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

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas 2011

As I read over the Scripture passages for Christmas midnight Mass, I could not help but go back in my mind to an image that has stayed with me since the visit to Haiti: the image of darkness pierced by light. In many parts of that land there is no electricity. Every evening after nightfall there are many regions with absolutely no light. People too numerous to count walk in darkness. It is, literally, a land of deep shadow. Occasionally, though, in a hovel or tent you could see a flicker of a candle flame – the darkness pierced by a light that enabled the people around it to see.

Here, too, in our so-called First World, light is needed. We experience the darkness of a spiritual poverty, of a life from which God is eclipsed; the deep shadows of moral confusion, in which what is wrong is celebrated as good; the black night of homelessness, violence, addictions, family breakdown, unemployment and so on. Differently from the people of Haiti, yet no less truly, we are a people walking in darkness. We need a light to pierce it so that we, also, can see again.

Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of darkness – on them light has shone.” This message of hope is directed not only at the people for whom it was first written thousands of years ago, but also at us. Then it was a promise of what was to come; today the Church announces that promise as fulfilled. Isaiah linked the coming of the light with the birth of a child: “For a child has been born for us, a son given us.” The Gospel announces this child to be the one born of the Virgin Mary: “and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger….” With this birth the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds keeping watch nearby. The light has come in the child born in Bethlehem.

Why is he the light? As St. Paul puts it, in Jesus, the grace of God has appeared. Jesus is the very Son of God, who has assumed our human nature. There is no darkness in God, only light, so in Jesus we can see. In him we see the truth of God’s love and mercy. In this light, we also see the truth of ourselves: God’s beloved children in need of rescue from the darkness we bring upon ourselves through sinfulness. As we celebrate the birth of our saviour, let us offer to him any areas of darkness in our own lives - fear, anxiety, guilt, despair – and ask him to dispel it by the light of his love and mercy so that we might know the hope and peace he came from heaven to bring.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Back to School!

Our last visit of our last day was to a school recently constructed with the assistance of Development and Peace. It is run by the Haitian Province of the Missionaries of the Immaculate Conception, a religious congregation founded by Mother Delia Tetreault of the province of Quebec. The former school operated here by this community was destroyed by the earthquake, and now it is completely rebuilt. Yet another sign of hope. The Sister Provincial, together with two of her sisters, were obviously very proud and excited as they showed us around this new Catholic girls' school, which provides education to nine hundred children aged six to eighteen. They used the occasion of the visit to present D&P with a plaque expressing the gratitude of the congregation and the students for this beautiful new school.

The day had begun with a visit from the President of the Episcopal Conference of Haiti, Most Reverend Chibly Langlois. This gave both Archbishop Durocher and I the chance to speak with him about the priorities of the Haitian Bishops as regards the ecclesial reconstruction that needs to occur. Then our delegation made a whirlwind visit to officials of the Canadian International Development Agency stationed in Haiti. Since their offices are housed in the Canadian embassy to Haiti, this gave us the opportunity to greet briefly our Canadian ambassador. From there we stopped into an organization that offers formation for a whole network of community radio stations operating throughout Haiti, including a few associated with the local Church. I hadn't realized the importance of such radio stations until I came here. Since more than fifty percent of the population is illiterate and too poor to own televisions, this is for many their sole source of information for what is happening in the community, what to do in the case of emergencies and so on. Our final visit before proceeding to the school was to the offices of the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Haitian Episcopal Conference. We spoke there of their priorities and work and of our desire that the presence and work of D&P and its partners be a support to them.

Tomorrow we visit with the Apostolic Nuncio to Haiti and then make our way to the airport. Time will be very tight tomorrow, so this is my last blog post from Haiti.

Perhaps what has remained most strongly with me is my memory of a woman whom we met earlier in the week during our visit to MPP. She had arrived at their centre following the earthquake. So traumatized was she by that event, on top of all her other problems, that she snapped and was in need of professional psychological assistance. God knows - I'm afraid I would have just as easily lost it in the midst of this terrible reality. By the time we met her, however, she was smiling and laughing. Able to laugh. Because of the love and attention of the community, and the professional help that they were able to provide for her, she is now well and ... able to laugh. This is my prayer for the people of Haiti - that they will find a renewal and restoration that brings them joy.

