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

Monday, December 28, 2015

Don't Take Your Eyes Off Him!

Christmas is a great time to be together with family. In fact, I'm writing this blog from Halifax, where I'm spending a few days with my father, siblings, nieces and nephews. In these days, the Church offers families some important guidance for their lives together by raising up the example of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

This happens particularly on the Feast of the Holy Family, which we celebrated on Sunday. The Gospel for the mass recounts the familiar episode of finding Jesus in the Temple after he had become separated from Mary and Joseph for a few days. Like all Gospel accounts, almost every time this is read a new detail jumps out to my attention. These days I'm struck by Mary's confession of anxiety: "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." (Luke 2: 48) Important to see here is the cause and effect. The anxiety arose for both Mary and Joseph because they had taken their eyes off of Jesus. It was not at all unusual at that time and place for extended family and friends to travel together and, therefore, for parents to rest comfortably in the knowledge that their child was somewhere in the group. This is why his absence was not noted immediately. When they realized, however, that Jesus was not present with them, they were deeply distressed, as any parents would be.

The situation for families today is slightly different insofar as Jesus is never absent from us, but also the same in that we can easily "take our eyes off him". When we do, anxiety can easily set in. Family life is full of challenges, which we need not face unaided. Jesus was the centre of the Holy Family; he wants to be the centre of ours. It is very tempting to focus only upon the problems and thus allow our gaze to be distracted away from him. In doing so the stress worsens. With our eyes fixed on the Lord, though, that is to say, by conscious awareness of his presence in love and by turning all over to him, we find strength and hope.

This begs the question: "Where, in fact, is he to be seen?" Mary and Joseph saw and encountered him in the Temple. We see him in the "temples" of his Word, the sacraments, and the love we show one another. He is present, and want to be both seen and found by us. Look for him and he will allow us to find him. Then, let's not - ever - take our eyes off him.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Hype vs Joy

It must be quite the movie! Among the lead storylines in newscasts these days is the extraordinary response to the new Star Wars film. Great hype! Fans are queuing in long - very long - lines for hours, dressed in costume (!), sometimes to watch not only the new movie but all the earlier versions as well. Personally, I think it has been more than thirty years since I've seen any version of this Star Wars genre, but I must say that all this excitement is making me curious. Might even get out to see it over the Christmas break.

It is instructive to compare this excitement with that which imbues the Scripture readings we heard proclaimed on Sunday. In these passages we find a real excitement which is anything but hype. It is, rather, the excitement which bursts forth from a deep-seated joy.

In the teaching of Scripture, we are engaged in a real and very serious "Star Wars", if you will. In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul puts it bluntly: "For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." (Eph 6: 10-12) Such a struggle has been marking and marring human history since the Fall of Adam and Eve, and is far beyond limited and weak human strength to engage. From this we can understand the reason for the joy we encounter in the Scriptural readings. Mary, Elizabeth and John the Baptist are responding to the awareness of the presence in their midst of the long-awaited Saviour, the one sent to save the world from sin and liberate it from the tyranny of darkness. No wonder there is such joy! God has remembered his promise of mercy, and is visiting his people in the person of the child to be born of Mary!

Mary has just received the annunciation from Gabriel that she would give birth to the Saviour. Moved by joy, she rushes to visit Elizabeth, who greets her with a response of joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. Even the child John in her womb leaps for joy! This is a response to something real. The hype at the movie theatres is a reaction to fantasy, and is therefore superficial and short-lived. The response to the message of salvation, on the other hand, is deep, lasting and unshakeable, when we realize it is actually true! No fantasy here. God has truly heard the pleas of his people and come to us.

What, in fact, is the nature of this response? Here let's turn to Mary. Of her, Elizabeth exclaimed: "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." (Luke 1:45). The response to the announcement of salvation is faith - belief that God means what he says and will do what he promises. The ultimate foundation for our joy is the fidelity of God, of God who loves us beyond all telling and who ceaselessly bestows his great mercy upon us.

Monday, December 14, 2015


On Tuesday the Holy Father inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy by opening the Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He asked that Bishops throughout the world also designate and open a holy door in their local cathedrals. In this way Catholics enter together into this beautiful season of grace.

Christian life begins and is sustained by the opening of a door, namely, the opening wide of the door of our heart and mind to welcome the mercy of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. As we open this door, we see in a new light the many doors - decisions and transitions - that mark our daily living, and realize that we must close any doors that are unholy, that lead to wrong places, and open holy passageways to spaces consistent with life in Christ.

