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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Consolation with a Challenge

The Scripture readings from the yesterday’s Mass are among the most consoling of the Bible. At the same time they are among the most challenging.

The consolation springs from the nature of God himself. Jesus, who, as Son of God incarnate, is the perfect revelation of God, teaches that God the Father knows the needs of his children and never fails to provide for them (cf. Matthew 6: 24-34). Why are you anxious, he asks? That is a question addressed not only to his contemporaries but also to us. Anxiety very frequently inhabits us. Job worries, family difficulties, illness and so on often leave us worried, distracted, on edge. There is no need to be so, Jesus tells us. God our Father will never abandon us. His love is deeper even than that of a mother for her child, as the prophet Isaiah had reminded the people so long ago. Though a mother forget her child, as difficult as that is to imagine, God will never forget us (cf. Isaiah 49:14-15). When we allow this truth of God into our minds and hearts, it brings a consolation that enables us to live with real hope and peace, even in the midst of great difficulty.

At the same time, this truth of God, if it is to take root in our lives, calls for a number of changes to our ways of thinking and acting. Herein lie the challenges of the Scripture passages. There are at least three, one explicit and the others implicit.

First, Jesus calls us to a proper ordering of our lives. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he says, “and all these things will be given to you as well.” In other words, put God first. How do we begin each day? Do we find time to pray? Do we even give a thought to God? And if we do pray, how? Seeking his kingdom means asking him to reign in our hearts. Seeking his righteousness means asking him, by the gift of his grace, to transform us into the children and disciples to which we are called by Baptism. Do we ask for the coming of his kingdom in our lives and in the world, or is our prayer dominated by our own “agenda”, as if we were using God as the instrument for the accomplishment of our own will? A proper ordering of one’s life begins by placing ourselves at the service of God’s plan, surrendering to his will, and trusting in his providence.

Doing so, however, presupposes that we accept realistically, and again with trust, the truth of our own human nature. We are creatures, who have limits and who are completely dependent upon the love and gifts of God. In other words, we are poor. Implicit in the call of Jesus to place God and his will first in our lives is the challenging summons to accept the truth of our poverty, of our need. The original sin of our first parents was to allow trust in God to die in their hearts and to live from their own strength, buoyed by the lie that they could become “like gods” and escape their nature as creatures. We are all impacted by the catastrophic results of that sin, which we perpetuate every time we choose self-reliance over dependence upon God. How do I handle the reality of limit and need? If these give rise to frustration, anger or despair, then perhaps I am forgetting the truth of my poverty and dependence and living too much from an illusion of self-sufficiency.

Also implicit in the words of Jesus is the call to stewardship. Our heavenly Father provides us and his children everywhere with all that we truly need. At the same time we are painfully aware that billions of people on this planet are in want and hungry, living without adequate shelter and clothing. This discrepancy challenges us of the so-called First World to examine our attitude towards our possessions. From the truth of our common poverty and dependence upon God arises the awareness that we are called to be stewards, not hoarders, of the gifts that God gives. The scandalous inequities among the peoples of our planet stem not from a failure on the part of God to provide for his children but from the injustice that dominates our relations with one another. I direct the reader to the Church’s social doctrine as it pertains to the principles of solidarity, which refers to the interdependence of all people and our responsibility for one another as brothers and sisters under God (cf. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, nn. 192 ff.) and the universal destination of goods, which arises from the desire and plan of God so to provide for the earth that its goods are given for the benefit of all, without exclusion or favouritism (cf. CSDCC, 171ff.). How do I as an individual, how do we as communities and nations, steward the blessings God has given us? How does this social doctrine of the Church challenge us to new ways of relating to what I possess?

“Strive first for the kingdom of God….” Words that, when followed, give birth to profound peace in our hearts and a radical change in our way of life.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Letting Love Speak

“A Christian knows when it is time to speak of God and when it is better to say nothing and to let love alone speak.” We were reminded of these words of Pope Benedict XVI (Deus Caritas Est, 31c) by Lesley-Anne Knight, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, in her moving witness presentation offered at our Nothing More Beautiful event last Thursday evening. The Holy Father is teaching that the practice of caritas, of love, speaks eloquently and effectively of God, whose very nature is caritas (cf. 1John 4:16). At a time when the Church is very aware of the need to find a new language to speak to our current world the unchanging truths of the Gospel, a recovery of the meaning and demands of caritas is necessary.

