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

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Fuel Prices!

 
And I thought the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity was hard to understand. Grasping it seems less of a challenge by times than penetrating the enigma of the price at the pump! Yet, the fuel is necessary for the vehicle to move, so there is little choice but to pay what it costs.
 
Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13) made reference to another type of “fuel”. It is one whose price is far more stable than our wildly fluctuating gas prices, - the cost is always the same, in fact - but it is expensive nonetheless.
 
An oil lamp, similar to the type found in the early Christian catacombs.
Jesus tells a parable that uses the image of oil, not for transportation but for light. He tells the now familiar parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. So that they will see and recognize his presence, they have with them lamps whose flame is fuelled by oil. The wise have oil in sufficient supply, the foolish ones have only a limited quantity. Needing to run off and buy more oil, the foolish ones miss out on greeting the bridegroom upon his arrival. The point Jesus is teaching is that his return will happen, though we know not when. Therefore, we must be ready now and always to welcome him by having enough oil to fuel the light by which we shall see, recognize and welcome him.

The flame of the lamp stands for faith. By faith, we see. Such faith needs to be “fuelled” by the oil of prayer, study of the Word of God, celebration of the sacraments and works of charity. These we keep in “ready and sufficient supply” when we practice them daily. This leads us to the cost of such oil.
The cost is that of self-sacrifice; the price paid is the act by which we surrender all self-reliance and choose to rely solely upon the wisdom, love and providence of God. This price never changes. It remains always the indispensable condition for authentic prayer, obedience to the Word of God, reception of sacramental grace, and genuine acts of Christian love. And it is expensive, since it is the gift of one’s entire self to God and to others. Yet, we willingly and gladly pay the price, because it is only by means of such “oil” that the flame of faith burns brightly and enables us to see and welcome the presence of God in our midst.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Statement for Catholic Education Sunday

In case you missed it, the following is the special statement issued by the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories for Catholic Education 2017. 


I was presented yesterday, on Catholic Education Sunday, with a picture with the signatures
of all the students from Gerard Redmond Catholic Community School in Hinton. (Photo: Roni Iwanciwski)
Brothers and Sisters in the Lord,
 
Every year in November, we, the Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, write a letter to you on the occasion of Catholic Education Sunday. This year we have repeated the practice. Drawing from the teaching of St. Paul, our letter focuses on truth, goodness and beauty. These are hallmarks of Catholic education. In addition to this letter, we offer you these further thoughts.
 
In our schools, students are challenged to recognize the inherent beauty and worth of the human person, and to understand and honour the gift of human sexuality. We call on them to serve others, regardless of their situation in life, with compassion and justice. The teaching we hand on to them offers a beautiful and life-affirming alternative to the negative and self-serving messages they hear every day via the various forms of modern communications.
 
The nature and mission of our schools is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His teaching is often countercultural in today’s world, just as it was when he taught. In fact, we saw this recently in the heated public discourse on the human sexuality part of the school curriculum. Much of the media frenzy we witnessed was based upon inaccurate reporting and a misrepresentation of our moral teaching. We are grateful to representatives of our school superintendents for clarifying the issues and allowing the facts to speak for themselves. Catholic schools teach the provincial curriculum through a Catholic lens. It is what we have always done; it is what we shall continue to do in all matters, including health and wellness.
 
Bishop Greg commissioning the Edmonton Catholic School Trustees.
Calls to dismantle our publicly funded Catholic school system are growing ever louder, and we must not ignore them. It is important that everyone be ready to stand up for our faith and for our schools. Please be prepared to speak out in support of our Catholic schools whenever you can. We are proud of who we are as Catholics. We do not and we shall not apologize to anyone for our faith or for our schools. Everyone knows that the existence of our schools, fully permeated with our faith, is a constitutional right. Everyone should also know that this is a right we shall vigorously defend.
 
Catholic education is a treasure, not only for our own Catholic children but also for our province. Our society as a whole benefits when parents have meaningful choice in how their children are educated.
 
Please pray for our teachers, administrators and trustees. They share our commitment to Catholic education and devote themselves with great zeal to its flourishing for the benefit of our beloved children. Pray also for our government leaders. May all work together to preserve and enhance the precious gift of publicly funded Catholic education in our province.
 
