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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Retrouvaille



This French word means “rediscovery”. It has been used for the past forty years as the name to designate a very beautiful and extraordinary apostolate to married couples, who are experiencing difficulty in their marriage to the point of being on the verge of breakup.
 
I spent the past weekend at the annual international meeting of people involved in Retrouvaille. These are couples who, having themselves experienced marital discord and found healing of their marriages through Retrouvaille, are now passionately committed to helping others. The event drew together nearly 600 people from around the globe! Having begun as a small initiative in Hull, Quebec, Retrouvallie has since grown to a large international apostolate operating in Canada, the United States, Central & South America, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific.
 
Over these past few days, I found myself wondering about the stories of the people. They’ve all come through their own experiences of heartache, pain and fear, and yet now they know healing and joy. The question that I’ve been pondering is, “What made the difference in their lives? What was the turning point?” 

From @daniellemurrayyoga on Instagram.
Sunday’s Gospel offers, I believe, the answer. In sum, these couples accepted the invitation.
 
What invitation? The parable of Jesus, recounted by St. Matthew (Mt 22:1-14) is that of a king who invites everyone to the wedding banquet of his son. That would be quite the invitation to receive!! Yet, remarkably, it is met with indifference, refusal and even hostility. This stands for the invitation issued throughout the history of humanity by God the Father to be with him in a communion of love and joy. Such a communion was often portrayed as a wedding banquet (e.g. first reading, Isaiah 25:6-10). No greater invitation is imaginable!!! Moreover, God rendered such communion fully possible by the gift of his Son, Jesus; hence the image in the parable of the wedding banquet for the king’s son. But that invitation has, in fact, been turned down by many. When the parable continues by recounting the king’s enraged response of destruction, it is making the point that, while acceptance of the invitation leads to unparalleled joy, the refusal of God’s invitation leads inevitably to the opposite - a decimated life.
 
By God’s grace, couples whose choices or mistakes may have arisen from a refusal of God’s invitation were led to a moment of acceptance, that is to say, to a decision to allow God in to do for them what only He can do. That’s what made the difference! The invitation came to them by the witness of others who had already walked a road similar to theirs, and the decision to accept it was encouraged by the witness of healing and happiness on display in Retrouvaille.
 
What about the mysterious ending of the parable? A man arrives at the banquet without a proper wedding garment and is thrown out by the king. Acceptance must be accompanied by appropriate “clothing”, which is to say that acceptance is good but insufficient. To accept the invitation to God’s kingdom means also the determination to don the requisite attire of humility, compassion, love, mercy, forgiveness, justice and so on. In the more particular context of a marriage needing healing, accepting God’s invitation to joy also demands a “re-clothing,” i.e. an exchange of the soiled clothing of hurtful attitudes and destructive behaviour for the immaculate vesture of self-sacrifice and self-gift.
 
I spent the weekend with couples who accepted that God-given invitation and who strive daily to “dress properly” in consequence. Their joy was palpable and contagious. Retrouvaille is a great gift to the Church and a much-needed apostolate for our world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Be Thankful. Forget Tarshish


The civic holiday Thanksgiving Day coincides this year with Monday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time of the liturgical calendar. The readings for the mass of that day include the beginning of the well-known story of the prophet Jonah (Jon 1:1 - 2:1, 11). The narrative relates the call of Jonah to preach to the inhabitants of the ancient city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t like the idea at all. He decides to run away, and determines to go to Tarshish.

Scripture scholars are undecided about the exact location of this ancient place. There are, however, two aspects of this locale on which there is general agreement. They render Tarshish an important symbol, which establishes an instructive connection between the attitude of Jonah and the mindset of today.
 
First, Tarshish is understood to have been some place on the far side of the Mediterranean from what is now the Holy Land. In other words, by determining to flee to Tarshish Jonah was striving to get as far away from God as possible. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. In our own day we give voice in multiple ways to the desire to leave God far behind. At the public level we hear (or say) such things as: Keep religion private! The insights of faith have no place in the public square! Personally, too, we may strive to run from God. Jonah was called to preach; we are called to a life of virtue. If our existence is marked by attitudes and behaviours that run counter to the call to holiness, we may be tempted to flee from God and His Word.


 
Second, Tarshish is referred to in Scripture as a source of much sought-after precious metals (cf. for example, Ezekiel 27:12). Wealth is a powerfully attractive symbol of self-reliance. Yet, precisely as such, it is also dangerously illusory. The flight to Tarshish away from God symbolizes the desire to replace dependence upon God with reliance upon our own resources. On this point much of Western society might be tempted to adopt Jonah as its patron! Yet the pursuit of such a desire is tantamount to running from reality into the arms of fantasy. The truth is that all things come from God. He bestows upon us the gift of life itself and holds us in existence by His merciful love. Apart from God we are nothing.
 
