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

This picture shows one of the panels on the holy door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I have always loved it, and it speaks beautifully of the Good Shepherd reaching out to save the lost. That's the reason for hope.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Hindsight Grounding Foresight

The Easter Vigil is a liturgy of extraordinary depth and beauty. The solemn proclamation of Easter (Exsultet) unfolds beneath the flaming paschal candle and announces the Risen Christ as the light that dispels all darkness. The expanded Liturgy of the Word traces the awe-inspiring course of salvation history leading to the wondrous event of the Resurrection. The Baptismal Liturgy extends to the recipients of this sacrament the gift of new life in Christ, and welcomes them into his embrace through membership in his Mystical Body, the Church. The liturgy culminates with the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the Risen Lord renders himself truly present in fulfillment of his promise always to be with us and as food for our journey toward the fullness of life in heaven.

I'd like to focus briefly upon the Liturgy of the Word proclaimed at the Vigil. The proclamation of the many Scripture passages is an exercise of what I like to call holy hindsight. This part of the liturgy looks back over history and sees it anew in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus. In this light, we see a history of wondrous and ineffable love. After God created the human family we abandoned him through sin. Yet he never abandoned us, but walked with us always, intervening in our history, both collective and personal, in order to draw us back to himself. When we erred, he did not turn his back on us, but worked to turn all to our good by transforming our wrong turns into right ones and our mistakes into blessings. His definitive and decisive intervention is what we celebrate at Easter. Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, after having taken to himself all of our sins and dying on the Cross, rises from the grave, triumphant over sin and death. In this way, he reverses forever the downward trajectory on which our sin had launched human history.
This holy hindsight announces the steadfast love and mercy of God as always present and perennially victorious over evil. In this way, the holy hindsight grounds our hopeful foresight. We cannot see all that lies before us, but we are certain that in every event and circumstance our Risen Lord will be there, in the full power of his resurrection, to love us by guiding us, correcting us, forgiving us and leading us to eternal life. It is no wonder that our Easter liturgies resound with "Alleluia!" Christ is truly Risen and with his people. We are not alone; never alone. Let this conviction banish all fear as we place our faith fully in our Risen Lord and surrender our lives to him.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Follow or Flee?

The liturgy of Palm Sunday is dramatic. Recounting events in Jerusalem in the last days of our Lord's earthly life, it traces a path from triumph to shame. Scripture recalls that crowds of people hailed him as king upon his entry into the city, but that a few days later he was left abandoned as he hung upon the Cross. 

This commemoration poses a question that we would do well to carry with us into Holy Week: follow or flee? The crowds were quite happy to follow the Lord into Jerusalem when all seemed well. They wanted to benefit from the triumphal liberation that they supposed him to be bringing. At some point, though, it became clear exactly where the Lord's particular path was leading. The shadow of the Cross began to loom very large, and the enthusiasm for Jesus quickly evaporated. They fled. 

Entering Holy Week means entering Jerusalem with him. We follow him into the city through our participation in the solemn liturgies of the coming days. The story of the crowds in Jerusalem of old raises for us today the question of just how far we are willing to go. Will we follow or will we flee? Will we go where he leads us or will we choose to forge our own path? 

Faithful following of Jesus Christ leads to the Cross. We know that. Yet we also know that the journey does not end there. This Holy Week will culminate with the joyful celebration at Easter of the Lord's resurrection from the dead. The path of Jesus leads to the fullness of life, indeed, to eternal life. This is where he is leading us. Yet his journey also makes clear that this path passes inevitably through the Cross. The path followed by the disciple of Jesus is that of self-denial, self-sacrifice, indeed death to self so as to live for God and for others.

In our age that exalts personal autonomy to the point of idolatry, any idea of self-sacrifice or abnegation, even for the sake of a greater good, is for many incomprehensible. It is, indeed, something to flee. What Jesus teaches, though, is that flight into the self leads nowhere. That path finishes in a dead end. In light of the Resurrection we see clearly that only the Cross opens our lives up to a limitless future, to an infinite horizon. It is not something shameful from which to flee in terror but a wondrous mystery to be embraced with hope.

May the grace of the Holy Week celebrations free us from fear and strengthen our faith, so that we may follow the Lord in all things and never flee from his love.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Ad Limina (Final Part 5)

Well, today started off with a real treat for Bishop Greg and myself. Word had reached us through the week that a group of students from Austin O’Brien Catholic School in Edmonton would be in Rome for a couple of days. We learned that they had arranged to celebrate Mass with Fr. Michael Schumacher in one of the chapels in the crypt area below St. Peter’s Basilica. We wanted very much to see them, so we went over to the Basilica first thing and met up with them as they were finishing their celebration of the Mass. I must say, they are an ambitious group! They’re on a twelve-day adventure that began in Barcelona and passed through Venice and Orvieto (and probably a few other places that I didn’t catch) before coming to Rome. No wonder they looked so tired! Happy, but a little fatigued. It was a delight to be with them. 

