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

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Healthy Spiritual Diet

Yesterday we celebrated the solemn feast of Corpus Christi. On this day we bow down in wonder and in awe before the great gift that Christ has left us of his own Body and Blood. In our Masses we reflected upon this mystery, and in many places not only in the Archdiocese but also throughout the world Eucharistic processions were held.

In the Gospel from Saint John (6:51-58), we heard again the words of Jesus: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” We are all aware of the strong emphasis given by our society today to being and staying healthy. This involves, among other things, paying attention to our diet. We hear the constant message that we should avoid fast foods and junk food and eat only that which is healthy, good for the body. Our feast day of Corpus Christi poses the question: how are we nourishing our souls? With true food or junk food?

The “true food” for the soul is Jesus. He is the Son of God made flesh, that is to say, He is the One sent from the Father to assume our human nature in order to share with us His own divine life and lead us home to the Father for eternity. He nourishes us with His teaching and with the knowledge of God’s unfailing love for us. Even more, He feeds us with Himself in the mystery of the Eucharist. At Mass simple gifts of bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. By the word of the Lord, spoken by the priest who acts in His person, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread and wine are so completely changed that they are bread and wine no longer, but now truly our Lord’s Body and Blood. This is why Jesus speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life. He alone is the true bread, the true food that gives us life. And not only food for this earthly life but also, and above all, for eternal life: “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:58)

And what about junk food? Sadly there is a lot of that around. There is abundant opportunity to feed on messages and images which are very unhealthy, even dangerous, for the spiritual life. The solemnity of Corpus Christi contains an important call to each of us to pay attention to this diet. What television shows are we watching? What magazines are we reading? What Internet sites are we surfing? Do they lead us away from the Lord? Do they tempt us to infidelity? Do they suggest ideas or implant images that are contrary to the teaching of the Gospel or to human dignity? If they do, they are junk food and should be discarded immediately.

Only one food truly satisfies and that is Jesus. This is why the Church constantly calls us to celebrate the Mass regularly, especially the Sunday Eucharist every week. By failing to do so we separate ourselves from the true food and true drink which is the Lord Himself. Not a good idea, to say the least.

We also honoured the Lord and gave witness to our Eucharistic faith by processions with the Blessed Sacrament. This is an important and necessary action today. In our time there is great want among our brothers and sisters that remains unfulfilled by what the world has on offer. There is hunger for clear meaning and direction in the midst of moral confusion; yearning for hope in the midst of despair; thirst for peace amid division and strife; longing for justice in the face of suffering. By means of the Eucharistic procession we announce to the world that the fulfilment of this craving is Jesus Christ, who makes himself the Bread of Life and gives himself to us as the only food and drink that can satisfy.

At the same time the procession with the Blessed Sacrament is a reminder to Christians that we are called each day to give this same witness by the sign of our transformed lives. When we allow ourselves to become what we receive at Mass, that is to say, when we allow ourselves to become more authentic disciples of the Lord, members of his Body, by our consuming of the Body and Blood of Christ, then our lives themselves become a type of “eucharistic procession” before others. Witness to the abiding real presence of the Lord is not limited to the solemn processions of Corpus Christi, as wonderful and beautiful as these are. It is a perpetual call, which we answer by the witness of transformed lives.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Willed, Loved, Necessary

These are the words of Pope Benedict XVI when, in his first homily as Pope, he spoke of the wondrous truth of each and every human being. When I first heard them I realized that this is the message that needs to be affirmed again and again for the people of our day. The full citation is: “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.” When we encounter the truth of God in Christ we realize the truth of ourselves.

This becomes clear when we ponder the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. In the Sunday Mass of yesterday, we bowed down in wonder and awe before the mystery of God, Who, though One, is a communion of three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We know this on the basis of God’s own self-revelation, which He accomplished by sending to the world His Son and Holy Spirit, and so we accept it in faith. God, as Triune, is a perfect communion in love, sufficient unto Himself and in need of nothing. From this it follows that, if God created the world and, and the human being as the summit of creation, it was not because God needed to do so. It was his sovereign free choice, moved solely by love. Out of this love, God chose to create and then to save the world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Here we see the original purpose for which we were created and for which Christ came to save us: to participate in God’s own life forever!

Herein we discover the ground of human dignity: freedom. God has made us “in his image and likeness” (cf. Genesis 1:26-27); He has fashioned us for Himself, for an eternal covenant of love. That we might respond fully to His offer of love, God endowed every human being with the gift of freedom. Only when I give myself freely in love to another is my self-gift authentic. God has freely chosen to create us and call us to Himself, and endowed us from the beginning with the gift of freedom that we might truly love Him in return. When our freedom was abused through sin and we became captive to our sinfulness, He sent His Son to liberate our freedom (cf. Galatians 5:5), that we might live freely as His children (cf. Romans 8:21). Our dignity lies in the wondrous fact of our God-given freedom to respond in love to God who has loved us first, a free response that expresses itself in love for our brothers and sisters. (cf. 1John 4:19-21).