This leaves us with the question: why flee? If God is all-good and all-loving, why run from Him and toward ourselves; from reality to falsehood? Again, consider Jonah. He was afraid of God and of God’s call. To Jonah, the presence and voice of God had become a threat to his own freedom. Here we encounter the lie that has caused great ruin to the human family throughout its history, the falsehood first put in the minds of Adam and Eve by Satan: God is not to be trusted; His will impedes our freedom; His commands are obstacles to human flourishing. Therefore, flee God and pursue your own will and desires!

Right. The experience of Jonah makes clear where that will get us. No sooner does he decide to flee God and fend for himself, no sooner does he get into the boat destined for Tarshish, with all that it symbolizes, than there comes upon the ship and its voyagers a great storm that threatens them all with perishing. We can’t do it alone. We need God and His love. Pretending otherwise is an illusion with potentially lethal consequences.



God is no threat to freedom. There is no need to fear God. In fact, His love reveals liberty’s true nature and unleashes it. Freedom is among God’s gifts to us. We live in accord with true freedom when we freely choose to trust in the wisdom and providence of God, and to rely, in peace and thankfulness, upon His every good gift.
 
Forget Tarshish. Choosing that destination is to embark on a journey that leads to nowhere but disappointment and hardship. Instead, let’s choose simply to be thankful to God, trusting and not fearing, and to express that thanks with a willing acceptance of His call to virtue and the fullness of life.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Who’s He Been Listening To?



I woke up Sunday morning to the shocking news about an attack in Edmonton the prior night that police are investigating as possibly a terrorist act. As I write this blog post on Sunday afternoon, the details concerning the individual and his motives are not yet known. Yet already some questions have been coursing through my mind: who on earth has this man been listening to; what voices have placed within him such a deranged idea as the need to hurt or kill other people; who has he been allowing to exercise such a malevolent influence on his way of thinking?


Truth to tell, these kinds of questions have been preoccupying me for quite some time, not only because of this or other acts of violence but also due to the fact that we all are facing daily a barrage of “voices” and messages that seek to influence us and shape our mindset and, thus, our way of acting. Just think of the world of social communications. TV, radio, Internet, social media platforms, emails, texts, magazines and newspapers present us with a dizzying multiplicity of voices bombarding us minute by minute and competing for our attention. From amongst it all we make choices: we stay with a certain Internet site, we remain tuned in to a favourite television series, we follow particular Twitter personalities. The longer we remain tuned in, the more that particular voice or message will exercise its influence upon us and form our mindset, our way of thinking. This raises what in my estimation are some of the most important questions that we need to be posing: to whom am I listening? Whose messages, ideas or opinions am I allowing to influence my thinking and hence my way of living? Why? The one to whom I listen is the one to whom I give my trust. Are the sources trustworthy? On what basis do I make this assessment?

These questions lie behind my decision to issue a pastoral letter. In it I am inviting everyone in the Archdiocese to a particular form of very focused and attentive listening. Specifically, I'm inviting all of us to focus upon the one voice we know we can trust, to the one message that is certain to lead us to what is truly for our good. The voice is that of God, and His message is that which He has given to the world in the Gospel concerning His Son, Jesus Christ. I'd like us to undertake this listening by making a deliberate effort to read the Bible every day. Too many voices today are offering falsehoods that seduce us away from the love of God and from fidelity to Him. The temptation to listen to these voices and allow them to impact the way we think and act is very strong. By living daily in the Word of God, standing firm by faith in the truth it proclaims, we become inoculated against the cancer of falsehood that is always ready to take hold, and which can metastasize in our current communications environment with astonishing rapidity.

Frere Antoine's Bible in the crypt of St Albert Church.

The Bible is not just another book. As we read and ponder Sacred Scripture, God draws near and speaks. His Word is alive; in it we actually encounter the God who has become one of us in Jesus. When we allow His Word to take root in us, our lives find their true horizon and clear direction. To live apart from that Word is to wander in darkness; that is not God's will for us, His beloved children.

There are many words coming at us today, that is true. Yet amidst the changing reality of communications media, there is one unchanging word that alone remains always worthy of our trust, that alone unlocks the key to life's meaning and direction: God's Word, given to us in Sacred Scripture. It is the only Word that matters. Let's resolve to hear it with thanksgiving and, with joy, put it into practice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Divine Hiring Practice


It goes without saying that, when hiring a job applicant, one normally seeks independent and objective verification of the applicant’s suitability for the position. Usually, a resume has been submitted, the one doing the hiring will measure the stated qualifications against the job description and requisite skill set, an interview will take place, and then, if the candidate seems suitable, references are checked. All of this is standard procedure. It would be unreasonable for an employer to hire a person without having followed each of these steps. They serve to give assurance, as far as possible, that one is hiring a person who is suitable to the position.
 
This common sense approach to hiring might make one wonder if the landowner spoken of by Jesus in the parable we heard on Sunday should have sought out the help of an employment agency as he hired people to work in his vineyard. (Matt 20:1-16) After all, he got it terribly wrong. He simply went out into the marketplace and hired people where and when he found them! No measuring of skills against a job description, no interview or background check, and certainly no checking of references. Furthermore, his salary calculations turned out to be clearly unjust; everyone was paid the exact same amount regardless of the amount of time worked in the vineyard. How could he possibly hope to retain workers on that basis?? Once word got around, future trips to the marketplace would not likely yield many willing to work for him.
 
