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

Monday, May 30, 2016

Learning Again How to Die

The month of May draws to a close. In the Catholic tradition, this month, together with October, is a time to highlight our devotion to Mary, the Mother of Our Lord. Yet this is a tradition with an importance that overflows the bounds of Catholicism to confront with hope and meaning the troubling trends of our society.

Mary's universal significance was brought home to me simply and directly by the prayer of a priest last November. We were together with many fellow pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land. Among the sites we visited was the Church of the Dormition, the place honouring Mary's "falling asleep" in death and subsequent Assumption - body and soul - into heaven. At that place we prayed together the "Hail Mary", which ends with this petition to her maternal intercession: "...pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." Afterward, the priest told me that he found himself spontaneously praying to Our Blessed Mother that she "teach us how to die!"

I knew right away what he meant. In Canada we are having to deal with the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. This represents the adoption of a new and frightening approach to death. What have always been considered grave evils and sins against the love of God - suicide and the intentional killing of the innocent - are now being normalized and held up as good in response to human suffering. Clearly, we have forgotten how to die. This amnesia gives rise to the presumption that we can pre-determine the time and method of our death, and effect it on our own terms.

The Catholic tradition speaks unhesitatingly of a "happy death" or a "good death". In fact, the Church has for centuries prayed for this at night prayer to conclude each day: "May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death (in Latin: perfect end)." God makes our death "happy" or "good" when we allow him, by his mercy, to prepare us for that moment. This preparation is not to be understood as occurring only "at the last moment" but also as unfolding throughout our entire lives.

This means that, if we have forgotten how to die, it is because we have, first of all, forgotten how to live. The life God creates and intends for us is lived fully only in loving relationship with him. Mary serves as the perfect model of such a life. When we allow this love, revealed in Christ and poured out in the gift of the Holy Spirit, to take root in our hearts and blossom through prayer, obedience, worship, witness and charity, then we grow in the life that God wills for each of his creatures - we truly live. Living rightly and fully means surrendering with trust to God's saving will and purpose at each moment and in every circumstance. The moment of death is no exception. Indeed, death is the final act of surrender to God and of trust in his love. We give expression to this trust by allowing it to occur at a time of God's choosing, not our own. Such a death is, truly, a happy one. It is the exact opposite of one used as a final expression of self-assertion and self-determination.

Mary, our Mother, do, indeed, we pray, teach us how to die by teaching us first how to live.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Cold and Wet - Great!!!

Cold and wet. That's been the weather throughout the long weekend here in Edmonton and other parts of Alberta. Everyone's happy about it! Keep in mind this is the time of year many are setting out for the first camping trip of the season or opening up the cottage. Typically, we want the weather at such a time to be warm and sunny. It's been the opposite, and everyone welcomes it. The reason is obvious. The terrain has been dangerously dry, and we have been living daily with worry about damaging fires and low crop yields. We needed moisture desperately and are now happy to receive it, even when our plans and hopes might be inconvenienced or dashed by it.

In this situation, present hopes and desires have been weighed against greater and future needs; personal plans for recreation have been recognized as having less urgency than the requirements of others; what is unwelcome from one point of view is recognized as a good when placed within a larger perspective. It is a moment of recognition that the world does not revolve around me; that I am part of something bigger than myself, a something that calls me to a vision far broader and more expansive than my normal sight line that rarely extends beyond the tip of my nose.

Sunday's celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity had implicit within it a summons to an infinite vision. The mystery of the Trinity reminds us that the need to look beyond ourselves and the demands or hopes of the moment is not periodic but perennial. God, who has revealed Himself as a perfect communion of love - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - wills that we share in that very same divine life for all eternity. That this might be possible, He sent to us His Son and Holy Spirit. These wondrous gifts by which God, in fact, communicates His very self, draw us out of ourselves and towards God; they grant us a participation, even now, in God's own life! This astounding truth of God's desire for us fashions the horizon against which we view our lives correctly. We live not for the moment but for eternity; we are concerned not with the fulfilment of self-centered and transient desires but with allowing God to fulfil His will in us.

