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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A home of eternal security and peace

This past week our attention has been riveted by the plight of the people of Slave Lake. As you know, nearly half the town was destroyed by fire. This situation touched the hearts of people not only in Alberta but also across the country, and many have been making donations in order to help the people affected by this tragedy. Much has been lost due to the fire. What perhaps strikes the deepest chord in our hearts is the loss of people’s homes. We all know the importance to family of having a home. This is where our closest relationships are fashioned and developed. The thought of losing our homes so suddenly and completely sends a chill through each of us, and in solidarity many people have reached out instinctively to offer assistance. Particularly moving are the stories of people who, as they escaped with loved ones the fires that came upon them so suddenly, thought first of taking pictures and family mementos. For them these were far more important than other material assets because they preserved in memory the precious events that had occurred in the home.

The Scripture readings for last Sunday’s Mass (cf. Acts 6:1-7, 1Peter 2:4-9, John 14:1-12) are all about “home.” They speak of a home that has been fashioned for us by God; one that is eternal, that nothing can destroy, and whose construction begins here on earth.

In the Gospel Jesus is speaking to his apostles just before his suffering and death. He tells them that he is going to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, which is in heaven and in which there are many rooms. He will do so because he wants to have them with him forever. The will of God has been revealed in Jesus and fulfilled in Jesus. That will is to make a home with us forever in heaven. For that purpose Jesus was sent from the Father. Because it is God’s will and work, nothing can destroy it. It is a home of eternal security and peace.

In the second reading St. Peter teaches us that this house that we shall form together with God begins even now in the mystery of the Church. “Come to [Jesus],” he says, “and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” The Church has been fashioned by the death and resurrection of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit. United to Christ, we are in union with one another and form a “spiritual house” in him.

As we know from our own experience, what makes a house a home are the relationships that are formed and nurtured within it. It is the same with the Church. Because of our relationship with Jesus, first of all, and that which we form with other Christians, the Church is always our home. It is here that we belong as we journey on the pilgrimage of life to our eternal home with God.

Both St. Peter and the first reading from Acts tell us something of the kind of relationships that are expected of those who dwell in this spiritual abode that is the Church.

St. Peter tells us that those who live in this spiritual house have been made members of a royal priesthood, called to make of our lives a spiritual sacrifice to God. This means that we make every aspect of our lives an offering to God. Our words, our thoughts, our deeds all must be kept in conformity with the Gospel, such that the entirety of our lives is one continuous act of praise and thanksgiving to God for his saving love.

In particular, we are to be mindful of the poor. In the narrative from Acts recalled in our first reading, there was a dispute in the early Church regarding an unequal distribution of food among the Church members, specifically between the Jewish and Greek widows. This was unacceptable to the Apostles, so they appointed the first deacons to ensure that care was provided uniformly to all in need. Care for the poor remains a hallmark of those who dwell in the Church. As Pope Benedict said in his first encyclical on Christian love, “within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life” (Deus Caritas Est, 20).

Jesus has prepared a home for us, both in heaven and on earth. No external force can destroy it. May the Lord help us to treasure more and more the gift of the Church, this spiritual house, as our home. As we strive to offer God lives of praise to Him and of solidarity with the poor, may we be ever mindful of the needs of others, such as the people of Slave Lake or any who suffer, and be ready to come to their aid.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What is it with me and bears?

I am in Jasper with our priests for our annual assembly. This time last year I had a close encounter with a black bear on the Jasper golf course. It happened again Wednesday, only this time it was a grizzly! As our foursome came over the ridge of a long par five, we could see park rangers about two hundred yards ahead, waving at us to stop as they tried to get the bear off the course. Reminiscent of last year’s experience, the more they tried the closer the bear came toward us. Fortunately it did not come anywhere near as close as did his black-furred cousin twelve months ago. Nevertheless, the priests are having a field day with this. One even suggested I add a bear with a golf club to my coat of arms. Very funny. Such ready fraternal support is really touching.