Signed,
Catholic Bishops of Alberta and NWT
 


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Commemorating the Reformation

Last evening I gathered with brothers and sisters from other Christian denominations to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The following is the homily I offered during the ecumenical service of prayer:

Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ,
 This evening's celebration is a moment of blessing and opportunity. Blessing, because we have assembled in the unity we share as fellow disciples, brothers and sisters by Baptism in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ himself promised that, wherever two or three gather in his name he will be there among them. He, the mediator of all divine blessing, is here. Opportunity, because this moment in history affords us the occasion to give thanks to God for all that has been accomplished in recent times in the service of healing the divisions that have marked our common life for centuries, and to implore our Lord to give us the grace and light necessary to impel us toward the full recovery of the unity for which he gave his life and to which he summons us.


As we commit this evening to continue to walk the path toward unity, the direction given to us by the Lord is clear and sobering: "Apart from me you can do nothing." As he himself teaches, his Word purifies, and we thus are called upon to ask the Lord to cleanse us by his Word of any self-reliance that stands as an obstacle to the full working of divine healing grace in and through us. Since we are nothing apart from Christ, what is required is a mutual abiding: "Abide in me as I abide in you." (Jn 15:4).

Is this something we can embrace together? We understand well the necessity of mutual abiding in the life of the individual believer and in that of our respective ecclesial communities. How might we respond to this call of the Lord ecumenically? The key, it seems to me, is offered by St. Paul, when he counsels Christians to let the Word of God dwell richly within us, that is to say, to abide in us (Col 3:16). This moment in history contains within it a call to embrace a common commitment to enter the mystery of mutual abiding by allowing the Word of God itself to dwell more deeply within us, the Word in its power to heal, transform and unify.

This strikes me as an urgent duty. Modern communication modalities present us with a dizzying multiplicity of voices bombarding us minute by minute and competing for our attention. Many offer falsehoods that seduce us away from the love of God and from fidelity to Him. In so doing they exert an extraordinarily powerful centrifugal force that creates division and fracture in our hearts and minds, in our homes, in our communities and in our churches. When we read Holy Scripture, however, the effect is the opposite. As we ponder the sacred text, God draws near and speaks. His Word is alive; in it we actually encounter the God who has become one of us in Jesus. When we allow His Word to take root in us, our lives find their true horizon and clear direction. To live apart from that Word is to wander in darkness. His Word is the clear light that guides our steps (Psalm 119: 105); it is the sure compass that helps us navigate the paths of our earthly journey towards eternal life. By pruning away infidelity, it heals division and draws to unity.



Of course, allowing the Word of God to abide in us is enormously challenging. We experience this deeply today as the call of the divine Word meets the siren songs of modernity. Jesus summons us to obedience to the will of God. In our culture of presumed radical autonomy, the call to surrender my desires to the will of God is a summons very hard to accept. God's Word makes clear that the Christian is one who places others before self, who empties oneself for the sake of God and of others, just as Jesus emptied himself, even to the point of death on the Cross. But if we fall in with our culture of self-absorption, the call to self-gift can seem impossible to answer. The Bible echoes throughout its entirety with the call of God to turn away from sin and embrace virtue. Yet much of the messaging we receive in the various forms of media presents as virtue what is in reality vice, so putting this Word of God into practice will often require a serious re-orientation of thought.

It is precisely this renewal of mind, or what we more often speak of as conversion of life, that is required of each of us by the Word of God, an imperative that each of us who seeks to walk the path of ever deeper unity must embrace. Apart from Christ, our unaided efforts to achieve unity in the Church will prove fruitless. Real hope for true unity arises from our abiding in Him, allowing His Word to dwell within us, challenge us, heal us, and fashion us as authentic faithful disciples.


Monday, October 23, 2017

God and the Emperor


Recently I met with a group of young adults that gathers every month in St. Joseph's Basilica to discuss matters of faith. At one point, some of them shared with me the challenges they face when they seek to give witness to their faith in the workplace, the university or even at home. What is particularly painful and difficult is the fact that they often find themselves mocked or rejected.  This is not the first time people have shared this quandary with me. It is real, and certainly not easy.

Sunday’s Gospel text from St. Matthew (22:15-22) gave us one of the most famous sayings of Jesus: "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s." (15:21) There are a number of levels of meaning at play in these words of our Lord. Together they help us appreciate why we, the disciples of Jesus Christ, deeply desire to give witness to our faith before others, and why we encounter at times a negative and hostile reaction.