The earthquake of which we are all aware is but an external sign of the interior tremors that have been shaking the people of Haiti for generations. The crushing weight of absolute poverty has left countless persons without a sense of their personal worth and dignity. The work of D&P and its partners is obviously very modest in comparison to the overwhelming needs here. Yet the renewal and hope that they bring to the people they assist is an indication of the personal reconstruction that our Lord wills for each and everyone of his people here in this country. As Christmas announces God's accomplishment of the impossible, let us not fail to pray that what is truly humanly impossible - the restoration of the Haitian people and society - will by the grace of God and the agency of people dedicated to the poor become a reality.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Tent Cathedral and a Forest Nursery

A once magnificent building that now stands in ruins. Next to it a number of tents under which the people now gather to celebrate the Eucharist. This is what I discovered when I celebrated Mass at the "cathedral" on Sunday at the invitation of the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince, Most Reverend Guire Poulard. The cathedral was totally destroyed by the earthquake, as were adjacent Caritas and diocesan offices. The Archbishop most graciously invited me to preside at the Mass with his people, during which Archbishop Durocher preached a wonderful homily on the virtue of hope.

The building is in ruins but the Church is alive - it is alive in the resilient hearts of the people. Their suffering -- who can imagine the depth of it? - is etched on their faces, but they continue to lift up their lives to the Lord, whom they know to be near, especially in the Eucharist.

Our Eucharistic Lord calls us to be the agents of this presence to others. The Eucharist, which draws us into the self-offering of Christ himself, sends us forth to offer our lives for those in need. Celebrating the Mass in the very midst of incredible hardship brought this home to me very strongly.

Following our celebration we traveled over the mountains to Jacmel, where Development and Peace has been partnered for a long time with an organization founded in 1989 by Canadian religious sisters, Les Soeurs du Bon Conseil, to help women escape violence.
Called Famn Deside (Femmes Decidees), this is a group of women who have organized themselves to resist violence, and to educate both women and men as to the rights of women not to be violated, to be educated, and to be honoured. It began under the Sisters' direction with thirteen women, and now counts more than 800 members. We met with a group of them who welcomed us warmly. Very moving were their stories of pain and courage, especially now as they have to struggle against an increase in violence in the camps following the earthquake. Due to their efforts the violence in areas where they make themselves present is slowly diminishing. When we met afterward with the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jacmel, he shared with us how much the work of this organization is appreciated and supported by the local Church.

The next morning we visited some of their projects. Deep into the forest we went. En route we visited an edifice being constructed as a shelter for women and their children fleeing violence, and I was honoured to bless it at their request. From there we continued into the countryside, and to say that we went "off the beaten track" would be a huge understatement. It was the first time I've driven into a river in order to cross it. When we arrived at a small forest village, we proceeded into the bush on foot for quite some distance to an area where women have fashioned a nursery for the cultivation of tree seedlings, which are then transplanted to produce food for personal and familial sustenance as well as for the market, and to contribute at the same time to the reforestation of the land.

The women living and working in this area met us very warmly as a group (age range: 19-80) and shared with us the new hope that they have received from the assistance offered by Famn Deside. Many of them were learning to read and write for the first time in their lives, and I will not forget the look of happiness and pride as they told us so.

Equally etched in my memory are the songs of determination and hope that they shared with us, before treating us to a beautiful lunch from their own produce.
After this a three and a half hour ride across the mountains back to the chaos of Port-au-Prince. As I looked at the endless stretches of misery, I kept thinking of the people I had just met, especially their deeply held conviction that they are contributing to the rebuilding of this country in a substantial way by their work. They are right and deserving of our support.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Flower Gardens

Up into the mountains today just outside of Port-au-Prince. The goal was to visit some of the projects of the Port-au-Prince bureau of Caritas Haiti which are supported by Development and Peace. We spent hours on steep and unbelievably rough mountain roads, largely washed away by the deluges of the rainy seasons. (Someone remind me NEVER AGAIN to complain about the quality of Edmonton streets!