Like every parable Jesus uses for his teaching, this one shocks us. That’s what parables are meant to do. They so challenge our human way of looking at things that they stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering what Jesus is meaning to teach us. In so doing, they invite us into the mystery of God’s thoughts and ways, which are far, far beyond ours (Isaiah 55:9). They thus summon us to be ready to surrender our human logic as the absolute standard of reasonableness so as to see and act in accord with divine wisdom.
 
God does not call us to his kingdom on the basis of any skills or merit on our part. Who can “earn” heaven? No one. God’s motivation is, purely and simply, his infinitely generous love for us. Moreover, he certainly does not need to check any references. He already knows our hearts, better than we know them ourselves. Why the call reaches some people early in their lives and others at later stages is all part of God’s mysterious design for each of his children. He knows what he is doing. He acts and calls when he knows the moment is right.
 
St Joseph the Worker
OK, … but what about this paying everybody the same wage? Doesn’t seem right, somehow. Here again we are being invited into another realm of thought, one characteristic of God’s kingdom, where market calculations have no play. The “work” of the vineyard is Christian mission. It aims not at earning heaven but at making known the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Christian rejoices whenever the Gospel is embraced, however late in the day that might be. Far from grumbling about having “worked longer,” we give thanks for the wondrous blessing of having been given early in life the gift of faith.
 
My recent pastoral letter invites all of us to hear the Word of God and put it into practice. Often that Word will give us pause and challenge us in deep ways, such as this parable does. That’s good. That’s the way it is supposed to work. When we listen and are challenged, it is important to stay in the discomfort; to allow the dissonance to sink in and take root. In this way, the Word purifies us and makes us true disciples, whose lives are centred in Christ and guided by the mysterious ways of God.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons From Lebanon


In the course of a visit to Lebanon, St. John Paul II famously observed that Lebanon is more than a country; it is also a message. My visit there last week confirmed this insight. As I look back and reflect upon the experience of encountering the Lebanese people and learning a few things about their beautiful country, three aspects of that “message” stand out for me. 

Pope John Paul II with former Lebanese statesman.
1. Particularly striking in Lebanon is the way that faith is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Everywhere, one can find symbols of faith displayed quite visibly. Faith is openly practiced and one’s religious identity and background is readily acknowledged. The differences in the belief systems are quite marked, of course, yet the people are striving to live together as citizens of the one country. It is not easy, I’m sure, and far more complex than I can appreciate, especially given the rather tumultuous history of religious conflict. Yet, they are somehow making it work. There is an important lesson here for us. In the West we have somehow developed the strange idea that, in order for us all to get along, we need to hide our faith, to keep it private and not allow it to enter into public discourse. However, a pluralistic society such as ours should be just that: pluralistic, i.e., fully welcoming of the views and insights of all citizens, including those perspectives that are informed by faith traditions. Lebanon teaches that it is possible. Indeed, it should be expected. 

A typical Lebanese breakfast.
2. Lebanon is deservedly known for its hospitality. Every time we turned around we were offered something to drink (love the coffee!), and it felt like every second meeting was a multi-course meal! (That’s not a complaint, by the way. The cuisine is delicious. Who knew I would actually enjoy eating raw goat meat? But I digress.) Yet, as I mentioned in my last blog post, the real lesson in hospitality was given in the context not of the dinner table but of the settlements for displaced persons. Most of the displaced are from Syria, a country which only a few decades ago was waging a vicious war against Lebanon. In spite of this, the border has been opened to them. Furthermore, the presence of 1.5 million people from Syria (and that is just the number of officially registered; the actual count would be higher) in a country of only four million is placing an enormous economic and logistical burden on the shoulders of the Lebanese people. This situation is not, admittedly, supportable in the long run, and solutions will have to be found quickly, but the readiness of the Lebanese to welcome the stranger and, yes, the enemy to an extent that calls for great personal and national sacrifice is extraordinary. That’s hospitality. 

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
3. The third aspect of the “message” that Lebanon is came to me in a rather unique fashion. The hospitality provided to our delegation extended to assuring our safety. We travelled everywhere by military convoy. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve hurtled at breakneck speed along Lebanese roads or through Beirut streets in a multi-vehicle motorcade, sirens blaring, and manned by special forces commandos with weapons at the ready. I kid you not. One might reasonably expect that this might have left us just a little frazzled. Yet, it didn’t. The driving was clearly in the hands of professional and competent soldiers who obviously knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to get there safely. We just surrendered to the experience, let them do the driving, and were thus carried to whatever place we were intended to visit. On the last evening, one of the delegation, Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, commented on the lesson in this. We need to learn to let God do the driving in our lives. If we, by following the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon ourselves to God, who knows exactly what He is doing and where He is leading us, then we shall arrive safely at the destiny He intends for us. 

A beautiful country, and, at the same time, a profound message. That’s Lebanon, and I am grateful for the blessing of encountering it.