At one level these words of Jesus remind us that we all have dual citizenship. On the one hand, we are part of a sovereign nation, in my case Canada. As citizens, we recognize the legitimate authority of the State to govern us in justice, to assure our security, to provide basic services such as infrastructure, education and healthcare, and so on. To this legitimate authority, we owe our duty to obey the laws of the land, to contribute to the common good and to pay taxes. On the other hand, because of our union with Christ through Baptism, we also have, even now, citizenship in heaven, our true homeland. As members of this citizenry, what we owe God is our worship, the gift of our entire lives to Him in faith and trust. We owe Him our complete obedience in love, seeking in all things to know His divine will and to follow it. So, "Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s."

Emperor Tiberius was caesar during the time of Jesus.


As we ponder these words, though, we realize that more is being taught by Jesus, for the simple reason that even the "emperor" belongs to God. Even the "emperor" is called to God's service. This is the message of Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah (45:1, 4-6). To free His people from bondage in exile, God made use of the earthly power of the foreign emperor Cyrus, though Cyrus knew it not. What Scripture is teaching us here is that, although earthly and heavenly citizenry might be distinct, nevertheless they are not entirely separate. Because all things belong to God, the two spheres interpenetrate. As we fulfill our duties as citizens of a country, we cannot separate out from consideration our obligations to Almighty God. Among those duties to God is the obligation to announce the Gospel. Jesus has sent us on mission to speak the truth of God's love and of God's plan to save the world in him.

Yet speaking the truth about God is not always welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm. Consider the setting of Jesus's famous saying. “Give … to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” is his answer to a question that was posed to him as a very clever trap by the Pharisees and the Herodians. Together those two groups represented the religious and political establishment of the day. They were not at all happy with the challenge that Jesus issued to them by speaking the truth about God, and sought to discredit him before the people and the Roman authorities. By his answer, our Lord not only avoided their trap but also revealed the malice and duplicity behind their tactics. These people sought to destroy him, and their efforts eventually brought him to the cross.

Echoes of this encounter between Jesus and his foes have reverberated throughout history in attacks against his Body, the Church. It continues in our own day. Our society's allergy to the Gospel is manifest in attempts to discredit the Church as out of touch or behind the times, or to marginalize people of faith.


Yet, how can we do otherwise than to give faithful witness? How can we do otherwise than to give to God the gift of our worship and to "the emperor" the gift of the Gospel? All around us is evidence of a crisis of hope besetting humanity. We know it need not be this way. There is a reason for real hope: the sure love of God, made manifest and active in Jesus Christ. This conviction impels us, as it impelled St. Paul (cf. 1Thessalonians 1:1-5), to announce the Gospel with confidence and joy, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. That power we must not forget. Just think: the earthly powers that raged against the Church throughout her long history, where are they now? Vanished. The Church continues. Jesus was led to the Cross, yes, but he rose from the dead! As Risen Lord he remains with the Church, bestowing upon her the gift of the Holy Spirit and investing the preaching and witness of his disciples with the Spirit’s power.

As followers of Jesus Christ, as people with both heavenly and earthly citizenry, we owe to God our fidelity, and to our brothers and sisters nothing less than the truth of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Retrouvaille



This French word means “rediscovery”. It has been used for the past forty years as the name to designate a very beautiful and extraordinary apostolate to married couples, who are experiencing difficulty in their marriage to the point of being on the verge of breakup.
 
I spent the past weekend at the annual international meeting of people involved in Retrouvaille. These are couples who, having themselves experienced marital discord and found healing of their marriages through Retrouvaille, are now passionately committed to helping others. The event drew together nearly 600 people from around the globe! Having begun as a small initiative in Hull, Quebec, Retrouvallie has since grown to a large international apostolate operating in Canada, the United States, Central & South America, Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Western Pacific.
 
Over these past few days, I found myself wondering about the stories of the people. They’ve all come through their own experiences of heartache, pain and fear, and yet now they know healing and joy. The question that I’ve been pondering is, “What made the difference in their lives? What was the turning point?” 

From @daniellemurrayyoga on Instagram.
Sunday’s Gospel offers, I believe, the answer. In sum, these couples accepted the invitation.
 