Supported by a variety of partners, Caritas Port-au-Prince runs a continuum of projects that help people rebuild and sustain their lives. One of these is in the mountain village of Duval, where ninety per cent of the dwellings were destroyed by the earthquake. Slowly but surely residences are being provided to the people - simple concrete structures comprising two bedrooms, a dining area and a storage room. As I approached one of them I saw a flower garden planted outside and up against the house. It had obviously been carefully tended - a sure sign of the family's pride in their new home and in themselves. I'm not good at naming plants, so don't ask me what they were. No matter. The family had been helped to recover their sense of dignity, which is so easily lost when one has no place to live.

From there we went further up into the mountains where two important projects supported by Development and Peace were being directed by Caritas. Both had to do with teaching the local peasant farmers how to conserve the soil which is so easily damaged and lost during the torrential rains. In both locations the local people all banded together for the work, in this case for the construction of walls along the slopes of the mountain. As we visited, some of the workers came up to us and began to chat. I was particularly struck by the comments of one man, who expressed his deep gratitude, not only for the assistance being given, but also for the simple fact of having been noticed. Referring to Caritas, he said, "If it weren't for them, no one would know we were even here." By the presence and assistance of Caritas, the local people knew that not only were they known but also that their existence was valued. Other projects supported by Development and Peace, which are equally aimed at helping the people attain sustainable living, are micro-financing, risk management in the face of other possible natural disasters (we dropped in on one of the classes being held in a simple parish school) and the raising of livestock.

We were also introduced to two local priests. Each lives in the midst of the people, and their placement isolates them from their diocese and their brother priests. Truly devoted men. The people spoke to me very warmly about the priests, in whom they find a shepherd who loves them and whom they love in return. In the person of these priests and in the workers of Caritas, these people in need know that the Church is near to them and from this they draw hope. It is this hope that I saw in the flower garden.

Giving Children a Childhood

We returned this morning from Hinch to Port-au-Prince. Words simply cannot describe the squalor in which thousands upon thousands are striving to live in this city. Yet words are even more inadequate in the face of the interior devastation wreaked upon thousands of children who are referred to as the "restavek". This is creole for the French "reste avec" (stay with). It refers to the terrible reality of what amounts to human trafficking. Families in the city "acquire," through intermediaries, children of the country to do domestic work in their homes. The parents of these children, eager to give their children hope but without any understanding of the reality of the city, "give" their children over to the receiving families with the understanding that they will be cared for, given an education etc. The truth is the opposite. Children ranging in age from six to fifteen years old are brought into the homes as domestic workers, and only a very small percentage of them are given any education at all. In effect, most are treated as slaves and suffer various forms of maltreatment. They usually remain separated from their families for years.

In response to this horror is an organization called Foyer "Maurice Sixto." A partner of Development and Peace, it seeks to create harmonious relations between the parents of the children and the children themselves as well as with the receiving families, sensitize society to this phenomenon, work at preventing the spreading of this problem, and give both basic education and professional formation to the children themselves so that they might have hope for integration into society. Within it all they strive to give the children a childhood. Many do not know their birthdays and have therefore never been celebrated personally. Many live without being hugged with genuine affection and love. The Foyer surrounds them with love and the affirmation of their personal worth and dignity. They give them the opportunity to play and develop their inherent talents. They celebrate birthdays. In short, they make it possible for these kids to be kids.
When we arrived the children that were gathered for their school day broke into a song of welcome. You can probably imagine how emotional that was for all of us. Thank God for this group that works so tirelessly to draw the children to this oasis of love and hope.

At the end of the day we met officials from Caritas Haiti, a D&P partner for many years. They explained to us the network that exists between the national office and the various local diocesan Caritas bureaus. Much effort has been expended to help rebuild their people and their society, and our plan is to see some of those projects tomorrow.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Gift of Hope

I've just spent a couple of days here in Haiti, visiting projects of some partners of Development and Peace. I'll be here with our delegation until the 21st of this month.

