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

Monday, February 26, 2018

What to Give Up?

That question formed a large part of a discussion I had the other day in the course of a visit to an elementary school. I was gathered for a Q&A with students in grades 4-6, and they wanted to tell me what they were “giving up for Lent” and, of course, what I would be sacrificing.

At a certain point I asked if they would be able to give up Instagram for Lent. Well, that was met with loud cries of horror and gasps of disbelief! No way! Hmmm. What about Snapchat? Same thing. I had this sinking feeling that any goodwill I had built up with them was quickly vanishing. But the point was made: the Lenten fast aims at attachments, ie, at “giving up” anything to which we are clinging, to which we are inordinately attached, that holds us back from growth in our relationship with Christ.

So, what are some attachments we may want to examine in view of letting go of them, and not only in Lent but also beyond? The Scripture readings proclaimed at mass on the weekend suggest three “fasts” we may do well to consider.

1. Fast from self-reliance. The Gospel account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-10) recalls the Father’s identification of Jesus as his well-beloved Son, together with His command: “Listen to him.” There is a general tendency today to listen not to Christ but to ourselves, not to his words but to our own desires, not to his will, but to our own determinations. At a time when the culture encourages a false sense of autonomy and control, we can grow attached to self-determination and self-reliance. From these we need to fast in order to place our reliance where it belongs: on God’s providence.

2. Fast from fear. There is no shortage of events or circumstances that can leave us anxious. It is good to keep in mind these words of St. Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? ... [In] all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35-39).” Let go of fear. Replace it with faith.

3. Fast from doubt. I participated in a prayer circle last week with some Indigenous people. One of the elders offered a prayer for something clearly impossible by human reckoning, and then concluded, “I know it’s asking a lot, but I somehow think it’s possible.” Exactly. The perfect stance before God. Nothing is beyond God’s reach. With God, nothing is impossible. Do we believe this, or do we doubt? Listen again to St Paul: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom 8:32). God’s love is without limit; so, too, is His power. Give up doubt for Lent. Give it up, period. Trust in the love and care of God.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Renewal of the Mind

As we embark upon the holy season of Lent, I suggest that the following exhortation from St. Paul's letter to the Romans inspire our prayers for the grace of conversion:
"I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 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 and acceptable and perfect." (Rom 12:1-2)

In Lent, we seek to be changed by God's grace. We are painfully aware of the sin and disorder in our daily living, and thus earnestly desire to turn our lives around (repentance) so that they be in accord with the will of God. We know that such change is not something we can bring about by our own efforts; we need God's healing and forgiving grace for it to happen. St. Paul offers a helpful focus when he speaks of our desired transformation occurring through "the renewing of your minds."
Our mindset - the way we think - determines the way we act. If our patterns of speech and behaviour keep us from presenting ourselves to God in a manner "holy and acceptable" to Him, then we may well want to examine very closely the patterns of thought that shape our actions.
It seems to me that we cannot exaggerate the importance today of such self-examination. I often pose the question, "Who are you listening to?" So often, in fact, that for many people I am sounding like a broken record. Yet we have to ask this, because the voices competing for our attention and seeking to influence our mindset are many. Just think of the variety of messages with which we are bombarded daily through the Internet, television, radio, social media, newspapers, magazines at the checkout counter, etc., etc. To the degree that I allow their messaging to shape my way of thought I give to them my trust. Yet, are they trustworthy? Do they lead us toward what is true and right? An easy way to discern the answer to this question is to ask, "Do they lead us toward Jesus and to an acceptance of what he has revealed in his words and deeds, or do they lead us away from him?" I once posed the question in this way to a group of grade-twelve students, and they answered right away that most of what they listen to today would seek to lead them away from the Lord. We can all see the sad truth in this, so we have to ask, "What voices am I allowing to shape my mind? Why?"
In these circumstances, a good Lenten practice would be to take up the reading of the Bible on a daily basis. Using the Scripture readings assigned for daily mass is a good way to do this. God's Word is trustworthy. Jesus, God's Word made flesh (Jn 1:14), speaks to us the words that lead to everlasting life (Jn 6:68). As we read the Bible, let us ask the Holy Spirit, who has inspired the Scriptures, to guide our reading and awaken our understanding, so that God's Word itself will heal and renew our minds and thus transform our lives into living sacrifices pleasing to God.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"Bishop Greg"

That's how he is referred to around here.

