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

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Call that Changes Everything

You know, I have to admit to a certain sympathy with Jonah. On Sunday, we heard of his call from God to go to the ancient city of Nineveh and summon the people there to repentance. (Jon 3: 1-5, 10). The passage tells us that he "made ready and went." When we read this, though, in the light of the book's two preceding chapters, we realize that this is the second time God called Jonah. On the first occasion, the prophet was anything but willing to do what God asked of him. We know how the story goes. When he first hears God call him to preach to the Ninevites, he tries to escape! He gets on a boat to a faraway destination, gets thrown overboard to be swallowed by a large fish that then spews him back out onto land. That's where the passage of Sunday picks up the thread of the story. God calls him again, with the same summons. Jonah learns there is no escaping the call of the Lord, and does what the Lord asks of him.

The desire to run from the call of the Lord is not unusual. It arises in the hearts of many of us when we experience that call as summoning us to something we do not want to do.

How do we respond to the call recorded in the Gospel passage from Sunday (Mark 1:14-20)? This is a crucial question, since we are dealing with the summons that stands at the heart of every Christian life, namely, the call to salvation in Christ.

Jesus announces the coming near, through and in him, of God's kingdom, and then stipulates the necessary response for the acceptance of his message: "repent, and believe in the good news." The call to salvation meets its requisite response when we turn to the Lord in faith and repentance. The sine qua non of the Christian life is a firm decision so to change one's life as to be separated from whatever is contrary to the divine summons (repentance), and to surrender to Christ and the supremacy of his grace (faith).

Especially in our day, marked by the exaltation of the autonomous Self, we might well be tempted to run from such a call. Encouraged by the individualism of Western society to establish ourselves as the standard of measure in all things, the idea that someone else sets the terms for the way I am to live can be difficult to accept. As Christians, though, we know very well that we do not get to follow the Lord on our own terms. He is the Lord; therefore, he leads the way.

As impossible as his terms may appear to us, there is no need to be discouraged. In his love for us, Jesus not only calls us to holiness and salvation but also makes it possible for us to respond as he wills. Notice how the Gospel passage demonstrates this at work in the response of the first persons sought out by Jesus to be his disciples. We are told that those fishermen left their nets to follow the Lord. That is to say, so ready and eager were they to follow this man, Jesus, to surrender all to him, that they left behind the lives they had constructed for themselves in order to adopt a radically new life in him. Very important to observe here is the presence of what is called the "theological passive," often used in Sacred Scripture to indicate the priority of the Lord, who acts upon the recipient. In this story of call, it is the Lord Jesus who initiates the action (we do not call ourselves to discipleship). Furthermore, it is he who will make these fishermen into "fishers of people" (we do not make ourselves disciples; we are made so by God's grace). The terms that the Lord sets for following him, faith and repentance, may seem difficult, even impossible to us. Rightly so; they are. By God's grace, though, we are made able to accept them and to live them with joy.

So, in those moments when we might be tempted to "do a Jonah" and flee, let's keep in mind that, if we are to run anywhere, it should be away from whatever is contrary to holiness and toward the Lord, who alone leads us to the fullness of life.

Monday, January 15, 2018

That Look

It used to instill terror in us as kids. We knew instantly we were in trouble whenever we were confronted by "that look," namely, the maternal glare. Our blood would run cold, our knees knock, and abundant prayers for protection went up to heaven.

Another kind of "look" meets us in the Gospel passage from Sunday (John 1: 35-42): the "look" of Jesus. We are told that Simon, upon having been brought by his brother Andrew to the Lord, meets the holy gaze. Jesus "looked at him." From that glance, life was never the same for Simon. "You are Simon son of John," Jesus says. "You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).

