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

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Encounter that Changes Everything

From the very beginning of our Nothing More Beautiful series in aid of the new evangelization, we have been encouraging everyone to open their hearts to a new personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI stated in his very first encyclical (Deus Caritas Est, 1) that the Christian life springs not from intellectual assent to ideas and concepts but from a personal encounter with the Lord. Notably, the Holy Father referred to this as an encounter with an event. Something happens when we meet Jesus Christ. Life changes and is never the same.

Insight into this “event” is offered in the Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent (cf. Exodus 17: 3-7; Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8; John 4: 5-42). The passage from the Gospel according to Saint John is the familiar and beautiful story of the encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well of Jacob. Much can be, and has been, said about this passage. Here I wish to focus on the fact that Jesus knew everything about the woman’s life even before a word was spoken. By the time they had ended their conversation, she went away to the town saying, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

This dimension of the narrative reminds me of the other passages in Scripture where the simple glance of the Lord penetrated to the complete truth of the person he beheld. Think of St. Peter. When he first met the Lord, Jesus said to him, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42). Jesus saw and named his true identity. Nathaniel also found himself to be known by Jesus. When the Lord saw him under a fig tree, he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). Jesus looked within and saw his goodness. At other times the Scriptures tell us that the look of the Lord unveils a person’s wrongdoing as well. The Samaritan woman experienced this as Jesus spoke of her previous marriages and current cohabitation with a man not her husband. So, too, was Peter brought to a deep awareness of his betrayal of the Lord from the simple fact that the Lord looked at him (cf. Luke 22:61-62). These examples teach us that when we encounter the Lord, he brings us face to face with the truth of ourselves, a truth of which we may not have been aware, or tried to avoid or cover up.

Yet this same encounter also brings us face to face with the truth of Jesus. He is the one, St. Paul tells us in the passage from Romans, who died to save the ungodly, who gave his life for us sinners, and thus manifested the wondrous and unconditional love of God. He is the one through whom that love, the gift of the Holy Spirit, is poured into our hearts. To encounter Jesus is to encounter this love and to hear his invitation to accept his truth by the act of faith and accept the truth of ourselves as loved and wanted by God. The encounter with this love changes everything. It is “the gift of God” that comes to us as “living water” to quench fully the deep thirst in our hearts for peace and happiness.

These were wonderful readings to accompany sixteen men who visited our seminary this weekend for the annual “Come and See” discernment days. This is an opportunity for men thinking of a call to priesthood to visit the seminary and meet the formation team and seminarians. I was able to join them Sunday for Mass, followed by lunch. Impressive was the seriousness with which these men were discerning a possible call to the Lord. The readings reminded them, as they do all whose hearts remain open to the will of God, that discipleship begins with and is nourished by a deep personal encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. When one’s heart is open to the Lord’s “glance”, the truth of his full knowledge and complete love is experienced. This encounter awakens trust in the goodness of the Lord and invites one to give all to the Lord in the act of faith.

Thank you to all who prayed our novena to the Holy Spirit for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Let’s continue to pray that those the Lord is calling to these particular and beautiful forms of holiness will be open to encounter his love and respond in faith to his call.

Monday, March 21, 2011

To Whom do we Listen?

To whom do we listen? Where do we place our trust? What voices most influence us? These are the questions raised by the Scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Lent. There are many “voices” that speak to us in innumerable ways, and not all of them influence us in healthy ways. The news media, TV shows and movies, popular song lyrics, majority opinion, literature, the arts and the social network all speak to us. To what are we listening? To whom are we paying attention as we navigate the realities of life and make decisions that shape the way we live?

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’” This is taken from the Gospel reading for Sunday (cf. Matthew 17:1-9). It is the voice of our heavenly Father, speaking from a cloud that descended upon the mountain where Jesus was transfigured in the presence of chosen disciples. As the divinity of Jesus shone forth, his identity as Son of God was confirmed by the witness of the Father’s voice. That voice commanded the disciples, as it now commands us, to listen to Jesus.

Long ago, according to Sunday’s first reading from Genesis (cf. Gen 12: 1-4a), Abram heard the divine voice as it summoned him away from his home, from all that was familiar. Not knowing where that voice was leading, he obeyed. Obedience to the voice of God continued to shape the life of Abram, such that he became for all the father of faith.

God’s voice continued to resound throughout history, reflected in the voices of those He chose as his prophets. Finally, that voice was given perfect expression in Jesus, who is the Son of God, the Word of God made flesh. He is the One sent from the Father as “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). His voice echoes in the words of Sacred Scripture and in the Sacred Tradition of the Church.

To whom are we listening? Let us pray this Lent that the Lord himself will reveal to us the answer to that question. May his grace free us from all harmful influence and dispose our hearts and minds to accept his voice as that which alone can lead us to life.

