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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

An Emptiness that Heralds Joy

A section of the Via Doloroso.
This morning we set out so early I think we woke up the rooster. Wakeup call at 4:00 am (!) and on the bus at 5:00 in order to begin the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) at 5:30. The early start was definitely the right call by our guides. As we walked and prayed along the Via Dolorosa throughout the Old City of Jerusalem, we had it practically to ourselves. More significantly, while the darkness of early morning was a fitting companion to our solemn remembrance of the Lord's suffering as he carried the Cross to Calvary, the rising of the sun at the moment we began our solemn celebration of the Mass of the Resurrection recalled nature's witness to the in-bursting of light upon the world when the Lord rose from the dead (cf. Matthew 28:1).

Mass at the Tomb.
Our Mass was celebrated at the Lord's empty tomb. The key word here is "empty". From the beginning the Church's proclamation has held up the emptiness of the tomb as indicative of the Lord's resurrection. The tomb is empty because he is risen and has appeared to his disciples! Yet he remains with us, especially in the sacrament of the Eucharist. One of the pilgrims told me he found this powerfully expressed in the very way this unique Mass is celebrated. The congregation assembles outside of the tomb, while the priest celebrant(s) enters the tomb for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, using an altar just above the slab on which the body of The Lord had been placed when he was buried. When the priest next appears to the congregation it is to present the Eucharistic Lord ("Behold the Lamb of God ..."). I admit I had not thought of this at the time, but it does express in striking fashion that the same Jesus who died on Calvary and who rose from this very tomb is present to, with and in his people through the mystery of the Eucharist.

Both the hill of Calvary and the tomb are enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Immediately following the Mass each of the pilgrims was able to go inside the tomb and reverence this holy site, and then to go up to the place where the Lord was crucified and touch the very rock surface on which his Cross had been raised. At such a place, reflecting upon the infinite love of Jesus for the Father and for us that took him to the Cross, and the power of that love over all evil as manifest in the resurrection, we knew that, because of that same love, we need have no fear. What joy! As the Holy Father Pope Francis has said more than once, no Christian can be a "sourpuss" when we know the love of the Risen Lord and the hope it gives.

An icon in the cave where Mary was born.  
Following a pause for breakfast, we went to the Church of St. Anne, near the city entry variously known as Sheep Gate, Lions Gate, or St. Stephen's Gate. This is a twelfth century church built over the place identified by tradition as the home of Saints Joachim and Anne and, therefore, the birthplace of Mary, marked by a cave beneath. There are astounding acoustics in this building, so we gathered inside to sing some hymns to our Lady. Next to the church is the pool of Beth-zatha, where Jesus cured a paralyzed man (cf. John 5:1-18). We read aloud the Gospel passage, and asked the Lord to heal us of anything that keeps us paralyzed and unable to move forward, such as fear, guilt, shame, etc.

Archbishop Smith reads
a scripture passage.
From there we made our way to the Western Wall, the only part of the Temple of King Herod that remains following its utter destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. It is thus the holiest site in Judaism, and on this Sabbath Day we saw many devout Jewish families praying at this famous wall. For our part, we read the narrative in the Gospel of John that recalls the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus and his prediction that the Temple would be rebuilt in his Risen Body (cf. John 2: 13-22). This gave us occasion to remember the teaching of Saint Paul that each of us is a Temple of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1Corinthians 3:16), so we prayed that the Lord cleanse us by his mercy and rebuild us into his authentic and joyful disciples.

Tomorrow we head out to the desert and the Jordan River, where we look forward to the renewal of our baptismal promises.

Janelle sings Ave Maria in St Anne Church

Friday, December 6, 2013

So That the World May Know

A message among the ancient
olive trees of Gethsemane
Today our itinerary of conviction followed a pathway of love, namely, the love of Jesus for his Heavenly Father. From the Gospel of St John we learn that Jesus is the Son who dwells eternally in the bosom of the Father (1:18) and from that place came to earth and was obedient "so that the world may know that I love the Father" (14:31). His purpose in making known his love for the Father was to enable us to share in it by the gift of the Holy Spirit! (Cf. Romans 8:14-17) So it was that, as we re-traced today the steps of Our Lord during his final days in Jerusalem, we reflected upon this wondrous love and his will to draw us into its embrace.

80 Languages are represented
at the Pater Noster church,
including Cree
First we visited what is called the Pater Noster church, built at the top of the Mount of Olives over a cave where Jesus would have spent time with his disciples and identified by tradition as the place where he taught the Our Father to them. The possessive pronoun is revealing. Jesus has come so that the one he called his Father would also be ours in virtue of our union with him in the Holy Spirit.

