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

Monday, October 31, 2016

No Need for Masks

Tonight is Halloween. This time often reminds me of a story told by a friend and contemporary of my parents. As this particular event one year was drawing near, she was speaking with her four-year old grandson. The little boy asked his grandmother if she would be dressing up for Halloween. Wanting to have a little fun, she replied that she was planning to dress up as an old lady. Shocked, the boy protested, saying, “But you're thupothed to be thomething different!

That little boy was giving voice to a message with which we are constantly bombarded: “You're supposed to be something different.” Time and again we are told that life is to be measured in terms of beauty, prowess, accomplishment, material wealth, power, and so on. This lie comes at us so often and in such a variety of ways that we can actually begin to believe it. When we thus surrender to the lie, we look within and begin to say to ourselves that we are supposed to be something different than we are. That’s when we begin to “dress up”, to put on “masks”, by hiding away our true selves under layers of pretence. Not good, because, in fact, what we are saying to ourselves is, “I wish I were somebody other than who I am.” That is to do terrible violence to the self and can cause untold harm. Furthermore, not only do we alienate ourselves from ourselves, but also, in so doing, separate ourselves from others. It is no wonder we see so much fracture and division in our society.

What God says to us is something entirely different than what we tell ourselves. Consider what we heard in the first reading Sunday from the Book of Wisdom: “Lord, you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it.” We are God’s creation. He loves us as he has made us, not as we wish we were. I’m reminded here of a passage from Isaiah that our beloved late Sr. Annata Brockman had chosen to be proclaimed at her funeral mass. In it, God says to us through the prophet: “[You] are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you..." (43: 4) No need for masks.

This unconditional love of God reaches us in the gaze of Jesus Christ. As we were reminded in the Gospel account of his encounter with Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), the Lord looked at him seated on a tree branch. This loving gaze passed through the label of “sinner” and reached the truth of Zacchaeus’s identity as a beloved child of God. Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus’s life, which was totally transformed in consequence. Zacchaeus knew he had done wrong, but that now a new life was made possible. While everyone else still placed upon him the mask of “sinner”, Zacchaeus cast it off through repentance. His life was totally changed when the Lord led him to see himself as God sees him. He knew that he no longer had to be “something different”, as he received from Jesus the mercy that liberates and restores to life.

The day after Halloween, the day the masks come off, is the Solemnity of All Saints. This juxtaposition of events reminds us that we grow in holiness as we open our lives to the gaze of Jesus Christ, abandon our surrender to falsehood, and live in accord with our identity and dignity as beloved children of God.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Unworthy of Election

For a while now the world has been watching the American presidential election campaign. In some ways the 2016 event seems unique. At the same time, it manifests dynamics common to all election campaigns. These can be used to give a perspective on the teaching of Sunday’s Gospel parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer in the Temple, and lead us into its deepest meaning.

In the case of an election campaign, candidates engage in self-promotion, often furthering a positive image by criticizing their opponents. When we consider the words of the Pharisee, one would think he is running for office. He boasts of his goodness and points to the faults of others. By way of contrast, the tax collector speaks as if he is not worthy to be elected to anything. His head is bowed down in shame, and speaks only of his failings and cries out for mercy: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Hardly a winning election slogan. And yet he is chosen, he is elected.

Elected to what? By posing this question we can see the urgent importance of this parable. It carries us to the very heart of the Christian life and all that the Church teaches about the love and mercy of God. The Christian life is, indeed, all about election. But the electorate is not us. God alone elects, and the "office" for which he chooses us is a life of communion with his Son in the Church. For such an office, who is worthy? Is this something for which we can campaign? Is this life one which we can earn by our good works? Does God select us on the basis of our merits and the good we have done? The Pharisee seemed to think so, and on that basis was rather confident in his self-righteousness. Yet Jesus concludes the parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God. He who recognized that all he had to offer God were his sins and failings and accepted his total reliance upon the mercy of God was the one “elected.”

God's love cannot be earned; it is freely given. God chooses us not as a reward for our accomplishments but solely on the basis of his mercy. As we were reminded in the first reading from Sirach, God alone is the judge; only God sees to the depths of our hearts and the truth of our existence. He knows that any boasts on our part as to our goodness would be as empty as those of the Pharisee. He sees that we are rather like the tax collector, totally reliant upon divine mercy for healing and for life. In spite of our weakness and failings, he chooses us for life with him. Such is the love and mercy of God! We begin truly to live the life he holds in store for us when we acknowledge our need for his mercy and in faith turn to him beating our own breasts.

This is not to say there is no place in the Christian life for good works! Quite the contrary. Good works are expected of the followers of Christ. But a Christian's good works do not earn God's love; they flow from it. In the second reading we heard St. Paul speaking of his works in a way that sounds like a boast: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Yet we know from his other writings that St. Paul was painfully aware of his sinful past. He knew he had been saved from a life of sin not by his merits but solely by the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. He teaches us clearly that it is from God's love that we are elected to life in Christ; it is in the power of that love that we are able to do good works; and it is for the sake of witnessing to that love that we are sent forth to accomplish them.

In an election campaign, huge amounts of money are expended to get a candidate elected. Well, a price has been paid, too, for our election to life. That cost, infinitely greater than anything we see in earthly campaigns, was the death of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus became one of us so that his death would destroy the power of sin and death in our lives. He rose again so that in him we might have the fullness of life. It is in Jesus Christ that God has chosen us for a life of faith and good works. Our only boast is this wondrous love and mercy of our God.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hands Up!

