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

Monday, September 10, 2018

Energy for Mission

Isn’t it just the best??!!

These are the words that greeted me as I entered Saint Stephen’s Church in Lacombe, Alberta, on Sunday. Since Bishop Gregory Bittman had consecrated it, this was my first opportunity to see the new edifice. It truly is beautiful, and the people were understandably very excited to show it to me.

Bishop Gregory Bittman consecrating the altar at St. Stephen's Church.
Also clear was a great energy among the people of the parish not only for their building but also, and most importantly, for the mission of the Church. In fact, it was this mission, and those things that can drain us of energy for it, that were the focus of my reflections for the homily at mass.

The Gospel was the familiar story from St. Mark of the cure by Jesus of a man who was both deaf and mute (cf. Mark 7: 31-37). In our day, we find ourselves surrounded by a great deal of noise that deafens us to the Word of God. Whether it comes from Internet, radio, TV or social media, it all merges into a cacophony inside our heads, a noise that distracts our attention and fractures our lives. This weakens the focus and zeal we wish to bring to evangelization. The Gospel passage on Sunday thus became a call to ask Jesus to heal this deafness to His Word and, in this way, renew us for mission.

Chapel at the former Ephphatha House.
And what about being mute? We know that we are called to speak the truth of the Gospel in our day, but there can grow within us an anxiety and fear that keep our tongues still. The widespread allergy in the culture to the Gospel often causes our proclamation of it to be met with disdain or marginalization. This can engender a fear that keeps us from speaking. Here the call from Sunday’s Gospel text is to ask Jesus to free our tongues by instilling within us the gift of a deep and confident trust in his presence and power.

The Lord wants to awaken within us, by the gift of his Holy Spirit, a great energy for the mission of carrying the good news of who he is, the good news of the life that he brings, to a world that sorely needs the message. If we find ourselves growing deaf from the noise of our surrounding culture or becoming mute from fear, let’s pray that Jesus will do for us what he did for the man in the Gospel: restore our hearing and liberate our speech so that we can be the disciples that he calls us to be.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Special Air Quality Statement

This warning has been with us here in Edmonton for a while now. Massive wildfires in British Columbia are giving off thick smoke, which the winds then drive over us. Weather channels and apps announce an air quality statement and advise people to stay inside so as to avoid breathing in the toxins.

As I read the Scripture texts assigned for last Sunday, it occurred to me that they were issuing their own "special air quality statement." They warn against various atmospheric toxins emitted not by fires but by false gods, and caution us against "breathing these in."

Consider, for example, Sunday's first reading from the book of Joshua (Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b). He has just led the chosen people into the promised land, where they encounter among the inhabitants the worship of false gods. Present, in other words, is the toxin of idolatry, and Joshua in effect asks the people to choose whether they will breathe in this poisonous fume or the pure air of authentic worship.

This situation in which our ancestors in the faith found themselves is not entirely dissimilar to our own. Native citizens may not be living in a foreign country, but at times it can feel alien. There are many ideas and ideologies floating in the air that run counter to the Christian principles that shaped this nation, and breathing them in, allowing them to shape our mindsets and behaviours, will lead inexorably to a distance from the Gospel.

What to do?

In the passage from the gospel of St. John (6:53, 60-69), Jesus says, "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." When we listen to the words of Jesus Christ and obediently appropriate his teaching, we "breathe in" the pure air of the Spirit, who gives life. Moreover, what Christ announces are "words of eternal life," as St. Peter realized. They purify us of whatever toxins have settled into our souls, so as to heal us and be our moral compass through this earthly life to the next.

I've noticed more than a few people donning special face masks to guard against the smoke and its dangerous particles. To protect against the noxious ideologies and idolatries that threaten the soul, we have Scripture and the sacraments of the Church. God's Word enlightens; the grace of the sacraments purifies and strengthens.

Let's be attentive to the quality of the air that surrounds us and breathe in only that which gives life: God's merciful love, spoken and revealed in Christ and communicated in the Church's sacraments.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Feeding on What Mary Has to Give Us

On Sunday, I joined with hundreds of pilgrims at a Marian grotto just behind St. Albert church in St. Albert, Alberta. The occasion was the 80th anniversary of a pilgrimage to this site built in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes. As I had at Skaro last Tuesday, I designated this site an official Archdiocesan Marian shrine.

Mimi Belhumeur
In preparation for this anniversary celebration, Mimi Belhumeur was interviewed by our own Grandin Media. She described the importance of this annual gathering in words that, to my mind, capture its significance: "This is one occasion of coming and feeding yourself on what [Mary] has to give us, and then (to) go out and live whatever we have to live, with her support.”

We are well aware that we live from that with which Christ feeds us. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we feed on his very Body and Blood, given in the transformed gifts of bread and wine. But what of this idea of being fed by what Mary gives us? There is a profound truth here, and so we need to consider it carefully.

