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

Monday, October 31, 2011

Behind the Masks

Halloween. I just received a picture of my niece (10) and nephew (12) in the costumes they want to wear this evening for "trick-or-treat". I think it best that I not share them with you. When they become adults they'll be embarrassed and might have a word or two to say to their uncle.

The day of masks. The day when our true identity is concealed. Would that it were only today that this happened. Many seem to find it necessary to hide their true selves all the time, and not only from others but also from themselves. Various forms of masks and pretensions are assumed in order to be "acceptable". This is a tragedy. Each of us is created unique and beautiful in the eyes of God, a gift to be shared, not an embarrassment to be hidden away!
Significantly, the masks come off on the following day. That is All Saints Day. As we know, the word Halloween comes from All Hallows (i.e. Saints) Eve, the eve, or vigil, commemorated before All Saints Day. The saint is the one who does not wear a mask, who lives peacefully before God his or her own truth. Sainthood, or holiness, is a gift that arises from a vital union with Jesus Christ. The encounter with the Lord awakens us, yes, to our weakness, failings and mistakes, but also to our belovedness in the eyes of the One who manifested that love in his death on the Cross. This love sets us free to be ourselves and offer ourselves as gift to others. Often in the Gospel we hear Jesus say, "Those who humble themselves will be exalted." Humility is truth. We "humble ourselves" when, under grace, we accept the truth and the giftedness of ourselves and refuse to put on masks that we falsely think will "exalt" us in the eyes of others. The exaltation of which Jesus speaks is the lifting up out of falsehood that happens when we accept the truth of his love, and in that love, the truth of ourselves. 

At our opening session last Thursday evening of Year 4 of Nothing More Beautiful, the witness, David Wells, spoke of the freedom he experienced when he was brought to an awareness of the infinite love of God. He recalled for us the moment when he first held his newborn child in his arms. The love he felt for the child was obviously not earned by the baby, and was so great that he knew he would do anything to make the world a better place for his child. Then he thought, "If God loves me this way, then I am going to be all right." No matter how greatly the parent might love the child, God's love is greater still. Infinitely greater. Yes, we are going to be all right, because of that love. We do not earn it. We cannot. It is freely given in superabundance. No masks or pretensions are necessary. The Lord sees us as we truly are, and He loves what he sees. May our own awareness of this love help us so to humble ourselves that we shall be exalted, lifted up, to a life of truth and freedom.

I am in Rome for the first part of November for the annual visit to the Holy See of the President, Vice-President and General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. This is a wonderful opportunity to share with the Holy Father and officials of the various dicasteries (departments) of the Vatican the blessings and challenges of the Church in Canada. Please keep these meetings in your prayer. Grazie!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Magic Kingdom and Greater Wonders

I am writing this blog post from Orlando, where I am attending with some people from my Diocese the International Stewardship Conference. And no - I am not getting outside in this beautiful weather to enjoy a round of golf - unfortunately! Not much time for that, I'm afraid.

After last week's plenary meeting in Cornwall of Canada's Bishops, I boarded a plane Sunday morning from Montreal to come to Orlando. The first thing I noticed was the large number of children boarding with me, which reminded me that the International Stewardship Conference is not the only major attraction in this city. The children were excited, to say the least! It was wonderful to see, but - I must confess - more than once on the flight I found myself thanking God for the invention of noise-canceling headphones. The young ones were coming to see Mickey and friends. They kept asking their parents about what they would see, and were not at all shy about telling complete strangers what they were most looking forward to experiencing. Some were on a plane for the first time, and in their cries of "cool" or "awesome" as the plane lifted off, the children gave voice to what is one of their most beautiful characteristics - the capacity for wonder and awe. They were dazzled by the plane and soon would be marveling at the exciting adventure awaiting them at Disney World.