In fact, we can see many "holy doors" opening widely all around us. Many of our parishes are welcoming refugees from Syria, opening for them doors to a new life. In recent years we have worked with our city and others in the province to open for the homeless doors to a fresh start. I see in our schools doors opened to children with developmental disabilities or struggling with family rupture in order to surround them with love and community. Our hospitals advocate mightily for doors to open across our country for quality palliative care. Our social service agencies seek out those who are otherwise forgotten to open for them the door to inclusion within a community of love. This is not mere humanism. It springs from the mercy we have received from God, and is our response to the command of Jesus himself: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36).

This same command also compels us to close whatever unholy doors presently stand open in our lives, doorways leading to: anger and bitterness, refusals to forgive, cruelty and violence, greed, envy, licentiousness, prideful self-reliance, exploitation of others and so on. These are doors that must not simply be closed; they need to be slammed shut and hermetically sealed if we are truly to live as people of the Gospel, as people of mercy.

There is one door in particular that is opening before our country right now, a very unholy door indeed. Canada is legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. This is a door of astonishing arrogance, fashioned on the presumption that we can judge the quality of another's life or determine on our own when life is no longer worth living. It claims to be a door of mercy, when in fact it is one that opens onto a room with no floor, a vast abyss in which respect for the sanctity of human life falls away and the weak and vulnerable are left with no sure foothold. Even though the State may open this door, we must be clear that it should remain solidly closed and have nothing to do with it. With equal clarity we must speak up for the conscience rights of doctors and healthcare professionals as they resist the pressure to substitute killing for care.

Pope Francis has called this Holy Year a "Jubilee", that is to say, a time of rejoicing. We rejoice because the Lord is near and will never allow evil to have the last word. That last word always belongs to him, and it is: mercy. The gift of divine mercy is the only sure antidote to the viruses of arrogance and bitterness. It is thus the only sure way to peace among peoples and nations. This Holy Year, this Jubilee, is a wonderful opportunity to rejoice in God's merciful love and in the peace that flows from it. Let us pray for the grace to open wide the doors of our hearts to the gift of God's tender and merciful love, and the doors of love and compassion to our world.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Ministers of Mercy

Back from the Holy Land Land pilgrimage, I met with two groups of faithful people deeply involved in the ministry of mercy. It was a fitting segue to the pilgrimage, where day after day we were reminded of all that Jesus did to show himself to be the face of the merciful Father. He brought mercy to the world. We who receive and live by it are to show the same mercy to others. This happens in many ways, of course, and two of them were highlighted for me over the weekend.

On Saturday I dropped in on a special forum hosted by our Office for Life and Family that brought together from our parishes people involved in the ministry of marriage preparation. This is clearly a ministry of mercy. Many of the couples who come to the Church today seeking marriage are unfamiliar with the full depth of the Church's teaching on this wonderful sacrament. Immersed in a variety of cultural messages that convey an understanding of marriage quite other than that of the Church, and often having wounded family backgrounds, they come needing a word of direction, clarity and hope. Sometimes they are not even aware of that need. The doctrine of the Church regarding marriage is a great treasure that we willingly and joyfully impart. When fully embraced it bears fruit not only in the lives of the couple and their children but also in society. It is a wonderful act of mercy to speak the truth about marriage and to invite others to enter this mystery with full confidence in the presence and assistance of the Lord Jesus.

Sunday gave me the opportunity to celebrate mass and then have dinner with volunteers at one of the city's hospitals. "I was sick and you visited me." Ministry to and with anyone suffering from illness is one of the classic corporal works of mercy. Gospel meets life in a beautiful way whenever the consolation and healing of Christ is brought to the sick. This requires many people to give of their time and presence in effective partnership with official chaplains. The folks I spent time with on Sunday have been dedicated to this ministry for quite some time and serve well as agents of mercy. I, together with the whole Archdiocese, am grateful for their devotion to the care of the ill.

This week, on December 8th, the Jubilee of Mercy declared by Pope Francis begins. As I mentioned recently in my Pastoral Letter, these months that lie before us are a grace-filled occasion to receive anew the deep inner healing that God's forgiveness brings. Impelled by this transformative love of God to show mercy to others, we can also rediscover the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The examples cited above remind us that mercy is not new to the Church. She has always lived from it and sought to bring it to others! What is new is a fresh opportunity to enter its depths and from it draw new life. Let's commit together to participate fully in this beautiful season of grace.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Mud Soap

I confess, I just don't get it. Cleansing with mud strikes me as counterintuitive, for sure. Yet that is exactly what a lot of our pilgrims did at the beginning of our last day in the Holy Land. (In case you're wondering, I wasn't one of them.) We spent the night before at a hotel on the shores of the Dead Sea, and that gave folks the opportunity this morning to "lather up" with black stuff and float on the very salty waters. They told me afterward how good they felt! I'll take their word for it.

What I do see, though, and what we have all seen anew these days, is how the soul is cleansed by the Lord's descent from heaven into the "muck" of our lives. During our pilgrimage we have been reminded again and again of the ineffable love of Jesus that led him to take upon himself the sin and suffering of humanity. This "muck" left him disfigured, and us restored to spiritual health (cf. Isaiah 53:1-5). This is a love like no other, and which therefore must be made known.

