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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reaching Across the Divide


 
We’ve witnessed some terrible things over the last few days: terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Spain and Finland; and the expression of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville. These are events and attitudes that must be denounced without ambiguity in the strongest possible terms. In the light of Sunday’s Gospel, I focus here upon a troubling reality that these occurrences place in high relief: division among peoples. Denunciation of hatred is necessary but insufficient. The events of these past days also summon us to work for reconciliation. The divides that separate us must be healed.
 
Separation of people from one another due to hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, bigotry and the like is not new. Neither is it always as dramatic and visible as we’ve seen in last week’s events. Even in our homes family members can become separated from one another. Whatever the circumstance, the heart instinctively yearns for the divide to be healed. The Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) teaches us how to reach across the divide to find the reconciliation we earnestly seek.
 

Church in Canaan.
Everything in the Gospel story points to a situation of division. The narrative recounts the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Strikingly, this meeting takes place near a border, i.e., close to a point of separation. Yet this geographical barrier signals a far more serious racial and religious divide. As a Canaanite, the woman is a non-Jew, a member, in fact, of a people who had been pagan enemies of God’s people. In addition, women were often held by men to be inferior. Thus, for many reasons, the separation between her and the Jewish people of that day was vast, a yawning chasm.
 
This woman of old becomes our contemporary teacher by reaching across the divide. The complexity of the separation and the breadth of the division do not hinder her. Her reaching has a very specific goal: she reaches across the divide to Jesus. Her motivation is faith that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks for her daughter. By her action, the woman invites us to share her conviction that the deepest and most long-standing divisions separating people need not stand. They can be overcome if we reach across the divide to the One who came to heal all division, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” by his death on the Cross (Ephesians. 2:14).
 
There is still more for us, in our current troubling circumstances, to learn from this encounter. At a time when we are hearing many people shout at one another with name-calling and expressions of hatred and racism, our attention is drawn to the use in the Gospel passage of a terrible slur. By grappling with this, an important lesson emerges.
 
Jesus speaks very perplexing words to the woman in response to her request; perplexing because they are harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was not unusual for Jews of that day to refer to non-Jews as “dogs.” But is Jesus actually calling her this??!!
 
Archbishop Smith in Canaan.
Crucial to bear in mind here is an important principle of biblical interpretation, namely, that any one particular passage of the Bible is only correctly interpreted when placed in the context of the whole biblical message and viewed in that light. The overall message of the Bible is clear: everyone, without exception, is made in the image and likeness of God; in Jesus Christ, God has come to save all people. The divine saving will is universal, affirmed by Jesus himself when, after his Resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out to all nations with the saving grace of Baptism (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). From this perspective, the words of Jesus to the woman have the sense of “I know that people are saying this of you (i.e., calling you and your people “dogs”); do you nevertheless dare to believe that I have come for you, too?” In other words, Jesus is testing her faith. She remains steadfast in her plea and her conviction that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks. Jesus is moved by her strong faith and heals her daughter. Far from adopting as his own the denigrating language, Jesus uses it in such a way as to distance himself from it and demonstrate that he has come for all people, to bring an end to all division.
 
Thus does the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach that we, too, must separate ourselves from all that separates - derogatory attitudes, hurtful language, presumed superiority and the like - and dare to reach across our divides by reaching first toward the One who can reconcile us to one another and enable us to live as the brothers and sisters God made us to be.

Top image: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Monday, August 14, 2017

Follow Us!


Few organizations these days would have websites that did not issue this invitation: Follow Us! It usually means choosing to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. At least, those are the social media places I've heard about. No doubt there are, and will be, many more.

It is an interesting phenomenon, this following. Very popular. It certainly doesn't demand much to become a follower. Click of a button, occasionally check in to see the post, and that's about it. Why we choose a person or organization to follow is another point. The motivation is usually interest or curiosity. Tellingly, the act of following really does not require anything of me in terms of commitment to the one I choose to follow.

I wonder, is anyone asking the question: to where? Following usually indicates movement behind a leader toward a goal or destination. That really does not seem to be in play in the world of social media 'following.'

How different this all is from choosing to be a follower of Jesus Christ! Just consider what the Scripture readings from Sunday teach us about following the Lord. They clarify the motivation, and then highlight three fundamental aspects of this 'following.'

The Gospel narrative recounts the familiar yet ever wondrous event of Jesus walking across a raging sea to rescue his disciples at risk of perishing (Matthew 14: 22-33). After he calms the sea, they exclaim, "Truly you are the Son of God." That is precisely why we follow Him, and no other. Not only did he calm the wind and sea and perform other miracles, but also he himself rose from the dead and opened for humanity the doors to eternal life. He makes clear our destination, our destiny, and he himself is the way. No one else to follow.