More than once in the Gospel Jesus calls us to be like children. Among other things, this call of the Lord is an invitation to marvel, to stand in awe, not before the achievements of human ingenuity or imagination, but at the love of God and at his wonders, above all the mystery of his grace working in our lives and throughout history. As a people of faith we naturally marvel at God's great deeds of creation and redemption, but frequently in the Gospels Jesus calls us also to recognize with awe how one can point to and give insight into the other. "The kingdom of heaven is like ...." The marvels of creation direct our hearts and minds to the infinitely greater wonders of the kingdom of God. For example, the wondrous mustard seed, at once the smallest and the greatest, gives intimations of God's ways, whereby in his kingdom the last is first, the weak shame the strong, and what is judged small and of no account will by the power of God transform this world. Or again, the amazing properties of leaven kneaded thoroughly through dough reflect the mystery of grace, which beginning from our Baptism comes to indwell us through and through - our hearts, minds, memories and imaginations - so that we might rise from the rather flat existence of life without God to the fullness of joy, tasted even now and held out for us without limit in the kingdom of God.

The Christian life is imbued with this awe - awe before the beauty and majesty of God who comes not only to teach us through his self-revelation, but also to touch and transform our lives and draw us to himself. This awe deepens as we recognize we are standing in wonder before what is true, what is real. The conference I am attending is taking place next door to a major centre of fantasy, the capital city of the unreal. It is a place of escape from reality into illusion. The Gospel is a call to change direction and run from illusion toward the real, from the "magic kingdom" to God's kingdom. That "real" is the marvel of salvation history, God coming to and remaining with his people through the wondrous workings of his grace. Engaging this reality, stepping fully into this history, is not without difficulty and pain, because we are speaking of the wonder of God's freely bestowed grace encountering human freedom weakened by sin. It is a history that therefore works itself out in the great struggle of conversion and longing. But it is a history of which God is the beginning and end, and Jesus the centre. Thus, in the final analysis, it is a history of hope, because it exposes the sentiment of being alone and on our own as illusion, and makes known as very real indeed the truth of God's love and proximity.

Wonder and awe before this truth leads naturally to surrender, to fiat, to the act of faith. Christians are those who say "yes" to the presence of God in their lives. This "yes" is given unconditionally when born of a heart awakened to the marvelous truth of God's plan and to his infinite wisdom. It is the very heart of Christian stewardship, and determines the use we make of our time, talent and treasure.

 As children of the Father, may we never cease to marvel at the truth of our God and his love and always be ready to surrender in faith to his call.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

To Caesar and to God

“Give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
We heard these famous words of Jesus in yesterday's Gospel. They teach us that the various responsibilities we assume and exercise in life should receive both their shape and motivation from our commitment in faith to live by the grace of God.
Our participation in civil society involves us in a multiplicity of relationships, many of which bring with them the expectation of allegiance to a variety of standards and expectations. We adhere to civil law. We follow the industrial standards of our profession. We are faithful to policies of the institutions to which we belong. In these and in many other ways we "render unto Caesar," and we recognize the need to do so for the sake of our social order.
From the variety of our allegiances God must not be eclipsed. “Give unto God what belongs to God.” The external fidelity that we give to our multiple allegiances must not supplant the interior surrender that we owe to our Lord. In fact, our submission in faith to the God who loves and calls us is foundational to all other life decisions, and informs our choice of the particular allegiances we assume in freedom.

In the Gospel we hear that the people of our Lord’s day were reminded of their civil obligations by looking upon an image, that of Caesar on a coin. The image which, as we gaze upon it, reminds us of our duties to God is the human person, fashioned in the divine image and likeness. When we encounter our family members, colleagues and fellow citizens, we meet people who each possess an inalienable dignity and an eternal destiny, both of which were wondrously affirmed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We meet people who, in virtue of the divine image, are acting subjects never to be objectified, persons wondrous and beautiful, unceasingly deserving of respect. We honour God, we give back to Him what is His, when we honour the dignity of each other, the people for whom God sent His Son, His children for whom Christ gave His life.