As it turns out, this unplanned encounter set the stage beautifully for the meetings that had been planned. In our Catholic schools, we work very hard to create an environment fully permeated by the faith. The ultimate goal is to form our students as life-long disciples of Jesus, and throughout our history some of our students have heard the Lord call them to live out this baptismal call by means of a religious vocation. These were the precise themes discussed as we met, first, with the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and, second, the Congregation for Catholic Education. In the former we discussed the challenge of a diminishment in religious vocations in certain areas of the world as well as the hopeful reality of an increase in others. We recalled the message of the Holy Father that we must at all times remain people of hope and never of resignation, since God is always present and at work in his Church to turn all things to the good. Therefore, we must never tire of promoting the joy, beauty and essentiality of vocations to priesthood and religious life. Our latter meeting at Catholic Education was an opportunity to affirm the great gift we have in Catholic schools and the joint responsibility shared by all believers to strengthen their identity and mission, especially in the face of the many pressures prevalent in the world today to insert into our classrooms ideologies contrary to the faith or to work against the very existence of Catholic schools. This Congregation is also responsible for Catholic universities and ecclesiastical institutes. In this respect, we spent time discussing among other things the good and challenging work of our chaplaincies, particularly where these operate in secular settings.
Basilica Papale San Paolo fuori le Mura
These were our final dicastery visits. We ended the day with our pilgrimage mass at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls, built near the place where this great Apostle was martyred and where his bones are preserved and venerated. Here we brought to the intercession of the Saint the urgent need that emerged as a theme uniting all of our encounters and to which the Apostle dedicated himself fully: evangelization. To announce the Gospel is to proclaim to our suffering world the life and hope that only our Lord can give. It is a duty of all believers.
Tomorrow morning, we end formally our ad limina visit with our final mass at the Major Basilica of St. Mary Major, the Church built to the honour of Mary under her supreme title of Mother of God. There we shall entrust the needs of the whole Church, especially those of the people of our own Dioceses, to the powerful intercession of Our Lady.

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
It has been a very effective and worthwhile encounter, a real experience of fraternal communion with the Holy Father and his closest collaborators. Having crossed this “threshold of the Apostles,” we now cross back again over those of our own Dioceses. It is always good to get back home, and this time we do so refreshed in the Spirit who unites and empowers us for the task entrusted to us as Successors of the Apostles at the service of the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

See all more photos from Bishop Bittman here:

Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.
Part 3:
Part 2:
Part 1:

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 4)

Icon of the baptism of Jesus at St Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Parish.

Pope Francis has made clear from his pontificate that, in virtue of our Baptism, we are called to be missionary disciples. By “disciple” we mean one who has come to know the truth that Jesus alone leads to life and thus follows him by allowing his teachings and promptings to inform and shape every aspect of one’s life. By “missionary” we mean that Jesus “sends” those who follow him on mission with the message of the Gospel, especially to the poor and any who live on the peripheries of our societies. 

Monument in Piazza di Spagna

I mention this because “missionary discipleship” emerged as the unifying theme of our visits today to yet more Vatican dicasteries. The first was to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, located in the Piazza di Spagna, very near the famous “Spanish steps” and next to the extraordinary monument to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, visited by the Pope every year on December 8th. This congregation, since its establishment in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, has been concerned with the missionary activity of the Church throughout the world. It oversees the work of the Church especially in Africa, Asia and parts of Oceania. Yet, as we were reminded today by the Prefect, Cardinal Filoni, the entire Church is called to be missionary. 

The missionary activity of the Church has many facets. The multiform mission of the Church is made visible in the second dicastery visited today, namely, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development. This is a new department, recently created by Pope Francis by bringing together the following pre-existing Pontifical Councils: Justice and Peace; Cor Unum; for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People; and for Health Care Workers. Here we discussed the need to protect and uphold the conscience rights of our healthcare workers, particularly those who are pressured to perform activities that are contrary to their religious or moral convictions. As one official rather trenchantly put the matter, “Doctors are not executioners.” We also touched upon the situation of our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Canada, and the welcome, care and integration we are called to extend to immigrants in our land, especially to those recently arrived as refugees. Our country in particular was congratulated for the warm and generous welcome extended throughout our history, but especially recently, to people in need arriving at our borders. 

Since Christ died for all people of all time, the Church understands her missionary activity ordered to the fostering of deep and lasting unity among all peoples. This leads us into ecumenical dialogue, which was discussed when Bishops gathered in the afternoon at the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. More broadly, the very important matter of interreligious dialogue occupied our attention when we met with the Archbishop Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. In our gatherings, it has been noted that we Bishops of Canada offer a particularly wonderful and effective sign of unity in the communion we demonstrate among the Bishops of the Latin Rite and those of the Ukrainian Catholic Church. This was underscored when we met with officials of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the dicastery that oversees the relations of the Holy See with the many Catholic Churches of non-Latin Rite who are in communion with Rome. 
Bishop Terrio, Fr Schumacher, Archbishop Smith, and Bishop Bittman at dinner in Rome.

At the end of the day Bishop Greg and I, in the company of Bishop Paul Terrio, met up with one of our priests doing graduate studies here in Rome, Fr. Michael Schumacher. We took him out to dinner in Trastevere, one of my favourite areas of Rome. We found a restaurant near one of Rome’s most ancient churches dedicated to Our Lady, Santa Maria in Trastevere. Its mosaics are of breathtaking beauty. 
Santa Maria in Trastevere

Missionary disciples. As has been observed and discussed more than once this week, humanity today knows great suffering. It is incumbent upon all followers of Christ to embrace fully our call and duty to bring the Gospel to all situations as thus proclaim real hope.
More photos from Bishop Bittman's Ad Limina album:
Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Piazza di Spagna.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 3)