What invitation? The parable of Jesus, recounted by St. Matthew (Mt 22:1-14) is that of a king who invites everyone to the wedding banquet of his son. That would be quite the invitation to receive!! Yet, remarkably, it is met with indifference, refusal and even hostility. This stands for the invitation issued throughout the history of humanity by God the Father to be with him in a communion of love and joy. Such a communion was often portrayed as a wedding banquet (e.g. first reading, Isaiah 25:6-10). No greater invitation is imaginable!!! Moreover, God rendered such communion fully possible by the gift of his Son, Jesus; hence the image in the parable of the wedding banquet for the king’s son. But that invitation has, in fact, been turned down by many. When the parable continues by recounting the king’s enraged response of destruction, it is making the point that, while acceptance of the invitation leads to unparalleled joy, the refusal of God’s invitation leads inevitably to the opposite - a decimated life.
 
By God’s grace, couples whose choices or mistakes may have arisen from a refusal of God’s invitation were led to a moment of acceptance, that is to say, to a decision to allow God in to do for them what only He can do. That’s what made the difference! The invitation came to them by the witness of others who had already walked a road similar to theirs, and the decision to accept it was encouraged by the witness of healing and happiness on display in Retrouvaille.
 
What about the mysterious ending of the parable? A man arrives at the banquet without a proper wedding garment and is thrown out by the king. Acceptance must be accompanied by appropriate “clothing”, which is to say that acceptance is good but insufficient. To accept the invitation to God’s kingdom means also the determination to don the requisite attire of humility, compassion, love, mercy, forgiveness, justice and so on. In the more particular context of a marriage needing healing, accepting God’s invitation to joy also demands a “re-clothing,” i.e. an exchange of the soiled clothing of hurtful attitudes and destructive behaviour for the immaculate vesture of self-sacrifice and self-gift.
 
I spent the weekend with couples who accepted that God-given invitation and who strive daily to “dress properly” in consequence. Their joy was palpable and contagious. Retrouvaille is a great gift to the Church and a much-needed apostolate for our world.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Be Thankful. Forget Tarshish


The civic holiday Thanksgiving Day coincides this year with Monday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time of the liturgical calendar. The readings for the mass of that day include the beginning of the well-known story of the prophet Jonah (Jon 1:1 - 2:1, 11). The narrative relates the call of Jonah to preach to the inhabitants of the ancient city of Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t like the idea at all. He decides to run away, and determines to go to Tarshish.

Scripture scholars are undecided about the exact location of this ancient place. There are, however, two aspects of this locale on which there is general agreement. They render Tarshish an important symbol, which establishes an instructive connection between the attitude of Jonah and the mindset of today.
 
First, Tarshish is understood to have been some place on the far side of the Mediterranean from what is now the Holy Land. In other words, by determining to flee to Tarshish Jonah was striving to get as far away from God as possible. Hmmm. Sounds familiar. In our own day we give voice in multiple ways to the desire to leave God far behind. At the public level we hear (or say) such things as: Keep religion private! The insights of faith have no place in the public square! Personally, too, we may strive to run from God. Jonah was called to preach; we are called to a life of virtue. If our existence is marked by attitudes and behaviours that run counter to the call to holiness, we may be tempted to flee from God and His Word.


 
Second, Tarshish is referred to in Scripture as a source of much sought-after precious metals (cf. for example, Ezekiel 27:12). Wealth is a powerfully attractive symbol of self-reliance. Yet, precisely as such, it is also dangerously illusory. The flight to Tarshish away from God symbolizes the desire to replace dependence upon God with reliance upon our own resources. On this point much of Western society might be tempted to adopt Jonah as its patron! Yet the pursuit of such a desire is tantamount to running from reality into the arms of fantasy. The truth is that all things come from God. He bestows upon us the gift of life itself and holds us in existence by His merciful love. Apart from God we are nothing.
 
This leaves us with the question: why flee? If God is all-good and all-loving, why run from Him and toward ourselves; from reality to falsehood? Again, consider Jonah. He was afraid of God and of God’s call. To Jonah, the presence and voice of God had become a threat to his own freedom. Here we encounter the lie that has caused great ruin to the human family throughout its history, the falsehood first put in the minds of Adam and Eve by Satan: God is not to be trusted; His will impedes our freedom; His commands are obstacles to human flourishing. Therefore, flee God and pursue your own will and desires!

