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

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)

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Whisper Walks"

That's what our guides call them, and they're the greatest thing. I'm referring to a wireless speaking system commonly used by tour guides today when leading large groups like ours. Each pilgrim carries a receiver and headset by which we hear the voice of the guide "whispered" in our ear, so to speak, as the receiver picks up the words spoken by our leader into his microphone. Hearing that voice of the guide is critical, of course. It directs, informs, and keeps the group together. Even at a distance we can hear that voice, and - believe me - we are listening for it. None of us wants to miss anything important or to get lost!

 Most of today we spent reflecting upon the listening done by Mary and Joseph to the voice of the Guide above all guides. We were in Nazareth, and visited the sites indicated by tradition as the home of Mary and that of Joseph. In this locale Mary heard God's voice announce to her that she was chosen to be the mother of the Saviour. Joseph heard God's voice summon him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and to become a family with her and the child to whom she would give birth. The answer given by each was a complete "yes", born of a trusting faith. Each knew that God is the trustworthy guide. His choice of them for their particular roles, however wondrous and unexpected, could only be right and good. They listened to the voice of the Guide, they trusted and they obeyed. Had they not, it is clear that not only they but also the whole world would have missed out on something of extraordinary importance and remained lost. As we thought about this, it was clear that the same call is issued to everyone: to listen attentively to the voice of the Guide, to say yes, and to follow where he leads.

At the same time, the town itself had two important lessons for us. The first is what we can call the historical particularity of God's action. This hit home when we visited the grotto beneath the Basilica of the Annunciation. This magnificent church rises over a grotto held to be part of Mary's home, i.e., the place where she received the angel Gabriel's annunciation to her. The grotto has been fashioned into a chapel, whose altar has affixed to it a plaque with the words used by the evangelist John to capture the mystery of the Incarnation: Verbum caro factum est (The Word became flesh - John 1:14). But it strikingly adds a word: Verbum caro hic factum est ("The Word became flesh here). At the very spot we visited, God visited the world when his Son became one of us, conceived by the Holy Spirit within Mary's womb when she gave her fiat. I caught many of the pilgrims shaking their heads in wonder at where we were - the place where it all began. Me, too. Yet we can also rightly shake our heads in wonder at the fact that God continues to enter history - our particular history in the places we find ourselves - through the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts. It falls to each of us to give our fiat, our "Let it be done" to the will of God for us.

The second lesson came to us from Nazareth's silence. Today it is a busy and noisy place, so I'm not talking about that. I'm referring, rather, to the silence of Scripture regarding the years in which Jesus grew up in this place. We call these "the hidden years" because the Bible tells us nothing about them. In fact, we can also speak of them as "hidden" in another sense. At the time of the Holy Family, Nazareth was so small and insignificant as a town that many had not even heard of it. All of this speaks to the thorough "ordinariness" and simplicity not only of the town but also of the lives of its inhabitants. There was seemingly nothing to attract wide attention. Yet it was here that God chose to enter history, from here that he chose Mary and Joseph, and in here that Jesus lived his formative years. 

God's criteria are not our own. His choice is moved not by any qualities we may possess (which are his gifts to begin with) or by any worldly standards of notoriety, but solely by his love. God's presence makes the ordinary extraordinary; it sanctifies simple everyday life. This was true of Mary and Joseph and the lives they led in Nazareth.

It remains true for our ordinary living, which God makes holy as we welcome him.

After Nazareth we traveled to nearby Cana. At this place where, in the course of wedding celebrations, Jesus first manifested his glory by changing water into wine (cf. John 2: 1-11), many of the couples in our group renewed their wedding vows. This gave us the opportunity to reflect upon the beauty and dignity of the marriage of man and woman and the life that flows from their union.
 We recalled the teaching of Saint John Paul II that the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family, and so thanked God for the gift of marriage and family, and the families themselves for living it faithfully with trust in God's presence and guidance. What Mary said to the stewards at the wedding at Cana is the best advice possible not only for married couples but also for each of us: 
"Do whatever he tells you."

We may not always have "Whisper Walks", but God has given us listening hearts. So let us listen daily to the voice of the Guide, and do whatever he tells us.

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 the Basilica of the Annunciation

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Touchdown in the Land Called Holy

 We're here! And we hit the ground running. This is a resilient group, I must say: four-hour flight to Toronto; mass in the airport chapel (pictured at left); 10.5- hour flight to Tel Aviv; immediately onto the buses; off to Caesarea, then on to the Sea of Galilee where we celebrated Mass at the site known as the Primacy of Peter (pictured below), before - finally!! - checking in to the hotel. Something tells me all will sleep well through the night.

To me it is impossible to grow tired of this extraordinary place. I think this is my fifth visit, yet it does not fail to thrill. It is beautiful to see awareness dawn and excitement awaken, even in the midst of deep fatigue, among the pilgrims, especially those who are here for the first time. After all, we are now where Jesus once walked. Here in the territory sanctified by his very presence, he was born and grew up, preached and healed, gave up his life on the Cross and then rose again that we might live. God's plan for all of humanity for all time is to save us, i.e., to liberate us from all that separates us from him that we might live in blessed communion with him forever. The way was prepared through all that happened in the history of our forbears in the faith, the chosen people of Israel. The plan came to fulfillment in Christ, and continues to unfold in the hearts of believers through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, first bestowed in the Upper Room at Jerusalem.

Recalling the presence and action of God throughout history places all that we see in proper perspective. A lot of history has happened here, but the traces of that history are often ancient ruins. Things built with the intention of lasting a very long time did not. That's what we encountered at Caesarea, where only a few traces remain, much under the ocean, of a once magnificent maritime city built by King Herod the Great. This particular visit gave us the opportunity to recall the words of Jesus: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matthew 24:35) That which is truly lasting is the Word of God, which became flesh - here - so that God's eternal salvific intention might be accomplished. These words of the Lord teach us the true meaning of history. It is not a succession of events without ultimate purpose. It is, precisely, salvation history - God present and active in the times, spaces and places that he has fashioned in order to draw humanity to himself.