In St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he gives this admonishment: "Brothers and sisters, be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, .... understand what the will of the Lord is." Mary had had proclaimed to her exactly what the will of the Lord was for her, and, indeed, for the whole world, and her response to that will was one of humble, complete and trusting obedience. Obedient listening to God's will is the heart of the Christian life. This is why Mary has from the beginning been held up by the Church as the exemplar of the Christian life. She is the perfect disciple.

Mary feeds us with her example. When we look upon the mother of our Lord, we see all that it means to be a Christian. From her we learn that, to be a disciple means accepting that Jesus is, in fact, the One sent from the Father to save the world. We also learn from her example that following Christ is no guarantee of an easy life. She who stood at the Cross of her son knew the pain of suffering to an extraordinary degree. Yet we also learn from her that, even in the midst of intense pain and anguish, we can continue to trust in the fidelity of God. When we allow ourselves to be fed by Mary's example, we see clearly to the truth of things, life finds meaning and direction, and we are strengthened by hope.

We know, too, that we are fed by her maternal love. From the words that Jesus spoke from the Cross to John - "Behold your mother" - the Church has always understood Mary to be not only the mother of Jesus and thus Mother of God, but also our mother. Like every mother, Mary remains close to her children. She is always near us and earnestly wants us to turn to her for the help - the unsurpassable assistance - that she can and wants to give us by the power of her intercession. The love of Mary for her children is the source to which Catholics of all ages and in every generation have turned to be fed with the support that we need to, as Mimi puts it, "live what we have to live" as followers of Christ.

Let us all draw deeply from that with which Mary feeds us: her example of discipleship and her maternal love. With the help of her prayers, may we all grow in fidelity to our baptismal dignity and calling to live as followers of Jesus Christ.


Monday, August 13, 2018

Never Was It Known

One of the Church's most beloved and frequently offered prayers to Our Lady is the Memorare. I pray it often. It begins, "Remember O most gracious Virgin Mary that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored they help or sought thy intercession was left unaided...."

This prayer comes to mind as the Archdiocese of Edmonton prepares to celebrate this week a remarkable anniversary. On Tuesday, the Vigil of the Assumption, thousands of pilgrims will gather at Skaro, Alberta, for confessions and an outdoor mass at a grotto dedicated to Mary. This 2018 gathering is the 100th time that the pilgrimage will have taken place.

Our own Grandin Media recently published an article telling the Skaro story. As I read it, I found myself wondering what inspired those first pioneers 100 years ago to build the grotto. Indeed, what has animated the thousands of pilgrims who have visited the site since it was first constructed?

The answer, I suggest, is found in the people's steadfast confidence in the assistance they would assuredly receive from the Mother of the Saviour. The lives of those first pioneers were not without hardship, to say the least. They knew they could always turn to Mary for the help of her prayers and rest assured in her maternal love. Wanting a way to give visible expression to their reliance upon the Mother of God, they built the grotto. Ever since then, their ancestors, together with the people of this Archdiocese and beyond, have come each year to this place made holy by the faith and prayers of God's people.

This confident reliance upon Mary finds expression in four words, simple yet bold, of the Memorare: "Never was it known." Mary has been given to us by her son to be our mother, too. She loves us with a tender maternal love. Unequalled in the power of her intercession, she always comes to our help and will never leave us unaided. "Never was it known."

What has you worried right now? What fear or burden is weighing upon you? Do you find yourself in a difficult situation that seems simply impossible to resolve? I invite you to Skaro this week. If distance is an obstacle, make the pilgrimage in your heart and place whatever troubles you under her mantle. Do this with serene confidence, because "never was it known" that Mary would leave her children without the help that she is uniquely qualified to give.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Celebrating our Heritage

I'm writing this blog post during what we in Alberta call the Heritage Day long weekend. The first Monday of August is designated a civic holiday in this province in recognition and honour of the wonderful variety of cultures among our citizens. Over the years, waves of immigration have brought to this land a broad diversity of peoples, whose cultural heritage has greatly enriched Alberta society. Here in Edmonton we have a weekend-long Heritage Festival, during which thousands of people come together not only to see multiple displays of song, dance and costume but also - and this seems to be the biggest attraction - to eat the food!

Hmm. Heritage and food. They're inseparable. Here we find an opening into the teaching of Sacred Scripture proclaimed at mass on Sunday.

Our heritage as a Catholic people is linked with a meal. My mind goes to the teaching of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’" (1Cor 11:23-25) Heritage is what is handed on through time, what we receive, preserve and carry forward to future generations. The heritage of Christian faith, handed down from the Apostles, who received it from Christ, has at its centre a meal. Indeed, a meal that is far more than just a meal. As the people who rush to the food at the Heritage Festival, so should we - even moreso! - be those who make haste to partake of that Sacred Meal we call the Eucharist.

It is precisely this meal that is the heart of this weekend's sacred texts. Jesus speaks of himself as "the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." (John 6:33) For this reason, Jesus speaks of himself as the "bread of life" (John 6:35), which is the gift he makes of himself in the Eucharist.

