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, January 16, 2017

Avoid Fake News

Much is being made recently of so-called “fake news”. It is the Internet phenomenon that is catching a lot of attention. There are websites, and users of social media, that deliberately fabricate falsehoods and seek to present and spread them as factual, reliable “news”. Easy to get taken in, sometimes with tragic results.

In fact, of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The proliferation of the lie has been with us ever since the serpent first seduced Eve. It just assumes ever more sophisticated forms. Living as we do surrounded by falsehood and illusion, we can be easily misled into pain and anguish, leaving us wondering where is the truth? On what can I truly rely?

Enter the Gospel and its proclamation of Jesus Christ. This is true because He is truth (cf. John 14:6). But do we accept it as true, or do we choose to listen to some other voice, some other “news source”?

Consider what we heard in the Scripture readings on Sunday.

In the Gospel passage (John 1:29-34), John the Baptist points to Jesus and identifies him with two extraordinary titles: Lamb of God and Son of God. Jesus is the Lamb of God because he offered himself on the Cross as the sacrificial lamb, whose death makes possible our passover from this life to the next. We know he is the Son of God because he so identified himself. As the Son sent from the Father, he has come to make possible our very participation in the inner life of our Triune God!

Throughout history, fake news has spread the idea that Jesus is less than he truly is: either he is not fully God or not fully human. This falsehood reduces Jesus to a moral exemplar that we could - but need not - follow, or so separates him from our human reality that we cannot follow him.

Or read again the passage from Isaiah (49:3, 5-6). He prophesies that the One to be sent from God will be given as light for all nations, that is to say, as Saviour for all people. The Gospel identifies Jesus as the coming of this light (cf. e.g. Luke 2:32). Fake news would have us hold that Jesus is not for everyone.

The truth broadcast by Sacred Scripture pertains to us as well. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1Cor. 1:1-3), teaches us that we are all called to be saints. God calls us to a very high standard - the measure of holiness - and grants us the gifts we need to live this life of joy and peace. Fake news will tell us that holiness is only an ideal, that we are not really expected to live this way, and that we can settle for a life of banality and mediocrity.

What newscast do I accept as reliable? Which source of news do I allow to help shape my mindset and worldview? We know we can rely fully on the news of the Gospel. There is nothing fake about it at all! We have always called this good news, good because it is true and inspires with real hope. Any “news” that separates us from the Gospel and directs us along a different path is “fake”, a present-day echo of the ancient deception of the serpent. Let’s be sure not to give it any attention.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Need to be De-Iced?

I'm writing this post as I watch the de-icing machines clear away snow and ice from the wings of our plane before we take off. In fact, the de-icing is occurring IN ORDER that we can take off. Ah, winter travel. Gotta love it.

As I watch the process I'm thinking of the Gospel passage for yesterday's celebration of the Epiphany. As the story of the journey of magi to the manger unfolds, it contains an account of a certain de-icing that needs to take place, but in fact doesn't: de-icing not of airplane wings but of the human heart.

King Herod heard the news of the birth of a king. His already cold heart went into deep freeze. No heaven-ward ascent of the spirit in him! He remained solidly frozen to the ground of his worldly and self-centered concerns. His heart had become so solidly encased in the ice of self-reference that he could understand the newborn child only as a threat to his authority and power. His icy self-regard rendered all else expendable, even the innocent children he had slaughtered in his desire to destroy the child born in Bethlehem.

And what about those chief priests and scribes, who learned the news of the birth as Herod consulted them? It seems they could have benefited from some of the de-icing formula as well. The account does not record any effort made on their part to see for themselves what was unfolding in Bethlehem. They were grounded by the ice of indifference. Extraordinary, really. They who knew the prophecies, they who heard that what had been foretold from of old might now be fulfilled, never budged off the tarmac.

All of this raises the very important question of our own response to all that has been proclaimed about Jesus Christ throughout the Christmas season now concluded. The full acceptance of the truth that he is the Son of God made flesh for our salvation causes one's life to soar to unimagined heights of peace, hope and joy. What area of my life needs de-icing? Am I frozen by fear of the change Jesus will ask of me? Does the frost of bitterness grip my heart and freeze out others who seek my forgiveness or whom I must forgive? Has the ice of complacency settled upon me rendering me indifferent to the abundant new life Jesus holds in store?

The glad tidings of Christmas position us for takeoff. By his mercy, may Jesus clear away the ice and thus enable us to follow him.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Thank you, Bishop Henry!

Today an announcement came out of the Vatican informing us that the Holy Father has accepted the request of Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary to retire. As Bishop Henry has explained to his priests and staff, this request arises out of increasing limitations placed upon him due to a particularly debilitating form of arthritis. I am pleased for his sake that the Holy Father has responded generously and kindly to his request, yet I admit to feelings of sadness and regret as he leaves office. As I heard another Bishop put it, it feels like we’ve just lost from the team one of our most important players!

