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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Retrouvaille



This French word means “rediscovery”. It has been used for the past forty years as the name to designate a very beautiful and extraordinary apostolate to married couples, who are experiencing difficulty in their marriage to the point of being on the verge of breakup.
 
I spent the past weekend at the annual international meeting of people involved in Retrouvaille. These are couples who, having themselves experienced marital discord and found healing of their marriages through Retrouvaille, are now passionately committed to helping others. The event drew together nearly 600 people from around the globe! Having begun as a small initiative in Hull, Quebec, Retrouvallie has since grown to a large international apostolate operating in Canada, the United States, Central & South America, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific.
 
Over these past few days, I found myself wondering about the stories of the people. They’ve all come through their own experiences of heartache, pain and fear, and yet now they know healing and joy. The question that I’ve been pondering is, “What made the difference in their lives? What was the turning point?” 

From @daniellemurrayyoga on Instagram.
Sunday’s Gospel offers, I believe, the answer. In sum, these couples accepted the invitation.
 
What invitation? The parable of Jesus, recounted by St. Matthew (Mt 22:1-14) is that of a king who invites everyone to the wedding banquet of his son. That would be quite the invitation to receive!! Yet, remarkably, it is met with indifference, refusal and even hostility. This stands for the invitation issued throughout the history of humanity by God the Father to be with him in a communion of love and joy. Such a communion was often portrayed as a wedding banquet (e.g. first reading, Isaiah 25:6-10). No greater invitation is imaginable!!! Moreover, God rendered such communion fully possible by the gift of his Son, Jesus; hence the image in the parable of the wedding banquet for the king’s son. But that invitation has, in fact, been turned down by many. When the parable continues by recounting the king’s enraged response of destruction, it is making the point that, while acceptance of the invitation leads to unparalleled joy, the refusal of God’s invitation leads inevitably to the opposite - a decimated life.
 
By God’s grace, couples whose choices or mistakes may have arisen from a refusal of God’s invitation were led to a moment of acceptance, that is to say, to a decision to allow God in to do for them what only He can do. That’s what made the difference! The invitation came to them by the witness of others who had already walked a road similar to theirs, and the decision to accept it was encouraged by the witness of healing and happiness on display in Retrouvaille.
 
What about the mysterious ending of the parable? A man arrives at the banquet without a proper wedding garment and is thrown out by the king. Acceptance must be accompanied by appropriate “clothing”, which is to say that acceptance is good but insufficient. To accept the invitation to God’s kingdom means also the determination to don the requisite attire of humility, compassion, love, mercy, forgiveness, justice and so on. In the more particular context of a marriage needing healing, accepting God’s invitation to joy also demands a “re-clothing,” i.e. an exchange of the soiled clothing of hurtful attitudes and destructive behaviour for the immaculate vesture of self-sacrifice and self-gift.
 
I spent the weekend with couples who accepted that God-given invitation and who strive daily to “dress properly” in consequence. Their joy was palpable and contagious. Retrouvaille is a great gift to the Church and a much-needed apostolate for our world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Be Thankful. Forget Tarshish


The civic holiday Thanksgiving Day coincides this year with Monday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time of the liturgical calendar. The readings for the mass of that day include the beginning of the well-known story of the prophet Jonah (Jon 1:1 - 2:1, 11). The narrative relates the call of Jonah to preach to the inhabitants of the ancient city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t like the idea at all. He decides to run away, and determines to go to Tarshish.

Scripture scholars are undecided about the exact location of this ancient place. There are, however, two aspects of this locale on which there is general agreement. They render Tarshish an important symbol, which establishes an instructive connection between the attitude of Jonah and the mindset of today.
 
First, Tarshish is understood to have been some place on the far side of the Mediterranean from what is now the Holy Land. In other words, by determining to flee to Tarshish Jonah was striving to get as far away from God as possible. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. In our own day we give voice in multiple ways to the desire to leave God far behind. At the public level we hear (or say) such things as: Keep religion private! The insights of faith have no place in the public square! Personally, too, we may strive to run from God. Jonah was called to preach; we are called to a life of virtue. If our existence is marked by attitudes and behaviours that run counter to the call to holiness, we may be tempted to flee from God and His Word.