Within this perspective, even suffering and difficulty find meaning. Regularly we have to grapple with things far worse than cold and wet weather. Yet, when we recognize that, by the water of God's grace and mercy, suffering can lead to the blossoming of a soul desiccated by self-absorption, that it can thus further us along the journey out of ourselves and towards God, then even the hardship can be welcomed as a good. To be sure, this is a perspective that is granted only by faith, yet this does not render it unreal. On the contrary, by the gift of faith we perceive things as they truly are and are enabled to order our lives, and our response to adversity, accordingly.

Bad weather is not necessarily bad. A truth to bear in mind in the pilgrimage of our souls.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Change Is Possible

As I entered a church on the weekend, I was greeted warmly by a parishioner, who said, "I hope you give us a long homily this weekend!" He was serious. I thought to myself, "Now, that's a first." Usually the sentiment moves in the opposite direction. In fact, I remember one time years ago a parishioner offering "an extra twenty in the collection if you keep it short!" Jokingly, of course. (I think.)

As we celebrated this past weekend the Solemnity of Pentecost, the homily did not need to be long at all to convey a point necessary for our times. In fact, that point can be summarized in three simple words: "Change is possible."

This message arises from the experience of the apostles when they received the promised Holy Spirit. They were transformed by this wondrous gift from on high. Simple, fearful and uneducated men all of a sudden became filled with clear understanding and remarkable boldness. They who had remained locked behind closed doors for fear of the authorities now were stepping forth with great courage to proclaim the truth of Christ.

Change is what we seek today, in many ways. We know that, as Christians, we are called daily to holiness, expressed in our embrace of God and his commands and through our rejection of Satan and all that is bad. Yet due to our inclination to sin we often get it backwards and, in our actions, say yes to Satan and no to God. This leaves us wondering, "Will I ever change?" Similarly, we are aware of our call to be witnesses before the world of our faith in Christ. Yet, in a society which seems increasingly allergic to the Gospel, we are tempted to shrink back in fear and to stay quiet. Will I ever change and start to speak and act in accordance with my faith?

More broadly speaking, we can crave change in our family lives. Difficulties with employment, with relationships, with children and so on can at times seem intractable. WE wonder if and how it could ever change. Think, too, of our culture and the trends within it that are opposed to what is true and right. We anguish over the usurpation of God's rule by the will of the autonomous self. The forces behind this are powerful and we wonder if anything can be done to reverse the situation. Global unrest is pervasive and massive. It is tempting to give into despair when we see the enormity of the problems and the inability of world powers to stem the tide. Can any of this change? Is hope for change realistic?

It is. Hope for change is reasonable not on the basis of our limited capacities but on that of the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. Consider the supreme confidence of the Psalmist who praised God for the power of the Spirit to "renew the face of the earth!" Change is, indeed, possible, in all aspects of our lives. As it was with the apostles, so it is with us. Change is possible. Complete, radical change.

All that is needed of us is one little yet powerful word: "Amen." When at Confirmation the Bishop says to the recipient "Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit," the response given is "Amen." That is to say, "So be it; I open my life here and now and every day thereafter to the power of the Holy Spirit in my life." Let this be the prayer on the lips of all believers as we commemorate Pentecost. God wills to clothe us with his power so as to renew us and, indeed, the face of the earth." May our hearts and lives be fully open to this transformative gift so as to experience the truth that change - real, profound and surprising - is possible.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Merciful Communication

It has been an extraordinary week in Alberta. Enormous and terrifying wildfires cover a vast area of land in the northern part of the province, and have necessitated mass evacuations of the city of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas; about 90,000 people! This is no small feat of coordination, and officials have carried it off with wonderful efficiency, patience and dedication. The hearts and homes of Albertans have opened wide in response to the needs of the evacuees. First responders battle the blaze at great personal cost and remarkable heroism. Civic officials have demonstrated impressive and necessary leadership at all levels of government. Above all, the evacuees themselves have shown edifying resilience, particularly those who, in spite of having lost literally everything, refuse to give up hope as they find their lives in an instant turned upside down.

