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

Monday, November 29, 2010

Two Very Different Experiences of Anticipation

This past Sunday marked the beginning of the holy season of Advent and, with it, the opening of a new liturgical year. This deeply significant religious moment coincided with a secular event here in Edmonton that has had the city in a frenzy: the Grey Cup. Two very different experiences of anticipation, and their contrast highlights the importance of the threshold we have just crossed in the liturgical calendar.

To watch and listen to the sights and sounds of the thousands of fans who have come to Edmonton for the Grey Cup festivities, one could be led to believe that there is nothing more important than this particular football match. No doubt many of the fans of the victorious Alouettes are absolutely convinced of this right about now. Yet, of course, there is something far more significant for not only our earthly but also our eternal lives. It is that event of which we are reminded in every Advent season: the return of the Lord in glory. Central to the Christian faith is the belief that Jesus Christ, who came to earth born of the Virgin Mary, and who comes to us now in the gift of the Holy Spirit, particularly in the Church’s sacramental celebrations, will return at the end of time. Of this we are reminded in the Sunday Scripture passages.

Preparation for the Grey Cup event unfolded around set dates and times. Everyone knew, for example, the date and time of the game itself. With that knowledge other preparatory events could be organized and their times and venues were well publicized so that those who wished to participate could do so. Likewise fans could plan their travel to the game because of known and advertised LRT and bus schedules. To be in a state of readiness it is very helpful to know what will happen when.

The event above all others for which we want to be ready is the return of the Lord. The difficulty is that, as the Lord himself tells us, the time of this is unknown (cf. Matthew 24: 37-44). Nevertheless he calls us to be watchful and ready to meet him when he comes. This means, obviously, that there is only one “time” to get ourselves ready, and that time is now.

What does it mean to be ready? In yesterday’s second reading St. Paul speaks of this readiness in terms of our individual moral lives (cf. Romans 13: 11-14). Being alert and ready means living lives in the light and casting off deeds of darkness such as the various instances of immorality that he mentions in the passage. Isaiah teaches in the first reading that our preparedness must also have a communal dimension (cf. Isaiah 2:1-5). He looks forward to the day when obedience to the teaching of God and surrender to his light will give birth to real justice among peoples and nations. From this we know that readiness to meet the Lord when he returns means acting now to address and remove real situations of injustice among God’s children.

With the Grey Cup there is a winner and a loser. Only one receives the cup; only one has a victory parade. When it comes to salvation God wants no losers. He sent his Son to die and rise so that all might live with him forever. Yet this is no reason for complacency on our part. God works within us to transform us and lead us to himself, but he expects us to use the freedom that he has given us to respond in faith and obedience to his teachings and to his promptings. When he comes we will be judged on our response to him and will be called to render an account of how we have used our gift of freedom.

As we look forward to his coming let’s pray that he will keep us both watchful and ready to greet him and enter into his joy.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Exciting Events in Rome

I am in Rome as I write this blog post. For more than a week I have been here with the President and General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for our annual visit to the dicasteries (departments) of the Vatican. It is truly a wonderful opportunity to share with officials of the Holy See the blessings and challenges of the Church in Canada, and to benefit from insights, clarifications and counsel that they are able to give. The conversations are very fraternal and a great experience of the communion of the Church in Canada with the Holy See.

Some exciting events are taking place while we are here. First was the Consistory on Saturday when the Pope elevated twenty-four men to the rank of Cardinal. Most of the new cardinals were from the Roman Curia, but there were others who represented different parts of the world. These were accompanied by delegations from their own dioceses, who gave loud expression to their joy as their own Bishop received the red berretta from the Holy Father. It was a very moving experience of the universality and the communion of the Church, gathered around our beloved Pope.

Second is the release on Tuesday of this week of a new book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI, entitled Light of the World. As you likely know by now because of media coverage, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published the Italian version of twenty-one very brief excerpts from the various topics addressed by the Pope. Included was the topic of sexuality, in the context of which the Holy Father addressed the issue of condoms. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was this one particular issue which attracted all the media attention and made the headlines. In order to assist the reader to know what the Pope has actually said I include here an excerpt from the book, provided the website of Catholic World Report. This will be followed by a statement from the spokesperson of the Holy See, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., who clarifies how the Pope’s words are to be understood.

Excerpt Provided by Catholic World Report (the italics indicate the question being posed by the interviewer Peter Seewald):

“From Chapter 11, "The Journeys of a Shepherd," pages 117-119:

“On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDs once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all AIDs victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

“The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.

“I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

“As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

“There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

“Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

“She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Statement by Fr. Lombardi (from Catholic News Service)

“At the end of Chapter 10 (Chapter 11 in the English edition) in the book, ‘Light of the World,’ the pope responds to two questions about the struggle against AIDS and the use of the condom, questions that refer back to the discussion that followed the pope’s comments on this topic during his trip to Africa in 2009.

“The pope underlines clearly that, at that time, he did not want to express a position on the problem of condoms in general, but he wanted to affirm strongly that the problem of AIDS cannot be resolved solely with the distribution of condoms, because much more must be done: prevention, education, assistance, counsel, being close to people, both so that they do not become sick, and also in cases where they are sick.