St Elie - St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral
 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yalla, Yalla! (Lebanon Visit Part 2)


I must say, after only three days here I've become rather proficient in the Arabic language. Well ... maybe with one word of it anyway. Yalla!
 
It means, "Let's go!" Saying it twice adds urgency and means "Hurry up!" We seem to be hearing it a lot from our guides, who are striving mightily to keep us on schedule.
 
Small wonder. The days are packed solid as we cross-cross the country to meet Bishops, political officials, and, above all, displaced persons and the religious communities and Catholic institutions that work with them.
 
There are over fifty religious communities of consecrated women and over twenty masculine orders in this country. Last evening a gathering was hosted in which a good number of their religious superiors gathered to meet with us. The range of their apostolic charitable works is breathtaking. This was followed by a separate meeting with representatives of Catholic charitable organizations working in the region: Caritas Internationalis, CNEWA, Jesuit Refugee Services, St Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Relief Services.  Each from its own perspective, they are all striving mightily to help people rebuild their lives. The latter  gathering also included a meeting with a high-ranking official from the Lebanese Ministry of Education, who spoke of the efforts they are making to include children of displaced families in the school system.
 
The problem faced here is enormous. This country with a population of 4 million people has opened its borders to receive 1.5 million displaced people, most from Syria. To put that in perspective, applying the same ratio to Canada would mean our country taking in about 13 million refugees. The strain on Lebanon's resources is immense.
 
Today, though, we were reminded that we cannot speak of this issue solely in terms of numbers. We traveled to two locations in the Beqaa Valley, where we met families living either in settlements set up by government, or in simple homes opened up to them by the local Catholic population. The heart breaks when one sees scores of little children running around a big "tent city" in very difficult circumstances, or when one listens to a father recount the harrowing story of trying to eke out a living in between ceasefires until finally making the painful decision to uproot his family to escape the danger.

Location of Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.
The numbers are overwhelming and the complexity of the issues staggering. Yet it seems to me that the very place where today's encounters took place offers a way forward. The Beqaa valley is where, only a few decades ago, fierce fighting took place between Syria and Lebanon. In fact, the city in which I met the displaced persons was under siege from the Syrian army for a long time. Yet it is precisely the Syrian people who are now welcomed by the Lebanese into their country and provided with shelter and basic supplies. The way forward is to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to begin encountering the other as a brother or sister.
 
When that happens we naturally want to reach out and bring healing whenever the other suffers. In this particular situation it means providing those in danger with safety and then working to help rebuild their countries so that they can return once again to the place they have always called home and to where their hearts naturally direct them, as would ours.
 
The situation remains urgent and solutions need to be found and put in place without delay.
 
So, Yalla, Yalla!

 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Like a Cedar in Lebanon (Lebanon Visit Part 1)

This citation from Psalm 92 was in my mind today as I wandered through a grove of stunningly beautiful cedar trees in a high mountain area about two hours north of Beirut in Lebanon. That's the country from which I'm writing this blog post. Together with two other Canadian Bishops and some lay professionals who have been heavily involved in refugee resettlement in Canada, I'm here for the week at the invitation of the Maronite Catholic Church, headquartered in Lebanon. The visit will give us an opportunity to witness the impact massive displacement of peoples from neighbouring Syria is having on this country, and to learn firsthand of the outreach of the local Church towards them.

Harissa monastery overlooking Beirut, Lebanon.
Our travels today took us near an area dedicated to the preservation of this country's magnificent cedars, so we pulled in. I was glad to have this opportunity, since the Lebanon cedar is an important biblical symbol. There are more than seventy references to it in Sacred Scripture. Among those is the one that came to mind as I gazed upon their extraordinary size and pondered their longevity: "The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon." (Psalm 92:12) Some of the trees I saw today in the grove are more than 2000 years old; another at a stopping point nearby is reputed to be more than 4000 years in age. The image presented is one of steady growth, steadfast endurance and powerful strength. By means of this analogy, the Psalmist is describing "the righteous," which is to say, those who live by faith in the wisdom and providence of God by following His every commandment. The point is this: people who are rooted deeply in God and who stand firm in faith are enabled by God's grace to weather all forms of difficulty and eventually blossom into the full and beautiful life God intended in the very act of creating us.
 
It is important to take note of the reference to "growth". I was told today that these trees grow only between 6 and 12 centimetres a year. That's pretty slow. So, too, is our own growth as we seek the grace of conversion and strive by God's mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. God's grace interacts with our freedom, out of which we at times resist His love and turn away. Growth in the Christian life can thus be very slow, impeded by our weakness and tendency to self-direction.

This brings me to the Gospel text proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus is teaching of the need at times to exercise fraternal correction as we seek to help one another to grow in Christian faith. The question naturally arises: am I open to receive correction from another? If we want to grow in our faith and not come to a full stop or get into reverse mode, we will sometimes need one who knows and loves us to point out our faults. May God grant us the humility not only to receive words of admonishment but also to seek them out. Growth and resilience, powerfully imaged by the Lebanon cedar, require it.
 

