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

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tourist or Pilgrim?

I'm in Rome this week for a couple of events in which our Canadian Catholic television network, Salt and Light, will be featured and honoured. They do great work, and I'm very happy to see them given international recognition.

As you might imagine, Rome is full of visitors, here in the tens of thousands. Some are here as pilgrims; most have come as tourists. The two reasons for travel are decidedly different, and together provide an important question to ponder with respect to one's approach to life in general. Do I approach my life as a tourist or pilgrim?

The pilgrim undertakes a journey to a holy site, usually seeking insight or transformation, and often willing to endure sacrifice along the way. The tourist, by contrast, is one who travels away from the home environment, usually for a short time, in order to sightsee and experience new things, before returning to normal routine, picking up where one left off, as it were. A friend once put the difference this way: tourists pass through places, while places pass through pilgrims.

Christians understand the earthly journey as a pilgrimage. Its ultimate end is Heaven. To reach this destination we embark upon an inner, or spiritual journey, to "places" such as truth, love and forgiveness. As we allow these places to pass through us we are increasingly transformed into the people God has fashioned us to be: His children, living in communion with Him and with one another. It is not a journey we undertake on our own, but with the prompting and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. At times it is a difficult journey, because it inevitably involves the surrender of the comfortable and the familiar, but one that leads finally to joy.

This joy passes by those who approach life not as a pilgrim but as a tourist. Life is a journey with no direction, like being on a merry-go-round at an amusement park - going in circles and constantly distracted by the fantasy that surrounds us. The happiness arising is at best fleeting and illusory and often covers over a persistent sadness.

Yesterday at Mass we heard Jesus pose the question: Who do you say that I am? We also heard St. Peter give the answer: the Christ. Today we mark the nativity of St. John the Baptist, the model of total self-negation and complete orientation toward Jesus. Jesus is our destination. When we approach life as a pilgrimage to him and the salvation he brings, when we focus on him and his love rather than ourselves and our less-than-clear desires, then we have touched the true meaning and purpose of life and find lasting joy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Blow Away the Smoke Screen

A National Post article of June 22, 2012, cited ethicist Margaret Somerville in relation to the debate on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Referring to the practice of co-opting the language of compassion to justify these forms of terminating human life, she called it a smoke screen for killing. Spot on. Now, one year later, we see the artifice on full display in Quebec's Bill 52, introduced last week in the legislature of that province to legalize euthanasia. "Terminal medical sedation" and "medical assistance in dying" are the masks used to cover the truth that what we are talking about is the intentional and direct killing of another human being or helping others to kill themselves. It even goes so far as to speak of these as forms of palliative care. This distortion of language is advancement of a cause by means of confusion. Euthanasia is not palliative care; it is killing. Euthanasia is not compassion; it is the choice to terminate the sufferer rather than the suffering.

Euthanasia, together with assisted suicide, is rightly considered a crime according to Canada's Criminal Code. Both need to remain so. To get around this federal law, the Quebec Bill presents this as a matter of health care. I kid you not. Their point is that, since health care falls under provincial jurisdiction, the Quebec government would have the right to make such legislation. Let's hope the federal government will challenge this nonsense. A lethal injection is not health care; it is homicide.

By way of providential contrast to the Quebec government's choice of death, the Holy Father Pope Francis presided at a special Mass in Rome Sunday in celebration of the Gospel of Life, and called on all people to say "yes" to life, not death. We say a resounding "no" to euthanasia, assisted suicide and other instruments of death because, in the first place, we give a joyful "yes" to life.

Life's beauty is not a function of something else. It is marvellous in and of itself. Notice the utilitarian and individualistic mindset behind the arguments for euthanasia. Human dignity is based upon "usefulness", and one's desire to be killed is presented as an expression of autonomy, the right to determine the course of one's own life. No. Life's beauty is not linked to health; human dignity is not a function of utility; autonomy is not a matter of self-determination. Human beauty and dignity are inherent, grounded in our status as children of God. Autonomy, linked inseparably with a properly formed conscience, is the capacity for genuine and right relationship with God and others, and for the faithful exercise of my responsibilities toward them. We say yes to life because it is, simply, good. Furthermore, we ought not arrogantly presume we are masters of life, when we are not its author. We are, rather, stewards, responsible to Another.