We are all called to be saints. That fundamental and universal call of all the baptized – to be holy, to be saints – was underscored by our visits today. At the Congregation for the Causes of Saints we met the Cardinal Prefect and some of his officials, who together govern this dicastery, which is responsible for guiding the process of discerning the possibility of blessedness or sainthood for candidates who are proposed to it.
Bishop Vital Grandin is laid in the crypt at St Albert Parish.
The meeting was very informative. They provided us with a list of Canadians whose 'causes' are currently under consideration by this Congregation. Of the three from Western Canada, two are connected with the Archdiocese of Edmonton: our first Bishop, Vital Grandin; and Brother Anthony Kowalczyk. Let’s continue to promote the advancement of these causes by our prayers. 
I happened to notice that my own name was not on the list. Must have been an oversight. Either that, or Bishop Bittman deleted it. 
Brother Anthony Kowalczyk's (aka Frere Antoine) grave at Mission Hill
Holiness, of course, is not something we can achieve on our own. That is impossible. Only God creates saints, and he continuously pours out his grace and mercy upon us in order transform us into the saints he calls us to be. The privileged place for the reception of this transformative grace of God is, of course, in the sacramental liturgies of the Church, above all in Baptism, Penance and, of course, the Eucharist. Thus, it was very appropriate that our next visit was to the Congregation dedicated to Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. There we brought to the Cardinal Prefect and his collaborators some liturgical questions that we are pondering, and received from them some very helpful suggestions and direction. 

Eucharist at St Peter's Basilica
The Eucharist cannot be celebrated without the ministry of the priest. Those called to the priesthood therefore exercise a very important role in our own ongoing sanctification. Indeed, the life and ministry of the priest was our next focus of discussion as we met with the top officials of the Congregation for Clergy. This gave us an opportunity to discuss the great gift that we find in our priests, as well as some of the many challenges they face, particularly when their ministry takes place in remote northern regions. From the responses of the Cardinal Prefect and those with him, it was clear that they took these concerns to heart and shared with us a deep appreciation for the faithful exercise of ministry exercised by the priests in our dioceses. 

At the end of the day we gathered at one of the major Basilicas visited on every ad limina visit, St. John Lateran. This is the Church of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope). Just as every Bishop has his cathedral Church in his diocese (e.g. S. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton) so, too, does the Pope in his capacity as Bishop of Rome. As such, this Church is yet one more symbolic reminder of our communion as Bishops with the Successor of St. Peter. Mass was presided by Regina’s Archbishop Donald Bolen, who invited us to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for his predecessor and our good friend, the late Archbishop Daniel Bohan. 

In these many ways, the events of the day were a striking reminder of the goal of every Christian life: growth in holiness. Especially during this season of Lent may our hearts be especially open to the mercy of God, without whom such growth is impossible.
To view an album of the Bishop Bittman's photos from the Ad Limina visit, click here:
The Apse at the Basilica of St John Lateran.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 2)

A particularly full day today, and wonderfully enriching. 

We began with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy, presided by our Ukrainian brother Bishops, who are part of our regional episcopal assembly. Gathered at St. Peter’s Basilica, we offered the liturgy at the altar of St. Basil, where the mortal remains of St. Josaphat have been placed for public veneration. Ukrainian seminarians studying in Rome, together with the Vice-Rector of the seminary, joined us and led us in their beautiful singing of the liturgy. St. Josaphat was martyred for the faith in the 1600’s, in particular for his determined and courageous promotion of unity between Eastern Rite Churches and the See of Rome. Fidelity to Christ involves sacrifice, unavoidably; such sacrifice may also extend to the offering of one’s own life. I’m sure there were many prayers ascending from our hearts during the liturgy for Christians who, even today, are being martyred for their faith. 

Throughout the day, we visited four Vatican dicasteries, where discussion was held of topics relevant to the competency of each. In the morning, we began with the Congregation for Bishops, where we discussed various dimensions of the episcopal ministry. It was a special delight for us to meet with the prefect (head) of that department, our Canadian brother Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who shared with us memories of the ministry he exercised in Western Canada, especially as rector of St. Joseph’s seminary in Edmonton. This gathering was followed by a session at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where we brought to them our assessment of the theological and philosophical issues that impact our current life of faith, and heard from Cardinal Mueller and his collaborators their own insights and questions about the situation of the Church in our country.

The afternoon and evening was entirely taken up by visits to three dicasteries. At the first, the new Secretariat for Communications, we learned of the exciting work that is being undertaken to integrate the various communications vehicles of the Holy See and their future plans. We were very impressed and encouraged by their vision and competence, and now look forward to discovering ways in which our own diocesan communications departments and networks can collaborate with this Secretariat. Then we visited the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, where the officials shared with us the various positive initiatives they have undertaken for an effective and attractive announcement of the Gospel. At that same department, which was responsible for organizing the recent Jubilee of Mercy, we spent a fair amount of time sharing with them our own many positive experiences of the way the Year of Mercy was received and celebrated in our respective dioceses. It was clear to all of us that this particular moment in the history of the Church was a special moment of grace for the People of God. 

Finally, we returned to the Apostolic Palace, where yesterday we had met with the Holy Father. On this occasion, we visited with Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States (Foreign Minister). With him we discussed a number of issues that, while experienced globally, also impact our local lives: e.g. freedom of conscience and religion, human trafficking, refugees, and the persecution of Christians. 

At the end of this last session, we arranged to go out on a small terrace overlooking St. Peter’s Square and looking almost directly down upon the fa├žade of St. Peter’s Basilica. The view of the Square, Rome and the distant mountain ranges was stunning. We then were led on a visit to a special private chapel of the Holy Father within the Palace. Named the Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer) chapel, it is entirely decorated with the mosaics of the celebrated artist Fr. Marko Rupnik. The beauty of this sacred space takes one’s breath away. The images give expression to the whole of salvation history, centered upon and fulfilled by Jesus Christ. One could take a whole week simply to meditate upon this artistic treasure, but we were certainly grateful for the few minutes we were able to spend there.

