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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Making Jesus Known - Our Urgent Task

On Sunday we heard the account of Jesus gathered with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi, where he posed to them this question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is the heart of the Church’s faith and the reason for her mission. Notice that Jesus poses the question publicly, and that the response of St. Peter is also given in the hearing of others. The public question seeks a public response. In other words, the conviction deep in our hearts concerning the truth of Jesus must be made visible in the way we live our lives in the sight of others.

The importance of this in our day cannot be overstated. As I ponder the encounter between Jesus and Peter, I go back in my mind to a moment that impacted me deeply. I was together with hundreds of thousands of young people at the World Youth Days (WYD) in Toronto, listening to Saint John Paul II. Noting that the beginning of the new millennium was heralded by two contrasting images - on the one hand the millions of pilgrims who flocked to Rome in celebration of the Jubilee of Redemption and, on the other, the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre in New York, - he said this to the gathered young people, and to the world:

"The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century? Is it enough to rely on the technological revolution now taking place, which seems to respond only to criteria of productivity and efficiency, without reference to the individual’s spiritual dimension or to any universally shared ethical values? Is it right to be content with provisional answers to the ultimate questions, and to abandon life to the impulses of instinct, to short-lived sensations or passing fads? The question will not go away: on what foundations, on what certainties should we build our lives and the life of the community to which we belong? ... Christ alone is the cornerstone on which it is possible solidly to build one’s existence. Only Christ – known, contemplated and loved – is the faithful friend who never lets us down, who becomes our travelling companion, and whose words warm our hearts (cf. Lk 24:13-35)."

Here we have stated in a contemporary context the implications of acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The only sure foundation of our lives is Jesus Christ. He who is the Son of the living God brings to light the meaning of our existence and makes known its definitive direction. Sadly, however, some fifteen years after WYD in Toronto, world events continue to manifest a turning away from God and thus from hope. They demonstrate that too many people are building their lives on foundations other than the person and message of Jesus Christ, which is to say they are constructing the edifice of their existence upon nothing more than shifting sand (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Therefore, Jesus must be made known to others, proclaimed with the joy that springs from knowing, contemplating and loving him.

“Who do you say that I am?” Let us ask the Holy Spirit to grant us the same insight and conviction that inspired Peter’s response, and the boldness to give our answer publicly by living as Christ’s disciples.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Reaching Across the Divide

We’ve witnessed some terrible things over the last few days: terrorist attacks in Burkina Faso, Spain and Finland; and the expression of white supremacist and neo-Nazi sentiment in Charlottesville. These are events and attitudes that must be denounced without ambiguity in the strongest possible terms. In the light of Sunday’s Gospel, I focus here upon a troubling reality that these occurrences place in high relief: division among peoples. Denunciation of hatred is necessary but insufficient. The events of these past days also summon us to work for reconciliation. The divides that separate us must be healed.
Separation of people from one another due to hatred, bitterness, misunderstanding, bigotry and the like is not new. Neither is it always as dramatic and visible as we’ve seen in last week’s events. Even in our homes family members can become separated from one another. Whatever the circumstance, the heart instinctively yearns for the divide to be healed. The Gospel passage for Sunday (Matthew 15:21-28) teaches us how to reach across the divide to find the reconciliation we earnestly seek.