This past week attentive listening to the Word of God culminated in the gathering together of many people of different faith traditions to pledge themselves and their communities to help the homeless. In Edmonton, as in other cities in Alberta and Canada, the city has formulated a ten-year plan to end homelessness. Members of the faith communities want to be part of this by providing to the newly housed connection and welcome to community. The gathering last week was to announce and launch a plan whereby the various congregations in Edmonton can take action to reach out to those previously homeless and, by our presence and love, affirm their human dignity and offer them the experience of belonging to community as integral members of society. At the event the chair of our local Interfaith group, Rabbi Kunin, read from the prophet Isaiah the Word from Scripture to which we are listening and responding: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58: 6-7) It was a very moving event, one that filled all in attendance with a deep sense of hope. Please keep this initiative in your prayers.

When we listen to the voice of the Lord and choose to obey and follow it in trust wonderful things happen. God alone is worthy of our full trust. He has spoken in Jesus. Let us heed the voice of the Father and listen to His Son.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Spring ahead? Gladly!

The moving forward of the clocks this weekend heralds the onset of Spring. Here in Alberta it can’t come soon enough! Lots of snow and plenty of cold this year. A picture recently sent to me by one of my brother Bishops sums up rather well the readiness of Albertans for a change in the season. We can’t wait for the awakening of new life that is brought about by the warmth of the sun.
This past week another event announced imminent new life – Ash Wednesday. We now find ourselves in the holy season of Lent.

 It is that sacred time when we ask the Lord to allow his light to shine in the depths of our souls and show us where our life of faith and discipleship has gone into deep freeze and become lifeless. The very arresting sign of ashes placed on the forehead gives dramatic testimony to our awareness of our need for conversion and our dependence upon God’s mercy for new life. Although the truth revealed may be difficult to accept, and although there may be tears of sorrow and repentance, nevertheless it is a very hope-filled season because we are drawing closer to the Lord by the movement of his grace. Let’s be sure to pray for one another as we seek together to be renewed by God’s love.

The hope that is ours in Lent was buoyed this week by a number of wonderful events. On Monday I blessed the new Villa Caritas in West Edmonton. Part of the family of Covenant Health, the Catholic health care provider in Alberta, it is a geriatric mental health facility set up to provide care, security and love to some of our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. The true meaning of caritas was revealed by Christ on the Cross. It speaks of a love that pours itself out for the other in complete self-gift. It is a love that is inclusive, and that announces that the beloved matters and is important and necessary. I am proud of the facility and I congratulate the board and executive of Covenant Health. They are people truly committed to serving the well-being of all Albertans, especially the most vulnerable, and to do so as part of that wonderful communion of caritas we call the Church.

Tuesday evening was the occasion for the blessing of the new home of Newman Theological College. In recent weeks about four thousand people have come through this new facility as well as that of St. Joseph Seminary. I have been greatly encouraged by the huge amount of excitement and enthusiasm among our people at the presence of these two important edifices on what we now are calling the Catholic campus. Tuesday was the occasion for asking God’s blessings upon all that takes place at NTC. We prayed that students, faculty and staff will seek together to encounter the Lord and be seized by the beauty of his truth in order to share with others the joy and hope that is ours in Christ. All gathered could sense that God is blessing us richly and we are humbled, grateful and hopeful. Early May will see the dedication of the seminary.

On Saturday I spent the entire day with about 200 young adults, most of whom are preparing to travel to Madrid for World Youth Day. We set as our theme “Come away and rest awhile,” the words of Jesus to his disciples. It was a welcome respite to the busy and noisy lives that we lead. There was ample time for prayer, collectively and individually, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. In addition I offered two reflections, after which we had an extended period of time for questions and answers. I was very impressed by the evident depth of commitment of these young women and men to their faith. Their questions demonstrated what I would call a “joyful seriousness.” They want to understand the faith; they want it to be the light that helps them make sense of some of the more pressing issues with which society is grappling today; they experience almost daily the challenge of living the faith with integrity in the midst of a society that in many ways has grown allergic to the Gospel; yet there remains among and within them a palpable joy that springs from knowing the Lord is near, transforming their hearts with his love and summoning them to true life in Him. A day that inspired great hope.
In many dioceses throughout the Church, the Rite of Election is held on the First Sunday of Lent. This was the case in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. On Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon I was blessed with the joy of calling about 200 women and men to the Easter sacraments. These are people who have felt the call of the Lord to follow him in the communion of the Church and have been preparing for a long time to respond to this call. Now they are at that point where they have been judged ready to proceed to full initiation into the Church at Easter through the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. They were present at the Basilica with others who, already baptized, now wish to complete their initiation into the Catholic Church, as well as with their teachers and sponsors. I had occasion to meet each of the new “elect” and the broad smiles on their faces said it all. It is beautiful and exciting to know the Lord and to be called to membership in his family, the Church.

This coming week will see the launch of our interfaith housing initiative in the city of Edmonton. It will be an occasion of great hope for all, especially the homeless. Leaders of our faith communities will pledge their support of and commitment to the city’s ten-year plan to end homelessness. I’ll have more on that in my next blog post. Please keep it in your prayers.

And speaking of prayer, don’t forget our Novena for Vocations to priesthood and religious life, which begins this Wednesday, March 16th. I would be very grateful for your participation.

Have a great week!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Notice Regarding the 2011 Alberta March for Life

The Alberta Bishops have decided not to participate in the 2011 Alberta March for Life. Since we have had over the last few years a visible role of leadership and support in this march I feel it is important that we explain the reason for this decision.