Check out the statements in response to Bill 52 by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec (in French) and the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF). In addition, I recommend you keep handy COLF's statement Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: Urgent Questions. It clarifies definitions and distinctions that help us see the smoke screen for what it is and blow it away.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Ignoring the Coach

Here in Edmonton the big news from the weekend is the firing of the coach of the Oilers hockey team. This is obviously a key role for any sport franchise. Players follow the lead given by the coach, because they know instinctively that team cohesion depends upon a common commitment to listen to him and do what he says. Therefore, when the team does not perform well it reflects negatively on the leadership they have been following.

Society, it seems to me, is suffering from the opposite problem. We have been given a coach – a great one! – yet our choice is often to ignore his instructions. Societal breakdown is the consequence. That coach, of course, is our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel of yesterday we heard the narrative of Jesus restoring a dead man to life. People responded with acclamations that a great prophet had appeared on earth. Well, yes, but Jesus is more. What he did for that man was an anticipatory sign of the even greater miracle he would accomplish for all humanity by his resurrection from the dead: the transformation of death into eternal life. He is far more than a prophet; he is the eternal Son of God sent from the Father as the Truth that guides our earthly steps and the Way that leads to eternal life. That’s quite the coach. A common commitment to adhere to the Word of God, given fully in Christ, would have as the obvious result a deep social cohesion that no purely human reasoning could ever hope to achieve or even imagine.

Yet that commitment is clearly lacking. For evidence we need only consider the breakdown in families here at home or the implosion of entire populations abroad, such as in the tragic case of Syria. We are witnessing not cohesion but division. By ignoring God’s Word we are acting as if we had fired our coach in order to rely instead upon our own “wisdom”. Rather than disregard the teachings of Jesus, we need to listen closely and carefully, and commit once again to follow what he says. The need is urgent.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Whale Blubber, Anyone?

It was quite the experience. One which, I confess, I did not enter into fully. Having celebrated in the northern hamlet of Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, the episcopal ordination of the new Bishop of Churchill-Hudson Bay, Most Reverend Anthony Krotki, the local Inuit population offered everyone the opportunity to share in a traditional community feast. We gathered in the local arena. As I arrived, I saw a number of people putting down sheets of cardboard across the gymnasium floor. Then they proceeded to throw out on to this cardboard large pieces of raw, frozen fish and caribou, together with the heads and brains and inner organs of Lord knows what other animals. To this was added some raw, fresh whale blubber. After the blessing the local people sat on the floor and gathered up the food in their hands and used small knives to slice off pieces to eat. I saw only one non-local (a missionary priest from Poland - God bless him) get on the floor and join them. Most of us visitors (cowards, some would say), including yours truly, simply stood back and stared. Thanks be to God, there was other cooked food available. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lineup for that nourishment was very long.

Getting accustomed to a strange diet is not easy. I know my own stomach recoiled at what I saw on that arena floor. Many international travellers know the experience of encountering unfamiliar food and being unable to handle it. This is, I believe, a helpful analogy for understanding the difficulties we encounter today as Christians when we undertake the new evangelization.

When we announce the Gospel, we are proposing a "diet" to which much of our western culture has grown unaccustomed, even allergic. Our "diet" is centred on the Bread of Life, Jesus Himself, whose real presence in the Eucharistic species was celebrated yesterday by the Church on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. Transformed by this food, our daily diet becomes that of obedience to truth, the embrace of the Cross and self-gift for the sake of world. For anyone more accustomed to a diet of selfishness and relativism, such a proposed diet would be impossible to swallow. The "stomach" recoils. Hence the negative and sometimes vitriolic response to the Gospel and the Church that we witness today.

What is to be done? As I watched the Inuit eat the food that I could not imagine even touching, I noticed the look of satisfaction - even joy - on their faces. Such a "witness" made me wonder if the food might be worth tasting after all. I didn't get that far, but it at least left me thinking that there must be something good about this particular diet. The most effective way we have of proposing that diet we call the Gospel is to give witness to the joy that it brings us. Our world is living largely on the junk food of individualism and self-reliance, a diet that leaves one hungry and malnourished. By our joy, may those accustomed to this empty diet be drawn to "taste and see that the Lord is good," (Psalm 34:8) and in Christ find true nourishment and real life.