Thus was it fitting that we celebrated our last mass in the Holy Land at the Church of St Peter in Jaffa. We came to this place immediately after we crossed back into Israel from Jordan.

Jaffa symbolizes mission. It was from this place that Peter set sail for Caesarea to the house of Cornelius. This was his first mission to bring through word and Baptism the grace of Christ to the "wider world". On the eve of our departure for home, this was a reminder that we are "sent" to all dimensions of the world around us - home, work, leisure, culture - with the message of true hope given uniquely in the Gospel of our Lord.

The experience has left us enriched with an unparalleled experience of the wonder of the faith. We know we can't just keep this to ourselves, but are impelled by the power of the Gospel's inherent beauty to give witness to it before others.

After mass we went to our hotel in Tel Aviv to prepare for tomorrow's flight.

It's been very moving to see and hear how the Holy Spirit has been working in the hearts of the pilgrims, often in surprising ways. God is so good, so very, very good. We have tasted that goodness (cf. Psalm 34:8) in the land made holy by the presence of the Lord, and we return home with renewed and grateful hearts.

 Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Knowledge through Experience

Today was Petra. Absolutely astonishing! An ancient kingdom hidden among the mountains. We gave up a lot of time traveling on the bus yesterday and today in order to get to this out-of-the-way place in southern Jordan, but it was well worth the effort.

Many of the pilgrims before leaving home had undertaken some research, watched videos, reviewed photos etc. in order to prepare for this. However, they said that all the research in the world could not have adequately prepared them for Petra. In truth, in order really to appreciate the place one has to enter into Petra through the famous mountain crevasse (more than a kilometer in length) and walk around inside it to see the extraordinarily beautiful architecture chiseled in the stone . "Inside knowledge", as it were, is what it takes to "get" Petra.

In this light we can see that even in this pre-Christian place we find a lesson for our pilgrimage. Life in Christ is truly appreciated from the "inside", from actually living in the love of the Lord as his disciple. One cannot claim to understand Christianity, the life of faith and the mystery of the Church if it is only studied and researched "from the outside". Only when one allows Christ to enter through the "crevasse" of the heart, to move within and chisel away any hardness in order to transform it anew into a masterpiece of art, will one begin to "get" what Christianity is all about and understand what is meant by Gospel joy.

As we begin to think of our return home, we thank God that he has given us in this pilgrimage the grace of a deeper "inside" experience of the Christian life. No books or photos could have fully prepared us for this experience. With St. Peter we say, "Lord, it is good for us to be here" (cf. Matthew 17:4), because through this pilgrimage to the places where he once lived, he has drawn us closer to himself.

He has also opened our eyes to the wonderful work of mercy he is accomplishing through his people in this land. Jordan is home to millions of refugees, to the point that they now comprise nearly forty percent (!!!) of all the people living in this land. The Jordanian people are responding with extraordinary generosity to the plight of their neighbours. What a great act of mercy! We learned this as we visited a Catholic parish in Amman at the end of our day and celebrated mass there. Through their example may the Lord open many other hearts - and borders - to those from this region who suffer grievously from violence.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


This morning we crossed the border into the Kingdom of Jordan. This transition prepared us symbolically to ponder the frontier crossings that mark the Christian pilgrimage.

The foundational "crossing over" happens at Baptism, through which we pass from death to life. This we recalled as we visited the site of Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist at "Bethany beyond the Jordan" (cf. John 1:28). After hostilities between Israel and Jordan formally ended just over twenty years ago, archaeologists discovered in what had been a heavily militarized zone the site of the Lord's baptism. Now pilgrims like us are able to visit and, at the very place it occurred, reflect upon the meaning of the Baptism of the Lord as well as our own. 

We read Matthew's account and pondered the meaning of the divine "epiphany" as Jesus rose from the waters. This revelation of the inner Trinitarian life - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - signals the plan of God for humanity from the beginning, i.e., not only to reveal his inner mystery but also to grant us participation in his very life! Only by union with Jesus in his death and resurrection is such participation possible. Hence the necessity of baptism, by which such union becomes possible.

Therefore, with great thanksgiving we renewed our baptismal promises, and asked once again for the grace to be faithful to them.

From there we traveled further inland to the site associated with another border crossing. Mount Nebo is the place where Moses first was given a glimpse of the promised land that the chosen people were about to enter. We celebrated mass there and then took in the stunning vista. The long and arduous journey along which Moses had led the people to this land evokes awareness of the sometimes joyful, sometimes tortuous route we follow toward heaven, the true promised land. What carried our forbears in the faith was God's fidelity to his promise. Due to God's faithfulness his people were able to traverse that long-anticipated frontier. 