The episode from the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in the first reading (1Kings 19:9, 11-13) teaches us that following the Lord begins with encountering him. There is a really important lesson here for us. Notice that Elijah recognizes the presence of God not in the noise of wind, earthquake and fire, but in "a sound of sheer silence." How alien silence is to much of our lives! This seems especially the case when we try to be still in prayer. Instantly we are beset with the wind of expectations, the earthquake of failures and the fire of anxiety. Yes, God may well choose to speak to us in all of this, but often they are distractions of human origin, often that of our pride. To follow means first to ask for the grace of inner stillness, that we may truly encounter the Lord speaking to us in his Holy Word and follow where he leads.

The experience of St. Paul, narrated by the Apostle himself in the passage from Romans (9:1-5), exemplifies the need was we follow the Lord for trust in God's fidelity to his promises. In this passage and the two chapters that follow, St Paul is grappling with the rejection of the Gospel by his fellow Jews. In the end he finds consolation In the truth that God does not revoke his call and is never unfaithful to all he has promised, and that, therefore, God will use even this rejection for the accomplishment of his saving plan for the whole world, including, of course, for God's chosen People.  How often are we, too, in anguish at the rejection of our Gospel proclamation, especially when this involves members of our own family! We trust in God's fidelity, and so are confident that He is at work in the lives of all, leading them to the Gospel. Thus, as followers, we continue to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed, trusting the consequences, even rejection, to God and consoled in the knowledge that God will turn all things to the good.

Finally, following Christ means inviting Jesus into the boat of our lives, asking him to calm whatever storms beset us. In other words, it means giving up all illusion of self-reliance. In addition, it also means being ready to step out of the boat, as St Peter did. Concretely, this means being willing to step out into the uncertain and frightful, acutely conscious of our vulnerability and weakness, yet joyfully aware that the Lord always holds us by the arm.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ is entirely different from being a social media follower. To follow him is to give him our all. May he grant us the grace to do so.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Noise Cancellation


I don't know how it works, but I certainly appreciate the technology - noise cancellation in headphones. Touch a button, and distractions are closed out. I am able to hear clearly and solely that to which I choose to listen. The technology brings me to a new awareness of just how much noisy distractions stand in the way of focused and attentive listening.
 
This came to mind as I pondered the Gospel passage given for Sunday’s mass commemorating the Transfiguration of the Lord. At the centre of the narrative stands a command, arresting because of its source: God the Father. As the divinity of Jesus shines forth in brilliant radiance before his chosen disciples, the Father’s voice confirms the identity of Jesus as His well-beloved Son and commands: “Listen to him.”
 
Indeed. Since Jesus is God’s Son, revealed on the Mountain of the Transfiguration as having come from the Heavenly Father, as being the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient Israel (symbolized in the presence of Moses and Elijah), and as having mysteriously both a divine and human nature, the question poses itself: why would we listen to anyone else?? St Peter summed it up best when he said to Jesus, “You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68). There is no one else to whom we should go; no one else to whom we must listen. 

But, oh, the noise that distracts from the voice of Christ! We need think only of the multiple and incessant anti-Gospel messages that bombard us via the Internet, social media, and television and radio programming to realize how difficult it is to heed the command of the Father to listen to His Son. This awareness grows even more acute as we consider the “noise” of persistent anxiety or worldly desires. We need noise cancellation!
 
Yet, how do we do this? Is it possible to close out all the distractions? Well, it certainly involves more than flicking a button on a headset. What is required is a deliberate decision, made on a daily basis, to be focused and attentive. This is what St Peter meant when he wrote, “You will do well to be attentive to this [ie, the truth revealed in Christ] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pe 1:19) Practically speaking, this means developing the habit of looking for moments in the day when I can give over all the noise, all the worries and distractions, to Christ, and ask him for the grace to be focused upon him and his Word. We could ask ourselves: what distraction might I lay aside (watching a TV show, scrolling through tweets or posts, or looking at yet one more Internet site) in order to read the Gospel of the day? Focus upon a line or passage that stands out and allow it to percolate. How does it speak to my heart? To what action is it calling me?
 
I worry that we easily getting caught up in the trap of listening to any number of voices other than that of Christ. Let's reverse this and engage noise cancellation, allowing into our attention the one voice that leads to life: that of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Baggage Handling


It’s a key part of the boarding adventure. Getting on a plane is by no means a breeze. We seem to be coming aboard loaded down with more and more stuff, packed in baggage presumably of a size that will fit under seats or in overhead bins, and expecting there to be enough room on the aircraft. I’ve seldom seen this unfold without some drama, involving no small amount of effort on the part of the crew to find space somewhere for everyone’s things. Sometimes people are told that there is no room on board, which elicits a variety of reactions, to put it mildly. I admire the patience of the crew as they deal with us passengers. If I were in their place, I’m sure I’d need to get to confession soon after landing.
 