Bishop Henry has served not only his Diocese but also the Church in Canada exceptionally well. Of particular note is the outstanding contribution he has made in the field of Catholic education in both Alberta and across the country. I consider it a blessing and privilege to have worked closely with Bishop Henry, from whom I have learned a great deal.

Bishop Henry has been a Bishop for more than thirty years, and has served as Chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Calgary since 1998. His episcopal motto, ‘Dabo Vobis Pastores’ (I will give you pastors) is taken from Jeremiah 3:15, which reads ‘I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding’. Well, he has certainly lived up to that! A man of God who has taken very seriously the responsibilities entrusted to him as Bishop, he has not failed to pass on the faith to the people entrusted to his care. For this role he has been particularly gifted with a capacity for clear thought and bold proclamation. Indeed, Bishop Henry is known not only in his Diocese but also provincially, nationally and beyond for his courageous preaching of the Gospel. Where others might be tempted to stay silent for fear of criticism or loss of popularity, Bishop Henry has not hesitated to speak the truths of our faith whenever required, however difficult the circumstances might be. Indeed, a shepherd who cares for the people entrusted to him cannot do otherwise, and I know that Bishop Henry cares very deeply indeed.

I extend to him my personal thanks for his leadership and example, and I know that many join with me in praying for God’s blessings upon him in his years of retirement.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Fourth Candle

Drivers in Edmonton have to navigate regularly what we call “traffic circles”, or what other jurisdictions may label “rotaries” or “roundabouts”. My personal name for them is purgatory. In the years I was growing up in Halifax, rules for navigating the “rotaries” required drivers already in the circle to alternate with those entering; they had to yield to one another. Not so in Edmonton. Drivers in the circle have the right of way, meaning that those wishing to enter must yield until they have an opportunity. This latter method seems to work better, I must say, but until I learned it old habits would kick in, and I thus caused many a driver to slam on the brakes and lean on the horn as I drove in front of them smiling and blessing.

As the fourth candle was lit on our Advent wreaths, the Sunday Gospel reading proclaimed at mass (Matthew 1:18-24) was about yielding to the one with the right of way. Rather, to the One. It recounts the resolution of St. Joseph to travel along a certain path. He has learned that his betrothed, Mary, is expecting a child and he knows he is not the father. Without understanding the circumstances of her pregnancy, he resolves to divorce her according to the Mosaic law and custom of the time.Yet his resolution comes up against another, that of God himself. From of old, God had resolved to save humanity by the gift of his Son, who was to be conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. When this plan was made known to Joseph by an angel speaking to him in a dream, Joseph knew that he had to yield his resolution to that of God. God always has the right of way. In faith and obedience, Joseph took Mary into his home in accordance with the resolution of God.

Our life with God is not one of alternating interests, whereby we sometimes follow his way and at other times our own. No. Our plans and resolutions must always yield the right of way to God. In this final week of preparation for Christmas, let us consider: the plan of God for the world is on full display in the birth, life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Having faith in him means giving Jesus the right of way in all things. It therefore also means letting go of any plans, determinations and resolutions that move in directions other than the one he establishes for our lives. 

May God’s grace of love and mercy, poured out anew as the Church celebrates the Nativity of the Lord, enable us to yield, with faith and joy, to the divine resolution to save us.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Third Candle

Joy. That is what is represented by the third candle, with its distinctive rose colour. The other purple candles recall the penitential aspect of the Advent season; as we wait for the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to return, we ready ourselves by repentance of heart and conversion of life. The rose colour of the third candle is an invitation to rejoice as we call to mind that the Lord whom we await is with us now, very near, in the power of his love. Because the Lord is near, we rejoice!

So, where’s the joy? It doesn’t seem to come easily. Many hearts are burdened instead by fear and anxiety. What moves us from angst to joy? When we recall the Scripture passages from the Third Sunday of Advent, we see that it is a matter of how we deal with the answer to a question.

Consider the Gospel passage (Matthew 11:2-11). John the Baptist poses the question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The question is prompted by what he has been hearing about Jesus. He knew that miracles of healing the blind, deaf and lame were the very signs foretold by the prophet Isaiah as indicating the presence of the long-awaited Messiah, or Christ. Since Jesus was doing these very things, John asks if the time of waiting is over, if the moment of the fulfilment of all God’s promises has arrived. Jesus answers in the affirmative. He is, indeed, the awaited One. But then Jesus goes on with the mysterious: “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.”

Offence? How could we possibly take offence at Jesus? Quite easily, in fact. Witness the crucifixion. To accept Jesus as the long-awaited Saviour is to allow him to change our lives radically. To that, we might quickly say, “Not so fast,” and refuse to accept his answer to John’s question. Especially in our day with its exaltation, and near worship, of the autonomous Self, any idea that another be Lord over my life is cause for deep offence. Yet, do we really want to continue as we are? Life apart from Jesus and his love is no picnic.