“The pope observes that even in non-church circles a comparable awareness has developed, as is seen in the so-called ABC theory (Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condoms), in which the first two elements (abstinence and fidelity) are much more decisive and fundamental in the struggle against AIDS, while the condom appears as a last resort when the other two are lacking.

“It should therefore be clear that the condom is not the solution to the problem.

“The pope then takes a wider view and insists on the fact that concentrating only on the condom signifies the ‘banalization’ of sexuality, which loses its meaning as the expression of love between persons and becomes like a ‘drug.’ To fight against the banalization of sexuality is ‘part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.’

“In the light of this ample and profound vision of human sexuality and its modern challenges, the pope reaffirms that the church ‘of course does not regard (condoms) as a real or moral solution’ to the problem of AIDS.

“In saying this, the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church, but reaffirming it by putting it in the context of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.

“At the same time, the pope takes into consideration an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality may represent a real risk to the life of another person. In such a case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but maintains that the use of the condom to diminish the danger of infection may be ‘a first assumption of responsibility’, ‘a first step in a movement toward a … more human sexuality’, as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.

“In this statement, the pope’s reasoning certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift.

“Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical figures have maintained and still maintain similar positions; however, it is true that until now we had not heard them expressed with such clarity from the mouth of a pope, even if it is in a colloquial, and not magisterial, form.

“Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution that clarifies and deepens a long-debated question. It is an original contribution, because on one hand it maintains fidelity to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in refusing an illusory path like ‘faith in condoms’; on the other hand, however, it shows a sympathetic and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering small steps — even if they are only initial and still confused — of a humanity that is often spiritually and culturally impoverished, toward a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.”

For my part I am very much looking forward to picking up the book when it is released. We are told by news analysts and bloggers who have had an opportunity to see the book in advance that it is an opportunity to hear directly the mind of the Pope on some of the most vexing problems facing the Church and the world today. He faces every question forthrightly, with his customary brilliance, clarity and humility. It will be yet one more wonderful gift that this Pope gives to the Church and world as he shares with us his extraordinary intellect, by which he expounds the beauty of the faith and makes manifest his own deep love for the Lord and for the life of Christian discipleship.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Catholic Education Sunday 2010

Yesterday morning many of us benefited from an extra hour of sleep. We have reached that point in the calendar when we turn the clock back one hour to return to standard time. I mention this because on that same day we marked Catholic Education Sunday, and this image of the clock, turning it either back or forward, can serve as a helpful analogy to appreciate the great gift and opportunity that Catholic education is in the province of Alberta.

In one dimension of Catholic education there can be no thought of turning back the clock at all. We need to think only of technological advances in the fields of computers and communications, where change is happening so rapidly. Our children catch on to these far more quickly and easily than people of my generation and older, and they have become essential to providing education in our day. In this area Catholic schools are not distinguished from their public counterparts. In either system there can be no turning back of the clock when it comes to educational methods and tools.

However, if we continue to use the clock analogy we become aware of other very significant ways in which Catholic education is distinct and where its blessing stands forth clearly. When it comes to the purpose of Catholic education, the clock stands still. At the heart of all that happens in our Catholic schools is something timeless that never changes. Rather, I should say some One who never changes: Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (cf. Hebrews 13:8). Catholic education seeks not only to teach the child but also to form the child to be a lifelong disciple of the Lord. The faith of the Church permeates all learning and all activity in the school so as to lead the student to a living and life-transforming encounter with Jesus Christ. Technologies may change, methods may advance, but the purpose that unites all our efforts never does. On this point the clock moves neither backward or forward. The right moment to meet the Lord and to be renewed in him is always now.

Yet as we meet the Lord in the present we are inevitably pointed toward the future. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. John 14:6), the One who alone leads us to an endless future, to heaven. This is the point of the Scripture readings for this Mass. Long ago the brothers Maccabee were united in their conviction of a resurrection to new life after death. This strengthened them to confess their faith even in the face of death (cf. 2Maccabees 7:1-2, 7, 9-14). In the Gospel Jesus confirms that there is life after death (cf. Luke 20:27-38). Of course, he does so not only by his particular teaching in this Gospel passage but also and above all by his own rising from the dead. Therefore, if Catholic education is an environment where the Lord is sought and encountered, then it must be a place where the clock is turned forward. Catholic education must point the student toward his or her eternal destiny and show them the path that leads to its fulfilment. In our Catholic schools we prepare our students for a happy and productive life in this world, certainly; but we also, and even more importantly, prepare them for eternal life, by leading them to Jesus and forming them for a life of holiness.

Catholic education is distinctive. It is a great treasure. I grew up in a province that did not at the time have a separate faith-based educational system. In such an environment it is very difficult to hand on the faith, especially in our day. In this province we have Catholic education, and because we have had it for so long the danger is to take it for granted. We must never yield to this temptation. To preserve and strengthen this gift we must be ever appreciative of its beauty and always vigilant against anything which might weaken or even threaten it.