The suffering and poverty of the people here defies description. There is some progress to the redevelopment, but it proceeds at a snail's pace. In the midst of the destitution there are many who are striving with great love and dedication to help people rebuild, not only in material but also in personal terms. It is bearing fruit in a sense of renewed hope for the people to whom I have been introduced, a hope which is giving birth to new beginnings.

We visited one of our partners, Mouvement Paysant Papaye, a partner of D&P, which has been working among peasant farmers in the countryside for many years, forming them in necessary life skills that they may be self-sufficient and earn at least a modest living. The results are gradual, but very promising. I met a woman with nothing, who only recently began to benefit from the accompaniment and help of this movement. She is learning the art of setting up a garden which will provide her and her children with the necessary food and extra that she can sell at the market. Another woman who, with her husband and eight children, has been helped by MPP for about fifteen years, has actually been able to send her first three children to university. Finally, we met ten families, who escaped Port-au-Prince into the countryside following the earthquake. They tried to go back to the city, but found that, since they had lost everything, they could no longer live there. They returned to the area served by MPP, and now find themselves in a little village constructed for them. In all of these situations what has struck me the most is the smile of the people that expresses hope. One can sense the return of pride in themselves as they look forward to a new future. Very moving and very encouraging.

Please keep this trip, and especially the people of this beautiful country, in your prayers. More later.

Monday, December 12, 2011

¿Como se traduce?

I’m struggling to learn Spanish. I believe this is important, because it is, after all, the language of about half of the Church worldwide. Fortunately, I am blessed with a very patient instructor. Apart from the fact that I find it difficult to find time for a lesson and then do my homework – not! – he is constantly having to field my questions around translation: What does this word mean? How do I translate that? How would you say such and such? Spanish is a truly beautiful language, and its beauty inspires me to learn it better. One day I hope to be able to listen to it and speak it without the intermediary of translation, but I’m certainly not there yet – far from it.

The most beautiful language of all is that of the Gospel. Its inherent, unsurpassable beauty awakens within us a strong desire to listen to it deeply and speak it to others. In our day, though, it needs translation. For many, the Gospel is little more than words without meaning. What does it signify? What is its relevance? Here is the challenge facing the Church as we embrace the new evangelization. How does the Gospel translate such that it is not only understood but also embraced?

Properly translated, the Gospel means joy. Yesterday, the third Sunday of Advent, was Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete – rejoice! The Scripture readings were a summons to joy. In the first reading (Isaiah 61: 1-2, 10-11) we heard Isaiah rejoicing in anticipation of the dawn of salvation. St. Paul in the second reading (1Thessalonians 5: 16-24) rejoiced, and summoned others to share in this joy, at the fact that the Saviour has come in Christ and remains near to his people. In addition, as Christians we rejoice in that the Lord, who is near even now, will come again with definitive salvation for his people.

How does the “act of translation” take place? How do the words of the Gospel become joy in our hearts? Consider John the Baptist in the Gospel passage of Sunday (John 1:6-8, 19-28). In response to the queries of those sent by the Pharisees to question him as to his identity, he made this striking statement: “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” He is referring to Christ, whom John did know. Furthermore, John knew himself in relation to Jesus. “I am a voice crying in the wilderness…” Here is the point at which the Gospel translates into joy. When we know Jesus Christ – not just know about him, but truly know him – and when we know ourselves in relation to him, then we find joy. Perhaps better, joy finds us. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) Christian joy is that which comes from abiding in the love of Christ.

This is very different from the pleasure and excitement that seems to be the sought-after goal of so many today. These are superficial things that are but transitory, fleeting, and that leave us not satisfied but longing, looking for more, running after the next “thrill.” This is not joy. Real joy is deep and lasting. It is that which we find in the Gospel, which offers a sharing in Christ’s own joy.