How different this message is from that of our secularized society! In this context the basis of human dignity is not freedom but success. If one is “successful” as judged according to such standards as wealth, achievement, influence, fame or beauty, then one thereby earns the esteem of others. Notice the difference. In the secularized world, human dignity is not inherent to the person but something earned. This leads necessarily to competition and thus inevitably to a sense of counting for little or nothing if I do not measure up to the standards of success imposed by others. The root of the difference is our approach to the question of God. Recall the citation above wherein the Holy Father teaches that we come to know the truth of life and the ground of our dignity only when we encounter the truth of God in Jesus Christ. When God is eclipsed, as in our secularized environment, we necessarily fall back upon ourselves. As a result, dignity is no longer a God-given gift but a human construct; no more an inherent and inalienable given of every human being but an externally assigned assessment based on illusory standards. In consequence, the fundamental equality of every human being in the heart of God is forgotten and replaced by the fantasy of inequality in the judgment of men and women. Is it any wonder, then, that we have fractured homes and societies, and that countless men and women feel not willed but discounted, not loved but judged, not necessary but dispensable?

“God so loved the world....” When we allow ourselves to be embraced by this love we discover our dignity as free human beings and are set free to love others. Have you ever thought of yourself as “the result of a thought of God”? Well, you are. You are willed, loved and necessary. This is the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Embrace it, and be set free.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Living in the Spirit

This is the time of year when Bishops celebrate Confirmation. It is certainly a wonderful moment for the recipients of the sacrament, as they receive the same Holy Spirit bestowed upon the Church at Pentecost, which we celebrated yesterday. At the same time I like to encourage people who have been confirmed to reflect upon their ongoing relationship with the Holy Spirit. Witnessing the many who are now receiving the sacrament is a reminder that the Holy Spirit has been bestowed upon us. This is a permanent gift (the Bishop says to the confirmand "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit"). Therefore growth in our relationship with the Holy Spirit is an ongoing gift and responsibility.

How does one assess the state of this relationship? The teaching of Saint Paul is a necessary discernment guide. In Romans 8 he teaches that, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have been made the children of God in Christ, and that those who live as children of God follow the promptings and lead of the Spirit. The contrary is to live in the flesh, following our own self-will.

The fifth chapter of Galatians includes an important listing of the telltale signs of living in the flesh: "Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these." (vv. 19-21) If a serious and prayerful review of our lives leads us to admit in truth that any of these characterize us, then we have allowed ourselves to drift away from surrender to the Holy Spirit and are more reliant upon our selves.

In that same chapter Paul goes on to list the sure indications of a life lived in accordance with the Holy Spirit's promptings: "By contrast the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (vv. 22-23) By the presence of these we can know that we are growing in fidelity to the Spirit. By their absence we can be certain that we need to call on the Holy Spirit for the help He is sure to give.

That help will involve the transformation of our lives. Yesterday at Mass we heard about the change that was wrought in the apostles when they received the Holy Spirit. Formerly fearful and lacking in understanding, now they proclaimed with boldness and clarity the truth of Jesus Christ. They did so with a formerly unpossessed ability to speak many languages. In other words, they were changed for the purpose of serving the will of God. So, too, with us. God's will is that we be holy and that we be convinced and convincing witnesses before the world of the truth of His love revealed in Christ and poured out in the gift of the Holy Spirit. When reflection upon St Paul's list of the works of the flesh and fruits of the Holy Spirit reveals that we are not living in accordance with the divine purpose, it is time to call upon the Holy Spirit to bring about in our lives the required change.

Veni Creator Spiritus! Create us anew!

Monday, June 6, 2011

World Communications Day

This morning I hosted a media breakfast. It is something I have been doing the last couple of years, and it is timed to coincide with World Communications Day, which this year fell on June 5th. This is an occasion where I can have a conversation with members of the local secular and Catholic media about issues of the day or about the challenges we each face in our respective milieux. Quite often the Church and media will interact, so I find these occasions very helpful for growth in mutual understanding and collaboration.

Our conversation today revolved very much around the message of Pope Benedict for this year’s World Communications Day. In it he speaks about the benefits and challenges of our new digital world, and calls the Church to be present within it in order to proclaim that life-transforming and hope-giving message which is the Gospel.