 
Second, Tarshish is referred to in Scripture as a source of much sought-after precious metals (cf. for example, Ezekiel 27:12). Wealth is a powerfully attractive symbol of self-reliance. Yet, precisely as such, it is also dangerously illusory. The flight to Tarshish away from God symbolizes the desire to replace dependence upon God with reliance upon our own resources. On this point much of Western society might be tempted to adopt Jonah as its patron! Yet the pursuit of such a desire is tantamount to running from reality into the arms of fantasy. The truth is that all things come from God. He bestows upon us the gift of life itself and holds us in existence by His merciful love. Apart from God we are nothing.
 
This leaves us with the question: why flee? If God is all-good and all-loving, why run from Him and toward ourselves; from reality to falsehood? Again, consider Jonah. He was afraid of God and of God’s call. To Jonah, the presence and voice of God had become a threat to his own freedom. Here we encounter the lie that has caused great ruin to the human family throughout its history, the falsehood first put in the minds of Adam and Eve by Satan: God is not to be trusted; His will impedes our freedom; His commands are obstacles to human flourishing. Therefore, flee God and pursue your own will and desires!

Right. The experience of Jonah makes clear where that will get us. No sooner does he decide to flee God and fend for himself, no sooner does he get into the boat destined for Tarshish, with all that it symbolizes, than there comes upon the ship and its voyagers a great storm that threatens them all with perishing. We can’t do it alone. We need God and His love. Pretending otherwise is an illusion with potentially lethal consequences.



God is no threat to freedom. There is no need to fear God. In fact, His love reveals liberty’s true nature and unleashes it. Freedom is among God’s gifts to us. We live in accord with true freedom when we freely choose to trust in the wisdom and providence of God, and to rely, in peace and thankfulness, upon His every good gift.
 
Forget Tarshish. Choosing that destination is to embark on a journey that leads to nowhere but disappointment and hardship. Instead, let’s choose simply to be thankful to God, trusting and not fearing, and to express that thanks with a willing acceptance of His call to virtue and the fullness of life.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Who’s He Been Listening To?



I woke up Sunday morning to the shocking news about an attack in Edmonton the prior night that police are investigating as possibly a terrorist act. As I write this blog post on Sunday afternoon, the details concerning the individual and his motives are not yet known. Yet already some questions have been coursing through my mind: who on earth has this man been listening to; what voices have placed within him such a deranged idea as the need to hurt or kill other people; who has he been allowing to exercise such a malevolent influence on his way of thinking?


Truth to tell, these kinds of questions have been preoccupying me for quite some time, not only because of this or other acts of violence but also due to the fact that we all are facing daily a barrage of “voices” and messages that seek to influence us and shape our mindset and, thus, our way of acting. Just think of the world of social communications. TV, radio, Internet, social media platforms, emails, texts, magazines and newspapers present us with a dizzying multiplicity of voices bombarding us minute by minute and competing for our attention. From amongst it all we make choices: we stay with a certain Internet site, we remain tuned in to a favourite television series, we follow particular Twitter personalities. The longer we remain tuned in, the more that particular voice or message will exercise its influence upon us and form our mindset, our way of thinking. This raises what in my estimation are some of the most important questions that we need to be posing: to whom am I listening? Whose messages, ideas or opinions am I allowing to influence my thinking and hence my way of living? Why? The one to whom I listen is the one to whom I give my trust. Are the sources trustworthy? On what basis do I make this assessment?

These questions lie behind my decision to issue a pastoral letter. In it I am inviting everyone in the Archdiocese to a particular form of very focused and attentive listening. Specifically, I'm inviting all of us to focus upon the one voice we know we can trust, to the one message that is certain to lead us to what is truly for our good. The voice is that of God, and His message is that which He has given to the world in the Gospel concerning His Son, Jesus Christ. I'd like us to undertake this listening by making a deliberate effort to read the Bible every day. Too many voices today are offering falsehoods that seduce us away from the love of God and from fidelity to Him. The temptation to listen to these voices and allow them to impact the way we think and act is very strong. By living daily in the Word of God, standing firm by faith in the truth it proclaims, we become inoculated against the cancer of falsehood that is always ready to take hold, and which can metastasize in our current communications environment with astonishing rapidity.