Not to be overlooked in this is the role of the media. In my view, all dimensions of modern social communication are offering an invaluable service to the common good at this time of tragedy. They are using their considerable resources in the service of fostering unity, encouraging hope and doing good. Where to find help; how to make a donation; what are the latest updates; who is in charge; what supplies are needed; these and many other questions find answers through the combined resources of television, radio, newsprint, Internet and social networking. They are uniting our population by providing vital information and connecting need with response.

This experience underscores the enormous potential of modern communication technology to do good and bring people together in ways that strengthen society. I highlight this as we mark World Communications Day on May 8th. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of this annual commemoration. For his 2016 message in honour of this day, Pope Francis has highlighted the need to understand communications as an agent of mercy. It seems to me that this is exactly what Albertans are seeing played out, as they stay tuned in to their TV's, radios, computers and smartphones. The fostering of unity and the provision of real reasons for hope are among the greatest acts of mercy towards any people feeling cut off, isolated, or on the verge of despair. How could one not feel all of these sentiments, and more, as one's home and/or livelihood goes up in smoke? Yet the communications industry has stepped up to the plate and provided the information necessary to keep hope alive. It is truly a wonderful act of mercy.

The communication is, it must be noted, two-way in a manner important for all of us. Those directly impacted by the tragedy are also sending messages to the general population. The first responders, by their selfless actions, are communicating the responsibility we all share for one another. More than anyone else, the evacuees themselves are communicating the need to keep life in its proper perspective. I have lost count of the number of people who, in interview after interview, have shared that nothing is more important than having their loved ones safe and with them. All else, they say, is just "stuff" that can somehow always be replaced. They are not diminishing the sense of sadness and shock at the losses, of course. Yet they are demonstrating great strength and wonderful insight as they stay focused on what is truly necessary. The communication of this message is something we should all hear and keep always in mind.

Probably the most frequent communication happening right now is that of prayer, not only in our province and country but also around the world. The situation has come to the attention of our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis, who on Friday sent to Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul (in which Fort Mac is situated) a message of solidarity, prayer and hope. We continue to unite our prayers to his for the good of everyone impacted by this terrible tragedy.

Monday, May 2, 2016


The thermos of water; it seems to be everywhere. In the office, at school, while out for a walk - many people are carrying with them some form of container filled with water. The need for regular hydration - and lots of it - seems to be catching on as necessary for the enjoyment of good health. Simply put, we cannot live without water.

In Alberta, this point is underscored dramatically right now by the lack of moisture in the earth. The winter has been unusually mild and dry, and this leaves us worried about the crops our farmers can expect their fields to yield this year. Rain would be very welcome right now.

So, when it comes to the body and the earth, we get it. Regular and sufficient hydration is a must. Yet, what about spiritual hydration? Are we allowing our souls to wilt? It seems to me we need to take a look at this, and urgently. The legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia is but one indicator of the spread of a spiritual desert in our nation.

When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, he promised her "living water", indeed, a spring "gushing up" to eternal life. (Cf. John, chapter 4). This promise of spiritual hydration was fulfilled in the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which will be commemorated and celebrated this year on May 15. In the immediate lead up to Pentecost, perhaps we could examine our lives and consider to what degree our souls have become desiccated and are in need of re-hydration by the Holy Spirit.

St. Paul can help us in this regard. Take a look at Galatians 5: 16-26, where the Apostle contrasts the "works of the flesh" with the "fruits of the Spirit." Struggles with any of the former are clear signs of a wilting soul. A soul well watered by the Holy Spirit becomes a fertile field yielding the fruits of peace, truth, love, justice, charity, mercy and so on.

The irrigation system bringing us this water that is the Holy Spirit is comprised of the gifts Christ himself left to the Church, namely, his Word and the sacraments. Do we ponder daily the Word of God with hearts ready to be challenged and transformed? Are we participating with regularity in the sacramental celebrations of the Church, especially Eucharist and Penance? If the answer to either of these is negative, it is no wonder that we find our souls parched; we are closing ourselves off from the wellsprings. Let's return quickly to these sources of spiritual hydration and know the fullness of life Christ wills for each of us.