Walking down the Palm Sunday Road
From there we followed the Palm Sunday road, the steep downward path taken by Jesus from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley en route to the ancient city of Jerusalem, singing our Hosannas all the way (and not failing to jump out of the way of cars as they careened hurtled past us!!). We stopped at the Church of Dominus Flevit ("The Lord wept") to remember the tears shed by Jesus over the failure of his people to recognize the time of their visitation from God (cf. Luke 19:41-44). There we prayed in repentance for the times our own recognition is lacking, and lifted up to God's mercy any who have yet to know Jesus and encounter in him God's love and peace. Before leaving this site with its stunning view of the Old City of Jerusalem, our guide pointed out to us the various places in the city associated with the events of Our Lord's passion.

Inside the Church of All Nations
(Basilica of the Agony)
At the foot of the Mount is the Garden of Gethsemane. There, in the Basilica of the Agony (also called the Church of All Nations in honour of the many countries who funded its construction), we celebrated Mass at the altar built next to the stone on which Jesus prostrated himself and, with earnest and anguished prayer, entrusted himself entirely into the hands of his Father as he faced his destiny (Cf. Mark 14: 32-42). Here we reflected on the meaning of Abba, the name used uniquely by Jesus to address his Father. So complete was his trust in the love of his Father that he surrendered completely to his will. He did not flee from his destiny but rose from that rock to begin his passion. Offering the Eucharist at this place was an occasion for us to bring our burdens through Christ to the Father with trust in his love and surrender to his purpose.

Pilgrims reflect in the Upper Room,
the site of the Last Supper
After Mass we ascended the other side of the Kidron Valley to the top of Mount Zion. There we visited the Upper Room, the place of the Last Supper and the venue of Pentecost. We read Saint Matthew's account of the Last Supper and paused to thank The Lord Jesus for his abiding presence with us in the mystery of the Eucharist, celebrated on our altars by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Fresco at Church of the Dormition
depicts the Assumption of Mary
Among the most beautiful of the churches we visited today was the next one on our itinerary: Dormition Abbey. This is built over the site where tradition tells us Mary's earthly journey came to an end and from where she was assumed body and soul into heaven. She, the mother of the Lord and our mother, is also the first and perfect disciple, the Church's greatest treasure and sure sign of hope. In the grotto beneath the Church there is a touching icon portraying Jesus, the Risen Lord in heaven, receiving his mother and wrapping her tenderly in bands of cloth as she had done for him at his birth. We honoured her with song and sought her intercession in prayer, and then proceeded to the church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu.

Inside the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu
The word Gallicantu is based on the Latin noun for "cock-crow". Here, the site of the house of the High Priest Caiaphas at the time of Jesus, the denial of Jesus by Peter occurred and was signalled by the cry of the rooster. Excavations beneath the church here have uncovered an ancient dungeon, where prisoners of the high priest would have been kept. This is where Jesus would have been held in the middle of the night, following his arrest and condemnation by the Sanhedrin and prior to being sent to Pontius Pilate for trial and judgement. We were able to descend to this same place. Calling to mind the total darkness and utter isolation experienced by Jesus in those terrible hours, we read aloud Psalm 88 and heard in it the cry uttered from the depths of his heart to his Father in heaven. As we left we prayed for all those who today feel lost, alone, and captive to forces more powerful than they.

This wondrous pathway of love continues tomorrow when we walk the Via Crucis.

The Garden of Gethsemane

A message for modern pilgrims
at the Church of All Nations

A view of the old city from  Dominus Flevit

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

Pilgrims pray at the rock where
Jesus prayed before his Passion

Singing 'Immaculate Mary' in
Benedictine Church of the Dormition

A joyful ride for this pilgrim

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Joy and Hope Grounded in Mercy

Franciscan custodian prepares for
Mass at Church of the Visitation
As Gabriel made his announcement to Mary that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, he indicated that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, had also conceived a child and was in her sixth month. St. Luke tells us that, following the annunciation, Mary "set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country." Hill country is right! We were there today, in the area known locally as Ein Karem, and experienced for ourselves just how hilly the countryside is. Praying the Rosary, we climbed a steep hillside on foot to reach the Church of the Visitation, built at the place where the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth took place. More than a little huffing and puffing accompanied the climb, but it was well worth it.

