yet it was only when he had his “Nathan moment,” only, that is, when he encountered the Word of God, that he saw with sudden and total clarity how he had turned away from the goodness of God and needed to rely once again not on his own judgment but on the merciful love of the Lord. Struck to the core with remorse, he repents immediately. “I have sinned against the Lord,” David says, and then Nathan announces the Lord’s gift of forgiveness. In a “Nathan moment” we are given by God the gift of a clear vision and an inescapable awareness of truth, that, yes, will be humbling and painful, but are aimed at new life and real hope.

When things are not right in our lives, we often find it difficult to pinpoint the reason. Our first tendency is to externalize blame and find fault with other people or circumstances. Yet even if we do recognize that the cause is our own attitudes or behaviours, we still may not be able to see what needs to change. If we try to figure things out on our own, we will often remain in the dark. What is needed is a “Nathan moment”, an encounter with the Word of God. Acting as a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths (cf. Psalm 119:105), this divine Word clarifies our whole life and shows us where change is needed.

Perhaps an analogy from the game of golf would be helpful to illustrate this. When I swing the club, it is anyone’s guess where the golf ball will end up. My immediate reaction to a stray shot is to blame anything but myself, such as the ball, the club, or a tree. Acceptance of fault is not easy. Yet when I admit the obvious and recognize that somehow I am at fault for the errant drive, it is still difficult to see what I am doing wrong. It might feel like I am doing everything right, but the ball still goes awry. I need someone who understands golf well to point out the errors. When I allow a golf professional to watch my swing, then he will see right away what needs to be changed. If I make the adjustments that are necessary, if I admit error and change, my game improves. A humbling experience! But a necessary one.

The “pro” who can see the entirety of our lives in a single glance and speak the words that lead to new life is, of course, Jesus Christ. Therefore we must continually place ourselves before his glance. King David encountered the prophet Nathan who spoke the Word of God. We encounter the One who not only speaks but also is the Word of God incarnate: Jesus Christ. The “Nathan moment” he brings to us addresses not only particular events but also the entirety of our lives. Think of the encounters with Jesus experienced by Peter (cf. John 1:42), Nathaniel (cf. John 1: 47-51), the rich young man (cf. Mark 10:21) and the woman of Samaria (cf. John 4: 4-42). Because he is the Son of God incarnate through whom all things were made (cf. Colossians 1:16), Jesus knew them thoroughly by simply looking at them. Allowing the Lord to look at us will bring us to an awareness of our own truth as well. He will reveal to us our belovedness, first of all, but also our sin and the need to change. The encounter with Jesus is a “Nathan moment” which reorients our lives completely.

The Gospel from yesterday’s Mass gives us an example of someone who has accepted and lived through a “Nathan moment.” Jesus sees a woman come into the home of his host in order to kiss his feet and bathe them with her tears and with ointment. We are not told the circumstances of her life, but Jesus knows right away that she has come to an awareness not only of her “many sins” but also of God’s forgiving love (cf. Luke 7:36-50). She has had a “Nathan moment,” and what is the result? She is filled with thanksgiving and, no longer held captive by the opinion of others, she gives free expression to the love within her that is liberated by forgiveness. Repentance gives birth to freedom and releases love. The “Nathan moment” sets us on the path to a new beginning; it leads to life and gives birth to hope.

Let us all pray for the grace of a new “Nathan moment” in our own lives through a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Real Presence

Blog June 7, 2010

Yesterday the Church celebrated the solemn feast of Corpus Christi, or the Body and Blood of Christ.

As we gathered in our churches to give thanks to the Father for the gift of salvation in the death and resurrection of Christ, we reflected in a particular way upon the wondrous gift by which the saving grace of the Cross is made present for us here and now: the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Then many of us carried the Blessed Sacrament to the streets of our towns and cities in the traditional Corpus Christi procession. Such processions make visible our conviction that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a gift not only for us but also for the world.

What message does the Eucharist bring to contemporary society? This can be considered from a variety of perspectives. Today I am considering the Eucharist in the light of the current and widespread experience of social networking via modern communications technology and its impact on our relationships with one another.

More and more relationships today are characterized by presence that is not real but virtual. Social networking is taking place more and more over the Internet, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and communication is increasingly virtual through things like emails and text messaging. These communications media can have great benefits, to be sure, but we need to ask what they are doing to our capacity to relate in a real way to one another, to be truly, really present to each other.

I once had a conversation with a man who had just been speaking with his teenage daughter about all the texting that takes place among her friends. He asked her, “Why don’t you just pick up the phone and call your friends?” “In order to do that,” she replied, “I’d have to have something to talk about.” Whatever is going on in the texting, it wouldn’t appear to be any significant conversation. The more that virtual interaction becomes widespread in our society, the less will our relationships be real. When the interface between persons becomes not personal, one-to-one, but indirect through a medium such as the Internet or computer game, then meaningful relationships are not possible.

Tragically, as this virtual “relating” becomes widespread in society, it will inevitably creep into the daily life of the family. But it is in the family above all that relationships must be real, not virtual. The family is the school of genuine relationships of love and thus the cell of a genuinely human society. The family must therefore be that place where members are not just present with one another in the same place, but present to one another. The presence to the other must be genuine, real. What did Jesus teach us about real presence at that last supper?

Catholics see in the last supper of the Lord his institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. In the Eucharist, following the Lord’s command, we do as he did at the last supper, and by his word spoken by the priest and by the agency of the Holy Spirit simple gifts of bread and wine are transformed such that they are bread and wine no longer but the real presence of Christ, his true body and blood.

But this is not a static presence of the Lord. It is more than a “presence with”, as wondrous and comforting as that might be. It is a “presence to”. It interacts with and engages the other and invites to communion. Christ did not say only “this is my body, this is my blood”. He said “this is my body given for you; this is my blood poured out for you”. With those words he was referring to his approaching death on the Cross, and teaching that his death was a self-offering, a self-gift for the life of the world. By offering the gifts to his disciples he was engaging them and inviting them to make of their lives a self-offering, through with and in him to the Father, for the life of the world. In other words, Christ’s real presence to the other in love engages the other at the deepest level of their life with the totality of his own.

In the family and, by extension, in society, love finds expression in real presence when we redirect our gaze away from the virtual to the real, when we turn away from the television, from the computer, from the video games and turn toward one another in ways that are deeply meaningful, creating the space and time to engage one another in such ways that each knows that he or she is known and loved, and comes to appreciate that his or her individual life matters. Pope Benedict said in his first homily that every person is the result of a thought of God, that each man, woman and child, is willed, loved and necessary. This is learned only through the real presence of one to the other. It is obscured by virtual relationships that deepen our sense of anonymity even as we connect with others.

May our celebration of Christ’s real presence to us and to the world in the Eucharist inspire and shape our relationships, such that they be experiences of real presence to one another.