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.