Our reception here in every department is warm and fraternal; a real experience of the communion of the Church. I’m looking forward to the blessings that yet await us.
Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ad Limina 2017 (Part 1)

The Bishops of Western and Northern Canada are here now in Rome for what is called our visit ad limina apostolorum. This means, literally, “to the threshold of the Apostles.” Bishops are required by  canon law to make a pilgrimage to the tombs in Rome of the Apostles Peter and Paul. The requirement historically is to do so every five years, but with the growing number of Bishops such frequency is not possible to maintain. The last time the Bishops of Canada made such a pilgrimage was in 2006. We do so by region, and these days it is the turn of the Bishops of Western and Northern Canada.

The visit comprises Mass not only at the tombs of the two greatest Apostles and at the two other major Roman Basilicas (St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran), but also an audience with the Holy Father and sessions at a number of dicasteries (Vatican departments) whose officials form the Roman Curia. Our pilgrimage runs from today to this coming Saturday.

So, today it started. And what a beginning!!! We began with the celebration of mass at the tomb of the Apostle Peter beneath the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Then two hours later we were ushered into the office and library of his Successor, Pope Francis. He met with us for two and a half hours!! Before anything else, this unusually long period of time speaks volumes about his desire to learn from his brother Bishops about the situation of the Church in our part of the world and of the needs of God’s people. We were all flabbergasted by such generous availability.

There was no set agenda. The Holy Father simply left it to us to share our experiences or pose questions, and he adapted himself to our needs. We talked about many things, including the reality of migration, the lived reality of our Indigenous peoples, the hopes and pains of our young people, and the challenges of secularization. He listened carefully throughout the encounter, and offered responses, insights and his own experiences, which gave beautiful voice to his pastor’s heart. He encouraged us to stay close to our people, to accompany them with the truth and beauty of the Gospel, freely and willingly to enter into dialogue, even (and especially) with people who are far from the Church, and above all to continue to be men of deep prayer, attentive and open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, who enables us to serve free from fear. Seated next to him, I was able to see clearly his facial expressions as he listened and responded to what he heard from us, particularly when we spoke of hardships and suffering among our people. He truly has the heart of a shepherd and feels deeply, even from a distance, the pain of God’s people. I saw, too, his joy as he listened to the good things that God is doing for us and among us, a joy reflected in a beautiful and spontaneous sense of humour.

Of course, the Holy Father is the Pope, the one to whom, as Successor of Peter, we have pledged our obedience and who has the final word in the Church. At the same time, we were welcomed by him as brother Bishops who share a common mission, and I’m sure we each left his presence encouraged and affirmed by the encounter.

Now, for the rest of the week it is a host of meetings with his curial officials. Please keep us in prayer, and above all pray for the needs and intentions of Pope Francis. 

Read the Ad Limina Blog series here.
Part 3:
Part 2:
Part 1 (this post):

Monday, March 20, 2017


I’ve arrived in Rome for the ad limina visit. Getting here necessitates a lot of time in a plane. It is very easy during the flights to get dehydrated, so the intake of lots of water is highly recommended. In fact, I find that for a period of time after the flight dehydration can still be something to contend with, so I try to keep lots of water close by.

It seems to me that the need for a different kind of hydration characterizes our times. In so many contexts do I see what might be described as an existential dehydration, by which I mean people parched for meaning, direction, hope and so on. There is a deep and widespread thirst of the spirit, and the “drink” on offer (worldly goods, various forms of escapism, the exaltation of the self and its desires, etc.) leaves one deeply unsatisfied and perennially thirsting, in spite of the consumption of “gallons” of the stuff.

Enter the Gospel passage proclaimed at mass on Sunday for the Third Sunday of Lent. I love the story. It occurs at a well, where Jesus pauses for a rest and where he encounters a Samaritan woman who has approached the well for water. The Lord initiates a dialogue, by means of which he leads the woman, thirsty for well water, to an awareness of a deeper thirst that can be quenched only by the “living water” that he alone can give. This deeper thirst is that of a yearning for peace with God and, ultimately, the gift of eternal life. This living water is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which, when poured into our hearts, never disappoints (Romans 5:5), that is, never leaves us thirsting. With the Samaritan woman, let us not hesitate to be bold in asking the Lord constantly for this gift.

As I was writing this post, I paused to listen on my computer to the livestream of the Angelus address of Pope Francis. Commenting upon this passage, he warned against the various “wells” at which we gather seeking to slake our thirst. Be careful, he says, because many of today’s “wells” contain a “water” which is not potable. A striking image. Anyone who travels outside of the developed world asks before all else if the local water is drinkable. It is question we should pose wherever we are when it comes to quenching the thirst of the spirit. So much on offer is “dirty water” and, therefore, not to be touched. Only that which Jesus gives can be trusted to satisfy and lead to the fullness of life.

Here is the latest story 'Euthanasia on agenda for Bishops' meeting with Francis' during the ad limina visit.

Monday, March 13, 2017


It drives me nuts! Like many smartphones, mine has a feature that automatically "corrects" text as I type. Mind you, sometimes it is helpful. Most often, though, its proposed corrections are nothing more than gibberish or words that convey a message quite other than I had intended! I've learned it is very important to review the wording of the text or email before hitting "send". 

Many's the time, though, when we wish we had an "auto-correct" for our speech. We all know the experience of speaking without thinking, when prior thought would have provided a helpful corrective or cautioned us not to speak at all. Steady formation of conscience and regular examination of it helps to develop such an "auto-correct" in our lives. It doesn't hurt either to pray daily to our guardian angel to swoop in as needed with a gag for our mouths. 