We hear this often in police dramas at the time of an arrest, or see it demanded of prisoners of war. It is a universal image of surrender, and expressive of helplessness in the presence of a force with the upper hand.

The image came to mind as I read the Scripture passages for this past Sunday. The first reading from Exodus (17:8-13) recounts the action of Moses as the people of Israel face battle with the hostile king Amalek and his army. He raises his arms. This is not concession to the enemy. Just the opposite, in fact. It is as if Moses hears not Amalek but God saying to him “Hands up!”, because his gesture is an expression not of helplessness in the face of a fierce army but of reliance upon Almighty God. It is, indeed, an expression of surrender, not to the enemy but to truth: the truth that we are dependent upon God and without him can do nothing; the truth that God will not fail to be with his people and answer their prayers for justice (cf. the Gospel, Lk 18:1-8).

In this light it is clear that we, too, need to have our arms raised in prayer constantly. The Christian life is dramatic. Forces both within and without are constantly pressuring us to rely not on God but on ourselves, to turn away from fidelity to him. St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy (3:14 - 4:2) goes straight to the heart of the matter. “Beloved: Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” Well, what we have learned and accepted firmly in faith is that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has revealed both his nature and his plan of salvation. Only Jesus is Saviour. Only Jesus has the words of everlasting life. Only his is the voice to follow. To “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed” is to stay faithful to Jesus at all times, to remain ever obedient to his teachings. Siren songs of infidelity surround us, tempting us away from what we have learned, often by distortions of the truth. In the face of this battle, the call is clear: “Hands up!” Pray constantly to God, that he grant us the gift of fidelity to the words spoken in his Son.

In this prayer we are called to support one another. Particularly striking in the passage from Exodus is the role of Aaron and Hur. When Moses grew weary and began to let his arms fall, they held them up, thus supporting his prayer. We do the same for one another, moved by the awareness of our collective dependence upon the mercy of God.

Let us together head the summons to constant prayer spoken by St. Paul: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Over the last few days I've watched the heartbreaking scenes of the devastation caused in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew. It brings back memories of my visit to that country two years after the destruction wrought by an earthquake. Great hardship and suffering. As it did in the wake of the earthquake, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian member of Caritas International, is receiving donations for emergency relief. I know many will be generous in response to this appeal.

The timing coincides with Thanksgiving weekend. As I watched on TV scenes of people carrying others across flood waters to safety, I knew those helped would feel deep gratitude in their hearts for having been rescued. This is a provocative image that can speak to all of us. We are continually being carried to safety by the love of God. Do we acknowledge this, give thanks for this, especially when the "carrying" happens in ways we do not see?

Sometimes the figurative hurricanes of our lives can leave more "damage" in their wake than the real ones. Sudden terminal illness of a loved one, family breakdown, loss of employment, betrayal and abandonment, and the like; when these crash in on us it can feel like all we have held onto for security has been taken away. We, too, need to be carried across the flood.

And we are! God does not abandon! He blesses and helps. In short, he carries us to safety. There is no need to fear. We may not see it as it happens. Often it is only in retrospect that we recognize how God has been walking with us. But let us not wait to give thanks. The time to give thanks to God for his loving help and mercy is now, because it is now that we are being carried, even though we may not now have the eyes to see it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

First Aid

Many homes and businesses keep on hand a first aid kit. We want to be ready to help anyone who gets injured, and that sometimes means healing wounds with bandages, gauze, ointment and the like. Wounds, though, can go beyond the superficial, and interior injuries can occur to vital organs, such as the heart. So, offices will also often be equipped with defibrillators, and employees will be trained in their use, in CPR etc.

This comes to mind as I reflect upon the Gospel passage assigned for the mass of today. It recounts the familiar and well-beloved parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, Jesus commands that we always to carry with us a first aid kit, so that we are ready to reach out and heal anyone we find left “half-dead at the side of the road.” We are to carry this kit not on our backs or in our hands, but in our hearts. The “first aid” we must always be ready to bring is mercy.

Many people today are “beaten up” by the difficulties of life. I am speaking here of wounds not to the body but to the soul. The wounds may be self-inflicted through sin, failure, mistakes. The bruises and welts may come from the cruelty of things like betrayal, lies, or exploitation. When we encounter a brother or sister who is hurting, we may be tempted to “walk by on the other side”, but the clear call of Christ is to heal the wounds by drawing from the first aid kit of mercy the blanket of love, the ointment of patient listening, the balm of encouragement, the crutch of material or spiritual assistance, the bandage of forgiveness, the gauze of reparation and so on. I’m reminded of the frequent image used by Pope Francis as he speaks of the mission of the Church in our day. He likens it to a field hospital in the midst of a battle. There are so many wounds, he says, and we are called to heal them.

To use CPR at the office, we must be properly trained. Effective use of the first aid kit of mercy likewise requires preparation. If we ourselves experience mercy then we are all the more ready and willing to share it with others. How do I need mercy? Do I feel as if I have been abandoned and left on the side of the road? Am I ready to cast aside pride and seek mercy, especially by asking forgiveness for any wrong-doing on my part? To know the mercy of God is to experience life anew! It liberates me from self-pre-occupation, awakens attentiveness to the needs of others, and inspires me to share with those in need the same mercy of which I have been the recipient.

The Lord Jesus is the Good Samaritan who has by mercy bound up and healed the wounds of broken humanity. May his mercy touch and transform each of us, and make of us agents of his healing mercy toward others.