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

Monday, January 25, 2016

Who's Blessing Whom?

It was quite an afternoon. I arrived Saturday at noon in Chennai, where I've since been hosted by the Salesian Fathers. That same afternoon they took me around the city to visit some of the sites where they are carrying out extraordinary apostolic works. In the space of just a few hours I met children being helped to integrate into society after having been in jail; I encountered another group of very young kids infected by HIV/AIDS; I was taken to a seniors' home, whose elderly residents have no family and who would very clearly be on the street were it not for this facility; and I visited a place for children who had, in fact, been living on the street and who were being helped to a new life. Finally I visited a home for elderly lepers. These are individuals who contracted leprosy at an early age, long before medicine came along to treat the disease.

At each of these places the people I met insisted on receiving a blessing from me. A memory I'll retain for a long time is that of the lepers reaching out to me with hands - absent fingers - to be taken in my own as they bowed their heads to be blessed. I remember asking myself, "Who's blessing whom right now?"

One cannot meet people in such situations without recalling the teaching of Jesus that what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to him. Of course, I gladly offered a blessing, but felt immensely blessed in return by Christ in them. I also went away wondering about the "least". Certainly, in the Lord's eyes, it isn't the kids and elders I met that afternoon. In the heart of Christ, I'm sure they have pride of place.

On my final morning I was blessed to celebrate mass at the tomb of St Thomas the apostle, who brought the Gospel to this land and here was martyred for it. Since his arrival, countless missionaries have watered the seeds he planted, foremost among them St Francis Xavier, whose tomb in Goa I was also able to visit. Their labours have borne great fruit. Here the Church is vibrant! The devotion of the people is beautiful to witness. And the wide-ranging apostolic activity of the six Catholic communities I visited - together with that of hundreds of other religious congregations and the dioceses - is further testimony that the Gospel has taken deep root here in the hearts of believers.

India, a country of many blessings, also faces immense challenges. I pray that the vibrant witness of the Christian community will serve to foster solidarity, reconciliation and peace throughout the land.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Oases of Mercy

 I love that expression. In his Bull of Indiction for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis teaches that a community of Christians should always be experienced as an "oasis of mercy".

Over the last few days, as I continued my visit through Kerala, such "oases" are exactly what I encountered. Everywhere I have witnessed very heartwarming and edifying social outreach undertaken by the local Church in the name of Christ. For example, on one day alone I visited sites operated by the Syro-Malankaran Archdiocese of Trivandrum, and there encountered people suffering from leprosy, children affected by HIV-AIDS, and mentally challenged men and women rescued from the streets where they had been abandoned. These places are truly oases of mercy, where people are finding life-giving reprieve from the arid land of indifference.

As I met the people being cared for in these places, I also found my attention drawn strongly to those who offered the care. What struck me rather forcefully was the depth of their dedication to those in need of mercy. The priests, nuns and lay people I met are completely given over to their ministry. One nun, for instance, came to this area from France over fifty years ago, and has lived among the people ever since that time. Together with this self-commitment to others, they manifested deep joy and peace. Their joy was truly radiant.

I found myself thinking about this experience as I pondered the Gospel passage for Sunday, which recounted the miracle of the transformation of water to wine at the Cana wedding banquet. At that event, Mary, referring them to Jesus, said to the stewards: "Do whatever he tells you." Here we find the source of the joyful self-dedication I encountered in those sisters, priests and laypersons. Their life is centered upon the command of Christ; his summons leads them out of themselves towards others; and precisely in the giving away of self, they discover true joy.

What a necessary lesson this is for a world that increasingly approaches life from the opposite starting point! In much of Western culture particularly, the idea prevails that one's identity, direction and meaning is self-determined. In such a worldview, nothing can be trusted beyond the confines of one's own mind. Such an individualistic mindset turns one in on oneself and thus away from others. Isolation and sadness - its inevitable corollary - are the result. This is a long way from the other-centeredness I witnessed these days and its corollary - real joy.