Right. The experience of Jonah makes clear where that will get us. No sooner does he decide to flee God and fend for himself, no sooner does he get into the boat destined for Tarshish, with all that it symbolizes, than there comes upon the ship and its voyagers a great storm that threatens them all with perishing. We can’t do it alone. We need God and His love. Pretending otherwise is an illusion with potentially lethal consequences.



God is no threat to freedom. There is no need to fear God. In fact, His love reveals liberty’s true nature and unleashes it. Freedom is among God’s gifts to us. We live in accord with true freedom when we freely choose to trust in the wisdom and providence of God, and to rely, in peace and thankfulness, upon His every good gift.
 
Forget Tarshish. Choosing that destination is to embark on a journey that leads to nowhere but disappointment and hardship. Instead, let’s choose simply to be thankful to God, trusting and not fearing, and to express that thanks with a willing acceptance of His call to virtue and the fullness of life.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Who’s He Been Listening To?



I woke up Sunday morning to the shocking news about an attack in Edmonton the prior night that police are investigating as possibly a terrorist act. As I write this blog post on Sunday afternoon, the details concerning the individual and his motives are not yet known. Yet already some questions have been coursing through my mind: who on earth has this man been listening to; what voices have placed within him such a deranged idea as the need to hurt or kill other people; who has he been allowing to exercise such a malevolent influence on his way of thinking?


Truth to tell, these kinds of questions have been preoccupying me for quite some time, not only because of this or other acts of violence but also due to the fact that we all are facing daily a barrage of “voices” and messages that seek to influence us and shape our mindset and, thus, our way of acting. Just think of the world of social communications. TV, radio, Internet, social media platforms, emails, texts, magazines and newspapers present us with a dizzying multiplicity of voices bombarding us minute by minute and competing for our attention. From amongst it all we make choices: we stay with a certain Internet site, we remain tuned in to a favourite television series, we follow particular Twitter personalities. The longer we remain tuned in, the more that particular voice or message will exercise its influence upon us and form our mindset, our way of thinking. This raises what in my estimation are some of the most important questions that we need to be posing: to whom am I listening? Whose messages, ideas or opinions am I allowing to influence my thinking and hence my way of living? Why? The one to whom I listen is the one to whom I give my trust. Are the sources trustworthy? On what basis do I make this assessment?

These questions lie behind my decision to issue a pastoral letter. In it I am inviting everyone in the Archdiocese to a particular form of very focused and attentive listening. Specifically, I'm inviting all of us to focus upon the one voice we know we can trust, to the one message that is certain to lead us to what is truly for our good. The voice is that of God, and His message is that which He has given to the world in the Gospel concerning His Son, Jesus Christ. I'd like us to undertake this listening by making a deliberate effort to read the Bible every day. Too many voices today are offering falsehoods that seduce us away from the love of God and from fidelity to Him. The temptation to listen to these voices and allow them to impact the way we think and act is very strong. By living daily in the Word of God, standing firm by faith in the truth it proclaims, we become inoculated against the cancer of falsehood that is always ready to take hold, and which can metastasize in our current communications environment with astonishing rapidity.

Frere Antoine's Bible in the crypt of St Albert Church.

The Bible is not just another book. As we read and ponder Sacred Scripture, God draws near and speaks. His Word is alive; in it we actually encounter the God who has become one of us in Jesus. When we allow His Word to take root in us, our lives find their true horizon and clear direction. To live apart from that Word is to wander in darkness; that is not God's will for us, His beloved children.

There are many words coming at us today, that is true. Yet amidst the changing reality of communications media, there is one unchanging word that alone remains always worthy of our trust, that alone unlocks the key to life's meaning and direction: God's Word, given to us in Sacred Scripture. It is the only Word that matters. Let's resolve to hear it with thanksgiving and, with joy, put it into practice.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Divine Hiring Practice


It goes without saying that, when hiring a job applicant, one normally seeks independent and objective verification of the applicant’s suitability for the position. Usually, a resume has been submitted, the one doing the hiring will measure the stated qualifications against the job description and requisite skill set, an interview will take place, and then, if the candidate seems suitable, references are checked. All of this is standard procedure. It would be unreasonable for an employer to hire a person without having followed each of these steps. They serve to give assurance, as far as possible, that one is hiring a person who is suitable to the position.
 
