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

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Experiencing for the First Time What Others Have Long Known

Last Thursday I travelled to the Northwest Territories for a few days. One of our Edmonton priests, Fr Arlan Parenteau, is on loan here, sent in the context of the new twinning arrangement of mutual support established between the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith. These past few days were an opportunity to visit him and to get at least an initial taste of life in the North. I experienced for the first time a number of things that the local people have grown up on, that are just part of their everyday lives.

First, roads. Have you ever driven on an "ice road"? A little unnerving, one might say. On both the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells and the Great Bear Lake at Deline, both frozen to a depth of about five and a half feet, I was driven by Fr Arlan in his truck on "roads" formed across the surface of the water. Since I heard that one should not exceed twenty kilometres an hour for fear of creating waves underneath that might crack the ice (!!!), my attention was split equally between the beauty of the surroundings and the speedometer. And then there is the "winter road". These run across the frozen muskeg, and stretch for hundreds of miles. The constant pounding by heavy transport trucks leaves them in deplorable condition, meaning that the people need to allow hours to travel distances that on normal roads would take little time. Outside the winter months the ice and winter roads disappear, of course, meaning that the only connection many small villages have to the broader world is by plane or, sometimes, boat. The sense of isolation is palpable, yet it is what they are used to.

Second, cold. REALLY COLD! I went out one day onto the Great Bear Lake to watch some local ice fishing. It took ages to put on what looked like a space suit and special boots and gloves in order to be shielded from a wind more biting than I could ever have imagined. As the fish were hauled out in nets that had been spread under the ice, I saw them literally freeze before my eyes. Yet a cold they have grown up on.

Third, snowmobiling. I had not had the occasion to drive a snowmobile before, so some of the parishioners in Norman Wells were insistent that I do so. They have grown up on these machines, using them for all sorts of transport. They assured me that the machines drive themselves. Well, not quite. I did not get into too much difficulty, and had a great time navigating the forest trails and skimming across Jackfish Lake. The beauty is breathtaking.

Experiencing for the first time what others have grown up on. In our modern world something analogous happens when one converts to Christianity. There is a kind of culture shock. The Scripture readings of Sunday help us to articulate this.

A Christian "grows up" on trust in God's never failing providence. Our Jewish ancestors on pilgrimage in the desert learned firsthand (Joshua 5:9, 10-12) what Jesus would later teach clearly, namely, that God is a loving Father who will always provide his children with their every true need (cf. Matthew 6:25-34). One coming from a world that teaches self-reliance into a Church that teaches God-reliance will experience culture shock.

A Christian "grows up" on God's mercy. We know that God loves us and we know our weaknesses and failings, and time and again we experience the boundless mercy and forgiveness of God, taught by Jesus in striking fashion through the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). One coming from a world that is harsh and bitter, far more ready to judge and condemn than to forgive, into a Church that has gown up on God's mercy, will experience culture shock, and truly wonder if God could ever forgive them their sins.

This means that we who have "grown up" on the love of God must be patient and gentle toward those who heed the call of the new evangelization and decide to taste and see if The Lord is, indeed, good (cf. Psalm 34). In other words, we need to be ambassadors of reconciliation, as St. Paul invites us to be (cf. 2Corinthians 5:17-21), always ready to be as patient and merciful toward others as God is toward us.