The cedar tree is a symbol on the flag of Lebanon.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Obstruction Ahead



It never fails. Just when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, the sign appears: “obstruction ahead.” Ugh. So frustrating. They seem to be everywhere. Road construction season in Edmonton is short, I know. There is only so much time for the workers to get done what they have to do, so patience is called for. But still … Sigh.

Another kind of obstruction is addressed in the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus tells Peter he is an obstacle to him. Yikes!!! That is a serious accusation. Jesus is the Son of God who has come to reveal the love and mercy of God and save the world from the darkness of sin. Who would ever want to stand in the way of that?! Well, we know that Satan does. The Devil wants nothing more than to stand in the way of Christ. Notice, though, that the famous “Get behind me Satan” is spoken by the Lord when he looks at Peter. Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that, by thinking in accord with human, not divine logic, he becomes an obstacle, he stands in the way. The teaching here is sobering. We surrender to the demonic, we participate in Satan’s mission of obstruction, when we allow the ways of the world, and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to shape our mindset.

Peter’s error finds widespread repetition today, rooted in the prideful and illusory exaltation of the radically autonomous Self. The way of the Gospel is the path of humility, repentance and conversion, springing from a life-changing encounter with the truth of Christ. The way of the world is proud self-assertion, rooted in surrender to the lie that we do not need God. Adam and Eve were tricked into this error, and humanity has been seduced ever since to repeat their original sin and thus become an obstacle to the saving plan of God.

St. Paul echoes to all of us the warning Jesus gave to Peter. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) How does this renewal of our minds, and hence our whole lives, happen? By embracing the Cross of Christ. There God reveals the logic that shapes our mindset in accord with the Gospel. To take up our cross daily as disciples of Christ is to make of our lives an obedient self-gift to God for the sake of the world. As St. Paul puts it, the embrace of the Cross finds expression when we offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1) Renewal happens when every aspect of our lives is an act of praise to God instead of to the ego.

We understand road obstructions due to construction. Let there be no tolerance in our lives for obstacles to the will of God.

 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Making Jesus Known - Our Urgent Task


On Sunday we heard the account of Jesus gathered with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where he posed to them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is the heart of the Church’s faith and the reason for her mission. Notice that Jesus poses the question publicly, and that the response of St. Peter is also given in the hearing of others. The public question seeks a public response. In other words, the conviction deep in our hearts concerning the truth of Jesus must be made visible in the way we live our lives in the sight of others.

The importance of this in our day cannot be overstated. As I ponder the encounter between Jesus and Peter, I go back in my mind to a moment that impacted me deeply. I was together with hundreds of thousands of young people at the World Youth Days (WYD) in Toronto, listening to Saint John Paul II. Noting that the beginning of the new millennium was heralded by two contrasting images - on the one hand the millions of pilgrims who flocked to Rome in celebration of the Jubilee of Redemption and, on the other, the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre in New York, - he said this to the gathered young people, and to the world:

"The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century? Is it enough to rely on the technological revolution now taking place, which seems to respond only to criteria of productivity and efficiency, without reference to the individual’s spiritual dimension or to any universally shared ethical values? Is it right to be content with provisional answers to the ultimate questions, and to abandon life to the impulses of instinct, to short-lived sensations or passing fads? The question will not go away: on what foundations, on what certainties should we build our lives and the life of the community to which we belong? ... Christ alone is the cornerstone on which it is possible solidly to build one’s existence. Only Christ – known, contemplated and loved – is the faithful friend who never lets us down, who becomes our travelling companion, and whose words warm our hearts (cf. Lk 24:13-35)."

Here we have stated in a contemporary context the implications of acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only sure foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ. He who is the Son of the living God brings to light the meaning of our existence and makes known its definitive direction. Sadly, however, some fifteen years after WYD in Toronto, world events continue to manifest a turning away from God and thus from hope. They demonstrate that too many people are building their lives on foundations other than the person and message of Jesus Christ, which is to say they are constructing the edifice of their existence upon nothing more than shifting sand (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Therefore, Jesus must be made known to others, proclaimed with the joy that springs from knowing, contemplating and loving him.

“Who do you say that I am?” Let us ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the same insight and conviction that inspired Peter’s response, and the boldness to give our answer publicly by living as Christ’s disciples.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reaching Across the Divide


 
We’ve witnessed some terrible things over the last few days: terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Spain and Finland; and the expression of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville. These are events and attitudes that must be denounced without ambiguity in the strongest possible terms. In the light of Sunday’s Gospel, I focus here upon a troubling reality that these occurrences place in high relief: division among peoples. Denunciation of hatred is necessary but insufficient. The events of these past days also summon us to work for reconciliation. The divides that separate us must be healed.
 
Separation of people from one another due to hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, bigotry and the like is not new. Neither is it always as dramatic and visible as we’ve seen in last week’s events. Even in our homes family members can become separated from one another. Whatever the circumstance, the heart instinctively yearns for the divide to be healed. The Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) teaches us how to reach across the divide to find the reconciliation we earnestly seek.
 