This common sense approach to hiring might make one wonder if the landowner spoken of by Jesus in the parable we heard on Sunday should have sought out the help of an employment agency as he hired people to work in his vineyard. (Matt 20:1-16) After all, he got it terribly wrong. He simply went out into the marketplace and hired people where and when he found them! No measuring of skills against a job description, no interview or background check, and certainly no checking of references. Furthermore, his salary calculations turned out to be clearly unjust; everyone was paid the exact same amount regardless of the amount of time worked in the vineyard. How could he possibly hope to retain workers on that basis?? Once word got around, future trips to the marketplace would not likely yield many willing to work for him.
 
Like every parable Jesus uses for his teaching, this one shocks us. That’s what parables are meant to do. They so challenge our human way of looking at things that they stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering what Jesus is meaning to teach us. In so doing, they invite us into the mystery of God’s thoughts and ways, which are far, far beyond ours (Isaiah 55:9). They thus summon us to be ready to surrender our human logic as the absolute standard of reasonableness so as to see and act in accord with divine wisdom.
 
God does not call us to his kingdom on the basis of any skills or merit on our part. Who can “earn” heaven? No one. God’s motivation is, purely and simply, his infinitely generous love for us. Moreover, he certainly does not need to check any references. He already knows our hearts, better than we know them ourselves. Why the call reaches some people early in their lives and others at later stages is all part of God’s mysterious design for each of his children. He knows what he is doing. He acts and calls when he knows the moment is right.
 
St Joseph the Worker
OK, … but what about this paying everybody the same wage? Doesn’t seem right, somehow. Here again we are being invited into another realm of thought, one characteristic of God’s kingdom, where market calculations have no play. The “work” of the vineyard is Christian mission. It aims not at earning heaven but at making known the salvation offered in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Christian rejoices whenever the Gospel is embraced, however late in the day that might be. Far from grumbling about having “worked longer,” we give thanks for the wondrous blessing of having been given early in life the gift of faith.
 
My recent pastoral letter invites all of us to hear the Word of God and put it into practice. Often that Word will give us pause and challenge us in deep ways, such as this parable does. That’s good. That’s the way it is supposed to work. When we listen and are challenged, it is important to stay in the discomfort; to allow the dissonance to sink in and take root. In this way, the Word purifies us and makes us true disciples, whose lives are centred in Christ and guided by the mysterious ways of God.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons From Lebanon


In the course of a visit to Lebanon, St. John Paul II famously observed that Lebanon is more than a country; it is also a message. My visit there last week confirmed this insight. As I look back and reflect upon the experience of encountering the Lebanese people and learning a few things about their beautiful country, three aspects of that “message” stand out for me. 

Pope John Paul II with former Lebanese statesman.
1. Particularly striking in Lebanon is the way that faith is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Everywhere, one can find symbols of faith displayed quite visibly. Faith is openly practiced and one’s religious identity and background is readily acknowledged. The differences in the belief systems are quite marked, of course, yet the people are striving to live together as citizens of the one country. It is not easy, I’m sure, and far more complex than I can appreciate, especially given the rather tumultuous history of religious conflict. Yet, they are somehow making it work. There is an important lesson here for us. In the West we have somehow developed the strange idea that, in order for us all to get along, we need to hide our faith, to keep it private and not allow it to enter into public discourse. However, a pluralistic society such as ours should be just that: pluralistic, i.e., fully welcoming of the views and insights of all citizens, including those perspectives that are informed by faith traditions. Lebanon teaches that it is possible. Indeed, it should be expected. 

A typical Lebanese breakfast.
2. Lebanon is deservedly known for its hospitality. Every time we turned around we were offered something to drink (love the coffee!), and it felt like every second meeting was a multi-course meal! (That’s not a complaint, by the way. The cuisine is delicious. Who knew I would actually enjoy eating raw goat meat? But I digress.) Yet, as I mentioned in my last blog post, the real lesson in hospitality was given in the context not of the dinner table but of the settlements for displaced persons. Most of the displaced are from Syria, a country which only a few decades ago was waging a vicious war against Lebanon. In spite of this, the border has been opened to them. Furthermore, the presence of 1.5 million people from Syria (and that is just the number of officially registered; the actual count would be higher) in a country of only four million is placing an enormous economic and logistical burden on the shoulders of the Lebanese people. This situation is not, admittedly, supportable in the long run, and solutions will have to be found quickly, but the readiness of the Lebanese to welcome the stranger and, yes, the enemy to an extent that calls for great personal and national sacrifice is extraordinary. That’s hospitality. 

