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

This picture shows one of the panels on the holy door at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. I have always loved it, and it speaks beautifully of the Good Shepherd reaching out to save the lost. That's the reason for hope.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Unworthy of Election

For a while now the world has been watching the American presidential election campaign. In some ways the 2016 event seems unique. At the same time, it manifests dynamics common to all election campaigns. These can be used to give a perspective on the teaching of Sunday’s Gospel parable of the Pharisee and tax collector at prayer in the Temple, and lead us into its deepest meaning.

In the case of an election campaign, candidates engage in self-promotion, often furthering a positive image by criticizing their opponents. When we consider the words of the Pharisee, one would think he is running for office. He boasts of his goodness and points to the faults of others. By way of contrast, the tax collector speaks as if he is not worthy to be elected to anything. His head is bowed down in shame, and speaks only of his failings and cries out for mercy: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Hardly a winning election slogan. And yet he is chosen, he is elected.

Elected to what? By posing this question we can see the urgent importance of this parable. It carries us to the very heart of the Christian life and all that the Church teaches about the love and mercy of God. The Christian life is, indeed, all about election. But the electorate is not us. God alone elects, and the "office" for which he chooses us is a life of communion with his Son in the Church. For such an office, who is worthy? Is this something for which we can campaign? Is this life one which we can earn by our good works? Does God select us on the basis of our merits and the good we have done? The Pharisee seemed to think so, and on that basis was rather confident in his self-righteousness. Yet Jesus concludes the parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God. He who recognized that all he had to offer God were his sins and failings and accepted his total reliance upon the mercy of God was the one “elected.”

God's love cannot be earned; it is freely given. God chooses us not as a reward for our accomplishments but solely on the basis of his mercy. As we were reminded in the first reading from Sirach, God alone is the judge; only God sees to the depths of our hearts and the truth of our existence. He knows that any boasts on our part as to our goodness would be as empty as those of the Pharisee. He sees that we are rather like the tax collector, totally reliant upon divine mercy for healing and for life. In spite of our weakness and failings, he chooses us for life with him. Such is the love and mercy of God! We begin truly to live the life he holds in store for us when we acknowledge our need for his mercy and in faith turn to him beating our own breasts.

This is not to say there is no place in the Christian life for good works! Quite the contrary. Good works are expected of the followers of Christ. But a Christian's good works do not earn God's love; they flow from it. In the second reading we heard St. Paul speaking of his works in a way that sounds like a boast: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Yet we know from his other writings that St. Paul was painfully aware of his sinful past. He knew he had been saved from a life of sin not by his merits but solely by the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. He teaches us clearly that it is from God's love that we are elected to life in Christ; it is in the power of that love that we are able to do good works; and it is for the sake of witnessing to that love that we are sent forth to accomplish them.

In an election campaign, huge amounts of money are expended to get a candidate elected. Well, a price has been paid, too, for our election to life. That cost, infinitely greater than anything we see in earthly campaigns, was the death of Jesus on the Cross. Jesus became one of us so that his death would destroy the power of sin and death in our lives. He rose again so that in him we might have the fullness of life. It is in Jesus Christ that God has chosen us for a life of faith and good works. Our only boast is this wondrous love and mercy of our God.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Hands Up!

We hear this often in police dramas at the time of an arrest, or see it demanded of prisoners of war. It is a universal image of surrender, and expressive of helplessness in the presence of a force with the upper hand.

The image came to mind as I read the Scripture passages for this past Sunday. The first reading from Exodus (17:8-13) recounts the action of Moses as the people of Israel face battle with the hostile king Amalek and his army. He raises his arms. This is not concession to the enemy. Just the opposite, in fact. It is as if Moses hears not Amalek but God saying to him “Hands up!”, because his gesture is an expression not of helplessness in the face of a fierce army but of reliance upon Almighty God. It is, indeed, an expression of surrender, not to the enemy but to truth: the truth that we are dependent upon God and without him can do nothing; the truth that God will not fail to be with his people and answer their prayers for justice (cf. the Gospel, Lk 18:1-8).

In this light it is clear that we, too, need to have our arms raised in prayer constantly. The Christian life is dramatic. Forces both within and without are constantly pressuring us to rely not on God but on ourselves, to turn away from fidelity to him. St. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy (3:14 - 4:2) goes straight to the heart of the matter. “Beloved: Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed.” Well, what we have learned and accepted firmly in faith is that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, in whom he has revealed both his nature and his plan of salvation. Only Jesus is Saviour. Only Jesus has the words of everlasting life. Only his is the voice to follow. To “continue in what [we] have learned and firmly believed” is to stay faithful to Jesus at all times, to remain ever obedient to his teachings. Siren songs of infidelity surround us, tempting us away from what we have learned, often by distortions of the truth. In the face of this battle, the call is clear: “Hands up!” Pray constantly to God, that he grant us the gift of fidelity to the words spoken in his Son.

In this prayer we are called to support one another. Particularly striking in the passage from Exodus is the role of Aaron and Hur. When Moses grew weary and began to let his arms fall, they held them up, thus supporting his prayer. We do the same for one another, moved by the awareness of our collective dependence upon the mercy of God.