The Holy Father reflects upon how our new digital reality is changing the traditional way the media serves as a vehicle of communication. The producer-consumer model is being relativized as communication now occurs in the context of sharing. Just think of the abundant opportunities that now exist not only to receive news but to comment about it online or to send in an email to a television station with one’s own point of view. Social networking is all about sharing and connecting and serves a positive role when it facilitates the innate human desire for community.

Among the challenges, the Pope highlights what the new digital world is doing to our capacity for authenticity, for genuine personal relationships and for reflection. In our digital world it is very easy, the Holy Father observes, to present ourselves to others only partially or maybe even falsely. Relationships which are purely virtual can erode our capacity to enter into genuinely human relationships, which call us to be personally and really present to another. A communications world which places most importance upon what is popular, or that goes “viral” on the Internet, and in which news items attract only fleeting attention, can seriously challenge our ability and even desire to pause for deep reflection upon the issues of the day.

It was upon this latter point that we had most of our conversation this morning. I noted, for example, how the recent Speech from the Throne spoke about the need in our health care system to prepare to care for an aging population. This involves far more than statistics concerning costs or numbers of beds or wait times, all of which are important. Our changing demographic should also call us to deep reflection on how we best care for the whole person in their later years, especially as they approach death. How will we, as a society, surround our elderly with loving and supportive companionship as they deal with illness or the dying process? Will we so provide them with loving attention that they will know that they are never a burden to others, but always a gift? Are we taking measures to ensure sufficient availability of palliative care for the terminally ill? Burgeoning health care costs should never distract us from this sort of reflection.

We also touched upon the challenges the Church faces when it comes to conveying the Gospel through modern communication channels. Our task today is to convey in intelligible fashion with modern means a teaching that is founded upon two thousand years of deep philosophical and theological reflection undertaken in the context of prayer and the laboratory of life. This does not fit easily into a sound byte or a “tweet”. What to do? Not an easy question and we need to come up with the solution together. Here we are touching upon one of the challenges of the new evangelization, i.e., how to find new methods and expressions to communicate the timeless good news of Jesus Christ.

As the reporters questioned me on this, they raised the very good question of the Church being just one more voice in the digital world of a multiplicity of voices; therefore, might our necessary use of the new media actually prove to be a venue that mitigates against being heard? It occurs to me that the Church might well be another “voice”, but it is one that serves the one Word which counts above all others, and which speaks to the needs of the human heart like no other message can do. The Church is the voice for the Word of God, which pierces to the heart and addresses as it awakens the deepest longings that reside therein.

Our celebration yesterday of the Solemnity of the Ascension of our Lord reminds us that the message of the Gospel conveys to the human heart a hope that is sure and that our world cannot give. Let us pray together that, in our increasingly complex world of modern communications, space will be made in the hearts of today to both receive and appropriate this message.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gifts of the Spirit

Like many Bishops I am involved in celebrating a lot of Confirmations these days. When people gather for these celebrations, I will address the candidates for Confirmation, of course, but I also like to invite the family, friends and parishioners present to use the occasion to reflect upon their own Confirmation and their relationship with the Holy Spirit. Confirmation is conferred only once in a person’s lifetime, never to be repeated, because the gift remains. At the moment of sacred anointing, the words spoken by the Bishop are “Be sealed, with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This speaks of permanence. So I ask all gathered to remember that they, too, if they have been confirmed, have received this special outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Do we call upon the Spirit in our daily living to assist us to lead a truly Christian life? The Holy Spirit, by uniting us to Jesus, makes us sons and daughters, in Christ, of our Heavenly Father, and we live as God’s children by allowing ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8:14). But do we, in fact? How do we discern this?

This is a complex question, but one indication is the degree of anxiety in our lives. After the confirmand is anointed with the sacred chrism, the Bishop says “Peace be with you.” This is very significant. When we open our hearts and lives to the Holy Spirit, and allow him to lead us to ever deeper communion of life and love with Christ, and when in the power of the Holy Spirit we follow the commandments out of love for Christ (cf. John 14:15), the result is peace. This peace is the will of Christ for us (cf. John 14:27). Union with Holy Spirit deepens this peace and thus lessens the fear and anxiety in our lives. This means that if our lives are particularly anxiety- or fear-filled, it could be a sign that we are relying more upon ourselves than upon the power of the Holy Spirit, or focusing more on the trials of our lives than on the love and nearness of the Lord, who often told his disciples not to be afraid.

The Church will soon celebrate Pentecost. In these days leading up to this Solemnity, the readings from Scripture at daily and Sunday Mass contain many references to the promise of Jesus to send the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. As we listen once again to Jesus speak of the promise and mission of the Holy Spirit, let us not fail to call upon that same Spirit, whom we have received in Baptism and Confirmation, to awaken within us the gifts that we need for the Christian life.