So, too, with us. Baptism seals us with the promise of eternal life and launches us on the journey to its fulfillment. God's fidelity carries us. The final frontier is death, which the paschal mystery of our Lord has transformed into the gateway to life. For this reason, Catholic tradition speaks of the need to prepare for "a good death". This is a lesson we need to re-learn in our own country with its move to legalize assisted death and euthanasia.

We then made a short stop in Madaba to see in a Greek Orthodox Church a fifth century floor mosaic depicting a map of the Holy Land. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. From there we undertook the three hour drive to Petra, which will be the principal focus tomorrow.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Behold the Wood. Alleluia! Come and See.

The day began VERY early. By 5:00 a.m. we were in Old Jerusalem to follow the Way of the Cross. The pre-dawn darkness was fitting. Walking along the Via Dolorosa, we prayerfully united ourselves to Jesus as he carried his Cross in that dark, sorrowful moment of his suffering and death. Between each station we sang: "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which is hung our salvation! O come, let us adore." Adore, indeed. Such love! Were it not for the Cross and the resurrection, we would be bereft of life and hope.

The following of the fourteen stations in Jerusalem culminates in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the site of Calvary and the Lord's tomb.There we joined with that church's community of Franciscan friars to celebrate high mass. The setting is unique. Within the Lord's tomb itself a simple altar is set up above the place where his body was laid to rest. It is there that the consecration takes place, thus rendering present in sacrament the true body and blood of the Lord where his earthly body once rested. 

This experience of celebrating the mass of the Lord's resurrection at the very place where it occurred takes the breath away. I think many of the pilgrims were pinching themselves: "Am I really here?" Well, yes, we were indeed there, and rejoiced that the earthly body of Jesus wasn't. Alleluia! We venerate the tomb of Jesus precisely because it is empty. From the beginning, Christians have accepted the empty tomb as the sign of the resurrection. That very emptiness engenders hope because it announces that Jesus is risen, alive and with us now.

We had entered the church at an hour of darkness. As we emerged from it following mass, we stepped into bright sunshine. Darkness giving way to light. That's what the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead means for the world.

The announcement of that message was first entrusted by Jesus to his apostles, among them St. Andrew, whose feast the Church celebrates today. The first encounter between Jesus and Andrew (cf. John 1: 35-42) teaches that the proclamation of Easter joy should assume the form of invitation. Andrew and some others had asked Jesus where he lived, to which the Lord replied, "Come and see," an invitation to a communion of life and love. The current reality of the Middle East, as elsewhere throughout the world, clearly demonstrates that many have yet to hear and accept that invitation. Our experience at the Holy Sepulchre this morning reminds us of our own call to accept anew that same invitation to communion with the Risen Lord and to propose it joyfully to others.

After breakfast, we visited the ancient pool of Beth-zatha, where Jesus healed a man who had been crippled for thirty-eight years (cf. John 5: 1-14). That encounter has always fascinated me. Jesus told him to take up his mat and walk. I wonder what must have been going through the mind of that man as he heard those words. He hadn't met Jesus before that moment, and now hears him command that he do the impossible - walk! Yet somehow he trusted that Jesus could make possible the impossible. He obeyed, and he walked! That's a good descriptor for faith: trust, obey, and allow the Lord to enable us to do the impossible.

Following a quick visit to the church of St. Anne next to the Beth-zatha pool site, we went to the Temple Mount to see the most holy place in Judaism: the Western Wall. 

As we witnessed the beautiful sight of many Jews gathered for prayer and celebrating joyfully a number of Bar Mitzvahs, we offered our own prayers for them, their nation, and, indeed, for this region.

The free afternoon and evening were most welcome. Off to Jordan tomorrow.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Sunday, November 29, 2015


It was pretty bleak territory. Today we left Jerusalem and headed down from the mountains toward Jericho. This route took us out into the Judean wilderness and to the region around the Dead Sea. Very arid, certainly, but the area has its own beauty. It is rich in theological significance also, since the landscape's imagery underscores in dramatic fashion the words spoken here by St John the Baptist.

Our first visit was to Massada, famous as the place of a desert fortress community built by Herod the Great upon a mountaintop. It is universally remembered as the place where a community of Jews sought refuge from Roman vengeance following the Jewish revolt of 67 AD, and chose to die there at their own hands rather than by the Roman legions.

From there we traveled along the coast of the Dead Sea to Qumran, site of the discovery of what are now called the Dead Sea scrolls. After having lunch there we moved on to Jericho.
In that ancient city (and I mean ancient - 10,000 years back!!) we celebrated the Eucharist at Good Shepherd parish. The significance of marking in this place the beginning of the Advent season was lost on no one.