Let us together head the summons to constant prayer spoken by St. Paul: “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Over the last few days I've watched the heartbreaking scenes of the devastation caused in Haiti by Hurricane Matthew. It brings back memories of my visit to that country two years after the destruction wrought by an earthquake. Great hardship and suffering. As it did in the wake of the earthquake, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Canadian member of Caritas International, is receiving donations for emergency relief. I know many will be generous in response to this appeal.

The timing coincides with Thanksgiving weekend. As I watched on TV scenes of people carrying others across flood waters to safety, I knew those helped would feel deep gratitude in their hearts for having been rescued. This is a provocative image that can speak to all of us. We are continually being carried to safety by the love of God. Do we acknowledge this, give thanks for this, especially when the "carrying" happens in ways we do not see?

Sometimes the figurative hurricanes of our lives can leave more "damage" in their wake than the real ones. Sudden terminal illness of a loved one, family breakdown, loss of employment, betrayal and abandonment, and the like; when these crash in on us it can feel like all we have held onto for security has been taken away. We, too, need to be carried across the flood.

And we are! God does not abandon! He blesses and helps. In short, he carries us to safety. There is no need to fear. We may not see it as it happens. Often it is only in retrospect that we recognize how God has been walking with us. But let us not wait to give thanks. The time to give thanks to God for his loving help and mercy is now, because it is now that we are being carried, even though we may not now have the eyes to see it.

Monday, October 3, 2016

First Aid

Many homes and businesses keep on hand a first aid kit. We want to be ready to help anyone who gets injured, and that sometimes means healing wounds with bandages, gauze, ointment and the like. Wounds, though, can go beyond the superficial, and interior injuries can occur to vital organs, such as the heart. So, offices will also often be equipped with defibrillators, and employees will be trained in their use, in CPR etc.

This comes to mind as I reflect upon the Gospel passage assigned for the mass of today. It recounts the familiar and well-beloved parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, Jesus commands that we always to carry with us a first aid kit, so that we are ready to reach out and heal anyone we find left “half-dead at the side of the road.” We are to carry this kit not on our backs or in our hands, but in our hearts. The “first aid” we must always be ready to bring is mercy.

Many people today are “beaten up” by the difficulties of life. I am speaking here of wounds not to the body but to the soul. The wounds may be self-inflicted through sin, failure, mistakes. The bruises and welts may come from the cruelty of things like betrayal, lies, or exploitation. When we encounter a brother or sister who is hurting, we may be tempted to “walk by on the other side”, but the clear call of Christ is to heal the wounds by drawing from the first aid kit of mercy the blanket of love, the ointment of patient listening, the balm of encouragement, the crutch of material or spiritual assistance, the bandage of forgiveness, the gauze of reparation and so on. I’m reminded of the frequent image used by Pope Francis as he speaks of the mission of the Church in our day. He likens it to a field hospital in the midst of a battle. There are so many wounds, he says, and we are called to heal them.

To use CPR at the office, we must be properly trained. Effective use of the first aid kit of mercy likewise requires preparation. If we ourselves experience mercy then we are all the more ready and willing to share it with others. How do I need mercy? Do I feel as if I have been abandoned and left on the side of the road? Am I ready to cast aside pride and seek mercy, especially by asking forgiveness for any wrong-doing on my part? To know the mercy of God is to experience life anew! It liberates me from self-pre-occupation, awakens attentiveness to the needs of others, and inspires me to share with those in need the same mercy of which I have been the recipient.

The Lord Jesus is the Good Samaritan who has by mercy bound up and healed the wounds of broken humanity. May his mercy touch and transform each of us, and make of us agents of his healing mercy toward others.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Travel Light

There must be a knack to traveling "light". I just haven't found it yet. Quite often I end up packing in my suitcase a bit more than I need. You know, "just in case". But the "in case" seldom happens, and I end up dealing with excess baggage and more "stuff" than is necessary.

When this tendency extends beyond a simple road trip to everyday living, major societal problems ensue. When persons and nations pack into the "suitcase" of daily life more than is needed and allow their living to be weighed down by excess, it is often at the expense of others. Moreover, we can become so preoccupied with accumulating and keeping the unnecessary, that we actually fail to notice the plight of persons who do not have what is, in fact, necessary for a dignified life.

This is addressed by Jesus in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, narrated in the passage from St Luke we heard at mass on Sunday. The rich man is so totally absorbed in the enjoyment of luxurious excess that he is indifferent to the real lack from which Lazarus, present at his very door, suffers. When both die their situations are reversed: Lazarus is comforted in heaven, while the rich man suffers torment in hell. Furthermore, an impassable chasm is fixed between them.

The message is clear and arresting: we are to be the carriers in history of God's love and compassion for the poor; how we order our earthly life in view of this responsibility will have eternal and irreversible consequences.

