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

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Merciful Communication

It has been an extraordinary week in Alberta. Enormous and terrifying wildfires cover a vast area of land in the northern part of the province, and have necessitated mass evacuations of the city of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas; about 90,000 people! This is no small feat of coordination, and officials have carried it off with wonderful efficiency, patience and dedication. The hearts and homes of Albertans have opened wide in response to the needs of the evacuees. First responders battle the blaze at great personal cost and remarkable heroism. Civic officials have demonstrated impressive and necessary leadership at all levels of government. Above all, the evacuees themselves have shown edifying resilience, particularly those who, in spite of having lost literally everything, refuse to give up hope as they find their lives in an instant turned upside down.

Not to be overlooked in this is the role of the media. In my view, all dimensions of modern social communication are offering an invaluable service to the common good at this time of tragedy. They are using their considerable resources in the service of fostering unity, encouraging hope and doing good. Where to find help; how to make a donation; what are the latest updates; who is in charge; what supplies are needed; these and many other questions find answers through the combined resources of television, radio, newsprint, Internet and social networking. They are uniting our population by providing vital information and connecting need with response.

This experience underscores the enormous potential of modern communication technology to do good and bring people together in ways that strengthen society. I highlight this as we mark World Communications Day on May 8th. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of this annual commemoration. For his 2016 message in honour of this day, Pope Francis has highlighted the need to understand communications as an agent of mercy. It seems to me that this is exactly what Albertans are seeing played out, as they stay tuned in to their TV's, radios, computers and smartphones. The fostering of unity and the provision of real reasons for hope are among the greatest acts of mercy towards any people feeling cut off, isolated, or on the verge of despair. How could one not feel all of these sentiments, and more, as one's home and/or livelihood goes up in smoke? Yet the communications industry has stepped up to the plate and provided the information necessary to keep hope alive. It is truly a wonderful act of mercy.

The communication is, it must be noted, two-way in a manner important for all of us. Those directly impacted by the tragedy are also sending messages to the general population. The first responders, by their selfless actions, are communicating the responsibility we all share for one another. More than anyone else, the evacuees themselves are communicating the need to keep life in its proper perspective. I have lost count of the number of people who, in interview after interview, have shared that nothing is more important than having their loved ones safe and with them. All else, they say, is just "stuff" that can somehow always be replaced. They are not diminishing the sense of sadness and shock at the losses, of course. Yet they are demonstrating great strength and wonderful insight as they stay focused on what is truly necessary. The communication of this message is something we should all hear and keep always in mind.

Probably the most frequent communication happening right now is that of prayer, not only in our province and country but also around the world. The situation has come to the attention of our beloved Holy Father, Pope Francis, who on Friday sent to Bishop Paul Terrio of the Diocese of St. Paul (in which Fort Mac is situated) a message of solidarity, prayer and hope. We continue to unite our prayers to his for the good of everyone impacted by this terrible tragedy.