 This wilderness in which John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Saviour was a symbolic invitation for us to enter the interior desert of the human heart parched by lack of faith and to ask for the gift of "living water" (cf John 4: 7-14).

Our visit to this city also involved a stop at the home of the founder of Guiding Star, the tour company here that has arranged our pilgrimage. This very gracious gentleman likes to give his guests gifts, so we were each given a beautiful cross and treated to local oranges and bananas.

As we left town we passed by a local sycamore tree to see what one looks like (remember Zacchaeus?). Then from a distance we saw and pondered what is called the Mount of the Temptations, so called because identified by Tradition as the place where Jesus, following his Baptism by John not far from here, was tempted by Satan.

It is often said that the land here is the Fifth Gospel because the experience of it brings to very clear light the words of the four evangelists. Today we found this particularly true of the Judean wilderness. We need to acknowledge our own interior deserts and ask for the living water of the Holy Spirit.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Sons and Daughters in the Son

Astonishing, really. By baptism, we have been adopted by God! God's love is so great that he has united us to his Son by the gift of the Holy Spirit, thus making us his children.

This was at the heart of our reflections today as we visited sites in Jerusalem. How does the event recalled at a particular location speak to us of Jesus's relationship with his Father? What does it teach us about our call to live as the Father's children in Christ?

Fittingly, the day began at the top of the Mount of Olives, at the Pater Noster (Our Father) church, built over the cave identified by Tradition as the place where Jesus would rest with his disciples and teach them. Among those teachings was the Our Father. 

We took note of the possessive pronoun, "our", and recalled how the risen Jesus, when he appeared to Mary Magdalene, asked her to announce to the apostles that he was ascending "to my Father and your Father; to my God and your God." (cf. John 20:17). The distinction between "my" and "your" arises from the fundamental difference between Jesus and us: what he is by nature, we become by adoption. Truly, in Christ, God is "our" Father.
With this in our minds and hearts, we immediately set off down the Mount of Olives, following the Palm Sunday road. Before any word was spoken, this path signaled something of what it means to live authentically as a child of God. The Palm Sunday road led to the Cross. Union with Christ as his brothers and sisters inescapably involves the gift of self for others.

At the foot of this roadway is the Garden of Gethsemane. Before reaching that site, though, we paused along the way at the place where Jesus wept over Jerusalem (cf. Luke 19:41-44). This pause gave us pause. The Lord wept because his people had not recognized "the things that make for peace", since they hadn't acknowledged "the time of [their] visitation." Admittedly, we, too, often do not recognize the divine visitation in our own lives, or pay it scant attention, and thus miss many opportunities to seek the grace of conversion, which truly makes for peace. The Lord has cause to weep over us as well.

At Gethsemane, the relationship of Jesus with his Father came strikingly to light. Aware of his impending suffering, he poured his entire self into his prayer to his Abba, his Father, entrusting himself entirely into the Father's hands. St. Paul teaches us that the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts is the Spirit of the Son, enabling us also, through our union with Jesus, to cry our "Abba! Father!" (Cf. Galatians 4:6) We entered the church built at this site upon the rock where Jesus had cast himself down in deep, fervent prayer as he endured his agony. As we touched that same rock we made the prayer of Jesus our own, and brought to the Father all that weighs heavily upon us, knowing that only this act of self-surrender, in trust, can enable us to do as Jesus did: stand again to face the reality of our lives with faith in the Father's love.

The Holy Spirit of which St. Paul speaks was first given to the Church at Pentecost, when he descended upon the apostles gathered in the "upper room", which was the next holy site on the day's itinerary. There, too, of course, was the site of the institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood. By some miracle, we had the place to ourselves, and so were able to pray tranquilly with St. Paul's scriptural teaching on the institution of the Eucharist (cf. 1Corinthians 11:23-26) as well as the biblical account of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2: 1-11). By offering us the gifts of his body and blood in the Eucharist, Jesus invites us to be one with him in his self-offering to the Father for the life of the world. Only by the gift of the Holy Spirit can one truly respond to such a call. So we prayed in thanksgiving for the gift of the Holy Spirit, especially as given to us when we received the sacrament of Confirmation.

This site is next to the Abbey of the Dormition, that is to say, the place that recalls the death of Mary and her subsequent assumption body and soul into heaven. In the grotto beneath the church there are wonderful mosaics and frescoes, one of which has always struck me as especially poignant. It is a ceiling fresco of the heavenly Jesus receiving his mother in his arms following her Assumption. She is depicted with the dimensions of a child and wrapped in swaddling clothes, i.e., Jesus doing for her what she did for him when she welcomed him at his birth. This portrayal of breathtaking tenderness speaks powerfully of the indissociable relationship of Mary with her Son in the unfolding of God's plan of salvation, and thus stands as an invitation to all who gaze upon it to ponder their own particular relationship with her. 