By God's grace, may we learn to "travel light". The familiar saying puts it well: "to live simply so that others may simply live." Carrying excess "just in case" is a decision to trust more in our own calculus than in God's sure providence. May our own experience of God's goodness and love heal our blindness towards those who are in need and liberate us from indifference to their suffering.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Getting the Keys to the Car

That was a big moment, oh so long ago now. Exciting for me, definitely; nerve-wracking, I’m sure, for my father. The day he made the decision to trust me enough to take the car - HIS car - and drive it on my own not long after I had received my driver’s license. He gave me the keys, yes, but of course I knew that it was not my car, that I was expected to use it well, to drive according to the rules, and to return it to him in good shape. Of his car I was but a steward, expected to be trustworthy in the use I made of something that belonged to another. Handing me the keys was not a transfer of ownership, but an expression of trust in my ability to be responsible.

Stewardship is at the heart of the Gospel passage we heard at mass on Sunday (Luke 16:1-13). Even though it addresses itself to the issue of monetary wealth, in fact it challenges us to examine our trustworthiness as stewards in a host of contexts. In many ways, God “hands us the keys”. The foundational question is: do I understand that all is God’s gift, given for responsible care and use in accordance with God’s purposes? Keeping this truth in mind shapes the use I make of what has been entrusted to me.

The issue is urgent. Squandering God’s gifts by using them not for his glory or our neighbour’s good but for our own selfish pursuits leads to great damage. Consider the gift of life. Clearly, this is God’s gift, yet legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia, unlimited access to abortion, artificial reproduction and so on reveals the societal presumption that we are masters, not stewards, of this wondrous gift, which we end up destroying. We wreck the car. Think, too, of the gift of the senses. We best use eyesight to contemplate the beauty of creation, yet can abuse it by leering at pornography; speech is best put to use by praising God and saying only those things which will build others up (cf. Ephesians 4:29), yet both speech and hearing are often degraded by placing them at the service of gossip. The car is returned badly damaged. Generally speaking, when we forget that we are stewards, dependent upon God’s love and goodness and entrusted with using his gifts responsibly, and act as if we were owners, able to dispose of things and people as we determine, the wheels fall off altogether and life grinds to a meaningless and painful halt.

When my father handed the keys over, I drove off on my own, and he was left wondering (stewing??) how it would turn out. When the Lord “hands over the keys” to us, he gets in the car with us. This is not a diminishment of our responsibility, but an assurance that Jesus is always with us, as he promised. A faithful steward both accepts responsibility and relies upon grace for the fulfillment of duty. Let’s accept the keys he gives us, and pray always for the gift of fidelity.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Ready for the Exam?

Back to school this past week for many children. As they resume the learning process, they will soon come up against a necessary aspect of it: the examination. Students are challenged in their growth and learning by being held to standards and expectations; the examination will enable the teacher to assess how well they are doing.

I mention this because attention was drawn this week by none other than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to another type of examination that will face all of us. Reports are beginning to circulate about the contents of an interview he recently gave, and that will be published in English in November under the title Last Testament. When asked how he is spending the time of his retirement, he is reported to have replied that he is now “preparing to pass the ultimate examination before God.”

This is a very important reminder to all of us. In our hectic culture, the pressure of immediate urgency can make us near-sighted; we see and concentrate only on what is before us and forget the longer view. Benedict reminds us of the central truth that must govern every aspect of our lives: God has made clear to us in His Son, Jesus, that we shall be held accountable at the end of our lives for the way we have lived. Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church have passed on from Christ the moral standard given from above to guide our lives. This means that we should be constantly examining ourselves against the standard, and asking God for the strength to be faithful and for his mercy when we are not. Of course, this is something Pope Emeritus Benedict has been doing all his life, and not only in this last stage of it. His is an example for all of us to follow.

How might such an examination be carried out? Well, the Scripture passages we heard proclaimed on Sunday at Mass are an excellent guide. They remind us, first, of the primacy of God’s love and of his desire to save his people through the forgiveness of sins. St. Paul is crystal clear: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1Timothy 1:15). That’s you and me. All are in need of the mercy that Christ alone can give. The self-examination begins with this acknowledgement of our weakness and need, and the assurance of God’s love and mercy if we are truly repentant.

The passages also are a very helpful reminder of the ways we can fall short of the standard. Perhaps we are like the people, who, according to Exodus, decided to worship a golden calf, the work of their own hands, instead of the Living God (cf. Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14). We can have lots of idols of our own making in our lives: reputation, power, wealth, accomplishments and so on. Or perhaps we can do as St. Paul said he once did, namely, persecute the Church (1Timothy 1:13). Do we rebel against the teachings of Christ and his Church by our words or lifestyles? The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) reminds us that we, too, can squander the beautiful gifts of God by using them not for the glory of God and the good of others but for the selfish pursuit of our own desires. Likewise does the parable invite us to ask in what ways we imitate the older brother. Do we stand in judgment of others, withhold forgiveness or act as if we earn God’s love by living an upright life?

Preparation for “the ultimate examination” is not something to delay, to put off until later in life. The time for it is now. From the beginning of his pontificate, and especially in this Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed that, although God never tires of forgiving us, nevertheless we often tire of asking for that forgiveness. Let us be alert always to our need for mercy, and turn frequently, with contrite hearts, to God who rejoices to grant his pardon, restore us to life, and help us to be prepared to pass that all-important exam.