The story of the Visitation is presented
beautifully on the chasuble
Mary came to the aid of her relative in need, and her urgent and arduous journey contains within it an important lesson: charity admits of no delay and yields to no obstacle. In this act Mary lived out in anticipatory fashion the clear commandment later given by her Son regarding love of God and neighbour. From the beginning, she modelled authentic discipleship.

Embracing figures of Mary and Elizabeth
in courtyard of Church of the Visitation
At the holy site itself, the pilgrim is surrounded by the message of joy. Mary's great hymn of joy, the Magnificat, is posted in beautiful tile panels around the entrance courtyard as an invitation to everyone to share in her rejoicing. This magnificent prayer grounds the joy of the Christian in the loving and merciful fidelity of God to his people. God looks upon us in our lowliness, he pours out favour, he remembers his promises to us, above all the promise of mercy. Our faithful God deals mercifully with his needy and sinful people, and will never abandon us because he remains always faithful to his covenant promises. Herein lies the source of our joy!

This church marks the birthplace
of John the Baptist
The first to leap for joy at the presence of the Saviour was St. John the Baptist, a testimony given even from his mother's womb as she heard the voice of Mary. His place of birth is also in the area of Ein Karem, not far from the Church of the Visitation, and we went there next. It escaped none of us that we had the great blessing of visiting the birthplace of the Precursor in Advent. In this liturgical season of waiting and expectation, we reflected on what John has to teach us about living in anticipation of the Lord's coming. He teaches us to expect it. His whole ministry was given over to an intense expectation of the coming of the Christ, and a desire to point him out when at last he appeared. This expectation was based entirely on God's covenant fidelity and in no way on human merit. We, too, can expect God to intervene and act in our lives because he has promised to do so, unworthy though we are. Furthermore, John teaches us to expect to be surprised by the Lord. John's public description of the manner in which the Christ would come (cf. Matthew 3: 11-12) left him puzzled when Jesus acted otherwise. The Lord works in our lives, certainly, but on his terms and in his own time according to his saving purpose for us. What is important is that he does, in fact, act in our lives, and does so with love and mercy.

Church of St. John the Baptist
at Ein Karem
In the afternoon, our joy at the truth of God's mercy changed to sorrow at humanity's lack of it.  A number of us visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial here in Jerusalem. The horrors perpetrated against the Jewish people by the evil and merciless Nazi regime are there on full display. When Blessed Pope John Paul II visited this place in March of 2000, he put into words the emotion within each of us as we viewed eh exhibits: "The heart feels an extreme need for silence..." Indeed, I noticed we all grew quiet as we visited this memorial site. At the same time I was encouraged by the presence of many young Jews visiting the site while we were there. One can reasonably hope that by coming to terms with so great a tragedy in the past they will be inspired to create a much different and better world in the future.

Pilgrims head down the mountain
after Mass at Church of the Visitation
We, too, must take up our part, and we learn how to do so through the witness of Our Lady of the Visitation. When Mary received word of the great mercy God would show to the world in the gift of the child conceived within her, she immediately became an agent of mercy to Elizabeth. Mercy is the only way forward. It is the only effective antidote to the cycles of violence which continue to plague us. By Mary's intercession, may we, too, be ready agents of mercy wherever there is need.

Deacon Pat Hessel proclaims the Gospel account of the Visitation

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Prayers for the Healing of Division

Mass at St, Catherine's Church, Bethlehem
We spent the day today in Bethlehem. Our journey into the mystery of Christ's birth of Mary in this very place began with the celebration of Christmas Midnight Mass (special permission is given in the Holy Land to celebrate the proper liturgical feast commemorated by the holy site being visited when on pilgrimage). At midnight (Edmonton time) we gathered in the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria for this solemn Eucharist. This parish church is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the grotto marking the place of the Lord's birth. We sang Christmas carols as we gave thanks to the Father for the gift of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Graffitti inside the security
wall around Bethlehem
At the same time we were painfully aware of the lack of peace surrounding us. Any pilgrim to Bethlehem cannot fail to observe and feel the jarring contrast between the meaning of the nativity of our Lord and the present-day reality of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On our short eight kilometre ride from our hotel in Jerusalem to the Manger Square in Jerusalem, we encountered the sad reality of the huge concrete wall erected by the Israeli authorities as a security perimeter around the Palestinian Territories. This is an area marked by division, symbolized in dramatic fashion by that wall. The separations that drive people apart are both political and religious, operative at multiple levels. What is common to them all is their source: divisions within the human heart. We set up physical, political and religious walls because we have first erected within our hearts barriers of mistrust, fear, and bitterness. It is to heal our divisions at that level, the level of the heart, that Jesus Christ was born for us. Thus did we find ourselves praying during our Christmas celebration that all hearts, including our own, would be healed of their fissures by the transformative power of God's mercy, revealed and active in the One born of Mary at Bethlehem.