The Church of the Primacy was a beautiful place to celebrate our first mass on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. This site recalls the encounter between Christ and Peter following the resurrection. "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Beautiful words to hear on the Feast of Christ the King. Jesus is, indeed, King; his dominion is the human heart, where he wills to rule by love and vanquish all that keeps us apart from him. We prayed during the mass that this love will fill our hearts anew during this pilgrimage, and enable us to give an ever deeper response of love in return.

We're launched! Great blessings await.

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 Toronto International Airport

Homily during Mass Mass at Primacy of St. Peter

Monday, November 16, 2015

Darkness Is Not the Final Word

Some arresting imagery was heard in the Gospel passage of this Sunday (Mark 13: 24-32). 

Jesus is speaking of signs that will accompany his return at the end of time. The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give out its light, stars will fall from the sky, and the Son of Man will come in the clouds in power and glory. The language is highly symbolic, as is typical of biblical vocabulary used to refer to the end of times. In the minds of many at the time of Jesus, the sun, moon and stars were celestial forces that guided and shaped history. The Gospel tells us that at the coming of the Lord, these phenomena will be seen as having no power at all. In other words, history is not in the control of any earthly or celestial reality. That control rests solely in the hands of God, who has given over the unfolding of all human history and its fulfillment into the hands of his Son Jesus.

This is very important to keep in mind as we are striving to interpret not future signs but present ones. In our day events are unfolding around us that feel as if the sky were falling, that all is turning dark and that forces inimical to us are in control of things.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Welcoming the Refugee

It was quite moving. On Sunday I visited Our Lady of Good Help parish, home of members the Maronite Catholic Church in Edmonton. In fact, this parish serves as the spiritual home for many Christians of Middle Eastern origin, including the countries of Syria and Iraq. During the reception following Mass, I was introduced to refugee families, who had recently been sponsored by the parish to come to Canada. I can't even imagine the hardship they've faced, so it was especially edifying to see them surrounded by a community that has made a commitment to welcome them, surround them with support, and help them start a new life.

This outreach has been undertaken by a number of parishes in this Archdiocese. I am proud of their efforts. It is a ministry of solidarity, justice, charity and mercy that is being replicated in parishes and communities throughout the country.

At the same time, much more needs to be done. The number of refugees across the globe is vast. Recently the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on the refugee crisis. Entitled "I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me", it invites Catholic parishes across Canada to discern what they might be able to do in support of welcoming refugees.

Care of the refugee, which springs so clearly from the demands of the Gospel, has an impact not only upon persons and families who receive support. It also serves as a source of consolation and hope to others who are unable to leave their homeland. One of the parishioners told me today that he will be sending back to the Middle East many of the pictures that were taken at today's Mass and reception. It is a great encouragement, he told me, because those remaining in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere are given concrete assurance of the love and concern of people elsewhere. They know they are not alone, not forgotten, because they are carried in the hearts and prayers of brother and sister Christians.

My visit to the parish was also an occasion for me to share with the parishioners the statement issued at the end of the recent Synod on the Family by the participant Bishops on the situation of persecuted Christians. If you have not yet seen it, you can find it here.

There is, obviously, widespread suffering across the globe. One can easily imagine the frequent temptations to despair among those directly affected by various conflicts, or among loved ones who are anxious about them. Through actions such as the care and support of refugees that I witnessed today, people are encouraged not to give in to this temptation but to remain steadfast in hope. They are concrete signs of the mercy of God, whose love ultimately prevails over all evil.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Saints ... In Progress

That's us. Or should be. Saints in progress. On Sunday the Church marked the Solemnity of All Saints. This celebration reminds us that the call to holiness - to sainthood - is universal, addressed to all. When we examine our lives honestly and humbly, we can wonder if sainthood is possible. We are only too well aware of the sin and failings of our lives. But we need to keep in mind one important fact: it is God who makes us holy. Sainthood is not something we achieve by our own superhuman efforts. That idea is something the Church has long identified as heresy. Throughout our lives God is at work in the hearts of those who open their lives to his grace through faith. He liberates our freedom and enables us to respond to his call. Growth in holiness is a lifelong journey. This is what it means to say we are saints in progress.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis was asked by an interviewer to describe himself. His instinctive response, spoken from his heart, was: "I am a sinner." Here is an important lesson for all of us. The inescapable starting point on the path to holiness is the recognition of one's need for God and his merciful love. The Church proclaims Jesus Christ as universal Saviour. This means there is no one who is not in need of his mercy. Those whom the Church has recognized as saints would be the first to tell us this is so.

Think, for example, of some of the greatest saints. St. Peter, chosen to head the Church, betrayed Jesus. St. Paul, chosen to be the greatest preacher of the Gospel, persecuted Jesus by attacking the Church. St. Augustine, one of the Church's greatest teachers, was in his early years mired in a life of sexual license, far from the Gospel call to chaste living. Everything changed when they met Jesus, and allowed him to change their lot and make them into the people he called them to be. They teach us, as do all the saints, that holiness comes about when we allow the love and mercy of God to triumph in our hearts.

The journey to holiness is the greatest of adventures. Along this path we discover the true measure of human dignity and the wondrous mystery of human destiny. At the heart of it we encounter God, who in Jesus, has revealed Himself as a loving Father, who wants us, his children, to be with him forever in the communion of saints.

Yes, sainthood is our common vocation. As we honour the saints, let's pray that our own progress continues apace.