Frere Antoine's Bible in the crypt of St Albert Church.

The Bible is not just another book. As we read and ponder Sacred Scripture, God draws near and speaks. His Word is alive; in it we actually encounter the God who has become one of us in Jesus. When we allow His Word to take root in us, our lives find their true horizon and clear direction. To live apart from that Word is to wander in darkness; that is not God's will for us, His beloved children.

There are many words coming at us today, that is true. Yet amidst the changing reality of communications media, there is one unchanging word that alone remains always worthy of our trust, that alone unlocks the key to life's meaning and direction: God's Word, given to us in Sacred Scripture. It is the only Word that matters. Let's resolve to hear it with thanksgiving and, with joy, put it into practice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Divine Hiring Practice


It goes without saying that, when hiring a job applicant, one normally seeks independent and objective verification of the applicant’s suitability for the position. Usually, a resume has been submitted, the one doing the hiring will measure the stated qualifications against the job description and requisite skill set, an interview will take place, and then, if the candidate seems suitable, references are checked. All of this is standard procedure. It would be unreasonable for an employer to hire a person without having followed each of these steps. They serve to give assurance, as far as possible, that one is hiring a person who is suitable to the position.
 
This common sense approach to hiring might make one wonder if the landowner spoken of by Jesus in the parable we heard on Sunday should have sought out the help of an employment agency as he hired people to work in his vineyard. (Matt 20:1-16) After all, he got it terribly wrong. He simply went out into the marketplace and hired people where and when he found them! No measuring of skills against a job description, no interview or background check, and certainly no checking of references. Furthermore, his salary calculations turned out to be clearly unjust; everyone was paid the exact same amount regardless of the amount of time worked in the vineyard. How could he possibly hope to retain workers on that basis?? Once word got around, future trips to the marketplace would not likely yield many willing to work for him.
 
Like every parable Jesus uses for his teaching, this one shocks us. That’s what parables are meant to do. They so challenge our human way of looking at things that they stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering what Jesus is meaning to teach us. In so doing, they invite us into the mystery of God’s thoughts and ways, which are far, far beyond ours (Isaiah 55:9). They thus summon us to be ready to surrender our human logic as the absolute standard of reasonableness so as to see and act in accord with divine wisdom.
 
God does not call us to his kingdom on the basis of any skills or merit on our part. Who can “earn” heaven? No one. God’s motivation is, purely and simply, his infinitely generous love for us. Moreover, he certainly does not need to check any references. He already knows our hearts, better than we know them ourselves. Why the call reaches some people early in their lives and others at later stages is all part of God’s mysterious design for each of his children. He knows what he is doing. He acts and calls when he knows the moment is right.
 
St Joseph the Worker
OK, … but what about this paying everybody the same wage? Doesn’t seem right, somehow. Here again we are being invited into another realm of thought, one characteristic of God’s kingdom, where market calculations have no play. The “work” of the vineyard is Christian mission. It aims not at earning heaven but at making known the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Christian rejoices whenever the Gospel is embraced, however late in the day that might be. Far from grumbling about having “worked longer,” we give thanks for the wondrous blessing of having been given early in life the gift of faith.
 
My recent pastoral letter invites all of us to hear the Word of God and put it into practice. Often that Word will give us pause and challenge us in deep ways, such as this parable does. That’s good. That’s the way it is supposed to work. When we listen and are challenged, it is important to stay in the discomfort; to allow the dissonance to sink in and take root. In this way, the Word purifies us and makes us true disciples, whose lives are centred in Christ and guided by the mysterious ways of God.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons From Lebanon


In the course of a visit to Lebanon, St. John Paul II famously observed that Lebanon is more than a country; it is also a message. My visit there last week confirmed this insight. As I look back and reflect upon the experience of encountering the Lebanese people and learning a few things about their beautiful country, three aspects of that “message” stand out for me. 