Church in Canaan.
Everything in the Gospel story points to a situation of division. The narrative recounts the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Strikingly, this meeting takes place near a border, i.e., close to a point of separation. Yet this geographical barrier signals a far more serious racial and religious divide. As a Canaanite, the woman is a non-Jew, a member, in fact, of a people who had been pagan enemies of God’s people. In addition, women were often held by men to be inferior. Thus, for many reasons, the separation between her and the Jewish people of that day was vast, a yawning chasm.
 
This woman of old becomes our contemporary teacher by reaching across the divide. The complexity of the separation and the breadth of the division do not hinder her. Her reaching has a very specific goal: she reaches across the divide to Jesus. Her motivation is faith that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks for her daughter. By her action, the woman invites us to share her conviction that the deepest and most long-standing divisions separating people need not stand. They can be overcome if we reach across the divide to the One who came to heal all division, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” by his death on the Cross (Ephesians. 2:14).
 
There is still more for us, in our current troubling circumstances, to learn from this encounter. At a time when we are hearing many people shout at one another with name-calling and expressions of hatred and racism, our attention is drawn to the use in the Gospel passage of a terrible slur. By grappling with this, an important lesson emerges.
 
Jesus speaks very perplexing words to the woman in response to her request; perplexing because they are harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was not unusual for Jews of that day to refer to non-Jews as “dogs.” But is Jesus actually calling her this??!!
 
Archbishop Smith in Canaan.
Crucial to bear in mind here is an important principle of biblical interpretation, namely, that any one particular passage of the Bible is only correctly interpreted when placed in the context of the whole biblical message and viewed in that light. The overall message of the Bible is clear: everyone, without exception, is made in the image and likeness of God; in Jesus Christ, God has come to save all people. The divine saving will is universal, affirmed by Jesus himself when, after his Resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out to all nations with the saving grace of Baptism (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). From this perspective, the words of Jesus to the woman have the sense of “I know that people are saying this of you (i.e., calling you and your people “dogs”); do you nevertheless dare to believe that I have come for you, too?” In other words, Jesus is testing her faith. She remains steadfast in her plea and her conviction that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks. Jesus is moved by her strong faith and heals her daughter. Far from adopting as his own the denigrating language, Jesus uses it in such a way as to distance himself from it and demonstrate that he has come for all people, to bring an end to all division.
 
Thus does the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach that we, too, must separate ourselves from all that separates - derogatory attitudes, hurtful language, presumed superiority and the like - and dare to reach across our divides by reaching first toward the One who can reconcile us to one another and enable us to live as the brothers and sisters God made us to be.

Top image: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Monday, August 14, 2017

Follow Us!


Few organizations these days would have websites that did not issue this invitation: Follow Us! It usually means choosing to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. At least, those are the social media places I've heard about. No doubt there are, and will be, many more.

It is an interesting phenomenon, this following. Very popular. It certainly doesn't demand much to become a follower. Click of a button, occasionally check in to see the post, and that's about it. Why we choose a person or organization to follow is another point. The motivation is usually interest or curiosity. Tellingly, the act of following really does not require anything of me in terms of commitment to the one I choose to follow.

I wonder, is anyone asking the question: to where? Following usually indicates movement behind a leader toward a goal or destination. That really does not seem to be in play in the world of social media 'following.'

How different this all is from choosing to be a follower of Jesus Christ! Just consider what the Scripture readings from Sunday teach us about following the Lord. They clarify the motivation, and then highlight three fundamental aspects of this 'following.'

The Gospel narrative recounts the familiar yet ever wondrous event of Jesus walking across a raging sea to rescue his disciples at risk of perishing (Matthew 14: 22-33). After he calms the sea, they exclaim, "Truly you are the Son of God." That is precisely why we follow Him, and no other. Not only did he calm the wind and sea and perform other miracles, but also he himself rose from the dead and opened for humanity the doors to eternal life. He makes clear our destination, our destiny, and he himself is the way. No one else to follow.

The episode from the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in the first reading (1Kings 19:9, 11-13) teaches us that following the Lord begins with encountering him. There is a really important lesson here for us. Notice that Elijah recognizes the presence of God not in the noise of wind, earthquake and fire, but in "a sound of sheer silence." How alien silence is to much of our lives! This seems especially the case when we try to be still in prayer. Instantly we are beset with the wind of expectations, the earthquake of failures and the fire of anxiety. Yes, God may well choose to speak to us in all of this, but often they are distractions of human origin, often that of our pride. To follow means first to ask for the grace of inner stillness, that we may truly encounter the Lord speaking to us in his Holy Word and follow where he leads.

The experience of St. Paul, narrated by the Apostle himself in the passage from Romans (9:1-5), exemplifies the need was we follow the Lord for trust in God's fidelity to his promises. In this passage and the two chapters that follow, St Paul is grappling with the rejection of the Gospel by his fellow Jews. In the end he finds consolation In the truth that God does not revoke his call and is never unfaithful to all he has promised, and that, therefore, God will use even this rejection for the accomplishment of his saving plan for the whole world, including, of course, for God's chosen People.  How often are we, too, in anguish at the rejection of our Gospel proclamation, especially when this involves members of our own family! We trust in God's fidelity, and so are confident that He is at work in the lives of all, leading them to the Gospel. Thus, as followers, we continue to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed, trusting the consequences, even rejection, to God and consoled in the knowledge that God will turn all things to the good.