In the Gospel we heard proclaimed on Sunday, Jesus gives a lesson in another - and far more important - type of 'baggage handling.' We tend to accumulate a lot of things. What is important? What not? On the basis of what principle do we make this discernment?
 
In the passage from St. Matthew (13:44-52), Jesus tells a number of parables to explain “the kingdom of heaven.” By this phrase he is speaking of the reign of God in our lives. It comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. By encounter with Him and surrender to his person and teaching, we enter the joy of life in communion with God. There is no greater “treasure” than this, no “pearl” of greater price. By these parables, Jesus teaches that, like the farmer and the merchant, we should understand our relationship with Jesus Christ, and all that it entails, as far surpassing in worth anything we might possess, or that might be possessing us!
 
Easy to say. Sounds very good. Yet, of course, as with all the parables of Jesus, these, too, involve a serious challenge to his hearers. Both the farmer, who discovers the treasure in a field, and the merchant, who comes across the pearl of great price, divest themselves of everything in order to possess what they have found. Ah, there’s the rub. Divestment. Getting rid of things. Handling baggage is one thing. Doing away with stuff is an entirely different matter. We usually don’t like to let go of things to which we have become attached. Notice, though, that the figures in the parables let go joyfully! In comparison with the joy that is theirs in finding what is of surpassing value, all else is suddenly seen in its true light: unimportant, and, in fact, an obstacle to real joy.
 
This puts me in mind of a beautiful statement by St. Paul, who found the treasure when Christ found him: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:8)
 
So, how are we doing as baggage handlers? To be more precise, to what are we holding on that stands in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ? This involves more than just physical possessions. We can also be attached to the baggage of pride, reputation, hurts, inability to forgive, and so on. There are times when it is good - indeed, necessary - to be told that there is no room “on board” for these things. That’s exactly what Jesus is teaching. So, let’s be ready to downsize, to divest, that we may live in the priceless joy of knowing Jesus Christ.
 
 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Called to the Office



In the early years of my episcopate, when I was learning how to be a Bishop (Who am I kidding? I’m still learning!), I would at times ask my secretary to call a priest and ask him to come to the office for a visit. In those days, I might neglect to give the reason why. I would only find out later that, by not indicating the reason for the call, I had more often than not caused great angst for the priest - What did I do? Why does he want to see me? Hmmm. Maybe I need to work on my charm and friendly manner. Anyway, invitations are now always accompanied by an explanation in order to minimize the likelihood of panic attack.
 
Archbishop Smith installed as bishop of Edmonton after his time as bishop of Pembroke.
Truth to tell, we can all think of various versions of the “summons” that can elicit a sense of foreboding: students called to the principal’s office, a summons to appear in court, or “the boss wants to see you.” There are others, though, that fill us with delight and the prospect of happiness. Think especially of what fills the hearts of children when they hear that they’ve been invited to Grandma’s house. As I think back, cookies and sweets come to mind. No foreboding there!

It is this latter sense of good that arises when we hear the “summons,” or invitation, which Jesus issues in the Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 11:25-30). It is an invitation to rest, a call to the peace that is ours when we entrust all of our cares and burdens to Him in the confidence that He, God who loves us, will care for us and guide us toward the good. The passage is a beautiful manifestation of the wondrous tenderness of our God. No need to be anxious about this call.

Of course, there are times in our lives when we are “called to the office” by the Lord and rebuked for our sinful ways. This, too, is encountered in Sacred Scripture. After all, the first summons spoken by the Lord on earth was to repentance and faith. This can cause what could be called a “holy foreboding”, holy because it is ultimately salutary, good for our salvation. Consequently, far from fearing this kind of summons, we should actually seek it so that the Lord, by His truth and mercy, can lead us in holiness.
Procession at Santa Maria Goretti this past Sunday.
The Lord consoles with His mercy; He challenges us with His truth. Whatever the summons, if it comes from the Lord Jesus, we know it is for our good, both earthly and eternal. Therefore, let us cast aside all foreboding and respond with joyful trust.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

And Now … ?



Well, it was certainly a wonderful moment of grace. All across our land, on the Canada Day weekend, our country’s Bishops consecrated their respective Dioceses to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this way the whole of our country was entrusted to the maternal care and protection of the Mother of God.

Statue of Mary which Bishop Grandin knelt
to consecrate the Diocese of St Albert to Mary.
It was not the first time that this was done. A national consecration occurred during a Marian Congress in Ottawa in 1947. Here in the Edmonton area, our first Bishop, Most Rev. Vital Grandin, consecrated his new Diocese of St. Albert (which later became the Archdiocese of Edmonton) to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. (Incidentally, for the consecration this weekend at St Joseph’s Basilica we knelt at the same Marian statue before which Bishop Grandin offered his prayer of consecration in 1871.)

