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

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.