Downtown Beirut, Lebanon.
3. The third aspect of the “message” that Lebanon is came to me in a rather unique fashion. The hospitality provided to our delegation extended to assuring our safety. We travelled everywhere by military convoy. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve hurtled at breakneck speed along Lebanese roads or through Beirut streets in a multi-vehicle motorcade, sirens blaring, and manned by special forces commandos with weapons at the ready. I kid you not. One might reasonably expect that this might have left us just a little frazzled. Yet, it didn’t. The driving was clearly in the hands of professional and competent soldiers who obviously knew what they were doing, where they were going, and how to get there safely. We just surrendered to the experience, let them do the driving, and were thus carried to whatever place we were intended to visit. On the last evening, one of the delegation, Archbishop Christian Lepine of Montreal, commented on the lesson in this. We need to learn to let God do the driving in our lives. If we, by following the teachings of Christ and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, abandon ourselves to God, who knows exactly what He is doing and where He is leading us, then we shall arrive safely at the destiny He intends for us. 

A beautiful country, and, at the same time, a profound message. That’s Lebanon, and I am grateful for the blessing of encountering it.

St Elie - St Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Catholic Cathedral
 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Yalla, Yalla! (Lebanon Visit Part 2)


I must say, after only three days here I've become rather proficient in the Arabic language. Well ... maybe with one word of it anyway. Yalla!
 
It means, "Let's go!" Saying it twice adds urgency and means "Hurry up!" We seem to be hearing it a lot from our guides, who are striving mightily to keep us on schedule.
 
Small wonder. The days are packed solid as we cross-cross the country to meet Bishops, political officials, and, above all, displaced persons and the religious communities and Catholic institutions that work with them.
 
There are over fifty religious communities of consecrated women and over twenty masculine orders in this country. Last evening a gathering was hosted in which a good number of their religious superiors gathered to meet with us. The range of their apostolic charitable works is breathtaking. This was followed by a separate meeting with representatives of Catholic charitable organizations working in the region: Caritas Internationalis, CNEWA, Jesuit Refugee Services, St Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Relief Services.  Each from its own perspective, they are all striving mightily to help people rebuild their lives. The latter  gathering also included a meeting with a high-ranking official from the Lebanese Ministry of Education, who spoke of the efforts they are making to include children of displaced families in the school system.
 
The problem faced here is enormous. This country with a population of 4 million people has opened its borders to receive 1.5 million displaced people, most from Syria. To put that in perspective, applying the same ratio to Canada would mean our country taking in about 13 million refugees. The strain on Lebanon's resources is immense.
 
Today, though, we were reminded that we cannot speak of this issue solely in terms of numbers. We traveled to two locations in the Beqaa Valley, where we met families living either in settlements set up by government, or in simple homes opened up to them by the local Catholic population. The heart breaks when one sees scores of little children running around a big "tent city" in very difficult circumstances, or when one listens to a father recount the harrowing story of trying to eke out a living in between ceasefires until finally making the painful decision to uproot his family to escape the danger.

Location of Beqaa Valley, Lebanon.
The numbers are overwhelming and the complexity of the issues staggering. Yet it seems to me that the very place where today's encounters took place offers a way forward. The Beqaa valley is where, only a few decades ago, fierce fighting took place between Syria and Lebanon. In fact, the city in which I met the displaced persons was under siege from the Syrian army for a long time. Yet it is precisely the Syrian people who are now welcomed by the Lebanese into their country and provided with shelter and basic supplies. The way forward is to stop seeing the other as an enemy and to begin encountering the other as a brother or sister.
 
When that happens we naturally want to reach out and bring healing whenever the other suffers. In this particular situation it means providing those in danger with safety and then working to help rebuild their countries so that they can return once again to the place they have always called home and to where their hearts naturally direct them, as would ours.
 
The situation remains urgent and solutions need to be found and put in place without delay.
 
So, Yalla, Yalla!