So, why the re-consecration? Like children do with their own mothers, we instinctively turn to our Heavenly Mother in times of need. As we mark 150 years of Confederation in Canada, we are conscious of great need among our people. Yes, we have many blessings here, for which we are grateful to Almighty God. In many ways, Canada is a wonderful place to live. At the same time, we are aware of troubling trends and worrisome patterns that demonstrate a collective drift from Christ and his teachings. For this reason, we have turned to Mary, asking for her intercession, that we will be brought back to her son Jesus, or, indeed, will be led to discover Him if He is not yet known. We have made this act of consecration, this act of entrustment to Mary’s maternal care, with great confidence that she will hear our prayers and answer. Thus we are certain that God, in response to Mary’s plea on our behalf, will pour many graces upon our land.

Grotto at Mission Hill in St Albert.
And now…? What more must we do? Mary herself shows us. In her response to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” she shows us that our response to the grace the Lord wills to give us must be that of complete surrender to the will of God. Concretely, this means staying close to Jesus: by listening daily to His Word in Sacred Scripture, we become attuned to God’s will; by regular participation in the sacraments we are strengthened by God’s mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. It also means staying close to Mary: by renewing the prayer of consecration and by praying the Rosary each day, we keep our hearts and minds directed towards her, who seeks always to lead us to her son, Jesus. Stay close to Jesus in faith; stay close to Mary in trust. In so doing, our hearts are disposed to receive, and be transformed by, the love and mercy of God. In so doing, we shall see the act of consecration we made this past weekend bear great fruit for the good of our country in the years ahead.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady of Canada, pray for us!
 
St Mary's Cathedral, Calgary
 

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Temptation of the Rear-view Mirror


There are many students graduating now from high school. It is a time in their lives when their gaze is focused in two primary directions: past and future. A lot of time is spent “looking in the rear-view mirror,” i.e., remembering their time in school, what they have learned, the friends they have made, happy and sad moments, and so on. At the same time, they know instinctively that they cannot keep their gaze fixed on that mirror. We are accustomed to glancing occasionally at this mirror when we are in a car moving forward. Looking solely at what is behind us as we move ahead will lead to serious crashes. So, as the students look back, they know their primary focus needs to be on what lies ahead.

Yet, looking ahead might well be a source of anxiety. We cannot know what the future holds, and events unfolding in the world right now do not always leave us with a sense of confidence. In such a situation it becomes very tempting to keep our eyes only on the rear-view mirror, in the sense of remaining in the past, in what we know, in what is comfortable. But such a stance, motivated by fear, leaves us stuck where we are, paralyzed, unwilling to move ahead.

This can happen in the life of faith, too. Pope Francis, since the beginning of his pontificate, has been summoning us to live as the missionary disciples our Baptism makes us to be. He challenges us to look ahead, not back, to be bold, to go out of ourselves, to step out from within our comfort zones, to reach out to the unfamiliar, especially to our brothers and sisters living on the edge not only of society’s concern but also, perhaps, of our own notice. Here, the temptation of the rear-view mirror can come upon the followers of Christ. We know that the message of Christ is not always welcome, often ridiculed and rejected, in a culture that has in many ways grown allergic to the Gospel. The fear and anxiety this can arouse within our hearts can lead us to stay within the familiar, to remain rooted in what we feel we can control, to look backward and not forward, to be transfixed, that is to say, by the view in the rear-view mirror.

In fact, this is nothing new. Jesus Himself, in Sunday’s Gospel, summons his followers to have their view firmly fixed on what lies ahead, and not to be afraid of anyone (cf. Matthew 10:26-33). The Church has a mission; the Church is a mission. As followers of the Lord, we move forward in and through history with the life-affirming and world-transforming message of the Gospel. The Lord Himself warned that this would not be welcome. The persecution faced by the Church, in both the past and present, attests to this. Jesus knows that fear of rejection and harm is a natural reaction, so he reminds us that, in God’s eyes and heart, we are precious. God will never abandon us. We may indeed suffer emotional and, perhaps, even physical harm, yet such hurt is perpetrated by those who have no power to harm our immortal souls. Fear cannot be granted the determinative word. That which shapes our lives and impels them forward is trust in the living God.

It is good to look back from time to time, to glance occasionally in the rear-view mirror, if it helps us learn from what we have experienced or reminds us of the ways in which the Lord has been accompanying us on the journey. Indeed, his presence is often only recognized in hindsight. But if that glance becomes fixation, we need to avert our gaze and look steadfastly forward. We are people who are on mission; followers of the Lord who are sent. Let us move forward, trusting in the love and power of our God.