Pope John Paul II with former Lebanese statesman.
1. Particularly striking in Lebanon is the way that faith is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Everywhere, one can find symbols of faith displayed quite visibly. Faith is openly practiced and one’s religious identity and background is readily acknowledged. The differences in the belief systems are quite marked, of course, yet the people are striving to live together as citizens of the one country. It is not easy, I’m sure, and far more complex than I can appreciate, especially given the rather tumultuous history of religious conflict. Yet, they are somehow making it work. There is an important lesson here for us. In the West we have somehow developed the strange idea that, in order for us all to get along, we need to hide our faith, to keep it private and not allow it to enter into public discourse. However, a pluralistic society such as ours should be just that: pluralistic, i.e., fully welcoming of the views and insights of all citizens, including those perspectives that are informed by faith traditions. Lebanon teaches that it is possible. Indeed, it should be expected. 

A typical Lebanese breakfast.
2. Lebanon is deservedly known for its hospitality. Every time we turned around we were offered something to drink (love the coffee!), and it felt like every second meeting was a multi-course meal! (That’s not a complaint, by the way. The cuisine is delicious. Who knew I would actually enjoy eating raw goat meat? But I digress.) Yet, as I mentioned in my last blog post, the real lesson in hospitality was given in the context not of the dinner table but of the settlements for displaced persons. Most of the displaced are from Syria, a country which only a few decades ago was waging a vicious war against Lebanon. In spite of this, the border has been opened to them. Furthermore, the presence of 1.5 million people from Syria (and that is just the number of officially registered; the actual count would be higher) in a country of only four million is placing an enormous economic and logistical burden on the shoulders of the Lebanese people. This situation is not, admittedly, supportable in the long run, and solutions will have to be found quickly, but the readiness of the Lebanese to welcome the stranger and, yes, the enemy to an extent that calls for great personal and national sacrifice is extraordinary. That’s hospitality. 

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
3. The third aspect of the “message” that Lebanon is came to me in a rather unique fashion. The hospitality provided to our delegation extended to assuring our safety. We travelled everywhere by military convoy. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve hurtled at breakneck speed along Lebanese roads or through Beirut streets in a multi-vehicle motorcade, sirens blaring, and manned by special forces commandos with weapons at the ready. I kid you not. One might reasonably expect that this might have left us just a little frazzled. Yet, it didn’t. The driving was clearly in the hands of professional and competent soldiers who obviously knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to get there safely. We just surrendered to the experience, let them do the driving, and were thus carried to whatever place we were intended to visit. On the last evening, one of the delegation, Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, commented on the lesson in this. We need to learn to let God do the driving in our lives. If we, by following the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon ourselves to God, who knows exactly what He is doing and where He is leading us, then we shall arrive safely at the destiny He intends for us. 

A beautiful country, and, at the same time, a profound message. That’s Lebanon, and I am grateful for the blessing of encountering it.

St Elie - St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral
 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yalla, Yalla! (Lebanon Visit Part 2)


I must say, after only three days here I've become rather proficient in the Arabic language. Well ... maybe with one word of it anyway. Yalla!
 
It means, "Let's go!" Saying it twice adds urgency and means "Hurry up!" We seem to be hearing it a lot from our guides, who are striving mightily to keep us on schedule.
 
Small wonder. The days are packed solid as we cross-cross the country to meet Bishops, political officials, and, above all, displaced persons and the religious communities and Catholic institutions that work with them.
 
There are over fifty religious communities of consecrated women and over twenty masculine orders in this country. Last evening a gathering was hosted in which a good number of their religious superiors gathered to meet with us. The range of their apostolic charitable works is breathtaking. This was followed by a separate meeting with representatives of Catholic charitable organizations working in the region: Caritas Internationalis, CNEWA, Jesuit Refugee Services, St Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Relief Services.  Each from its own perspective, they are all striving mightily to help people rebuild their lives. The latter  gathering also included a meeting with a high-ranking official from the Lebanese Ministry of Education, who spoke of the efforts they are making to include children of displaced families in the school system.
 
