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

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Service Through Christ

This is the title of a striking statue unveiled and blessed yesterday morning on the grounds of the Alberta Legislature. The beautiful bronze monument has been sculpted as a lasting tribute to the religious sisters who, beginning more than one hundred and fifty years ago, gave of themselves tirelessly in service to others and laid the foundation of what are today our institutions of healthcare, education and social outreach. Sisters came to the property of our legislative assembly from across Western Canada for the event. There they were joined by Premier Ed Stelmach and his wife, Marie, and other government officials, together with the good people at Covenant Health who spearheaded the project. I was there with Archbishop Huculak and Bishop Motiuk, both of the Ukrainian Catholic community. We were joined by large numbers of our priests, religious and lay faithful, including students from our Catholic schools. Clearly, the idea of creating a lasting expression of gratitude to the Sisters touched the hearts of many. They are precious to us.

The point of the event was not only to say thank you, however. It was also an occasion to reflect upon their legacy and ask ourselves how we, in our day, need to take up the torch and carry this inheritance into the future. This is no easy task, because what they have bequeathed us is in many ways the opposite of developing trends in our society.

Western society is sinking rapidly into a utilitarian assessment of human worth, whereby one's value is measured in terms of talent, intellect and the ability to contribute. Human worth is thus extrinsically assigned by others who presume to judge the value of another. The legacy of the sisters is the opposite: human dignity is inherent and inalienable, grounded in the fact of our creation in the image and likeness of God. From the first moment of existence until natural death, the human person is wondrous and beautiful, irrespective of skill or circumstance, always a gift and never a burden, and unceasingly deserving of respect, care and attention.

 In our day a worrisome individualism has taken hold. The claiming and assertion of individual rights is very often made with scant regard for the impact on others. A materialist vision of happiness leads to a consumerism that accumulates possessions to oneself with little thought given to the consequences for the poor and destitute elsewhere in the world. By way of contrast, the sisters were dedicated to building up the common good. Their example reminds us that our essentially social nature as human beings gives rise to the duty to care for one another and ensure that no one is without what is needed to live a decent life.The sisters did not think only of themselves. In fact, others came first, and they went without in order to be present to others and respond to their needs. From this concern for the common good arose the institutions that have grown to become an essential part of the fabric of our society. If we do not want this society to unravel, we must move away from myopic self-absorption and embrace the same broad view of humanity that guided the sisters to give of themselves for others.

The growing secularism we see today seeks to pressure people of faith into a type of schizophrenia; the dictates of conscience and religion should be lived only privately, while in the public arena one is expected to live as if God did not exist. Eclipsing the question of God from all public discourse robs society of its only reliable basis for trust. The ensuing fear and anxiety turns people away from others and into themselves and thus becomes a seedbed of societal division and even violence. The Sisters have given us a convincing testament to the unifying, liberating and life-giving power of faith, publicly professed and lived.  It was in response to a divine call and out of confidence in the providence of God that the Sisters travelled countless kilometres by rudimentary means of transport to come to Western Canada. What motivated them above all else was their knowledge of the love of God and the desire to be agents of that love to others. They arrived with next to nothing and knew well the limits imposed by human weakness. They gave over their little into the hands of Almighty God, trusting in faith that He would multiply it in His own time and according to His saving purpose. We see today that that faith was not misplaced. Their faith opened their lives and ministry to the power of God, and this province is the beneficiary of that witness. Their legacy is a call to us to embrace the truth, not only as individuals but also as a society, that God who loves us is near, wanting to be involved in our lives and having the power to turn all things to the good if we but call upon Him and surrender to His ways.

Their legacy is a call to respect every human being at all stages of life, place others before ourselves, and profess faith in a God who loves us. There are many signs of this legacy being carried into the future.

For example, on Tuesday morning of this week I met with people from our faith communities who are working together in support of Edmonton's ten-year plan to end homelessness. We are particularly focused upon reaching out to newly housed men and women to embrace them with a network of friendship and support. Receiving a dwelling is one thing. Experiencing it as a home requires participation in a web of relationships that affirm and enable. We are working to create a programme with just this aim in mind. It will be entitled "Welcome Home", and some representatives from Catholic Social Services outlined to the group a vision of how this might unfold. I was very moved and edified by the loving seriousness with which these good people are treating this issue.

As another example, I celebrated Mass Tuesday evening with the volunteers involved in the Saint Vincent de Paul Society of the Archdiocese. These are people who give of their time to visit the poor and provide them with the concrete assistance they need. Here I would like to highlight one particular dimension of their outreach. They visit the poor. They do not wait for them to show up; they go out to them. From a visit I know that I have been noticed. When that visit has been made for no other motive than to help me, I know that I matter. The worth of each and every human being was made visible when God visited us in His Son. Now we assure others of their worth by visiting them in order to be of assistance and give them the help they might not otherwise have been able to find.

Sisters, thank you!! Thanks as well to all who give of themselves to carry into the future their legacy of loving service through Christ.