There is, too, an "auto-correct" operative as we receive messages. I am thinking in particular of our reception of God's Word. God has spoken in Christ, and Sunday's passage from Matthew with the account of the Transfiguration records the command of the Father: "Listen to him" (Matthew 17:1-9). There is obviously no allowance for auto-correct here! The listening we give to Jesus must be that of complete and trusting obedience. As St Paul recalls for us, when the Lord speaks, he calls in accordance with his particular purpose for us and for the world (2Timothy 1.8b-10e). He calls out of love and is entirely worthy of our trust. I love the example of Abram (later Abraham), given in Sunday's first reading (Genesis 12:1-4). God called him to leave his home - leave all that he knew, all that was familiar - and go, but without telling him where! No auto-correct in Abraham. He trusted, obeyed and went, and was thus made the father in faith of us all. 

How do we receive the Word of God, spoken in Christ? Do we auto-correct it when it does not match our plans and desires? For example, when the Lord calls us to take up our cross, do we instead run from it? When he summons us to holiness, do we remain in sinful patterns of thought, speech and action? When he commands that we die to self so as to live for God and neighbour, do we continue to place ourselves first, perhaps not even noticing the suffering of others around us? These are all forms of auto-correct. Due to the abiding effect of original sin, the auto-correct is a default reaction in our weakened human nature. 

So, what to do? Well, when I'm tired of the auto-correct on my phone, I go into "settings" to turn it off. Fixing the auto-correct operative in our response to God's Word, however, requires a complete system reset, or what in more biblical terms we would call a change of heart. Let us pray for this particular grace during this Lenten season. As we obey the call of the Father to listen to his Son, may the Holy Spirit so transform our hearts that we will do so without compromise.

Monday, March 6, 2017

I Want Candy!!!

It took me a while to know what he was saying. In the course of my pastoral visit to St Dominic Savio parish in Edmonton on Sunday, at the end of mass a little boy joined the line of people welcoming me to the parish. When his turn came, he shook my hand and was saying something I couldn’t make out. His height didn’t reach much beyond my knees and I couldn’t hear him with all the chatter around us. After I asked him a couple of times to repeat what he was saying, he finally raised his voice and shouted: “I want candy!” My instinctive response was, “So do I! Where can we get some?” Then I clued in that the parish often made a bowl of candy available to the kids as they left the church, and the boy obviously had his heart set on it. Someone else heard him, brought the bowl, and the little fella went off with a big smile, not really caring too much who the man in the strange hat was.

Another kind of irresistible desire is at the heart of the dramatic narrative told in the first reading of Sunday’s mass (Genesis 2: 7-9, 16-18, 25; 3:1-7). It has to do with the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil standing in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve have just been prohibited by God from taking and eating it, but the devil seduces them with a lie, as a result of which the tree became in their eyes so delightful and desirable that they could not resist the temptation to pick and consume it. Yet, rather than walking away happy and satisfied, they find themselves separated from God and one another, deeply ashamed. Their action gave rise to tragic hardship both for them and their human descendants (cf. Romans 5: 12-19).

We need to grasp what is happening here. God’s prohibition is to be likened to the warning given out of love by a parent to a child in order to protect. By imposing a limit upon their activity in the garden, God was teaching them that, as creatures, they were limited and needed, therefore, to place their trust in the wisdom and providence of God, who knows no limit. Reaching out toward the forbidden fruit was tantamount to the refusal of limit, to an attempt to be other than creature, to be, in effect, like God but apart from God. Adam and Eve believed the lie of the devil rather than the truth of God, allowed their trust in God to die, and sundered their communion with God through an original act of radical disobedience. (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 396-398.)

This narrative describes the essence of all temptation: beginning with the lie that God is not to be trusted, it seeks to have us rely not on God but on ourselves, to live our lives not on God’s terms but our own, and then makes what is harmful look good. The “I want candy” spoken by an innocent child becomes the “I want power, money, possessions, reputation,” or the “I refuse any limit to my personal autonomy,” or the “I want truth and reality to be whatever I declare it to be” of the adult whose heart, mind and vision have been distorted by evil seduction. Pursuit of such desire leads away from God, and away from our true selves in consequence. The only one left smiling is the devil himself.

Such temptation waged against us weak and vulnerable individuals is extraordinarily powerful. But we know One who is more powerful yet. The Gospel account of Jesus’s effortless resistance against the temptations he faced when he encountered the devil in the desert (cf. Matthew 4:1-11) reminds us to turn to the Lord for a share in his strength when seductions come our way. At no point in his earthly life did Jesus allow his trust in the Father to die. Living in his grace, we can have confidence that he will strengthen our own trusting reliance upon the wisdom and the providence of the Father, and thus enable us to live in the peace and joy God wills for us.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Fast from Fear

Last week I attended in Victoria BC the annual meeting of the Bishops of Western and Northern Canada. Twice during our time there we heard news reports of earthquakes that had occurred toward the northern part of Vancouver Island. They registered just over 4 on the Richter scale, so we felt nothing.

Those, it seems to me, were a far cry from the “earthquakes” that impact us frequently and that we can, indeed, feel. I’m referring not to the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, but to the shaking of the foundations upon which we build our personal, familial and societal existence.

Think of the “earthquake” that hits a family through sudden illness, injury or death. When the home”s economic foundation crumbles due to unemployment, the aftershocks can be very dramatic. At the level of society, the bedrock principle of respect for life is giving way to the shifting sand of “individual autonomy” and the population sinks into the quagmire of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia. Geopolitically, political foundations are far from stable, robbing peoples by the millions of the security of home and forcing them to flee for their lives, often to countries that are hesitant to welcome them.