Finally, following Christ means inviting Jesus into the boat of our lives, asking him to calm whatever storms beset us. In other words, it means giving up all illusion of self-reliance. In addition, it also means being ready to step out of the boat, as St Peter did. Concretely, this means being willing to step out into the uncertain and frightful, acutely conscious of our vulnerability and weakness, yet joyfully aware that the Lord always holds us by the arm.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ is entirely different from being a social media follower. To follow him is to give him our all. May he grant us the grace to do so.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Noise Cancellation


I don't know how it works, but I certainly appreciate the technology - noise cancellation in headphones. Touch a button, and distractions are closed out. I am able to hear clearly and solely that to which I choose to listen. The technology brings me to a new awareness of just how much noisy distractions stand in the way of focused and attentive listening.
 
This came to mind as I pondered the Gospel passage given for Sunday’s mass commemorating the Transfiguration of the Lord. At the centre of the narrative stands a command, arresting because of its source: God the Father. As the divinity of Jesus shines forth in brilliant radiance before his chosen disciples, the Father’s voice confirms the identity of Jesus as His well-beloved Son and commands: “Listen to him.”
 
Indeed. Since Jesus is God’s Son, revealed on the Mountain of the Transfiguration as having come from the Heavenly Father, as being the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient Israel (symbolized in the presence of Moses and Elijah), and as having mysteriously both a divine and human nature, the question poses itself: why would we listen to anyone else?? St Peter summed it up best when he said to Jesus, “You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68). There is no one else to whom we should go; no one else to whom we must listen. 

But, oh, the noise that distracts from the voice of Christ! We need think only of the multiple and incessant anti-Gospel messages that bombard us via the Internet, social media, and television and radio programming to realize how difficult it is to heed the command of the Father to listen to His Son. This awareness grows even more acute as we consider the “noise” of persistent anxiety or worldly desires. We need noise cancellation!
 
Yet, how do we do this? Is it possible to close out all the distractions? Well, it certainly involves more than flicking a button on a headset. What is required is a deliberate decision, made on a daily basis, to be focused and attentive. This is what St Peter meant when he wrote, “You will do well to be attentive to this [ie, the truth revealed in Christ] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pe 1:19) Practically speaking, this means developing the habit of looking for moments in the day when I can give over all the noise, all the worries and distractions, to Christ, and ask him for the grace to be focused upon him and his Word. We could ask ourselves: what distraction might I lay aside (watching a TV show, scrolling through tweets or posts, or looking at yet one more Internet site) in order to read the Gospel of the day? Focus upon a line or passage that stands out and allow it to percolate. How does it speak to my heart? To what action is it calling me?
 
I worry that we easily getting caught up in the trap of listening to any number of voices other than that of Christ. Let's reverse this and engage noise cancellation, allowing into our attention the one voice that leads to life: that of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Baggage Handling


It’s a key part of the boarding adventure. Getting on a plane is by no means a breeze. We seem to be coming aboard loaded down with more and more stuff, packed in baggage presumably of a size that will fit under seats or in overhead bins, and expecting there to be enough room on the aircraft. I’ve seldom seen this unfold without some drama, involving no small amount of effort on the part of the crew to find space somewhere for everyone’s things. Sometimes people are told that there is no room on board, which elicits a variety of reactions, to put it mildly. I admire the patience of the crew as they deal with us passengers. If I were in their place, I’m sure I’d need to get to confession soon after landing.
 
In the Gospel we heard proclaimed on Sunday, Jesus gives a lesson in another - and far more important - type of 'baggage handling.' We tend to accumulate a lot of things. What is important? What not? On the basis of what principle do we make this discernment?
 
In the passage from St. Matthew (13:44-52), Jesus tells a number of parables to explain “the kingdom of heaven.” By this phrase he is speaking of the reign of God in our lives. It comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. By encounter with Him and surrender to his person and teaching, we enter the joy of life in communion with God. There is no greater “treasure” than this, no “pearl” of greater price. By these parables, Jesus teaches that, like the farmer and the merchant, we should understand our relationship with Jesus Christ, and all that it entails, as far surpassing in worth anything we might possess, or that might be possessing us!
 
Easy to say. Sounds very good. Yet, of course, as with all the parables of Jesus, these, too, involve a serious challenge to his hearers. Both the farmer, who discovers the treasure in a field, and the merchant, who comes across the pearl of great price, divest themselves of everything in order to possess what they have found. Ah, there’s the rub. Divestment. Getting rid of things. Handling baggage is one thing. Doing away with stuff is an entirely different matter. We usually don’t like to let go of things to which we have become attached. Notice, though, that the figures in the parables let go joyfully! In comparison with the joy that is theirs in finding what is of surpassing value, all else is suddenly seen in its true light: unimportant, and, in fact, an obstacle to real joy.
 