 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Like a Cedar in Lebanon (Lebanon Visit Part 1)

This citation from Psalm 92 was in my mind today as I wandered through a grove of stunningly beautiful cedar trees in a high mountain area about two hours north of Beirut in Lebanon. That's the country from which I'm writing this blog post. Together with two other Canadian Bishops and some lay professionals who have been heavily involved in refugee resettlement in Canada, I'm here for the week at the invitation of the Maronite Catholic Church, headquartered in Lebanon. The visit will give us an opportunity to witness the impact massive displacement of peoples from neighbouring Syria is having on this country, and to learn firsthand of the outreach of the local Church towards them.

Harissa monastery overlooking Beirut, Lebanon.
Our travels today took us near an area dedicated to the preservation of this country's magnificent cedars, so we pulled in. I was glad to have this opportunity, since the Lebanon cedar is an important biblical symbol. There are more than seventy references to it in Sacred Scripture. Among those is the one that came to mind as I gazed upon their extraordinary size and pondered their longevity: "The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon." (Psalm 92:12) Some of the trees I saw today in the grove are more than 2000 years old; another at a stopping point nearby is reputed to be more than 4000 years in age. The image presented is one of steady growth, steadfast endurance and powerful strength. By means of this analogy, the Psalmist is describing "the righteous," which is to say, those who live by faith in the wisdom and providence of God by following His every commandment. The point is this: people who are rooted deeply in God and who stand firm in faith are enabled by God's grace to weather all forms of difficulty and eventually blossom into the full and beautiful life God intended in the very act of creating us.
 
It is important to take note of the reference to "growth". I was told today that these trees grow only between 6 and 12 centimetres a year. That's pretty slow. So, too, is our own growth as we seek the grace of conversion and strive by God's mercy to live the holy lives to which he calls us. God's grace interacts with our freedom, out of which we at times resist His love and turn away. Growth in the Christian life can thus be very slow, impeded by our weakness and tendency to self-direction.

This brings me to the Gospel text proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 18:15-20). Jesus is teaching of the need at times to exercise fraternal correction as we seek to help one another to grow in Christian faith. The question naturally arises: am I open to receive correction from another? If we want to grow in our faith and not come to a full stop or get into reverse mode, we will sometimes need one who knows and loves us to point out our faults. May God grant us the humility not only to receive words of admonishment but also to seek them out. Growth and resilience, powerfully imaged by the Lebanon cedar, require it.
 

The cedar tree is a symbol on the flag of Lebanon.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Obstruction Ahead



It never fails. Just when I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, the sign appears: “obstruction ahead.” Ugh. So frustrating. They seem to be everywhere. Road construction season in Edmonton is short, I know. There is only so much time for the workers to get done what they have to do, so patience is called for. But still … Sigh.

Another kind of obstruction is addressed in the Gospel passage we heard proclaimed on Sunday (Matthew 16:21-27), when Jesus tells Peter he is an obstacle to him. Yikes!!! That is a serious accusation. Jesus is the Son of God who has come to reveal the love and mercy of God and save the world from the darkness of sin. Who would ever want to stand in the way of that?! Well, we know that Satan does. The Devil wants nothing more than to stand in the way of Christ. Notice, though, that the famous “Get behind me Satan” is spoken by the Lord when he looks at Peter. Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that, by thinking in accord with human, not divine logic, he becomes an obstacle, he stands in the way. The teaching here is sobering. We surrender to the demonic, we participate in Satan’s mission of obstruction, when we allow the ways of the world, and not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to shape our mindset.

Peter’s error finds widespread repetition today, rooted in the prideful and illusory exaltation of the radically autonomous Self. The way of the Gospel is the path of humility, repentance and conversion, springing from a life-changing encounter with the truth of Christ. The way of the world is proud self-assertion, rooted in surrender to the lie that we do not need God. Adam and Eve were tricked into this error, and humanity has been seduced ever since to repeat their original sin and thus become an obstacle to the saving plan of God.

St. Paul echoes to all of us the warning Jesus gave to Peter. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) How does this renewal of our minds, and hence our whole lives, happen? By embracing the Cross of Christ. There God reveals the logic that shapes our mindset in accord with the Gospel. To take up our cross daily as disciples of Christ is to make of our lives an obedient self-gift to God for the sake of the world. As St. Paul puts it, the embrace of the Cross finds expression when we offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1) Renewal happens when every aspect of our lives is an act of praise to God instead of to the ego.

We understand road obstructions due to construction. Let there be no tolerance in our lives for obstacles to the will of God.