Perhaps it would be helpful to keep this teaching in mind as we reflect upon the current global "occupy" protest. Citizens around the world are gathering to express their frustration and anger. News reports tell us that the protest is lacking in focus, a rather generalized rant. Yet we would do well to listen not only to the words chanted by protesters but also, and more importantly, to the emotions behind them. Personally, I am hearing underneath the words a lot of fear and anxiety. In the midst of serious challenges in our financial markets, people are very worried by the current burdens people are carrying as well as by a future whose contours seem to be anything but hopeful. I noticed on news reports yesterday that parents and grandparents are joining the protesters, so concerned are they for their children's and grandchildren's future. The voices speak of an urgently felt need to be not only heard but also taken into account.

A market system that "gives unto Caesar" without "giving unto God" is one in which the primacy of the human person is discounted, even ignored. It measures market value without consideration of human worth. This, it seems to me, is the underlying cry of the protesters. It is also the lament of Pope Benedict XVI. In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate he calls for a global economy that places at its centre the dignity of the human person and our shared responsibility for the common good. This extraordinary document provides us with some much needed guidance right now.

On the weekend I visited two institutions in the Archdiocese that stand as reminders to the community of a primordial "giving unto God". Newman Theological College held its convocation ceremonies, and degrees in theology and religious education were awarded to some very happy graduates. The president, Fr. Shayne Craig, told us that enrolment at NTC is up 38 percent, and the keynote speaker, Joan Carr, superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools, challenged the graduates to live by God's grace as authentic disciples of Jesus Christ. At St. Joseph's College, on the campus of the University of Alberta, I installed its new president, Father Terence Kersch of the Basilian Fathers. This community of priests has looked after St. Joe's since 1963. There, by researching and teaching the truths of academic disciplines lovingly, selflessly and for the sake of the student and society, the College demonstrates a giving to “Caesar” that is informed and shaped by a prior giving to God.

Monday marks the opening of the annual plenary meeting of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It takes place in Cornwall, Ontario, and runs until Friday at noon. Please keep us and our deliberations in your prayers. Thanks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thanksgiving for True Gifts

Last evening, at the end of our Canadian Thanksgiving Day, a national news broadcast featured interviews with citizens of two towns that had recently suffered great loss from natural disasters: Goderich in Ontario, which was recovering from a tornado strike, and Slave Lake here in Alberta, which lost nearly one-third of the town to wildfires. The interviewer was asking them about their thoughts on Thanksgiving Day and their responses were very moving.

In every case the respondent was surrounded by family members. Without hesitation they said that they were most thankful for the gift of life and of their families. Even though some of them had lost everything in terms of material goods, they knew in their hearts that, on the level of what truly matters, they had lost nothing. In fact, their appreciation for what is most important, the presence and love of family and friends, had deepened.

On this same day, the news was reporting record sales of the new iPhone. Great excitement! It is so easy to get caught up in what is ultimately unimportant to the neglect of what is always of the greatest importance. I must admit I like the "gadgets" as much as anyone else. (In fact, I'm writing this blog from an iPad.) But what is truly exciting is any opportunity to be together with family and those we love in order just to spend time enjoying one another's company and the unique gift that each person is.

I love to cite the following from Pope Benedict's first homily as our Holy Father: "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." Have you ever thought of yourself as a result of a thought of God? You are! Thank God for the gift of being alive. Have you looked upon others as precious in the eyes of God, willed and loved, persons who count and matter? They are! Thank God for them, especially for the gift of their presence in your life. How do they enrich you? What do you miss most about them when they are absent?

