National Day of Prayer
in Solidarity with Aboriginal Peoples
St. Joseph Basilica, December 12, 2104
In our passage from Revelation, we hear of the vision of a woman appearing in the sky, a woman about to give birth to the one who would bring salvation to the world. What we celebrate tonight is another vision of a woman, also expectant, whose appearance in Mexico would give birth to a remarkably fruitful evangelization in the Western hemisphere. We commemorate the apparition of Mary, who appeared as an indigenous woman, la morenita, to an indigenous man, now canonized as Saint Juan Diego. Ever since this wondrous event, thousands of people from aboriginal cultures have been drawn to Our Lady of Guadalupe. This is why we mark in Canada this special National Day of Prayer in Solidarity with Aboriginal Peoples on this particular Feast of Mary. I feel blessed and honoured to welcome so many from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities to this special mass. I greet also the parishioners whose roots are in Latin America. This feast holds great significance to you as well.
When Our Lady appeared to San Juan Diego, she sent him to the Bishop with her request to build a Church. Now, I’ve always had a certain sympathy for that Bishop. His name was Juan Zumarraga. Placing myself in his position, I can well imagine the Bishop's surprise and perhaps even skepticism at such a message of private revelation. He was rather careful in his response, to say the least, and said that he needed a sign. In this he provided a lesson to me and all Bishops by the way he remained open to how God might be working and speaking in his people. This openness allowed him to recognize and accept as abundantly convincing the sign of the miraculous roses and, above all, the abiding image of Our Lady on Juan Diego's tilma. The acceptance of this sign was the wellspring of a miraculous reconciliation between the First Nations peoples and the Spaniards, and of the consequent and enormous growth of the Church in that part of the world. Here we see illustrated the importance of the readiness of the Bishop to discern the movement of God in and among his people and his ability to recognize and point to the signs that God gives of his love and presence among us.
Now, no one has come to me claiming to have received an apparition from Our Lady. However, it is clear to me that God is moving in and among our First Nations, Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters in ways that teach me – and, I suggest, all of us – important lessons.
Perhaps the most profound lesson for me is the importance of silence and listening in Aboriginal culture. Recently I hosted a listening circle at my office with representatives of the various bands within the Archdiocese. It lasted close to three hours, during which each member of the circle gave as much time as was necessary to the other to speak whatever was in their mind and heart. We took all the time needed just to listen. This was a remarkable demonstration of profound respect for the dignity of the other, a dignity rooted in the acceptance of the other as a child of the Creator. Broader culture has lost that ability to listen, to give time, leaving many people marked by loneliness as a result.
Our Lady takes this lesson to a deeper level. She knew how to listen and respond to the Word of God. She received the message of the angel Gabriel with surprise and questioning, but not with disbelief. She listened fully because she trusted, and from that listening gave her fiat. By her intercession, may we all learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters how to listen to one another, and from Mary how to listen and respond to God.
As another lesson, I have been touched by the profound respect for elders among the Aboriginal people. There is a ready recognition of and deep gratitude for their wisdom and witness. If an elder is in need, they receive quickly the support of their family and community. Notice how Our Lady, in the Gospel, goes in haste to help one of her elders, her older kinswoman Elizabeth. We are told she traveled across the Judean hill country. Anyone who has visited the Holy Land knows that would have been very arduous journey. But Mary allowed no obstacle to stand in her way of reaching out to her aged relative. On this point, Our Lady, together with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, teach an important and very timely lesson to our country. At a time when voices are being raised in Canada calling for the ability to euthanize the elderly and weak, we need this example of esteem and honour toward our elders, and to any who are vulnerable.
Finally, I’ve observed that an indigenous person's sense of identity is inseparably linked with belonging to a community. The first community is the family, of course, but it also embraces the Nation of which they form a part. One’s self-knowledge and self-respect arises from the history, language and culture of the people to whom they belong. On this National Day of Prayer in Solidarity with Aboriginal Peoples, we also gather as members of a yet larger family, the family of God’s people, the Church. In the Holy Spirit we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, and thus all children of our heavenly Father. Here, too, our common identity arises from the Tradition, from all that has been handed down to us in Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church throughout the generations.
Central to this Tradition is the announcement that God is with his people in their history. An ancient example of this proclamation is given in our first reading from Zechariah: “See, I am coming to dwell among you, says the Lord.” The Church carries on the Tradition in her announcement that this promise of old has been fulfilled in the gift of Jesus and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In our Mass today we recall with joy how Our Lady’s appearance to Juan Diego gave fresh impetus to this mission of evangelization in our Western hemisphere and brought countless souls to Christ. That is why St John Paul II placed the new evangelization of the Americas today under her patronage.
The task of making Jesus known now falls to us. Many still need to meet him to discover the life and hope he brings. Let’s turn to our Lady and rely with great confidence in the power of her intercession. Mary, Mother of the Saviour, pray for us. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for us. Virgin of Tepeyac, pray for us. Lead us anew to your Son, and help us bring others to him.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
December 12, 2014