Our Catholic heritage is extraordinarily rich. I think, for example, of the manner in which that heritage is interwoven with the history of this province: of the religious leaders and consecrated women and men who established the Church in Alberta; whose heroic efforts launched healthcare, education and social outreach; and whose memory is enshrined in the names of some of our towns, such as Lacombe, Leduc and Legal. This rich history of effective evangelization and societal foundation could not have happened without the food that is the very heart of the heritage - Jesus, the bread of Life, given in the Eucharist. Jesus satisfies all hunger and slakes all thirst (John 6:35). As recipients of a wondrous and sacred heritage, let us approach the Lord's table in humility and joy, draw from this food strength for the journey and hope for eternal life, and always be ready to hand on this good news to those who come after us.

Monday, July 30, 2018

He Knows What Needs to be Done

I arrived home the other day to find one of the kids next door playing in the driveway of my residence. When I asked the nine-year old how he was doing, his answer was “Not so good!” He then proceeded to tell me, in obviously deep frustration, about some difficulties he was having with a toy that needed fixing. He then ran off, leaving me feeling relieved that he had not asked me to fix the toy, because I would have had no idea what needed to be done.
“Not so good.” How often do we give that same answer about ourselves, not because a toy needs fixing but our lives do? Sickness, financial problems, family tension or dysfunction, addictions, lack of meaning and direction, or just a general sense that “something is not right” mark our lives and we are often not sure what needs to be done to fix the problem.
Keeping this in mind, a line from the Gospel passage proclaimed on Sunday stands out. John6:1-15 recounts the familiar story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. The problem besetting the people is hunger and the challenge facing the disciples is how to feed thousands of people with the very little food available. St. John tells us that Jesus himself “knew what he was going to do.” Jesus knew then what needed to be done, just as he knows now what needs to be done in answer to the brokenness of humanity.
This raises an obvious question. Shall we simply lament our lot in frustration or despair, or shall we turn to the one who knows what needs to be done? Here we encounter the Gospel’s call to faith. Jesus is our Lord and God, who has manifested his love for us and promised to remain with us always. Do we believe in his love, or don’t we? Do we trust in his power to save, or do we stay caught in the illusion of self-reliance? St. John, later in one of his letters, summarized the fundamental Christian disposition in this way: “we have known and believe the love that God has for us.” (1John 4:16) Putting this “knowing and believing” into action means surrendering in trust to the Lord’s wisdom and providence, and allowing him to lead us by hearing and doing his Word. The act of faith springs from the humble admission that Jesus knows what needs to be done, and we don’t.
The Gospel narrative from Sunday also teaches that, when we surrender to Christ and place all in his hands, miracles happen! The state of “not so good” is transformed into “very good indeed!”
To whom are we listening? Let’s be sure to listen to the Lord and follow him, because he knows what needs to be done.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Boasting of Weakness

On Sunday, I had the great blessing and joy of celebrating Mass with the members of the St. Mark’s Catholic Community of the Deaf in Edmonton. The visit recalled to mind the years in Halifax when, as a priest, I served as chaplain to deaf Catholics there. They retain a special place in my heart, to be sure.

The deaf have taught me many things, and Sunday’s visit was the occasion for yet another lesson. In the second reading for Mass (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), St. Paul boasted happily of his weakness. It was striking to think of those words as I watched and interacted with the members of the deaf community, whose “weakness” (inability to hear) was on full and joyful display as they communicated with one another in sign language. I stress here the “happily” in regard to St. Paul, and the “joyful” on the part of the deaf. The lesson to learn here is that the gift of true joy is inseparable from the acknowledgement of limit.

Admittedly, this kind of teaching is anathema to much of Western culture. If we are to boast of anything, it is the Self which has been personally and individually fashioned. Weakness is not something to display with joy but to hide in shame. The tragic irony is that, if we attempt to cover it over, our weakness will nevertheless eventually show itself, and often in shameful and destructive ways.

To acknowledge weakness and limit is to acknowledge the truth of our human nature as creature. We are the created, not the Creator. As such, we are dependent upon God, called to rely peacefully upon Him with trust in His wisdom and providence. Acceptance of this truth brings great peace, and, yes, joy. Refusing reality by choosing instead to rely upon the self leads to anxiety and sadness.

This is not to say that the transition from resistance to reliance is easy. Pride is a major obstacle. It prevented those listening to Jesus teach in the synagogue from accepting that he, one of their own, could have anything to say to them (Mark 6:1-6). Hubris is also for us a stumbling block to receiving the Word of God, especially when it summons us in unexpected ways to unanticipated changes in thinking and behaviour. The Gospel calls us to let go of any and all illusion of self-reliance and to embrace the truth of weakness and need. Then, and only then, shall we know the joy of God’s love and mercy at work within us, doing great things for us (Luke 1:49).

On Sunday, my own weakness was certainly on display. That happens in many ways, of course, and one of them is my own use of sign language. The communication is supposed to be via American Sign Language, ASL. Whenever I sign, the deaf have to adapt to what they now call RSL (Richard’s sign language). Somehow, the message gets through, which is a testament more to their intelligence than to my skill. The collective sign we make is of a community sharing limit in a highly visible way, and it never fails to be for me a source of great joy.