The seismic shifts affecting life at all these levels is giving rise to widespread angst and worry. I see this most dramatically and tragically in the lives of children. Suicides and suicidal ideation among the young are too frequently headlining our news broadcasts.

Into this environment of anxiety are spoken the words of Christ that were proclaimed at mass on Sunday: “Don’t worry!” (cf. Matthew 6: 24-34) The Lord reminds us that there is, in fact, a foundation that is absolutely secure, that will never crumble, and on which we can always find secure footing. That which alone can solidly ground our lives is the love and providence of our Heavenly Father. This is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture. Jesus looks at the flowers and birds, points out how they are arrayed and cared for, and then makes the obvious point that we are far more precious in the eyes of God than they are. If God looks after these small things, how much more can we be sure he will look after us!

So what must we do? Trust. Jesus tells us to seek first the kingdom of God. By this he means that our first decision of each day is to surrender in trust to the rule of God in our lives. Should we do that, then all that is truly needed will be given.

This suggests a direction for us to take as we enter this week into the holy season of Lent. We are accustomed to “giving up” something. Let’s consider giving up self-reliance and choose to rely instead on the steadfast love and sure providence of God. We fast in Lent from a variety of things. The words of the Lord are an invitation to fast from fear. Replace the default reaction of fear with the deliberate decision to believe in the love of God.

“Earthquakes” happen; dark times arise. While we often cannot control the occurrence, we can always control how we respond. Jesus summons us to choose faith over fear and thus to know the joy of living in the rock-solid love of our Father in heaven.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bad Tasting Medicine

There is a lot of cold and flu going around, so it’s not surprising to see many cold medications advertised on television. One in particular always captures my attention. It makes no secret of the fact that the medicine it is trying to sell tastes positively awful, but is effective. They’re right. I’ve tried it. Every spoonful is time off from Purgatory, but it does seem to do the trick.

In the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 5:38-38), Jesus prescribes a remedy for a disease far worse than the cold or flu. It is a malady of the soul, which currently is infecting vast swathes of peoples: anger and division. Symptomatic is the harsh bitterness with which people are fighting over political policies, warring over territories, closing borders to refugees or attacking people because of their religion. It spreads like a virus, often through means of social communication, which bring far-away conflicts into our own living spaces and engender doubt, confusion and anger within our own hearts. Commonly prescribed is the medicine of vengeance, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Yet this is no remedy at all. It serves, rather, to exacerbate things and causes the virus to spread even more rapidly and widely.

Jesus gives us the medication, which alone can effect a cure. Yet, it can seem very bad to the taste, indeed, almost impossible to swallow: “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also….Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Here we might easily be tempted to find another doctor. Yet it is precisely here that we find an example of what St. Paul means when he says that divine wisdom can seem like foolishness to purely human ways of thinking (cf.1Cor 3: 16-23). Is it not natural to want to hit back? Is it not simply a matter of weakness to forgive?

In point of fact, what Jesus demands of his followers requires great strength. He is not asking us to be wimps. Our call, in the face of anger, bitterness and attacks, is, in fact, to stand our ground and say we shall have nothing to do with this kind of behaviour and thus refuse to return it in kind. The easy way out is vengeance. To meet hatred with mercy is the far more difficult road.

Is it even possible to take this medicine? Yes, but not without the help of Christ. On the Cross, he absorbed the worst of human malice. His response was mercy and forgiveness, which halted the evil in its tracks. It cured the disease.

Let’s pray that this grace of the Cross of Christ enable us take the medicine he prescribes, even if ill-tasting, and thus become his true disciples, agents not of bitterness and division but of mercy and communion. Love of the other, especially the enemy, is needed is very large doses right now.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Playing by the Rules

It was a blast!! You may have read on our Twitter accounts (@CAEDM, @archbsmith) that the Archdiocese of Edmonton teamed up last Friday with the Edmonton Oil Kings to host a Faith and Fun night at Rogers Place. Nearly 1000 parishioners gathered for the Oil Kings game against the Regina Pats, as well as for a pre-game event. Lots and lots of fun. I must admit that part of the fun was watching all the double-takes among the people as they saw priests in collars and friars in habits walking in the corridors and seated in the stands. They must have momentarily wondered if they were in the right place!

As I watched the game unfold, I found my attention drawn to two things. First was the way the game flowed freely as the players exercised their considerable skill in skating, handling the puck etc. Second was the keen and practiced awareness that the players had of the rules of the game. The two are obviously connected. What made the game flow freely was adherence to the rules. When the rules were infringed (offside, penalty) the free flow of the competition ended as the game was brought to a halt.

What was at work in the game is a principle by which we live daily: rules (or law) make freedom possible; they do not inhibit its exercise. To take just one other example, the free flow of vehicles on our roads is made possible by common adherence to traffic laws.

This necessary relationship between law and freedom is the heart of the message proclaimed by the Scripture readings of Sunday, specifically the inseparable connection between God’s law and human liberty. It is also at the centre of dramatic events unfolding in our society.