What is happening here? Jesus is seeing to the very core of Peter's identity and drawing it forth. Whatever others may have thought of Simon, regardless of how Simon may have seen himself, Jesus sees to the truth of his identity in God and names it: you are Peter. Whenever we place ourselves before the look of Jesus, the same thing happens; our full truth is laid open to view, and we find meaning, direction and destiny.
Somewhat reminiscent of the maternal glare, the look of Jesus might frighten us. After all, there is a lot in us that we would rather others not see, that perhaps we would prefer not even to acknowledge ourselves. Indeed, this also happened with Peter. After he had denied the Lord three times, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus turned and "looked at him." (Luke 22:61) Under that penetrating regard, Peter realized the horror of what he had done.

In other instances, the look of Christ will bring us to an awareness of something lacking in our discipleship and thus summon us to new depths of conversion. Not easy. Consider what happened when a rich young man came to Jesus and asked what more he should do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10: 17-22). Jesus, we are told, looked at him and told him that he must sell his possessions, give his money to the poor and follow him.
Important to note in the last example is that Jesus, in looking at the young inquirer, loved him. Indeed, the love of the Lord always stands always behind "that look" of his. For this reason, we can place ourselves confidently before his gaze. No need to be afraid. So, let's raise our eyes to meet his and ask him to look at us. In that encounter, we meet Truth and discover the truth of ourselves. That is what leads to the fullness of life and joy.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Light on the Radar

"The Church isn't even on the radar." That very sobering statement was made to me by a gentleman in the context of some listening sessions I've been holding throughout the Archdiocese around issues pertaining to family life. From one group, I sought their insights into the reasons some people stay away from the Church. I expected the participants to begin speaking about the hostility some people feel toward the Church, especially as regards aspects of her moral doctrine. One, man, though, responded by saying that, while such anger may apply to some people, for many others "the Church isn't even on the radar." I call that a very sobering statement, because it is accurate. As unfathomable as it is to me, the question of God, faith and discipleship has become so eclipsed from the consciousness of many people that, for them, "the Church isn't even on the radar."

I shared this with the fifty or so seminarians at St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, as I led them in their weekend retreat. Their discernment of God's call has to take into account the pastoral challenges facing the Church in our day. So, seeking insight, we reflected upon the narrative of a celestial radar of old and the star that appeared upon it. In the story of the Epiphany (Matthew 2:1-12), we recognized the presence of the very same reactions to the Gospel that the Church faces today: hostility and indifference. We could see, too, that Epiphany helps us to understand not only the reason for such responses but also how best to respond to them.

What is the cause? Reactions of hostility and indifference have tragic consequences in the lives of people, so we need to understand why they come about. Consider what happened in Jerusalem when the wise men came to town with the news of the birth of the "King of the Jews." Herod wanted to protect his power, so he reacted to the news by beginning to plot the hostile and violent destruction of the child. The chief priests and scribes, for their part, were entirely indifferent, evidently moved by no desire for a change in their status quo. The reactions of Herod and the religious authorities showed that they were locked in upon themselves, entirely self-referential. What's behind all this?


The story of the Epiphany of Christ teaches us that the self-enclosure manifested in hostility and indifference is the result of fear, which is itself engendered by an awareness that what the Church proclaims is, in fact, true. How so?

Epiphany means revelation. In the Catholic understanding, divine revelation is directed to human reason. Since reason is itself God's creation, it is naturally disposed to apprehend as true what God reveals. This apprehension of truth necessarily embraces the consequence that the acceptance of truth entails, namely, a change of life. Indeed, this is precisely what the wise men went through. Having encountered and accepted God's truth in Christ, "they left for their country by another road," i.e., their lives changed direction. Well, recognizing as true that we are summoned to change whatever view or practice of life we have constructed for ourselves will often engender fear, which in turn can cause us to close us in on ourselves and express resistance through hostility or indifference.

How, then, to respond to this? If the reactions to the Gospel are, at root, a recognition of its truth, then our call is to demonstrate that the truth of the Gospel need not be feared; on the contrary it should be joyfully embraced. The wise men show us that this demonstration is given by the witness of worship and joy. Once they found Christ, they offered gifts and knelt down in worship and adoration. Here we see that worship, the act of self-surrender to Christ as God and King, is an act of surrender to the fullness of truth; it is thus an act which casts away any barriers of self-enclosure so as to turn toward the whole of reality. As such, worship gives birth to joy. Even as they were approaching Bethlehem, the wise men "were overwhelmed with joy."