Let’s think again about those signs pointing to the presence of the Lord: the desert blooms, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear (Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10). This means that, apart from him, we have persistent desert, lameness, blindness and deafness. As with most biblical images, these point to the state of the soul. There is today a vast interior wilderness of spirit, evidenced by hopelessness and lack of meaning; many are crippled by fear or addiction, blinded by moral confusion or deaf to the cry of the poor. This is no way to live. The way we move from desolation to joy is to accept that answer Jesus gave to John and to allow it to take deep root in our heart and change our lives. Only then will any inner aridity blossom in hope; only then shall we walk in true freedom, see clearly the truth of things, and respond sensitively to the cries of any around us who are suffering. Only then, in other words, shall we know true and lasting joy.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Second Candle

How is the preparation going?

The progressive lighting of the Advent wreath candles signals the call to a progressively deep preparation for the celebration of Christmas. We are obviously not talking about the frenetic and superficial secular preparations that leave us exhausted on Christmas Day, almost glad that it’s over. Rather, of concern in Advent is the preparation necessary to welcome Christ more deeply into our hearts.

This preparation, fully embraced, issues in a celebration of Christmas marked by profound peace and real hope.

Key to the preparation is the experience highlighted by the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent: repentance (cf. Matthew 3:1-12). We heard John the Baptist cry out to all who would listen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We prepare for God to rule in our lives by repenting. What does this mean?

The word is familiar to us. We hear it all the time, especially in the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. Do we understand it? My guess is that we often think of it in terms of sorrow for sins committed and a determination not to repeat the offences. Well, yes, that  is certainly part of it, but the term “repentance” means much more. Far more. At its heart, the biblical call to repentance is the summons to radical conversion. I use the word “radical” deliberately. It comes from the Latin word “radix”, meaning “root”. So to repent is to allow oneself to be thoroughly “uprooted”, that is to say, entirely changed. It means a complete re-alignment of one’s life, a thoroughgoing re-direction away from anything and everything that is contrary to living in the love of God and keeping his commandments. We are obviously a great distance from preoccupation with Christmas lights!

Did you notice I said “allow oneself” to be changed? This is important. True repentance is not something we are able to pull off by ourselves. It comes about as a response to the love of Christ and with the help of his grace. Consider the rather frightening image used by St. John the Baptist. He speaks of the “axe lying at the root of the trees” so as to cut down and throw into fire any tree that does not produce fruit. He is speaking in very dramatic fashion of the action of God himself. God wants to get at “the roots” of our lives. He wants to sever us from the roots we so often put down into the soil of self-reliance, in order to re-root us in his own Son, Jesus. His “axe” is mercy. He offers “radical” forgiveness, a healing at our very roots, and thus enables us to start again, indeed, to live again.

The second candle has been lit. Time is passing. Let’s not waste it in the superficial but go to the very root of things. Let’s seriously prepare for Christmas by asking God to lead us by his Word and his mercy to a radical conversion of our minds, our hearts, and our actions.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The First Candle

First of four, that is. I’m speaking of the Advent wreath. The progressive lighting of its four candles through the four weeks of Advent marks the drawing near of our celebration of the Lord’s nativity at Christmas. This ritual began yesterday on the First Sunday of Advent.

I hope we do more than light candles.

Advent is serious business. It highlights our need to prepare, to be ready, for the Lord’s coming! This requires deliberate and serious attention. This holy season points us not only to our commemoration of the Lord’s coming among us as a child born of the Virgin Mary but also to his coming again at the end of time and to his many “advents” in our daily lives now. The Scripture passages for Sunday teach us that readiness is a matter of having our lives rightly ordered. What does that mean?

An important symbol is the “mountain of the Lord” spoken of in the prophecy of Isaiah (2:1-5). All nations, says the prophet, will stream to this mountain, established as the highest. The mountain refers to Jerusalem. There was found the Temple, God’s dwelling and thus the place of worship. From there would go forth instruction. A rightly ordered life is one in which all of its aspects are ordered to God. The worship of God is the first and highest priority, from which follows the desire to receive his instruction and have one’s entire life enlightened by his Word. When the worship of God and obedience to his Word are given first place, all else falls into proper place. St. Paul (Romans 13:11-14) likens this to waking up from sleep, casting off darkness and living in the light.

So becoming ready through getting our lives rightly ordered means taking a serious look at how we are living and asking questions such as: what do I, in fact, worship? Myself? My possessions? Reputation? Desires? And from where do I take instruction? To what voices am I listening and giving my trust? Do I turn to the Internet? Social media? Magazines? TV shows? What is shaping my mindset?

These are tough and challenging questions, but they cannot be postponed. When Jesus speaks in the Gospel of his return (cf. Matthew 24:37-44), he makes clear that he will come at a time we simply cannot know. The conclusion is clear: the time to get our lives in order is now.

Advent is not about candles on a wreath. It is about having a life that is enlightened by right order. May God grant us the grace to clear up any disorder in our lives and thus to be ready to greet him joyfully when he comes.