The topic of our assembly this year was Catholic education. We heard from a lawyer who is an expert on the constitutional status of our schools, as well as from district superintendents, religious education consultants, a principal, a youth minister, a parish sacramental preparation coordinator and a priest who is a district chaplain. From their perspectives, as well as from those of the priests gathered from the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Diocese of Prince George, the gift and challenge of Catholic education in our day was discussed. However, the foundational and guiding standpoint came not from ourselves but from the Sacred Scriptures. On the first full day of our Assembly we listened at Mass to a passage from the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 11:19-26), which told of the reaction of Barnabas when he first arrived at Antioch. It recounted how Barnabas rejoiced because he “saw the grace of God”. He recognized God already at work among the people and witnessed their response to God’s saving love. The presence and action of God was the cause not only of his rejoicing but also of his pastoral work. He went for Paul and, upon returning with him to Antioch, taught the people in the ways of the Gospel. It is easy enough for us to focus upon the challenges in our schools. Instead we should discern first the grace of God at work in the hearts and lives of our young people. This transforms anxiety into hope and provides the impetus to teach the beauty and joy of the Christian life.

Sometimes adults feel so distant from the reality of young people today that they wonder if they really have any hope of connecting with them. It is true that youth inhabit “worlds” that might be foreign to adults and thus difficult to understand. (I recently held a “town hall session” with a group of senior high school students, and they told me of influential television shows and role models that I had never heard of!) Yet connection is possible because the needs of the human heart are universal. According to the education specialists, the greatest need of the youth they encounter is to know that they are loved and that they matter. It means a great deal to them for an adult to be present and manifest an interest in their lives. This is something we can all do. Our Catholic schools are a privileged place for this encounter to happen. We simply need to be more deliberate, committed and engaged in our schools to bring this about.

Our young people may not often meet a bear on a golf course, but they certainly do meet dangers every day, often without knowing it. We need think only of the variety of messages they receive daily through television, music videos and other media. Not all of those messages are healthy, and some are dangerous. Like the bears, the dangers are not easily scared away and sometimes, in spite of our efforts, still come close to our young. By working to ensure that our schools form an authentic Gospel culture we help them know that the One who loves and protects them draws even closer. In our schools we want them to know, love and follow Jesus Christ and experience the joy and peace that He wills for them. From the brief dialogue that we have been able to hold at Jasper among representatives of the various stakeholders in Catholic education, I am convinced of the desire we all share to foster that encounter with the Lord. I am looking forward very much to working together with our priests and with the officials engaged in Catholic education to build upon the good that is there by the grace of God, and to form our beloved youth to become adult disciples of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Grace in Abundance

This past week in Edmonton has been one of wonderful grace! Like the disciples in Sunday’s Gospel we have felt the Lord walking with us, clarifying our vision, and causing our hearts to “burn within us”.

It opened, of course, with the beatification in Rome of Blessed Pope John Paul II. United with Catholics throughout the world, we rejoiced! Many recalled his visit to our city when he came to Canada in 1984. I remembered meeting him a number of times, and thought of how those who encountered him would often remark afterwards that they had just shaken hands with a saint. His beatification is a beautiful reminder to all of us of our universal call to holiness. God makes saints; we do not make ourselves holy. Our call is to open our hearts to the working of grace in our lives and to surrender to the transformative power of divine love.

We felt that grace in abundance in a number of events that occurred through the week. In the immediate wake of the beatification I gathered with Bishops, priests and lay faithful in our new Saint Joseph Seminary for the dedication of its chapel and the blessing of the entire building. The liturgy of dedication is rich in symbol, and in its beautiful celebration we truly knew that the Lord was walking with us. He had accompanied us throughout the transition from the old facilities to the new and we were gratefully aware that his love would carry us into the future where untold blessings await us.

On Wednesday Edmonton Catholic Schools held its annual Celebration of the Arts at the Jubilee auditorium. God is the author of beauty. Therefore, the talents of artists reflect the divine splendour. It was a delight to see the children ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to grade 12 showcasing their talents and doing so to the praise and glory of God. Through the love of teachers and staff for the children I could feel the grace of the Lord “walking with” the children and delighting in them.

Friday evening was the annual Friars’ Ball. For the forty-second consecutive year, the people of the Archdiocese of Edmonton and the Ukrainian Eparchy gathered for an evening of dinner and fun. Its purpose every year is to raise funds for seminarian formation. The enthusiasm that infused everyone that evening was a wonderful sign of the love of our people for the priesthood and of their desire to support with their gifts those in formation. Our generosity reflects our appreciation of just how generous God is with us. Our Lord, who will not be outdone in generosity, walks with us to provide the gifts we need for the accomplishment of the mission he entrusts to us.

