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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

New Messages, Ageless Truths

Yesterday (October 24) we marked World Mission Sunday. This is a time to reflect upon the missionary mandate of the Church and her members. We often think of this in terms of the missionary priests and sisters who are sent around the globe to announce the Gospel, particularly through their work among the poor and needy. At the same time we realize that missionary work is incumbent upon all the baptized. This means looking for opportunities in our own circumstances to share with others the all-important message and good news that God has saved the world in Jesus Christ and remains always near to his people.

When a missionary travels to a foreign land it is often necessary to learn a new language so that the Gospel can be communicated intelligibly. This is, in fact, the case for all of us, even if we find ourselves in the midst of people who share our manner of speech. In our current society the immensely rich vocabulary that the Christian tradition has for centuries used to communicate the Gospel is no longer accessible to the majority of people. What is needed in our day is a new way of expressing ageless truths so that people may understand and appropriate them. What might such new expressions be? I suggest four.

Today we need to speak in terms of beauty. This is a concept all instinctively understand, and which attracts. Pope Benedict has signalled this from the beginning of his pontificate, when in his first homily he stated that there is nothing more beautiful than knowing the Lord and telling others about our friendship with him. This has been the motivation for our own Nothing More Beautiful new evangelization initiative in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. God is the fullness, the perfection, of Beauty, and we participate in this when we share in his life through union with his Son in the Holy Spirit. No earthly beauty can surpass that of a life lived in and from Jesus Christ.

Second, we communicate the Gospel when we speak of and give witness to joy. Our Western society tends to speak in terms of happiness or pleasure, which is usually based upon self-will, a desire to do whatever one wants, which in turn often ironically amounts to doing what others are doing so as to fit in or be noticed or admired. Such a pursuit of happiness frequently leads to misery. The Christian tradition announces a life not of superficial happiness but of profound joy. This joy is grounded not on self-will but on a truthful and humble recognition of our need for God and an encounter with his unconditional and merciful love. Consider the contrast between the “righteous” Pharisee and the humble publican in the parable of yesterday’s Gospel. Truthful reliance upon God gives rise within the heart to a deep and lasting joy that no one or no circumstance can take away.

A third necessary method of announcing the Gospel in our day is by speaking of hope. For too many today, hope is in short supply. Life is challenging, to say the least, and is replete with problems before which we are powerless. Despair is often not far away, especially if we live from the myth of self-reliance. The Christian proclamation of hope is rooted in the knowledge that God is near. St. Paul speaks of that beautifully in yesterday’s second reading. Nearing the end of his life he looks back and sees how God has not failed to stand by him and rescue him from danger. Nothing is greater than God’s love, the power of which is fully revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. God stands by us, and this truth transforms our fear into hope.

Finally, we need to speak of and give witness to communion. God’s will for the world is communion among his people. Indeed, to gather into one his people who had been scattered by sin, Jesus came to us and gave his life on the Cross. (cf. John 11:52). The prevailing individualism of our day leads to isolation and a terrible and terrifying loneliness in the lives of many. As a communion, fashioned by the work of the Son and Holy Spirit, the Church is called to stand forth in the world as both a sign and instrument of the unity that God wills for all people (cf. Lumen Gentium, 1-4). When we love one another as God has loved us we are drawn into a real communion and solidarity with each other. In a fractured world, our witness of genuine communion is a powerful method of making known the good news of the Gospel.

Beauty, joy, hope, communion: new methods for giving expression to the Gospel today and embracing the missionary mandate bestowed upon us as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Friday, October 22, 2010

God Hears our Cries

This past week the world watched with astonishment and joy as the Chilean miners were rescued from the underground mine where they had been buried. The engineering feat was remarkable, and what drove it all, of course, was a fierce determination to reach the miners buried so far beneath the earth under tons of rock and restore them to the surface and to their families. What we have witnessed here can serve as a helpful analogy for understanding the teaching of the Sacred Scriptures that were proclaimed yesterday at Sunday Mass. They deal with prayer. Prayer is essential to our lives. Indeed, in the Christian life it is our breath. What does the analogy with the miners highlight from the readings?

The first thing we should observe is the vulnerability of the miners. Trapped so far beneath the surface, they were absolutely helpless and had no choice but to rely upon others for their rescue. The necessary starting point for prayer is the recognition of our own vulnerability. As creatures we are completely reliant upon God for all things. Pride closes the door to genuine prayer; humility opens it. God alone is God, and we pray, we call out to God, because we recognize that without him, without his love and mercy, we can do nothing.