St. Catherine's Church
Following this Eucharist, we visited the ancient grottos beneath that same church. At the cave where Saint Jerome lived for thirty-eight years in the fourth century as he translated the Bible into Latin, we prayed for that same sacred Word to take deep root in our hearts. Standing near the catacombs of the Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered by order of an insane King Herod, we prayed for the holy innocents of our own day, whose lives are ended through the insanity of abortion.

Praying at the site where Jesus was born
From there we moved to the Church of the Nativity and the sacred grotto where the birth of our Lord occurred. After we each knelt individually to reverence this most holy ground, we assembled together in this wondrous space and sang O Holy Night in both English and French. More than a few tears and sniffles accompanied our singing. The awareness of where we actually were was very moving, to say the least!

The Shepherds' Fields
Then on to Shepherds' Field and Grotto a few kilometres east of Bethlehem. This site contains caves identified by tradition as the place where shepherds were startled by the angels' annunciation of the birth of the Saviour. After singing another carol there in one of the caves, we visited a church built on the site (Sanctuary of the Holy Angels) and funded by donations from Canadians.

Graffitti inside the security wall around Bethlehem
After that, lunch and an opportunity to do some shopping in Bethlehem. As we left the city we had to pass, once again, through a checkpoint at a gate in that security wall. Thus did our day end as it began: with prayers for a healing of divisions and a lasting peace here in this land we call holy.

Manger Square
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Visiting sites beneath Church of the Nativity

Time for reflection in a cave at Shepherds' Fields

Nativity fresco at Shepherds' Fields church

Altar at the Canadian-built church at Shepherds' Fields

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Day in the Mountains

Mass at Church of the Transfiguration,
on Mt. Tabor
As I told the members of our pilgrimage group today, while the ritual books used for Mass at each of the holy places have prayers and readings proper to the particular event commemorated at the site, they all share one word in common that repeats again and again and again: here. To know that one is at the place where "here" a certain event occurred in the earthly life of Jesus or of other key figures in the story of salvation really fills one with awe and wonder. This gives rise to what I think is one of the main challenges of a pilgrimage. Although we know we need to keep moving due to the many places there are to visit, nevertheless we really do want to be able to linger for a long while in prayer and reflection at each spot in order to savour what is happening and let it sink in.

Inside Church of the Transfiguration
St. Peter had the same experience on Mount Tabor. That's where we found ourselves first thing this morning. This is the site of the Transfiguration, and when he, together with James and John, witnessed our transfigured Lord in the presence of Moses and Elijah, he wanted to stay: "Lord, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents ..." Unsurprisingly, he wanted to settle in. It was not to be, however. They had to descend from the mountain to the plain and get back into the business of being a disciple of Jesus: following, learning, denying oneself, witnessing. Pretty soon we, too, will "descend to the plain" as we return home to Canada. In the meantime, however, we recognize that it is very good for us to be "here", not only on Tabor but also at the many other sites we have already visited and at those that still await us.

The monastery church on Mount Carmel
One of those other places is another mountain: Mount Carmel. This was a nice surprise addition to the agenda. The decision of our guides to move us into our pilgrimage immediately after disembarking the plane the other day freed up some time this morning to visit Mount Carmel as we made our way to Jerusalem. Located in the modern port city of Haifa, this mountain is famous in salvation history for the encounter between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of the pagan god Baal. We visited Stella Maris convent, whose chapel is built over the cave identified by tradition as a place used by the great prophet for prayer, contemplation and refuge. This visit gave us an opportunity to reflect upon the import of Elijah's witness for us today. He gave dramatic witness to the truth that there is but one God, namely, the God who has revealed himself to Israel. We, too, are called to witness before the world to this one God who has definitively revealed himself to the whole world in Jesus Christ. Elijah stood up to the powerful of his day, even to the King and Queen, when they acted unjustly in violation of God's covenant law. We, too, must stand up for what is right and true, ready to challenge any and all, even the State, whenever human dignity is threatened. Given that Mount Carmel is a place that has attracted over the centuries adherents of different religions, we also had a brief but very interesting conversation about the need for inter-religious dialogue and the fundamental Christian principles we bring to this.

The Carmelite religious order has its origins in a small community of Christian hermits that had settled on Mount Carmel. Since their first chapel was dedicated to Our Lady, they named it Our Lady of Mount Carmel chapel, and from this devotion to Our Lady under that title has grown. In recognition of this, we sang a hymn to Mary, honouring her and seeking her intercession as we prepared for the next leg of the journey.