The thanks we lift up to God for what is truly important and beautiful should not be limited to Thanksgiving Day. It should be given every day. Why not take some time - today - to think of those persons who truly matter in your life, thank God for them, and ask Him for the gift of a renewed appreciation for what truly matters.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Embrace the "little way"

This past Friday, Saturday and Sunday, St. Joseph Seminary was host to 14 men for a "Come and See" weekend. This is an opportunity for men who feel they may be called by the Lord to priesthood to share their experience with others and find help to discern the voice of the Lord in their lives. They spend time in the seminary setting in order to get a sense of daily life there, and, most importantly, to speak with formation team members and other seminarians about the principles and dynamics of discernment.

Providentially, Saturday was the memorial feast of St. Therese of Lisieux. Her example is a wonderful aid to anyone who seeks to be open to the call of Christ. In her we see the model of what it means to become childlike, that stance before the Lord to which Christ frequently called his followers. What does it mean to be childlike?

I had occasion to reflect on this when on Thursday I visited and blessed two schools in the Archdiocese: Theresetta school in Castor and Christ King school in Stettler. Many of the parents of the students were there for these events. Watching the youngest members of these schools (kindergarten and Grade 1) I was reminded of what it is to be like a child. Youngsters allow themselves to be led. Where the parents go, so, too, do they. They approach their parents with open arms, full of trust. They take their parents at their word; they hold something to be true because "Mommy or Daddy said so."

St. Therese approached God with arms wide open, trusting absolutely in His love and tenderness. She took God at His Word, the Word spoken in Christ, the Word that assures of of divine presence and care, the Word that calls us to life through the obedient following of Christ. Wanting to be led only by the Lord, she tenaciously sought to know the Lord's will in order to follow it in loving and trusting obedience.

At the Come and See weekend, we offered this great saint, now a Doctor of the Church,  as a model to the men seeking to know the Lord's will. She is, in fact, a model for all of us. God is near. He loves us as a Father, wanting to provide for our every true need. He summons us to life through communion with His Son. When we take God at His Word and receive that word with open arms, we shall know how we are called and we will be graced with the faith necessary to follow.

As I moved into the Sunday liturgies of the weekend, I realized that St. Therese has even more to say to us. How vitally important it is for us to grasp and follow her example was underscored by the Scripture readings for Sunday Mass (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43).

Both the first reading and Gospel use the image of a vineyard and its produce. In the passage from Isaiah, the vineyard is an image of the people of God, who had planted within them His seeds of love and mercy and nourished them with His commandments. However, instead of the cultivated grapes of justice and peace this vineyard has yielded the "wild grapes" of injustice and bloodshed.

Such an image makes us ask some serious questions about the "produce" that we, the Lord's vineyard of today, are bringing forth. Through Baptism we have had planted within us the seeds of life, love, justice and eternity. And yet the produce yielded is too often the opposite: threats to the dignity to human life and pressures on family; poverty; homelessness; widening gaps between rich and poor; and so on. Not a very healthy vineyard, to say the least.

The Gospel parable of the vineyard owner and the evil tenants gives the diagnosis of the underlying illness that needs to be confronted. At produce time the owner sends messengers to the tenants to collect the produce. He even sends his son. All are beaten and killed as the tenants rebuff the owner of the vineyard and take control for themselves. Such a parable invites us to examine seriously how we are rebuffing God, both as individuals and as a society. Throughout salvation history God has sent us messengers of His love, such as the prophets, and above all He even sent His Son. They were rebuffed by sinful humanity.  The injustices suffered by humanity, both past and present, show clearly that we continue to choose to exclude God from any meaningful place in our lives, relying not upon Him but upon ourselves.

St. Therese exemplifies the antidote to this blight. She felt the Lord calling her to be love in the midst of the Church. This led her to embrace what has since been called her "little way": to be loving and faithful in the little things, in the ordinary and everyday events and relationships. To reverse the current trend of society, great heroic feats on our part are not what is necessary. What is needed is the "little way" of St. Therese. She taught us to trust God, to let Him into our lives, to trust and follow His Word, and to be faithful in consequence in the ordinary events of our lives. Such a little way, if followed by all, can effect a great turnaround in our world. Let us embrace her example and follow it.