This reliance upon God is symbolized by Moses in the first reading. With his people in battle against an enemy, he kept his arms held aloft, at times with the help of assistants, as a sign of supplication, of prayer. He knew, as did his people, that without God they were lost. They acknowledged their vulnerability and gave expression to their dependence through prayer.

Second, in their vulnerability the miners trusted. They had confidence that their rescuers would do all that they could to bring them out. Their trust was nourished by many messages telling them that the people above the surface knew they were alive, and encouraging them not to give up. Prayer is grounded in trust. Throughout history God has sent endless messages to his people, assuring them that he knew them, that he heard their cries and that he would answer. The perfect expression of his love was the gift of his Son. Moved by these assurances of the nearness and love of God we pray, full of trust that God, in his love, will never abandon us and will act to make a difference in our lives.

The miners were willing to wait. In fact, being completely helpless and dependent upon the work of others they had no choice. Prayer requires a willingness to wait. God hears our cries; God answers, but according to his wisdom and knowledge and therefore in his time. Jesus uses the parable to invite us to be persistent in prayer. He is not teaching that, in prayer, we should harangue God until he gives in, as the widow did with the judge. He is inviting us to pray always with an attitude of patient waiting and trust, confident in the love and providence of God. This is implicit in his last question: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?” Because we have faith we pray; because we have faith we are willing to wait patiently.

In prayer we get in touch with our weakness and vulnerability, and that can be a scary place, especially when we feel like we are buried beneath circumstances beyond our ability to handle. At the same time prayer brings enormous peace and hope as it leads us to the conviction that God is near, that he is accessible, that he listens and that he will act in our lives to save us according to his purpose.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Most Beautiful of Gifts

I write this blog post on Thanksgiving Day, when we in Canada pause and give thanks to God for his countless blessing to us. Like you, I have many personal blessings for which I am grateful to God. Perhaps the most beautiful is that which I share with you: the gift of faith.

The Christian tradition speaks of faith in two ways. First, faith has a content, which stems from the revelation God has given us in Jesus Christ. We believe, for example, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that God is a Trinity of Persons, that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, that the Holy Spirit sanctifies us in the sacramental celebrations of the Church, that we are called to holiness by growing in our relationship with the Lord and following his commands, and so on. This faith has been handed on to us in many ways: in our families, our parishes, our Catholic schools. It is a magnificent treasure that leads to life.

Faith is also, and fundamentally, a human act. We believe that God alone is God, that we are but creatures; we believe that almighty God loves us and has come to us in his Son to save us; we believe that God remains with us, guiding and shaping all the events of our lives and turning them to the good. Because we believe all of this, we entrust our lives into his hands, trusting that it is he who leads us, even though we may not always know where he is taking us. Faith, in other words, is surrender to the love and the plan of God, a surrender grounded in our unshakeable trust in his never-failing mercy and faithful presence.

In both of these dimensions, faith is gift. By the working of the Holy Spirit we both understand the content of our faith, growing constantly in our knowledge of it, and make the act of faith, acknowledging Jesus as Lord and surrendering our lives and our future to him. By the Holy Spirit we see now the blessings that have been ours throughout our lives and trust that countless blessings await us still as we step into the future. In the Holy Spirit we are truly and deeply thankful for the gift of faith.

I was privileged this weekend to see this gift on full display among the people of Holy Spirit parish in Edmonton. After a period of discernment the decision was reached that the parish should close. On Sunday I celebrated their last Mass with them. Clearly it was a sad day for the parishioners, who have loved their parish and supported it in many ways. Yet even amid sadness the faith of the people was palpable. Because of their trust in the goodness of God, they understood this to be a moment not only of conclusion but also of transition. I witnessed this same faith in meetings I have had over the past months with parishioners in Marwayne, Bentley and Winfield, small mission communities where we have also recognized and accepted the need to close beloved churches. The faith will now be celebrated and handed on in new places, where they will continue to receive God’s blessings. God remains always near, and in faith we trust that he turns all things to the good for those he has called according to his purpose (cf. Romans 8:28). For this faith, that grounds our hope, we give thanks with all our hearts.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ban not in the cards, or facts not in the press?