From there it was on to Jerusalem, to our third mountain of the day: Mount Zion. Here this ancient city, central to the unfolding of salvation history, was built. The psalms that pilgrims would traditionally sing as they ascended to Jerusalem for the sacred festivals are identified in the Book of Psalms as the Songs of Ascent, or else the Gradual Psalms (cf. Psalms 120-134). As we, ourselves, went up to Jerusalem (admittedly in the comfort of an air conditioned bus!), I recited for the prayerful participation of our group some of these psalms. We prayed for the peace of Jerusalem as we entered the sacred city, and tomorrow we begin our visit to this place in which our Lord gave his life and rose again that we might live. Yes, here!

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Day at the Seashore

Pilgrims on the edge of Sea of Galilee at Tabgha
Pilgrims on the edge of Sea of Galilee at Tabgha
Measured in kilometers we did not go very far, but in terms of experience the distance traveled was great indeed. Today was filled with visits to the holy sites very near one another along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In doing so we retraced the steps of our Lord and listened anew to his words and teachings in the very places where he had spoken them. Yet we knew that this was far more than an exercise of historical recall. The One in whose steps we were walking is the Risen Lord, who remains always present with his Church. Thus we knew that as we walked the paths of Jesus, he was walking them with us! As we listened to the words uttered so long ago, we knew he was speaking them to us not in the past but present tense. We acknowledge that, although we have two excellent professional guides, nevertheless our real leader is the Lord himself. As we see, listen and reflect, we are asking him to draw our attention to what he wants us to see, to direct our listening to what he wants us to hear, and to move our hearts to accept anew the truth he is revealing to us.

Pilgrims in front of the church
on the Mount of Beatitudes
On the Mount of the Beatitudes we listened again to that most famous of all sermons (Matthew 5-7), and heard its call to a radical reversal of values and a total trust in the love and providence of the Father. At Tabgha we visited the Church built at the place of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, and went from there to the site of the ancient synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus pronounced his Bread of Life discourse. Jesus feeds his people superabundantly, and has come to do so by the gift of himself, which leaves those who are nourished by the Eucharist deeply and eternally satisfied.

5th-century floor mosaic at the
Church of the Multiplication
The visit to Capernaum also was an occasion to reflect upon the healing that Jesus came to give. This was the place where most of his miracles of healing were worked. Yet the words that he spoke as he brought restoration to those in need ("your faith has saved you; your sins are forgiven") bring out the deepest meaning of the cures: Jesus has come as Saviour to effect the healing needed not only by the physically or emotionally ill but also by all members of humanity: that healing we call salvation.

Church at Capernaum, built over the house where Jesus
lived with Peter
For a number of years Capernaum was also the "home base" of Jesus. We visited the place where he stayed, namely, the home of the mother-in-law of Saint Peter. There is a unique and magnificent church built over the site of this home, and, to be more precise, directly over the archaeological remains of the room identified by tradition as that of Jesus. The glass floor enables one to look directly down upon this site from within the church. Here we celebrated the Eucharist, the wonder of which was underscored by this holy site: he who once dwelt in Capernaum now dwells in our hearts through the gift of himself as Bread of Life, a gift that brings healing, peace and, ultimately, eternal life itself.

The Maple Leaf flies over Sea of Galilee
After this, a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The boat operators raised the Canadian flag and played our national anthem, which we sang with great gusto. The water was unusually and beautifully calm. When we were a good distance from land they turned off the engines. In the stillness, surrounded on all sides by the hills of Galilee, we prayed with the narrative recorded by Matthew of Jesus coming from the hills and walking across the turbulent waters to encounter and rescue Saint Peter and the other disciples.

Church of the Primacy of Peter at Tabgha
Following lunch in Tiberias we made our way to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. The relevant Gospel passage here is John 21. On these shores, most likely in this very place, the Risen Lord found his friends who had returned to fishing. As he had done when he first called them, he directed them again to where they could put down their nets for a catch, and from this they recognized the presence of the Lord. Here, too, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him, and, on the basis of that love bestowed upon him the primacy of the Church ("Do you love me? Feed me sheep.") As we listened to this narrative at the place where it happened, we knew that this particular encounter between Peter and our Lord was also indicative of the life of love and service to which each of us is called.

From the region of Galilee Jesus departed for Jerusalem. Tomorrow we shall do the same.

Temple ruins at Capernaum

Pilgrims head out on Sea of Galilee