God fashioned us with the gift of freedom. This is implicitly affirmed by the passage from Sirach (15:15-20), which calls to mind the human capacity for choice. The ability to choose presumes freedom.The ultimate choice God desires from us is that by which we choose to love Him with our whole heart, mind and soul. That we may know how properly to use the gift of freedom, God has given us the gift of his law, particularly as expressed in the commandments. As it is true in our daily experience of human relating, so, too, and all the more so, in our relationship with God: God’s law enables our freedom; it is not opposed to it. The goodness of God’s law, and the necessity of adherence to it, is affirmed by Jesus in the Gospel. He, who has come to liberate from the hold of sin our God-given freedom (cf. Galatians 5:1), teaches that he has come not to abolish but to fulfil the law of God (cf. Matthew 5:17-18). 

The words and deeds of Jesus Christ underscore with brilliant clarity the truth that we cannot live fully and freely the human life God intends for us apart from adherence to the divine law. We have to play by the rules of the game.

Yet it is precisely this truth that we see challenged today by a mindset that understands God’s law as an infringement upon my liberty. According to this way of thinking, the law of God must be ignored if I am to find fulfilment, to achieve my desires. The legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the service of “autonomy” is the latest lethal consequence of this. Yet, if I am a law unto myself, then I am no different than a hockey player who makes up the rules as he goes to suit himself. This is not freedom; it is license. It causes us to bang into each other and brings the game very quickly to a halt. We experience not freedom but slavery. We become enslaved to the pursuit of desire, and the “game” of life generally is held captive to competing self-interest.

To paraphrase St. Paul, we cannot even begin to comprehend the wondrous and beautiful things God is holding in store for us, his beloved children (cf. 1Corinthians 2:9). Out of trust in his love and providence, we allow God to guide our lives by adhering to his law, which is, in fact, the gift of his love. Let us embrace his commandments! Only thus shall we truly be free.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Salt is Good for Us

Now, before all the health experts get too upset, let me explain: by the title of this post I am lifting up a teaching of Jesus in Sunday’s Gospel, not offering an assessment of the place of salt in our diet.

In the Gospel passage proclaimed on the weekend (Matthew 5:13-16), Jesus is teaching about the mission he is entrusting to his disciples. He begins by comparing them to salt, of all things: “You are the salt of the earth.” To those whose thoughts might turn immediately to a salt shaker in the middle of the kitchen table, the analogy might seem rather strange. At the time of Jesus, salt exercised an extraordinarily important role, not only as a seasoner but also as a preservative (no refrigerators then!), keeping food from corruption. In this way Jesus is underscoring the great importance of Christian mission. The follower of Jesus is called to preserve the truth of God’s love and of his universal call to salvation, and, in this way, to guard against the corruption that arises from the lie that God does not care, that God limits our freedom, or even that God does not exist.

How to do this? Well, to answer this Jesus makes use of another analogy to describe the life of the disciple: “You are the light of the world.” We preserve truth and guard against the lie by reflecting to our world the light that Jesus is. I love the way the Fathers of the Church explained the mystery of the Church by comparison with the moon. Just as the light that shines from the moon at night is but a reflection of that of the sun, so the Church gives light by reflecting that of the Lord himself, who alone is Light for all people. We reflect this light by our good works. “[Let] your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

That this light is urgently needed in our time escapes no one, I am sure. Things seem very dark and dangerous in our world right now. Angry protests mix with fear of terror to create an environment of division and toxicity. Only when light shines to dispel this darkness will hope arise in our hearts. Our role as followers of the Lord is to be this light by so embracing the truth and shunning the lie that we are free to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, right injustices (cf. Isaiah 58:6-10 - first reading on Sunday). By allowing these good works of ours to “shine”, we show that there is another way, a clear alternative to the moral darkness and confusion that abounds, namely, the way of the Gospel. This light places everything in proper perspective, gives understanding, and demonstrates the reason for hope.

Pass the salt, please. Humanity needs Christians to embrace their mission.

Monday, January 30, 2017

A Rather Unusual C.V.

Job applications are often accompanied by a curriculum vitae that typically brims over in expressions of self-confidence and accomplishment. That's expected. A prospective employer wants to know the applicant's skill sets and talents. How different is the C.V. for a disciple of Jesus Christ!

In the first place, one does not apply for discipleship; rather, one is called. Furthermore, those called by the Lord to follow him are those very much unqualified to do so. That's the point St Paul makes in the second reading we heard on Sunday (1Cor 1:26-31): God chooses the "foolish, weak, low and despised." Not something that would occur to me to put on a vocations poster.

Yet, this is obviously true and profoundly liberating. You may have come across the oft-quoted saying: God does not call the qualified but qualifies those he calls. He summons us to holiness of life, a state no one can achieve unaided by God's grace. He calls to various forms of discipleship, the demands of which lie beyond human capacity. Yet God is merciful and provides all that is needed.

Indeed, as St Paul puts it, God is the source of our very life in Christ Jesus! In other words, Jesus is our curriculum vitae. In him we have the source of all inspiration and the power of any accomplishment. While a usual C.V. is replete with self-promotion, that of the Christian boasts of natural weakness and joyful reliance upon the goodness of God.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Inauguration Day

No, I don't mean that inauguration day, the one that occurred Friday in Washington. I'm referring to the one recorded in the Gospel passage proclaimed at Sunday mass yesterday, which, in turn, invites us to recall our own.

By the act of calling his apostles and their act of acceptance, Jesus inaugurated their mission. In our own lives, our mission as followers of Christ was inaugurated at Baptism, and is renewed and strengthened in every celebration of the sacraments, especially Eucharist and Penance.

The Friday event in Washington was accompanied by a speech, in which listeners expected to get a sense of the direction that the newly inaugurated mission will take. The roadmap we follow is the Gospel, the teaching of Jesus Christ as handed on in the Church.