Today it was announced that the Holy Father Pope Francis has named the Most Reverend Gregory Bittman as Bishop of Nelson, in the province of British Columbia. In the nearly six years that he has served as the Auxiliary Bishop of Edmonton, he has been for us "Bishop Greg." That says a lot about the love that the people of this Archdiocese have long had for this good man of God.

There is no doubt that the Archdiocese of Edmonton will miss his presence and ministry. Whether in the capacity of Pastor, Chancellor or Auxiliary Bishop, Bishop Greg has served God's people with devotion, warmth and joy. For me personally, he has been my most trusted advisor, and I have relied heavily and confidently upon his counsel. For these reasons, it is difficult for us to see him move on to another place.

At the same time those same reasons lead us to rejoice for the people of the Diocese of Nelson. They are about to receive an excellent Bishop to serve as their spiritual Father and Shepherd. This appointment to Nelson constitutes, I would say, a continuity of excellence, since he is succeeding Bishop John Corriveau, whose capacity for clear and effective leadership has long been held in high esteem by his brother Bishops.

A few tips for the people of Bishop Greg's new Diocese: look for him not only in Church or the office, but also on whatever jogging trails you have; make sure the office is well stocked with coffee and food, especially sweets; do not make any jokes about cats; and if he hasn't yet shown up for an event one minute before it starts, don't worry - he'll be there, and on time.

Bishop Greg, thank you for your exemplary service to the people of the Archdiocese of Edmonton. It is clear to us that you are a man who loves the Lord, loves the Church and loves God's people. We wish you God's abundant blessings. Know that you undertake your new episcopal responsibilities surrounded by our prayers, gratitude and support.


Praying together at the Red Mass in 2017

Monday, February 12, 2018

Archbishop Joseph N. MacNeil (1924-2018)

Yesterday, the Archdiocese announced with deep sadness the death of the Most Reverend Joseph N. MacNeil, Archbishop Emeritus of Edmonton. He would have turned 94 years of age in April of this year.

Archbishop MacNeil served the Church of God with great devotion throughout his seventy years as a priest and nearly fifty as a Bishop. The Archdiocese of Edmonton has been the beneficiary of his many gifts ever since he came to us as Ordinary in 1973. He is rightly celebrated across the country as an attentive and caring Shepherd of the people entrusted to his care, a distinguished churchman and servant of God, and a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. Here in Edmonton, while we experienced and were grateful for all of that, we came to know and love him as something more. He was our father, and, in his later years, our grandfather. That's how we are mourning his death.

Our grief, of course, is that of Christians. It is tempered with the joy that springs from faith in the triumph of Jesus Christ over death. We are sad for ourselves, but rejoice that he is with the Lord he has long loved and served. Archbishop MacNeil chose to follow Christ as his Lord and Master and did so with wonderful fidelity, dedication and love. By his death, he enters into the Master's joy! How can we not rejoice with and for him?

I admired many things about Archbishop MacNeil. He was a true friend and reliable confidante, always ready to listen and offer advice, quite often over some very fine Scotch. What has really stood out for me is the deep knowledge he had of the people he served. He not only remembered names. He could also tell you where they were from, their family background and profession, and, not unusually, even the names of their cousins! There was more to this than just an excellent natural memory. Jesus named as the essential quality of a shepherd the knowledge he must have of his sheep (cf. John 10:14). The Archbishop took this to heart. We knew that he knew us, and, knowing us, loved us. We loved him in return, and delighted in what we were privileged to know of him.

And we got to know a fair amount, because of his penchant for stories. In any gathering, he quite naturally "held court" as he regaled us with story after story, usually leaving his listeners breathless from laughter. What fascinated me was that as I listened to them - and I heard plenty of his narratives - there were never any repeats. His treasure chest of experience was seemingly inexhaustible. Particularly deep, though, was the love which animated his telling of the great story, namely, the Gospel of his Lord, Jesus Christ. Now, that story he did repeat often, relating it in both word and witness. A Bishop is successor to the Apostles, and is thus sent to tell the good news of salvation in Christ. This, too, he took to heart, and dedicated himself so to proclaiming the Gospel that we might all grow in Christ. In this way, he lived out his episcopal motto, Crescamus in Christum, "Let us grow into Christ."

Well, his own growth into Christ now continues as he passes by God's grace from this world to the next. We are grateful to Almighty God for the countless blessings poured out upon us through the person and ministry of Archbishop Joseph N. MacNeil. May our Blessed Mother, together with all the angels and saints, now "receive his soul and present him to God the Most High," who we know stands ready to receive "Joe N." with tender mercy, and perhaps also an ear eager to hear some more stories.