So, then, let us worship Christ with the whole gift of self, allow his joy to arise in our hearts, and make that joy visible to others. Then, by God's grace, the star that appeared on the celestial radar of the wise men, the star that now shines in the witness of the Church, will begin to appear also on the earthly radar of those who do not yet know Christ and his Church, to lead them out of fearful self-reference toward the joyful embrace of God's truth revealed in His Son.

Monday, January 1, 2018

OK Google! Hey Siri!

Now this is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand. How it works is totally beyond me. Whether it is a smartphone or a special device for the house, one can now simply speak to these things and they respond with the answers sought or actions requested.

This fascinating computerized voice recognition and response technology raises important questions: am I able to recognize the voice of God when He speaks? When I do, how responsive am I to what God asks of me? The urgency of reflecting on these questions is dramatically underscored by current circumstances, which demonstrate the harm that arises when God’s Word is unrecognized and unheeded. Globally we see this in the numberless refugees fleeing persecution, unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, aggression in Ukraine, and tensions in North Korea. Closer to home we continue to live with affronts to the dignity of innocent human life, growing drug crises, particularly among the young, situations of dire poverty and homelessness, family dysfunction and so on.

At each marking of a New Year the yearning in every heart for an end to all of this and for the establishment of order and peace rises to the surface. The Church marks the New Year as the World Day of Peace, and responds to this deep desire with the sure affirmation that the peace we seek is possible if we but recognize the voice of God and do as He commands.

Recognition of God’s voice is possible. In the Christmas season, the Church proclaims that God's Word has become flesh in Jesus born of the Virgin Mary (cf. John 1:14). By hearing the words of Jesus, we recognize the voice of God. Yet, while the recognition is made possible by God, our culture renders it rather difficult. How so? Well, consider that, in order for me to use today's technology properly, my voice needs to be clearly heard. If my voice is garbled or there is background noise, I might very well get from the device answers to questions I am not asking. God's voice, speaking to us in Christ, is crystal clear. Yet today there is plenty of background noise. We live in a culture of chatter and babble, in a time when a multiplicity of voices bombards us daily. In the midst of this static, it can be very difficult to recognize the voice of our Lord. We can end up shaping answers to questions that God is not asking. What is required, therefore, - and here is a New Year's resolution worth keeping - is a determination to close out from our minds and hearts all noise we know is contrary to the Gospel and seek God's grace to help us truly recognize the voice of Jesus speaking to us in Scripture and the Church and echoing within our conscience.

Yet recognition in itself is insufficient. God’s Word calls for a response. Our world is obviously not doing very well on that score, so we need to pay special attention to the one to whom the Church directs our gaze every January 1st, the one whose response to God’s Word was perfect: Mary, the Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ.

Regarding the words about her newborn son spoken by shepherds, we are told that she “treasured and pondered” all she heard (cf. Luke 2:19). This means that she thought deeply about everything pertaining to her son and delighted in it as not only his mother but also his disciple. She gave herself over completely to the task of understanding God’s Word, spoken about Jesus and in Jesus, in order to be completely obedient to it.

Here we find in Mary the example we are called to imitate, that we urgently need to follow in these troubled times. In a world where discourse is increasingly shaped by Twitter, Snapchat, Google and Siri we are rapidly losing the capacity to listen and ponder, to take time to treasure words and allow them to sink in. There are no words more beautiful and wondrous, there is nothing uttered more worthy of our trust, than God’s Word, spoken in Jesus Christ. The way to the peace for which we long is that of recognizing the voice of God speaking in Jesus, and then of responding to it by treasuring, pondering and obeying God's Word, just as Mary, the mother of God and mother of the Church, teaches us to do.