We sang a hymn of praise to Mary, and then prayed together the Hail Mary, asking at this place recounting her death that she pray for us at the hour of ours.

The final visit was to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, built at the site of the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, and the place of Peter's threefold denial of Jesus. We celebrated mass there, asking the Lord to reveal to us by the same look he directed to Peter (cf. Luke 22: 61-62) how we, too, have denied him and are in need of conversion of both mind and heart. Particularly moving was our descent to an ancient dungeon discovered beneath the church. It is clear that this is the place where Jesus was kept throughout the night in those hours between his arrest and trial. Standing in that place deep beneath the earth brought home very powerfully the depth of Christ's trust in the Father. Abandoned by all and totally bereft of companionship in this darkest of hours, what must he have felt?! The answer is given eloquently in Psalm 88, which we prayed aloud in that heart-rending place.

Lots of tears today. How could it be otherwise, when we consider what our Lord lovingly endured to enable us to become, in him, sons and daughters of our heavenly Father?

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Wall of Separation and People of Reconciliation

I think it hit the first-time visitors like the proverbial ton of bricks. That wall. Today was Bethlehem, which is sealed off from Jerusalem by a very high, concrete, militarized security wall. One passes through a military checkpoint in order to enter. Seeing it for the first time can be a shock to the system. We hear about it, but only when one actually sees it does its reality truly sink in. The experience is particularly poignant when one enters with the goal of visiting the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, of the one whose life, death and resurrection has the power to break down walls of hostility and estrangement (cf. Ephesians 2: 13-16).

This was very much on our minds as we began the day with mass at Shepherds' Field. Gathered in a cave in the region where shepherds first received the announcement by angels of the astonishing news of the birth of the Saviour, we echoed their song giving glory to God as we belted out Gloria in Exclesis Deo, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will." But what does the announcement of peace mean when spoken within a security perimeter? This led us to ponder those "walls" we erect in our own lives that separate us from others, even family members. And what about the wall we often put up between ourselves and the mercy of God? Only when we allow that wall to crumble by bringing to God any as yet unrepented sins will the walls separating us from others begin to collapse. The immensity of the geopolitical challenges to peace should not leave us under the illusion that we can do nothing. Individual and collective efforts to effect peace are possible when we seek to remove the walls in our own lives.

We were treated to a concrete and edifying example of just that in our visit to Bethlehem University. This is the only Catholic institute of higher learning in the region. It is a true beacon of hope because it educates Muslim and Christian students alike. In fact, seventy per cent of the student body is Muslim and the remainder is Christian. These young people have studied side by side for years, often since their early grades. The friendship and mutual affection that exists among them is evident. About ten of the students took time to meet with us, tell us their stories, and answer our questions. Their living conditions make travel to and from the university very challenging, yet they are committed to their education for the sake of placing themselves - Muslim and Christian together - at the future service of their people. No walls here. We pray that this example of real-life peaceful co-existence will become a widespread reality throughout the region.

We ended the day with a visit to the Church of the Nativity. There we were able to touch the very spot where Christ was born. Again, one of those head-shaking moments. We then went next door to the church of St. Catharine, made famous by the worldwide broadcast from there of Bethlehem's Christmas midnight mass, and visited the place beneath that church where St. Jerome once dwelt, seventeen centuries ago.

To return to Jerusalem we had to cross through that security wall again. This imposing perimeter makes one wonder if peace will ever be possible here. Yet the grace of Christ at work in the people we met on the other side of that wall gave us good reason to hope that there will be.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Moving Downward in the Ascent

Pilgrimages to holy sites are representative of the pilgrim nature of our earthly life. "Pilgrim people of God", in fact, is a key descriptor of the Church in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. A pilgrimage to Jerusalem is especially evocative of the pilgrim journey we are called to walk toward the heavenly Jerusalem, our eternal home. The physical ascent to this city on a mountain symbolizes the heart's journey "upwards" toward heaven. The sites we visited today along the route to Jerusalem illustrated for us some of the attitudes that take shape in the heart of the pilgrim follower of Christ.

Listening. The disciple is one who listens to the voice of the Master and follows. This was the lesson in our visit to the Stella Maris monastery on Mount Carmel in the city of Haifa. It is built over the site of the cave in which the prophet Elijah is said to have dwelt. 

We reflected on his encounter with the Lord in this place, and marveled at his fidelity as he went where his listening led him. Listening to and announcing God's Word did not win him many friends, to say the least, yet he remained always steadfastly faithful to the Lord and his commands. We pondered as well the example of listening offered by Mary, the Mother of the Lord. This place was named in her honour centuries ago when the original Carmelites settled in this spot. Mary is the model disciple; she listened, pondered and followed, even as the Word led her to the foot of the Cross of her Son. Always the faithful and obedient listener, she is rightly called Star of the Sea, Stella Maris. Just as the bright star guided ancient mariners, Mary is the necessary point of reference whereby we can pinpoint our position as disciples and adjust course as necessary to follow the right direction along our pilgrimage.