Church in Canaan.
Everything in the Gospel story points to a situation of division. The narrative recounts the encounter between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. Strikingly, this meeting takes place near a border, i.e., close to a point of separation. Yet this geographical barrier signals a far more serious racial and religious divide. As a Canaanite, the woman is a non-Jew, a member, in fact, of a people who had been pagan enemies of God’s people. In addition, women were often held by men to be inferior. Thus, for many reasons, the separation between her and the Jewish people of that day was vast, a yawning chasm.
This woman of old becomes our contemporary teacher by reaching across the divide. The complexity of the separation and the breadth of the division do not hinder her. Her reaching has a very specific goal: she reaches across the divide to Jesus. Her motivation is faith that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks for her daughter. By her action, the woman invites us to share her conviction that the deepest and most long-standing divisions separating people need not stand. They can be overcome if we reach across the divide to the One who came to heal all division, who “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” by his death on the Cross (Ephesians. 2:14).
There is still more for us, in our current troubling circumstances, to learn from this encounter. At a time when we are hearing many people shout at one another with name-calling and expressions of hatred and racism, our attention is drawn to the use in the Gospel passage of a terrible slur. By grappling with this, an important lesson emerges.
Jesus speaks very perplexing words to the woman in response to her request; perplexing because they are harsh: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It was not unusual for Jews of that day to refer to non-Jews as “dogs.” But is Jesus actually calling her this??!!
Archbishop Smith in Canaan.
Crucial to bear in mind here is an important principle of biblical interpretation, namely, that any one particular passage of the Bible is only correctly interpreted when placed in the context of the whole biblical message and viewed in that light. The overall message of the Bible is clear: everyone, without exception, is made in the image and likeness of God; in Jesus Christ, God has come to save all people. The divine saving will is universal, affirmed by Jesus himself when, after his Resurrection, he commanded his disciples to go out to all nations with the saving grace of Baptism (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). From this perspective, the words of Jesus to the woman have the sense of “I know that people are saying this of you (i.e., calling you and your people “dogs”); do you nevertheless dare to believe that I have come for you, too?” In other words, Jesus is testing her faith. She remains steadfast in her plea and her conviction that Jesus can bring about the healing she seeks. Jesus is moved by her strong faith and heals her daughter. Far from adopting as his own the denigrating language, Jesus uses it in such a way as to distance himself from it and demonstrate that he has come for all people, to bring an end to all division.
Thus does the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman teach that we, too, must separate ourselves from all that separates - derogatory attitudes, hurtful language, presumed superiority and the like - and dare to reach across our divides by reaching first toward the One who can reconcile us to one another and enable us to live as the brothers and sisters God made us to be.

Top image: La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Monday, August 14, 2017

Follow Us!

Few organizations these days would have websites that did not issue this invitation: Follow Us! It usually means choosing to follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. At least, those are the social media places I've heard about. No doubt there are, and will be, many more.

It is an interesting phenomenon, this following. Very popular. It certainly doesn't demand much to become a follower. Click of a button, occasionally check in to see the post, and that's about it. Why we choose a person or organization to follow is another point. The motivation is usually interest or curiosity. Tellingly, the act of following really does not require anything of me in terms of commitment to the one I choose to follow.

I wonder, is anyone asking the question: to where? Following usually indicates movement behind a leader toward a goal or destination. That really does not seem to be in play in the world of social media 'following.'

How different this all is from choosing to be a follower of Jesus Christ! Just consider what the Scripture readings from Sunday teach us about following the Lord. They clarify the motivation, and then highlight three fundamental aspects of this 'following.'

The Gospel narrative recounts the familiar yet ever wondrous event of Jesus walking across a raging sea to rescue his disciples at risk of perishing (Matthew 14: 22-33). After he calms the sea, they exclaim, "Truly you are the Son of God." That is precisely why we follow Him, and no other. Not only did he calm the wind and sea and perform other miracles, but also he himself rose from the dead and opened for humanity the doors to eternal life. He makes clear our destination, our destiny, and he himself is the way. No one else to follow.

The episode from the life of the prophet Elijah recounted in the first reading (1Kings 19:9, 11-13) teaches us that following the Lord begins with encountering him. There is a really important lesson here for us. Notice that Elijah recognizes the presence of God not in the noise of wind, earthquake and fire, but in "a sound of sheer silence." How alien silence is to much of our lives! This seems especially the case when we try to be still in prayer. Instantly we are beset with the wind of expectations, the earthquake of failures and the fire of anxiety. Yes, God may well choose to speak to us in all of this, but often they are distractions of human origin, often that of our pride. To follow means first to ask for the grace of inner stillness, that we may truly encounter the Lord speaking to us in his Holy Word and follow where he leads.