As regards the meaning of caritas, I invite the reader to reflect upon the teaching of the Holy Father in that first of his encyclicals. There Pope Benedict unfolds how Jesus Christ, precisely as the Son of God incarnate and crucified, unveils the full truth of love as complete self-gift. The self-gift of the Lord, he reminds us, abides in the sacrament of Eucharist, where participants are drawn into its very own dynamic. This sharing in Christ’s own act of perfect love enables us to love. St. John teaches that, because God has loved us first, we must love one another (cf. 1John 4). Not only must we do so; we can do so by the love of God that has been given to us and which transforms our hearts.

God’s loving initiative enables us to fulfill the demands of caritas. Such requirements are often beyond our ability to meet unaided. Just consider, for example, the teaching of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel. “Love your enemies…. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (cf. Matthew 5: 38-48) Many would find this an impossible teaching to accept. Just think of the many horrible atrocities perpetrated against people in the violent conflicts of today, giving rise to deep levels of hurt and rage. Violence breeds more violence, and the only antidote to this fast-spreading virus is mercy. Love of the enemy is expressed in forgiveness. Yet only when the heart knows the transformative power of the love of God is such forgiveness possible.

Another demand of caritas is solidarity. Western society emphasizes individual self-pursuit, which closes us in upon ourselves. The love of God lifts us out of ourselves and opens our eyes and hearts to the needs of those around us. Although this experience of divine love is a personal event, nevertheless it is not a private possession. God loves all equally and his love draws us, therefore, to one another. God’s caritas awakens us to stand in solidarity with one another, especially with the weak and vulnerable, with those unable to speak for or help themselves.

This is the motivation underlying all that the Church does to help the suffering. The many who gathered at St. Joseph’s Basilica Thursday evening to listen to Cardinal Oscar Rogriguez of Tegucigalpa and Lesley-Anne Knight, respectively President and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, heard firsthand of the extraordinary work that this organization does in 165 nations to bring the love of Christ to the suffering. Their presentations raised important questions for us. Am I conscious of living as a member of a world-wide communion, in which many of my brothers and sisters are suffering? How do my lifestyle choices impact them? How does the call to solidarity and charity challenge me to make changes to the way I live? To what acts of caritas am I called by the suffering of my neighbours here at home?

Important questions were also raised by a conference for Bishops I attended in Dallas last week. Every two years the National Catholic Bioethics Center, with the support of the Knights of Columbus, hosts a workshop for Bishops on bioethical issues. The focus this year was the need for a new language in order to communicate the Gospel of Life. As I listened to the presentations it occurred to me that, once again, the language we speak is that of caritas. Our teaching on respect for all human life, on artificial contraception or reproduction, on stem cell research and so on is often presented negatively, as if the only word the Church uses is “no”. The exact opposite is the truth. God’s loving initiative awakens within us a powerful “yes” to life; indeed, it makes us voices of God’s own “yes” to life. The love of God reveals the truth of the beauty and dignity of every human life. This love moves us to speak out in defense of human dignity whenever and wherever it is under threat.

Let love speak. It may be in words, it may be in actions, but our call is to let the love of God speak clearly in order to share the truth of his presence and mercy to our world and be the reason for our hope.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Loving Response

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be with my family for the celebration of a sibling's milestone birthday. (Survival instinct prevents me from divulging the name and actual age.) While home I had the chance to watch my three-year old nephew in action. I find that children can be very instructive when it comes to understanding the teachings of our faith. A case in point is insight into the teaching of our Lord in yesterday's Gospel.