Realism. After we left the monastery we traveled along the mountain chain toward the interior of the country, to the site of the encounter between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (cf. 1Kings 18: 17-40). This dramatic showdown illustrates in striking fashion the nature of idolatry as the worship of nothing, as an allegiance to what is illusory and unable to answer the cries of the human heart. What is real about life comes to light in the encounter with the real God, who has made known his love and saving plan in real fashion by sending us his Son, Jesus. The pilgrim disciple needs daily to face the illusory desires and attachments in his or her life so as to be set free to worship and follow God alone.

Mercy. Before reaching Jerusalem we stopped to visit the site of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. The very hilly landscape through which we had traveled from the area near Nazareth to this spot brought home the full meaning of: "In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth" (Luke 1:39-40). It would have been a very arduous journey. No comfortable tour bus for her! Yet, having heard from the angel Gabriel that the elderly Elizabeth was with child, Mary went "with haste" to her cousin in need. Here Mary teaches us about mercy and charity. It arises from the encounter with the Word of God and impels us out of ourselves towards the needy. It admits of no delay and allows no obstacle or hardship to stand in the way. The pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem is marked by mercy.

Prophecy. Our final stop before Jerusalem was the site of the birthplace of St. John the Baptist. Here we considered the example of his father, Zechariah, and pondered the relationship between faith and speech. When Zechariah expressed disbelief at the angel's announcement to him, he was made mute (cf. Luke 1: 5-25). When later he indicated obedient acceptance of the message, his tongue was loosed and he spoke freely words of prophecy (Luke 1: 57-79). When God is shunned we have nothing to say; when his Word is accepted in faith, we are enabled to speak words of truth. This is clearly relevant to our experience in Western culture, which seeks in various ways to eclipse God. What we have to endure, as a result, is a multiplicity of empty and banal messaging, or, worse, words that turn us into ourselves and against one another. Time to let God back in, so that once again we learn to speak prophetic words of truth, justice, love and mercy, words that really matter and make a difference.

Humility. While still in that same place we looked to the example of John the Baptist himself. Many asked him if he were the Messiah, and he would always deflect attention away from himself and towards Jesus. As we hear him put it in the Gospel of John: "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). The focus is always on Jesus and not on the self. This fashions within the heart of the Christian pilgrim a sort of "downward mobility" as we make our ascent to Jerusalem on high.

To Bethlehem tomorrow.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Where's the Imprint?

We were asking ourselves this question today. Like the other pilgrims we are meeting here in the Holy Land, we, too, are taking lots of pictures. After we've snapped the photo, the first thing we do is look at the camera screen to see how it turned out. Naturally, these are memories we want to preserve, so we want good and memorable images stored in our cameras. At the same time, however, we know that the most important place those images must be preserved is in our hearts. They are digitally held in our camera so that we can later keep, delete, or alter them as we please. We want the experiences etched indelibly in our hearts so that the Lord can change us in accord with his purposes. And we had many experiences to absorb today.

We began with mass at the site of the Transfiguration. There we heard the account of that wondrous event and heard anew the voice of the Father: "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." That listening is necessary, we know, but not always easy, because the voice of Jesus summons us to ever deeper conversion. That's the journey that lies before us as we descend from the mountaintop experience and return to our ordinary day-to-day living.

From there, and following lunch (I love shawarma), we made our way to the place where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish. The church there is built over the rock held by Tradition to be the "table" on which the multiplication took place. 

Before it, preserved in the floor of an ancient church once existing on the site, is a mosaic depicting four loaves and two fish. This is striking theologically, because the answer to the immediate question - but, weren't there five loaves? - is that the fifth is actually Jesus. The true meaning of the multiplication is given in the discourse pronounced by Jesus in the ancient synagogue at Capernaum: he is the Bread of Life that satisfies not for a moment but for all eternity, "bread" that is given to us as His true Body and Blood in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We were saddened to see damage left by a fire at the church, the result of arson perpetrated as an act of violent anti-Christian hatred. This gave us pause, and we took time to pray for those responsible.

Then we returned to the church of the Primacy of Peter. We had already celebrated mass there upon our arrival Sunday evening, but wanted to return to spend more time. This place is always a highlight among highlights. The pilgrims spread out along the shore of the Sea of Galilee as we read John 21 and reflected upon the meaning of the miraculous catch of fish and the beautiful encounter between Jesus and Peter. That arresting question - "Do you love me?" - is addressed, we know, not only to Peter but also to each of us. Like Peter, we know that our response is a weak one, but also that Jesus meets us where we are and leads us by grace to the answer of total commitment that he desires. We also took time to pray in the little church built over the rock upon which Tradition tells us Jesus cooked fish to share as a breakfast meal with his friends.