The experience of St. Paul, narrated by the Apostle himself in the passage from Romans (9:1-5), exemplifies the need was we follow the Lord for trust in God's fidelity to his promises. In this passage and the two chapters that follow, St Paul is grappling with the rejection of the Gospel by his fellow Jews. In the end he finds consolation In the truth that God does not revoke his call and is never unfaithful to all he has promised, and that, therefore, God will use even this rejection for the accomplishment of his saving plan for the whole world, including, of course, for God's chosen People.  How often are we, too, in anguish at the rejection of our Gospel proclamation, especially when this involves members of our own family! We trust in God's fidelity, and so are confident that He is at work in the lives of all, leading them to the Gospel. Thus, as followers, we continue to proclaim the Gospel by word and deed, trusting the consequences, even rejection, to God and consoled in the knowledge that God will turn all things to the good.

Finally, following Christ means inviting Jesus into the boat of our lives, asking him to calm whatever storms beset us. In other words, it means giving up all illusion of self-reliance. In addition, it also means being ready to step out of the boat, as St Peter did. Concretely, this means being willing to step out into the uncertain and frightful, acutely conscious of our vulnerability and weakness, yet joyfully aware that the Lord always holds us by the arm.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ is entirely different from being a social media follower. To follow him is to give him our all. May he grant us the grace to do so.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Noise Cancellation

I don't know how it works, but I certainly appreciate the technology - noise cancellation in headphones. Touch a button, and distractions are closed out. I am able to hear clearly and solely that to which I choose to listen. The technology brings me to a new awareness of just how much noisy distractions stand in the way of focused and attentive listening.
This came to mind as I pondered the Gospel passage given for Sunday’s mass commemorating the Transfiguration of the Lord. At the centre of the narrative stands a command, arresting because of its source: God the Father. As the divinity of Jesus shines forth in brilliant radiance before his chosen disciples, the Father’s voice confirms the identity of Jesus as His well-beloved Son and commands: “Listen to him.”
Indeed. Since Jesus is God’s Son, revealed on the Mountain of the Transfiguration as having come from the Heavenly Father, as being the fulfillment of the hopes of ancient Israel (symbolized in the presence of Moses and Elijah), and as having mysteriously both a divine and human nature, the question poses itself: why would we listen to anyone else?? St Peter summed it up best when he said to Jesus, “You have the words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68). There is no one else to whom we should go; no one else to whom we must listen. 

But, oh, the noise that distracts from the voice of Christ! We need think only of the multiple and incessant anti-Gospel messages that bombard us via the Internet, social media, and television and radio programming to realize how difficult it is to heed the command of the Father to listen to His Son. This awareness grows even more acute as we consider the “noise” of persistent anxiety or worldly desires. We need noise cancellation!
Yet, how do we do this? Is it possible to close out all the distractions? Well, it certainly involves more than flicking a button on a headset. What is required is a deliberate decision, made on a daily basis, to be focused and attentive. This is what St Peter meant when he wrote, “You will do well to be attentive to this [ie, the truth revealed in Christ] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (2 Pe 1:19) Practically speaking, this means developing the habit of looking for moments in the day when I can give over all the noise, all the worries and distractions, to Christ, and ask him for the grace to be focused upon him and his Word. We could ask ourselves: what distraction might I lay aside (watching a TV show, scrolling through tweets or posts, or looking at yet one more Internet site) in order to read the Gospel of the day? Focus upon a line or passage that stands out and allow it to percolate. How does it speak to my heart? To what action is it calling me?
I worry that we easily getting caught up in the trap of listening to any number of voices other than that of Christ. Let's reverse this and engage noise cancellation, allowing into our attention the one voice that leads to life: that of Jesus Christ.