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

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.