Finally, we visited the Mount of the Beatitudes. There we read aloud and reflected upon that first section of the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5:1-12). Here again, as at the beginning of the day, we knew we were listening to that voice of the Son whose words contain the call to a radical change of both mindset and action. Enlightened by Christ and his Word, we see reality as it is, and this makes clear just how radically different from human standards of judgment are those of God. 

While we were there, warplanes were heard far overhead, probably around the time we were listening to "Blessed are the peacemakers..." In addition, the Franciscan sister who welcomed us was from Iraq, where her family in Mosul recently had to flee for their lives to Kurdistan to escape ISIL aggression. Clearly, the Beatitudes are of timeless relevance and current urgency.

Cameras capture and preserve images instantly. Having them engraved on our hearts is another matter. The "shutter release" is the act of faith, by which we ask the Holy Spirit to use all that we are experiencing to bring about within us a heart thoroughly and permanently transformed.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at Basilica of the Transfiguration

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Act of Faith

What does it mean to believe? This is the question pushed to the forefront of our minds and hearts as we visited more holy sites today. It will remain the centre of our reflections as the journey continues.

Borrowing an expression I read in a work by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation movement, I like to tell the pilgrims that we are on an "itinerary of conviction." As the apostles walked with Jesus and followed his "itinerary", they grew under grace in their conviction concerning the truth of Jesus. In our own way we are following the same itinerary and seeking that same grace. As we are led more deeply into the truth that Jesus alone is the Christ, we realize that this conviction of its nature demands a personal response, which is nothing less than the total gift of self, in love and trust, to him. Here we touch the nature of the act of faith.

Something of what this means practically was brought home to us in the events of today.

We began with a boat ride on the Lake of Tiberias, often also referred to as the Sea of Galilee. Once we reached the middle of the lake, the boat engines were silenced so that we could pray with the Scripture passage from Matthew that recounts the Lord walking on the water towards his disciples endangered by a storm on the lake (cf. Matthew 14: 22-33).

Particularly striking was looking upon the water - the very deep water - as we heard Jesus call Peter to step out of the boat. Geesh! Even on calm waters that call was arresting, to say the least. Yet that's what faith entails - trusting Jesus enough to obey his call to do the impossible, to undertake what we could never imagine doing, with confidence that he will hold us by the arm and never allow us to "sink".

Then we went to nearby Capernaum. We visited the site of the ancient synagogue where Jesus pronounced his Bread of Life Discourse, which we read aloud (cf. John 6: 22-59). These words pertain to the gift that he makes of himself as food - food unto eternal life - in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We entered into the mystery of that promise's fulfillment by celebrating mass.

The site was extraordinary. The church is built directly over the remains of the home of Simon Peter, where Jesus stayed, and where he healed Peter's mother-in-law as well as the paralytic lowered down through the roof to him by friends. Yet in this place noted for miracles of healing, the setting helped us realize that the rehabilitation Jesus wishes to effect in our lives reaches beyond the physical exterior to our inner depths. The site was made possible by archaeological excavations, whereby thousands of years of accumulated rubble were cleared away to reach and expose the original. By his love, mercy and forgiveness, Jesus works within the human heart to remove layers of pretense and illusion built up by years of mistakes, failures, and sins in order to bring to the light the beautiful, original and unique creation that is each of us.

Faith involves opening ourselves, in trust and humility, before this "excavation" by grace so that we discover who we truly are in the eyes of God. In the encounter with Christ and the acceptance of the truth of his identity, we discover the reality of our own.

We also discover our mission. This was the lesson of Caesarea Philippi, which we visited in the afternoon. While Jesus was walking with his disciples in this region, he posed the question of his identity as popularly perceived before getting to the heart of the matter by asking each of them: "But who do you say that I am?" (cf. Matthew 16: 13-20).

When Peter acknowledged the truth of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus assigned him his mission to be the "rock" upon which he would build his Church. It was truly stunning to hear this Gospel passage read with the area's massive rock formation in the background. The grace of the Holy Spirit makes Peter and his successors the rock that grounds what Tradition has since called the indefectibility of the Church. Just as Peter discovered his precise calling in the encounter with Christ, so, too, do we. Faith recognizes the call as right, just and good because it is pronounced by the Son of the living God, and then responds in love with the entirety of one's self.

By means of this pilgrimage adventure we are discovering anew just how wonderfully adventurous is life founded upon faith in Christ.

Audio Recordings

One of our pilgrims has kindly offered to make audio recordings of my homilies during the pilgrimage. I invite you to listen to these recordings as a way of journeying with us.

Homily during Mass at Capernaum (starts with a few seconds of silence)