¿Como se traduce? How does this translate? My prayer is that, for each of us, a deeper personal knowledge of Jesus Christ and of self-knowledge in him will translate into that deep lasting joy which is the true meaning of the Gospel.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Waiting with Patience and Hope

The other evening I was on a flight from Ottawa to Edmonton. It took off exactly on time, but very early into the flight, about one half hour after takeoff, the pilot announced that he was not at ease with the performance of one of the engines, so we would have to return to Ottawa. Once we were safely on the ground and back into the airport we were told we would have to wait until another plane was found, as well as another crew. And so we waited, and we waited, and we waited, until finally we were able to leave again and arrive home safely. Passengers were not complaining – well, not much, anyway - because we knew the pilot had made the right decision to land the plane. But we just wanted to get home, and because it was out of our control, we knew that we would have to wait and rely on others to get us home.

Wanting to get home; reliance upon another; waiting. This pretty well sums up all that we hear from the Sacred Scriptures throughout this Advent season. “Home” is to be with God forever. It was for this, in fact, that God created us in the first place. And yet, very early on, humanity was diverted by the tragic failure we call sin, the refusal to trust God and his wisdom, the preference for self-reliance over dependence upon the Lord. This left us grounded, able to go nowhere, and needing to wait for one to come who could restore us on the right path that would, indeed, lead us home to our heavenly Father. And humanity waited, and waited and waited.

Yet this long waiting of humanity for a saviour was of an entirely different quality than that experienced in the airport. Ours on Thursday night was filled with anxiety. As numerous departure times were promised and not fulfilled, we began to worry that the airline would not be able to fulfill its promise to get us home that night. In contrast, the waiting of our ancestors for a saviour was filled with hope, because they knew that God would, indeed, be faithful to his word. A specific time was never promised. Occasionally this would give rise to great cries of longing from the people, calling on God to act soon, especially as they endured periods of suffering. At moments like these the prophets would call them back to trust in God’s wisdom and to remain steadfast in hope. An example is given in the first reading from the Sunday Mass of yesterday, where Isaiah, the great prophet of salvation, spoke words of comfort and hope to those who were waiting (cf. Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11). The Lord is coming soon, he said, and he will come as a shepherd to gather his sheep and lead them. Trust, have hope, be at peace. And, of course, God was faithful. He sent his Son, Jesus, to be our shepherd and lead us home to the Father.

As we waited at the airport, we had been told that a new crew would soon arrive to operate the plane and take care of passengers. Therefore, when we saw pilots and stewards arrive, that was a sign to us that what was promised would soon be fulfilled. Isaiah foretold that the arrival of the awaited Messiah would be heralded by a voice in the wilderness that called people to prepare the way of the Lord. That voice would be a sign of the imminent coming of the saviour. The Gospel of Sunday (Mark 1:1-8) identified that voice as John the Baptist, who did live in the wilderness and who did, in fact, call people to prepare by changing their lives, by repentance.

This message of John the Baptist remains relevant for us even today, because we remain in a time of waiting and expectation. We are no longer waiting for God to send the saviour. He has done so in his Son, Jesus Christ. We are waiting for Jesus to come again in glory at the end of time, as he promised. It remains true that we must be prepared by repentance for his arrival. We do not know when it will be, only that his day “will come like a thief”, as St. Peter told us in yesterday’s second reading, that is to say, suddenly and unexpectedly, so the time to repent and be ready is always now.

As we waited at the airport, time seemed to drag on as we waited for the airline to fulfill its promise. Everything was closed and there was little to do. Some might be tempted to think that the Lord is rather slow in fulfilling his promise. It has been more than two thousand years, after all! The teaching of St. Peter (cf. 2Peter 3:8-14) is very much to this point. God is beyond time. To him a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow; he is patient, patient with us, because he wants us to share in his gift of salvation and not to perish. Therefore, in this time of expectation and waiting, there is much to do: examine ourselves and make the necessary changes so that we lead lives of “holiness and godliness.”

This is the message of Advent: wait with patience and hope in the expectation of the Lord’s coming, be aware of our need for the Lord to take us to our destination, and prepare for him by an honest and thorough examination of our lives. In this way we open our lives to welcome the Lord, the shepherd who leads us home.