Sigh. It is often said that we need to be careful not automatically to believe everything we read or see in the media. This is certainly the case with respect to the media reports that greeted me this morning pertaining to our policy on gambling as it relates to our Catholic schools. To take but one example, the front page headline in today’s Edmonton Journal reads “Gambling ban not in the cards”. It may be an attempt at a clever play on words, but it is certainly not true. The policy that is being put into place regarding the receipt of revenues from harmful gambling activities stands and will not change.

Then we read that, according to the subtitle of the article, my October 1st deadline has been “thrown out” after I met with some officials from Edmonton Catholic schools. Again, this is inaccurate. It was particularly astounding to read it because, in the body of the article, reference is made to an op-ed piece I published in a recent issue of the same paper, where I explained clearly that, although the October 1st deadline was chosen as the effective date for a whole host of new diocesan policies, it did not immediately apply to our school divisions. The issue for our schools is complex, and I have made clear that I am willing to work with any affected school division to determine timelines for implementation. In other words, nothing has changed from what I have been saying all along.

One gets the impression from some of the media reports today that the school division is preparing to fight the policy. Very strange. The meeting with school officials yesterday was at my request, and its purpose was very modest, namely, a preliminary sharing of ideas for the implementation of the policy. It was a very good and helpful start to the process, and it is abundantly clear to me that the school board stands with me on this and understands the reason for the policy. Their concern is purely the practical one of how to implement it. To that end I have shared with them my commitment to work collaboratively with them to offer what assistance I can. How a very cordial and collaborative meeting was later translated into the media as something confrontational that resulted in some change on my part is a mystery to me.

So to those who are wondering as a result of the media coverage, nothing as regards the policy and the commitment to work out a timeline has changed. As I said in my last blog, we can sort this out and we shall.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Treasure of Faith

Our schools have been on my mind lately. And this is not because of the gambling issue that has featured in the media recently; we can sort that out. Rather, I have been thinking of them because, this week and last, we are blessing three brand new schools and one recently renovated one. My thoughts have found their focus in an instruction given in the second reading for yesterday’s Sunday Mass: “Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (2Timothy 1: 14).

That injunction was first made by St. Paul to his co-worker St. Timothy. The word “treasure” refers to the deposit of faith that Timothy had received from Paul, and which he was now charged, by the laying on of hands and attendant gift of the Holy Spirit, to preserve and hand on to others. This is an apt word to describe our faith. It is, indeed, a treasure. Nothing is more precious than the message of salvation that has been given to us by Jesus Christ and entrusted to the Church in order that it may be transmitted to all generations.

The blessing ceremony for our schools reminds us that the treasure of our faith is the very heart of their mission. The Catholic school has as its ultimate goal the handing on of the faith to our children in order to help them become lifelong disciples of Jesus Christ. This mission renders our schools, themselves, a great treasure to be preserved. The commitment of trustees, administration, faculty and support staff to this mission and its preservation has been on full display as we have gathered for the school blessings, and I have been blessed to witness it.

Among the many signs of this commitment is the choice of persons after whom the schools are named. The recently renovated school is named Archbishop MacDonald high school. It recalls one of my predecessors, Archbishop John Hugh MacDonald, who was known for his commitment to serving the needs of the poor. Two of the new schools were named after people who have committed their lives to the service of education, namely, Sister Annata Brockman and Monsignor Fee Otterson. The last school takes as its namesake Monsignor William Irwin, the founder of Catholic Social Services in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Of great significance is not only the distinctive contributions of these individuals, but also that which they share in common. Each of them is recognized as a disciple of the Lord. Each is known as someone who, out of love for Christ, listened for his voice in their own lives and was obedient to his call. This is precisely what we want to instil in the children entrusted to the care of our schools. Jesus is the Way that leads to the fullness of life. There is nothing more beautiful than knowing him and telling others of our friendship with him (Pope Benedict XVI). The most important way we preserve the faith in our schools is to lead them to an encounter with Christ and teach them to know, love and follow him, after the example of these four exemplary individuals whose names grace our schools.

One image in particular from these events has stayed with me. In the course of the blessing ceremony for Sister Annata Brockman school, Sister Annata herself gave a beautiful speech about the nature of Catholic education. As she spoke, a little child, probably about three or four years of age, came forward in an attempt to take her picture with an iPhone. It was an image that complemented her message beautifully. Our faith is a wondrous treasure, which, while forever unchanging, must be handed on in ever changing circumstances by faithful witnesses to future generations. Our schools are an essential part of that tradition.