"Do whatever he tells you." The teaching of the Church is clear. Only in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, do we find the revelation of the truth of human existence (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). In him alone is made manifest the meaning of human life as fashioned and ordered by God. His will for us is joy, now and into eternity (cf. John 15:11). The joyful people I met in those oases of mercy teach that the joy Jesus wills for us will be ours if we but look to Him, and not to ourselves, to discover our true identity and the meaning of our lives.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Gracious and Hospitable People

You know, I really can't remember the last time I saw an elephant being hauled through town on a flatbed truck. That sight certainly caught my eye as I was being driven through the city of Kottayam, India. I arrived in this country last week to visit five religious communities, some of whose priests are serving in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. The purpose is to meet with the superiors and thank them personally for their generosity towards us.

From my impressions of these first few days, I would say that "generosity" describes well the Indian people. Their welcome has been most gracious and their hospitality very warm. They are even sensitive enough to have mercy on my taste buds and warn me when the food might be spicy and hot! Terminology, I've discovered, is certainly relative. What they describe as mild nearly blows my head off!

My visit will be limited to the state of Kerala in the southwest of the country. It is truly beautiful here; like living in a rainforest. The effect would be very calming, were it not for the driving. Getting in a car here is definitely not for the faint of heart. Road markings are purely decorative, it would seem. Drivers play an endless game of "chicken" with approaching traffic as they overtake cars ahead of them. This is to say nothing of the cows that suddenly decide to enter the melee. Quite conducive, though, to prayer, I must say. As I hang on for dear life, Hail Marys are flying every which way!

Every state has its own language, and that of Kerala is Malayalam. I'm sure I could never learn it. At the same time the national language is English, so communication is not a problem. In fact, the graciousness of the people is a language unto itself. Without a word being spoken, a message of welcome is conveyed.

So, too, is a message of faith. Christians make up only two per cent of India's population, but that small percentage of over a billion people translates into a lot of persons. Most are found here in the south. The faith is strong. Eighty to ninety per cent of the people practice their faith. Small wonder, then at the abundance of vocations to priesthood and religious life. I met many young seminarians last night when I joined the local Bishop for supper at the seminary, and again this morning when I concelebrated mass with him at his cathedral. They are fervent and joyful.

The faith also spills out into the culture. This is the time of year for parishes to celebrate their patronal feasts, and those celebrations invariably include public processions. One also can't help notice an abundance of roadside shrines located frequently along the streets and roadways.

This is a fascinating place with a gracious populace. Spending time with them is a true blessing.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Turbulence! Unfasten Your Seatbelt!

It is unnerving, even to the seasoned traveler. The flight seems smooth, and then, suddenly, things get very bumpy and worrisome as it moves through an area of turbulence. If the seatbelt is not holding us securely in place, injury can happen, as we heard happened recently during an international flight.

Herod receives the news of the birth of a newborn King. A rival! This is turbulence in the extreme. He keeps his seatbelt very tightly fastened because he does not want to be thrown from his seat of power. Therefore, he summons his advisors to find out where the child is, so that he, too, can go and "do him homage" (translation: kill the child and remove the threat, calm the turbulence).

The reaction of the Magi is very different. They observe what for them was a kind of celestial turbulence. A new star has appeared. Astrologers, they are accustomed to reading and interpreting the alignment of the stars. They sense with the new star a significant re-alignment happening, not of the heavenly bodies but of earthly history. This event must have responded to a desire stirring deep within their hearts, because they "unfastened their seat belts"; sensing not danger but hope, they got up from their places, left behind the familiar, and went to the child. The offering of precious gifts symbolic of self-surrender, they yielded their lives to the King in whom they found the true way to view reality. Light for the world comes not from a star but from Him in whom God's own true light is made manifest. Power over time and history resides not in the stars and planets, but uniquely in Him by whose birth the eternal God enters time to make it salvation history. This kind of turbulence, this sort of "shaking up", is good; it is salutary, in fact. The Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod but to take another way home. The turbulence introduced in their lives by the encounter with the newborn King moved them to change direction, away from evil and toward a new life.

So, seatbelt on or off? Contrary to the normal in-flight experience, the Gospel's announcement of the "turbulence" introduced into history by the birth of the Word made flesh is accompanied by the call to "unfasten our seatbelts", so that we might be unseated from sinful patterns of thought and behaviour. The birth of Jesus is not a turbulence that threatens harm. It is a shaking up that leads to life.