The little one, like most his age, can be rather rambunctious. At least once this weekend he was given a "time out." When that ended his mother insisted that he apologize before returning to play. He did, but something tells me his heart was not quite in it. I think the apology was more a means to an end, namely, getting back to his toys. On the other hand there are times when a child acts spontaneously from the heart with expressions of love. The drawing of a flower, for example, may not be great art but a parent thrills to receive this sign of love or gratitude springing from the heart of the child.

"Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." These words of Jesus accompany his teaching in yesterday's Gospel about the commandments of God. Pharisaical righteousness is mere formalism, that is to say, external observance of God's commands with the heart far from God. It is clear in the Gospel that Jesus is calling his followers to a very high standard. Equally clear is his expectation that obedience to the commandments of God should be an expression of our love for God and not merely rote observance.

This latter expectation should be at the heart of our examination of conscience. Are we growing in our love for Christ? Is our living of the law of Christ formalistic or an expression of our loving response to Christ who loved us first?

This reminds me that I heard in the news about a new "app" for the iPad and iPhone, one to help prepare a person to make a good confession. I also heard that it is among the top sellers! Could that be due to a misunderstanding that the app would replace going to confession, that one could be absolved by a simple touch of the screen of a gadget? Imagine that! A good example of Pharisaical righteousness that would be! Of course, the app is actually no more than a way to help people prepare for confession by posing questions that aid an examination of conscience. Great idea! The central question to guide the whole examination, though, has to pertain to our personal relationship with Christ. Am I sincerely sorry for sin, because by my sin I have harmed my relationship with Jesus? "Unless your righteousness surpasses ..."

Let's pray this week for a deepening relationship with Jesus, so that, by his grace, we will be enabled to live ever more authentic lives of discipleship, rooted in his love.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Word and Image, Word and Sign

Off to Baltimore today for a meeting of the Bishops of America. Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America called upon the members of the Church in the Western Hemisphere to look upon themselves as part not of numerous "Americas" but as one "America." The point was to emphasize our communion in the Lord and to live out in consequence a vibrant solidarity with one another, especially the poor. It was in that document that the Pope specified that the new evangelization to which he constantly called the Church was to be new in method, ardour and expression. In response to the call of the Holy Father, the Bishops of America - North, Central and South - began to meet together annually through representatives, namely, the members of the executive committees of the episcopal conferences of Canada, the United States and Latin America. We meet to discuss common concerns in the context of the new evangelization. It is to this year's meeting that I am en route. Our topic is communications.

With this in mind I am struck by the powerful images emerging lately from Egypt. The protesters are communicating very effectively to the world the message of their hopes for freedom. They are communicating by words, naturally, but also by sending out images via modern communications technology. This latter is very effective. We may not remember all that the protesters say, but the pictures of thousands of people gathered together remain with us.

This is instructive for us who, as Christians, are charged with the responsibility of communicating the message of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ. At Mass yesterday we heard St Paul say to the Corinthians that, when he was first among them, he resolved to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. This is the centre of our message to the world: Jesus Christ crucified and risen for our salvation. In the death and resurrection of the Lord is revealed the merciful love of God and the great depth of human dignity. We are called to communicate this message, and to do so in both word and "image".

What image do we show forth as a Christian community? In yesterday's Gospel we heard Jesus tell us clearly to let our good works be seen so that glory will be given to God our Father. In and through our good works we communicate the truth of the love of God, whose mercy liberates us from self-centeredness in order to be servants of one another. A community that demonstrates its freedom in Christ through love of one another communicates very effectively in image the saving truth of the Gospel.
Isaiah, in Sunday's first reading, spoke very concretely of the loving communion that God wills to exist among his people. It is one in which the yoke of injustice is broken, the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed and the homeless are housed. It is one from which all false accusations and malicious speech are removed. The love of Christ makes such community possible if we but surrender to his transformative power and live not for ourselves but for Him.

Word and image. Word and sign. Together these constitute Christian witness, the way Christians have always communicated the Gospel. For this message to be both intelligible and credible, we must by our actions "say" exactly the same thing as we do with our words. May the Lord help us so to love one another that, by this love, we will make known to the world the saving truth of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.