Are we faithful to the responsibility accepted on our inauguration day? We know we have responsibilities as citizens to hold our elected officials to account for the trust we place in them, and are usually quick to do so. Do we hold ourselves to account? This is an important question. Indeed, Pope Francis is continually asking us to recall that moment of our "inauguration" through Baptism into the life of faith and to examine our fidelity to our baptismal promises.

St. Paul draws our attention to an inescapable aspect of such a self-examination. Writing to the ancient Christian community at Corinth, and through that letter addressing all Christians, he makes the appeal that there be no division among the followers of Christ. Since Friday's inauguration we have witnessed protest marches that lay bare rather dramatic societal difference. Sadly, divisions in the Church (!!) long predate those of any country. The letter to Corinth shows clearly that the tendency to separation goes back to the Church's very beginning. This is clearly not the will of the Lord, who gave his very life that all may be one.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we do well to remember that the one Baptism inaugurated Christians into unity with the one Lord and the one Faith, and, therefore, with one another. As we ponder the impact of a political inauguration, let us not forget our own far more important theological one. By God's grace, may we accept and faithfully follow our Baptismal call to be one in Christ, and thus serve as a sign and instrument of unity in a world whose very visible divisions are causing very real harm.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Avoid Fake News

Much is being made recently of so-called “fake news”. It is the Internet phenomenon that is catching a lot of attention. There are websites, and users of social media, that deliberately fabricate falsehoods and seek to present and spread them as factual, reliable “news”. Easy to get taken in, sometimes with tragic results.

In fact, of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The proliferation of the lie has been with us ever since the serpent first seduced Eve. It just assumes ever more sophisticated forms. Living as we do surrounded by falsehood and illusion, we can be easily misled into pain and anguish, leaving us wondering where is the truth? On what can I truly rely?

Enter the Gospel and its proclamation of Jesus Christ. This is true because He is truth (cf. John 14:6). But do we accept it as true, or do we choose to listen to some other voice, some other “news source”?

Consider what we heard in the Scripture readings on Sunday.

In the Gospel passage (John 1:29-34), John the Baptist points to Jesus and identifies him with two extraordinary titles: Lamb of God and Son of God. Jesus is the Lamb of God because he offered himself on the Cross as the sacrificial lamb, whose death makes possible our passover from this life to the next. We know he is the Son of God because he so identified himself. As the Son sent from the Father, he has come to make possible our very participation in the inner life of our Triune God!

Throughout history, fake news has spread the idea that Jesus is less than he truly is: either he is not fully God or not fully human. This falsehood reduces Jesus to a moral exemplar that we could - but need not - follow, or so separates him from our human reality that we cannot follow him.

Or read again the passage from Isaiah (49:3, 5-6). He prophesies that the One to be sent from God will be given as light for all nations, that is to say, as Saviour for all people. The Gospel identifies Jesus as the coming of this light (cf. e.g. Luke 2:32). Fake news would have us hold that Jesus is not for everyone.

The truth broadcast by Sacred Scripture pertains to us as well. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor. 1:1-3), teaches us that we are all called to be saints. God calls us to a very high standard - the measure of holiness - and grants us the gifts we need to live this life of joy and peace. Fake news will tell us that holiness is only an ideal, that we are not really expected to live this way, and that we can settle for a life of banality and mediocrity.

What newscast do I accept as reliable? Which source of news do I allow to help shape my mindset and worldview? We know we can rely fully on the news of the Gospel. There is nothing fake about it at all! We have always called this good news, good because it is true and inspires with real hope. Any “news” that separates us from the Gospel and directs us along a different path is “fake”, a present-day echo of the ancient deception of the serpent. Let’s be sure not to give it any attention.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Need to be De-Iced?

I'm writing this post as I watch the de-icing machines clear away snow and ice from the wings of our plane before we take off. In fact, the de-icing is occurring IN ORDER that we can take off. Ah, winter travel. Gotta love it.

As I watch the process I'm thinking of the Gospel passage for yesterday's celebration of the Epiphany. As the story of the journey of magi to the manger unfolds, it contains an account of a certain de-icing that needs to take place, but in fact doesn't: de-icing not of airplane wings but of the human heart.

King Herod heard the news of the birth of a king. His already cold heart went into deep freeze. No heaven-ward ascent of the spirit in him! He remained solidly frozen to the ground of his worldly and self-centered concerns. His heart had become so solidly encased in the ice of self-reference that he could understand the newborn child only as a threat to his authority and power. His icy self-regard rendered all else expendable, even the innocent children he had slaughtered in his desire to destroy the child born in Bethlehem.

And what about those chief priests and scribes, who learned the news of the birth as Herod consulted them? It seems they could have benefited from some of the de-icing formula as well. The account does not record any effort made on their part to see for themselves what was unfolding in Bethlehem. They were grounded by the ice of indifference. Extraordinary, really. They who knew the prophecies, they who heard that what had been foretold from of old might now be fulfilled, never budged off the tarmac.

All of this raises the very important question of our own response to all that has been proclaimed about Jesus Christ throughout the Christmas season now concluded. The full acceptance of the truth that he is the Son of God made flesh for our salvation causes one's life to soar to unimagined heights of peace, hope and joy. What area of my life needs de-icing? Am I frozen by fear of the change Jesus will ask of me? Does the frost of bitterness grip my heart and freeze out others who seek my forgiveness or whom I must forgive? Has the ice of complacency settled upon me rendering me indifferent to the abundant new life Jesus holds in store?

The glad tidings of Christmas position us for takeoff. By his mercy, may Jesus clear away the ice and thus enable us to follow him.