The problem faced here is enormous. This country with a population of 4 million people has opened its borders to receive 1.5 million displaced people, most from Syria. To put that in perspective, applying the same ratio to Canada would mean our country taking in about 13 million refugees. The strain on Lebanon's resources is immense.
 
Today, though, we were reminded that we cannot speak of this issue solely in terms of numbers. We traveled to two locations in the Beqaa Valley, where we met families living either in settlements set up by government, or in simple homes opened up to them by the local Catholic population. The heart breaks when one sees scores of little children running around a big "tent city" in very difficult circumstances, or when one listens to a father recount the harrowing story of trying to eke out a living in between ceasefires until finally making the painful decision to uproot his family to escape the danger.

Location of Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.
The numbers are overwhelming and the complexity of the issues staggering. Yet it seems to me that the very place where today's encounters took place offers a way forward. The Beqaa valley is where, only a few decades ago, fierce fighting took place between Syria and Lebanon. In fact, the city in which I met the displaced persons was under siege from the Syrian army for a long time. Yet it is precisely the Syrian people who are now welcomed by the Lebanese into their country and provided with shelter and basic supplies. The way forward is to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to begin encountering the other as a brother or sister.
 
When that happens we naturally want to reach out and bring healing whenever the other suffers. In this particular situation it means providing those in danger with safety and then working to help rebuild their countries so that they can return once again to the place they have always called home and to where their hearts naturally direct them, as would ours.
 
The situation remains urgent and solutions need to be found and put in place without delay.
 
So, Yalla, Yalla!

 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Like a Cedar in Lebanon (Lebanon Visit Part 1)

This citation from Psalm 92 was in my mind today as I wandered through a grove of stunningly beautiful cedar trees in a high mountain area about two hours north of Beirut in Lebanon. That's the country from which I'm writing this blog post. Together with two other Canadian Bishops and some lay professionals who have been heavily involved in refugee resettlement in Canada, I'm here for the week at the invitation of the Maronite Catholic Church, headquartered in Lebanon. The visit will give us an opportunity to witness the impact massive displacement of peoples from neighbouring Syria is having on this country, and to learn firsthand of the outreach of the local Church towards them.

Harissa monastery overlooking Beirut, Lebanon.
Our travels today took us near an area dedicated to the preservation of this country's magnificent cedars, so we pulled in. I was glad to have this opportunity, since the Lebanon cedar is an important biblical symbol. There are more than seventy references to it in Sacred Scripture. Among those is the one that came to mind as I gazed upon their extraordinary size and pondered their longevity: "The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon." (Psalm 92:12) Some of the trees I saw today in the grove are more than 2000 years old; another at a stopping point nearby is reputed to be more than 4000 years in age. The image presented is one of steady growth, steadfast endurance and powerful strength. By means of this analogy, the Psalmist is describing "the righteous," which is to say, those who live by faith in the wisdom and providence of God by following His every commandment. The point is this: people who are rooted deeply in God and who stand firm in faith are enabled by God's grace to weather all forms of difficulty and eventually blossom into the full and beautiful life God intended in the very act of creating us.
 
It is important to take note of the reference to "growth". I was told today that these trees grow only between 6 and 12 centimetres a year. That's pretty slow. So, too, is our own growth as we seek the grace of conversion and strive by God's mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. God's grace interacts with our freedom, out of which we at times resist His love and turn away. Growth in the Christian life can thus be very slow, impeded by our weakness and tendency to self-direction.

This brings me to the Gospel text proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus is teaching of the need at times to exercise fraternal correction as we seek to help one another to grow in Christian faith. The question naturally arises: am I open to receive correction from another? If we want to grow in our faith and not come to a full stop or get into reverse mode, we will sometimes need one who knows and loves us to point out our faults. May God grant us the humility not only to receive words of admonishment but also to seek them out. Growth and resilience, powerfully imaged by the Lebanon cedar, require it.
 

The cedar tree is a symbol on the flag of Lebanon.