From Thursday through Saturday inclusive, the Archdiocese of Edmonton was blessed with the presence of Father Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher to the pontifical household. He traveled to Edmonton for Nothing More Beautiful on Thursday evening, where he was joined by our witnesses, Cam and Nadine MacDonnell, and for the Anthony Jordan lectures, hosted Saturday at the Basilica by Newman Theological College. In between the two events he led a morning retreat Friday for the clergy of the Archdiocese and then visited that evening our Italian parish of Santa Maria Goretti. Father Cantalamessa explained to me that, in all he says and does, he wants to convey the message that Jesus, our Risen Lord, is truly present with us as our life, joy and hope. This is precisely what the many who heard and witnessed Father Cantalamessa felt; our Lord “came up beside us” and walked with us and we knew he is alive.

In the Emmaus narrative, the hearts of the two disciples on the road were downcast until they realized that Jesus had risen and was with them. There is much that can cause sadness in our own lives, too. In fact, during the very same week that we were experiencing such grace, we were reminded of the reality of evil in the world. The death of a terrorist leader reminded us of the horrors of terrorism and of the many who have been killed by this evil. The guilty plea of a Canadian Bishop to possession of child pornography recalled to our minds the great pain inflicted by sexual exploitation, and the deep sadness we feel when a member of the clergy is involved. Of course, we each struggle with what Blessed John Paul referred to as the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, and are painfully aware of its damaging effects in our own lives and the harm we can do to others when we surrender to it. Without an awareness of the presence of the risen Lord in our lives, we remain downcast and vulnerable to despair. But the truth is that Jesus is alive, that he remains with us, and that he will never abandon us. As St. Paul tells us, wherever sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

We have experienced that superabundance of grace this past week, clarifying our vision, dispelling our doubts and filling our hearts with joy. The sure presence of the superabundant grace from Jesus, the risen Lord, is the abiding reason for our hope.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Call to Holiness

As I followed the events surrounding the beatification of Pope John Paul II, my mind went back to the years in the early 1990's when I was a student in Rome. Living in the Eternal City gave me the wonderful blessing of being able to participate in numerous papal liturgies.

Always memorable were those held in St. Peter's Square at Christmas and Easter. As was the custom, Pope John Paul II would address greetings on those occasions in languages too numerous to count! After each greeting a loud cry would go up from some section of the huge crowd. This was a tremendous experience of the diversity of our Church united around the Successor of Peter. He was everyone's Pope and we knew that we belonged together as one family because of the common bond we shared with him.

Now Blessed John Paul II is uniting us again. This time he does so through the Church's official confirmation of his sanctity. His extraordinarily rich papacy was a great blessing for the Church, but it is not the reason for his beatification. He is beatified because of his holiness of life. The call to holiness is universal, shared by all the baptized. The events of May 1st in St Peter's Square remind all of us that our unity as Catholics is maintained not only through communion with the Holy Father but also, and fundamentally, by living out faithfully our common vocation to become saints.

In service of this vocation I dedicated today our new Saint Joseph Seminary. In collaboration with its sister institution, Newman Theological College, it is dedicated to helping people answer the call, issued especially to the young by Blessed John Paul, to become saints of the new millennium. By fostering in the hearts of our seminarians an intimate communion of life and love with Jesus Christ, the seminary desires to help them know personally the transformative power of God's grace and the joy of new life in the Lord. Only in this way will they be able later as priests to remind others, by both word and witness, of the call to holiness and encourage them to embrace it.

The new blessed has also influenced our seminary by clarifying the context in which it must fulfill its mission. To the Church the new Blessed gave Novo Millennio Ineunte as the map to guide us across the threshold of the new millennium. He took as his principal source for reflection the first encounter between Jesus and St. Peter as recorded in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Pope John Paul focused upon the instruction of the Lord to St. Peter, and extended that same injunction to the entire Church: “Duc in Altum!” Put out into the deep! Jesus knew exactly where the nets were to be let down on the Sea of Galilee, and he knows precisely where the Church must cast its nets in the deep waters of today.

This call, Duc in Altum, is echoed symbolically in the bronze doors of the chapel of our seminary, because it is counted among the very first seminaries to be built in the new millennium. The design serves as a reminder to all that we are training men to be priests of the new evangelization, sent into the deep waters of our day under the direction of Jesus Christ. Only if we begin in and from the Lord will the catch be abundant. Apart from him, we shall simply “work hard all night but catch nothing.”

Thank you, Blessed Pope John Paul II! We implore your intercession, that we may embrace with joy and hope our call to holiness and be courageous witnesses in this new millennium to the beauty and power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.