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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Disciples behind the scenes

This past week I issued a new pastoral letter, outlining the priorities that will guide and shape the life and ministry of the Archdiocese of Edmonton in the years ahead. If you'd like to take a look at it, you can access the letter Pastoral Priorities of the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

For now, I would like to sing the praises of a remarkable group of people who exercise ministry on what we call our Catholic Campus. Yesterday at Mass I introduced to all who were gathered at St. Joseph's Basilica the women and men who work at our Pastoral and Administration Offices, Newman Theological College, Saint Joseph Seminary or Villa Vianney (our home for retired priests). These buildings co-exist on a beautiful piece of property overlooking Edmonton, and the collaboration in ministry exercised among them is captured in the term "campus." They are among the most dedicated people I have ever met! They love the Lord and his Church, and give themselves fully to the service of God's people. Most times they work "behind the scenes," so I thought it was time to lift them up, thank them, and, above all, invoke God's blessings upon them.

Gathered in the Basilica were the people who, in our Pastoral and Administration Offices, work in evangelization, catechesis, ecumenism, interfaith relations, on behalf of life and family, the missions, liturgy, and social justice and for the evangelization of youth. Those who support parishes with new evangelization initiatives, guidance for parish councils and the fostering of stewardship were there. We have people who dedicate themselves to the pastoral care of the sick, homebound and prisoner, who promote vocations to the priesthood and support our permanent diaconate, and who minister sensitively to the hurting through our marriage tribunal while providing other canonical services. Communications is exercised by an office dedicated to this work as well as by the folks at the Western Catholic Reporter.

From Newman Theological College we had present the faculty, administration and support staff, and from our seminary the formation team and administrative assistant. 

Supporting it all are our offices of finance and accounting, of development, of human resources and of operations.

As we gathered to thank and honour these dedicated disciples, we heard from the Gospel of St. Matthew (20:1-16a) the parable of the owner of the vineyard who hired labourers at a various hours of the day and  yet paid them all the same wage. Viewed entirely from the perspective of human quid-pro-quo logic, the owner was manifestly unjust. Yet Jesus is speaking in this parable of the sovereign and free love of God, who may call people to ministry at varying stages of life yet rewards all equally with the joy that comes from knowing and serving him, or who may touch people's hearts with the knowledge of his love and call to salvation at different times, yet who bestows his saving  grace not on the basis of any merit (we cannot earn salvation!) but out of his sovereignly free generosity. Our people on campus have worked there for periods of time ranging from many years to a few months. At differing times in their journeys have they felt the summons of the Lord to follow him through their particular form of service in the Archdiocese. Length of service may differ; the joy is the same. Oh, I suppose some days may be more joyful than others, but that's normal. The challenges facing us are many, but we confront them with the sure and hopeful knowledge that we are led and strengthened by the grace of God.

I express my sincere thanks to all who work so tirelessly and with such deep dedication at our Catholic campus. The Archdiocese is immeasurably blessed by your presence and efforts, and I want you to know that we are all very grateful.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Digesting Difficult Fare

A few years ago I was traveling in a foreign country. Often one of the first adjustments to be made when traveling abroad is to the local diet. It is often quite different from the one to which we are accustomed at home. One day I was invited to a meal at the home of a wonderful family, who wanted to treat me to the best of their traditional fare. I stepped into the dining room to see the table laden with a smorgasbord of local dishes. Unfortunately, someone made the mistake of telling me in advance the identity of the two principal dishes: goat and cow stomach! Thanks be to God there were plenty of other dishes which were reasonably similar to "home cooking" that I was able to fill up on those, because, for the life of me, I just could not stomach eating stomach.

It has occurred to me since then that this experience offers an analogy to describe the challenge faced by members of the Church as we respond to the call of the new evangelization. When we announce the Gospel we are offering a diet that many today, unaccustomed to the beauty of its teachings, find very difficult to digest. To a society growing increasingly accustomed to consuming vast amounts of falsehood and illusion, the truth proposed by Christ seems to have a very bad taste. Similarly, the call of Christ to a discipleship that involves self-denial and the carrying of one's cross is bitter to the taste of one who is accustomed to a diet of hedonism.

Particularly difficult for many to swallow is the teaching given in the Gospel passage of Sunday's Mass (cf. Matthew 18:21-35). There the Lord speaks in no uncertain terms of the need to place mercy and forgiveness at the centre of one's life. Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the terrible terrorist attacks on the United States. The horrible loss of life from those deranged and evil acts gave birth, understandably, to an anger so deep that any talk of forgiveness became for many impossible even to hear, let alone heed. Think, too, of the situation in the Middle East, where for decades now terrible atrocities have left many of the peoples of that region hating one another. Many in this context find the idea of forgiveness unthinkable. Of course, even apart from these extreme situations we can know in our own day-to-day lives the difficulty of forgiving. Broken relationships, words spoken in anger, betrayal of a confidence – these and other circumstances can so hurt us as to leave us bitter and not wanting to forgive.

Yet at the same time we also know the truth of Jesus’s words. It is clear that violence simply breeds more violence in a never-ending spiral of animosity and despair. The only antidote to the poison of bitterness is mercy. Forgiveness halts violence in its tracks and restores ruptured relationships. We know this to be true, we want to forgive, yet at times it is so hard to do, especially if the hurt is deep. And the imperative is clear: as Jesus points out by means of the parable in the Gospel, we live by the mercy of God and are therefore called to be agents of that mercy to others. In fact, if we want God to forgive us, Jesus says, we must forgive others.

This need to be forgiving of others is related to the new evangelization. To be effective, we must be people of integrity whose lives correspond to our words. We must be people of mercy. Indeed, we must be people who are seen to have consumed all that the Gospel proposes and have so digested it that it consumes us. You know, when I faced that table full of what I thought was inedible food, I also saw my hosts merrily gobbling down the dishes that I could not imagine eating. Because they enjoyed it so much I thought to myself, "Maybe I will try that someday." Admittedly I did not eat the stomach that day, but certainly was disposed to the possibility because of the witness of those who ate it with delight.

When we happily consume that banquet of truth and joy given in the teachings of Jesus Christ and so digest them that they truly become a part of us, we invite others, by our very actions, to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord" (Psalm 34:8) and to share the joy we have found in a life of Christian discipleship.

I am on retreat this week with the Priests of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Please remember us in prayer and send up an Ave or two for our intentions. Thanks.