This puts me in mind of a beautiful statement by St. Paul, who found the treasure when Christ found him: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:8)
 
So, how are we doing as baggage handlers? To be more precise, to what are we holding on that stands in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ? This involves more than just physical possessions. We can also be attached to the baggage of pride, reputation, hurts, inability to forgive, and so on. There are times when it is good - indeed, necessary - to be told that there is no room “on board” for these things. That’s exactly what Jesus is teaching. So, let’s be ready to downsize, to divest, that we may live in the priceless joy of knowing Jesus Christ.
 
 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Called to the Office



In the early years of my episcopate, when I was learning how to be a Bishop (Who am I kidding? I’m still learning!), I would at times ask my secretary to call a priest and ask him to come to the office for a visit. In those days, I might neglect to give the reason why. I would only find out later that, by not indicating the reason for the call, I had more often than not caused great angst for the priest - What did I do? Why does he want to see me? Hmmm. Maybe I need to work on my charm and friendly manner. Anyway, invitations are now always accompanied by an explanation in order to minimize the likelihood of panic attack.
 
Archbishop Smith installed as bishop of Edmonton after his time as bishop of Pembroke.
Truth to tell, we can all think of various versions of the “summons” that can elicit a sense of foreboding: students called to the principal’s office, a summons to appear in court, or “the boss wants to see you.” There are others, though, that fill us with delight and the prospect of happiness. Think especially of what fills the hearts of children when they hear that they’ve been invited to Grandma’s house. As I think back, cookies and sweets come to mind. No foreboding there!

It is this latter sense of good that arises when we hear the “summons,” or invitation, which Jesus issues in the Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 11:25-30). It is an invitation to rest, a call to the peace that is ours when we entrust all of our cares and burdens to Him in the confidence that He, God who loves us, will care for us and guide us toward the good. The passage is a beautiful manifestation of the wondrous tenderness of our God. No need to be anxious about this call.

Of course, there are times in our lives when we are “called to the office” by the Lord and rebuked for our sinful ways. This, too, is encountered in Sacred Scripture. After all, the first summons spoken by the Lord on earth was to repentance and faith. This can cause what could be called a “holy foreboding”, holy because it is ultimately salutary, good for our salvation. Consequently, far from fearing this kind of summons, we should actually seek it so that the Lord, by His truth and mercy, can lead us in holiness.
Procession at Santa Maria Goretti this past Sunday.
The Lord consoles with His mercy; He challenges us with His truth. Whatever the summons, if it comes from the Lord Jesus, we know it is for our good, both earthly and eternal. Therefore, let us cast aside all foreboding and respond with joyful trust.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

And Now … ?



Well, it was certainly a wonderful moment of grace. All across our land, on the Canada Day weekend, our country’s Bishops consecrated their respective Dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this way the whole of our country was entrusted to the maternal care and protection of the Mother of God.

Statue of Mary which Bishop Grandin knelt
to consecrate the Diocese of St Albert to Mary.
It was not the first time that this was done. A national consecration occurred during a Marian Congress in Ottawa in 1947. Here in the Edmonton area, our first Bishop, Most Rev. Vital Grandin, consecrated his new Diocese of St. Albert (which later became the Archdiocese of Edmonton) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. (Incidentally, for the consecration this weekend at St Joseph’s Basilica we knelt at the same Marian statue before which Bishop Grandin offered his prayer of consecration in 1871.)

So, why the re-consecration? Like children do with their own mothers, we instinctively turn to our Heavenly Mother in times of need. As we mark 150 years of Confederation in Canada, we are conscious of great need among our people. Yes, we have many blessings here, for which we are grateful to Almighty God. In many ways, Canada is a wonderful place to live. At the same time, we are aware of troubling trends and worrisome patterns that demonstrate a collective drift from Christ and his teachings. For this reason, we have turned to Mary, asking for her intercession, that we will be brought back to her son Jesus, or, indeed, will be led to discover Him if He is not yet known. We have made this act of consecration, this act of entrustment to Mary’s maternal care, with great confidence that she will hear our prayers and answer. Thus we are certain that God, in response to Mary’s plea on our behalf, will pour many graces upon our land.

Grotto at Mission Hill in St Albert.
And now…? What more must we do? Mary herself shows us. In her response to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” she shows us that our response to the grace the Lord wills to give us must be that of complete surrender to the will of God. Concretely, this means staying close to Jesus: by listening daily to His Word in Sacred Scripture, we become attuned to God’s will; by regular participation in the sacraments we are strengthened by God’s mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. It also means staying close to Mary: by renewing the prayer of consecration and by praying the Rosary each day, we keep our hearts and minds directed towards her, who seeks always to lead us to her son, Jesus. Stay close to Jesus in faith; stay close to Mary in trust. In so doing, our hearts are disposed to receive, and be transformed by, the love and mercy of God. In so doing, we shall see the act of consecration we made this past weekend bear great fruit for the good of our country in the years ahead.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Canada, pray for us!
 
St Mary's Cathedral, Calgary