My fellow bishops and I have worked closely in recent years with the March for Life Association to promote the march and foster its growth. United and joyful public witness in defence of all life is necessary, and we have been generally pleased with what has been accomplished thus far. At the same time we have observed the presence of large images of aborted children on increasingly prominent display in the march. In our estimation the public display of large, graphic images of aborted babies offends the dignity of the human beings pictured and so is at odds with our mission to promote and protect that dignity. Such displays can also be extremely upsetting to mothers who have suffered through abortion and to children – both of whom we want to encourage and support through our pro-life activities.

We have no issue with the March for Life organizers. Like us they are deeply committed to defend the dignity and sanctity of all human life and express that commitment in many beautiful ways. However, from many discussions over this issue in the last several months, it is clear that the March for Life organizers are unable to pledge that the event will proceed without the graphic displays. It is not that they will not do so; they simply cannot because it is beyond their control. Therefore, the Alberta Bishops have chosen not to join in the march this year. The visible leadership that we have given to the march, together with the practice of preparatory consultation between the March for Life Association and my office, would lead many naturally to the conclusion that the Bishops support the display of graphic images. We want to make it clear that the Bishops are not affiliated in any way with such expressions and do not approve of them.

Of course, people have a right to free expression. Nevertheless, the graphic images are a particular form of expression which, in our view, is not in keeping with what has otherwise been a very positive public affirmation of the dignity and sanctity of human life. The Bishops will not interfere in anyone else’s decision to participate in the march.

As you may know, at St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton we have held a vigil on the eve of the March for Life, and a Mass for life the following morning. We shall continue to do so, and I encourage our Catholic priests and lay people to participate in both. I pray also that we will all remain united in prayer and will continue to reflect on ways we can move forward together in the future in the cause of life.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lent Countdown

Ash Wednesday will be celebrated this week, the gateway to the Lenten season. The Scripture readings that were proclaimed at Mass on Sunday offer great assistance to us as we prepare to enter these holy days of repentance and renewal. They pose a fundamental question: trust in God or reliance upon self.

This question is, in fact, raised many times in a variety of ways throughout Sacred Scripture, which proclaims clearly that only by relying trustingly upon God – upon his love and his guidance – will we know happiness and peace, even in the midst of hardship or difficulty. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses poses the question in terms of obedience or disobedience in relation to the commandments of God. The former, he says, leads to blessing; the latter to curse.

Jesus, God’s Word incarnate, places the question before us by means of an analogy with the construction of a house. Only a house whose foundation is built upon rock can withstand the storms that will inevitably come against it. One built on unstable sand will fall. Listening and acting upon the words of Jesus is the way to construct our lives on a sure rock foundation. Reliance upon self is tantamount to choosing sand as our life foundation and setting ourselves up for collapse.

Notice that Jesus insists it is not enough simply to listen to his words. Only those who hear and act upon them are establishing a trustworthy foundation for their lives. He said the same thing in different words in the first part of the passage. It is not those who simply say “Lord, Lord” – not those, i.e., who are Christians in word only – but those who do the will of the heavenly Father who will enter the kingdom of God.

The will of God, revealed in Christ, can be summed up in one word: love. Love of God and love of neighbour. This means that we hear and act upon the words of Christ when: the worship of God, especially at Mass, is the centre and highpoint of my day or week; I seek forgiveness of those I have hurt and strive to make amends; I grant forgiveness to any who have hurt me; I make every effort to be conscious of the needs of those around me, locally and globally, so as to give of myself to help them; I abandon pride and acknowledge my need for God and others; I turn frequently to the sacrament of Penance for the grace of forgiveness, etc.

Trusting in God or self-reliance; God’s will or mine? This is the fundamental choice confronting us each day, and which informs the myriad other choices that we need to make. How might this translate into a particular penitential practice this Lent? We usually give up something. What about fasting from fear? Occasions when we feel anxious or worried are opportunities to choose to give the situation over to Christ and to deliberately trust in his loving power. Faith or fear? Trust in God or trust in self? Let’s pray that God’s grace will make known to us in this Lenten season the option out of which we are living, the choice we have chosen as our foundation, and restore us to reliance upon his love and trusting obedience to his will.

Novena for vocations

Speaking of choices, this was the theme of the Central Alberta Youth Rally that I had the privilege of visiting on Saturday. It took place in Red Deer and developed around the Gospel passage proclaimed at Sunday Mass. I was deeply impressed with the level of engagement of the young people. They gave up the whole day – 9 in the morning to 8:30 at night – to encourage one another in their faith and to draw closer to Christ. The day ended with a Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament, and the Scripture passage they chose for reflection was the call of Samuel. When this young man finally realized that the Lord was calling him by name, his response of openness and trust was the simple “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

This call of the Lord is not, of course, limited to Samuel. Each of our young people is being called to follow the Lord in some way. To help them give the same trusting response to Christ that Samuel gave when he was called, we will have in the Archdiocese of Edmonton a special novena for vocations. Details can be found on our website at Novena for Vocations. I would be grateful if you would join with us in these days of prayer for vocations to priesthood and religious life.