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Mass for Peace in Syria

Saturday, September 14, 2013
St. Joseph's Basilica, Edmonton 

[Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; 1Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15:1-32]

Last Saturday Catholics throughout the world- and, indeed, many people of different faith traditions - offered a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria and gathered in intense communal prayer for the avoidance of military strikes from world powers and an end to hostilities within the country. Pope Francis, in his Sunday Angelus six days before, had called for the special day. In response, Catholics gathered in cathedrals and churches in many places, including hundreds who joined with our own Auxiliary Bishop Gregory Bittman here at St. Joseph's Basilica. Only a few days after the event we heard of a diplomatic proposal acceptable to the Syrian government and received positively - even if with hesitation - by the U.S. and others, in the light of which the possibility of a missile strike has been called off ... for the moment. What was widely reported was the flurry of diplomatic activity that brought us to this moment. People of faith are recognizing a deeper and prior agency at work - the power of prayer. At the call of Pope Francis, countless thousands implored the Lord for peace at a time when a military strike seemed certain to occur. Now there is real hope that it can be avoided.

The situation in Syria remains horrible. Our hearts continue to weep for the people who suffer and are forced to flee their country. We recoil in horror that the use of chemical weapons could even be contemplated yet alone used on innocent people. Many of our Syrian brothers and sisters are with us here this afternoon. We know that you ache for your beloved homeland, and we want to assure all of you of our solidarity, love and support. There is no more effective way to demonstrate our solidarity than through shared prayer. From the depths of our hearts we must continue to pray, confident that the Lord alone has the power to change hearts, to bring about surprising new possibilities and to lead us to reconciliation and peace.

That confidence is buttressed by the Scripture readings that we have heard at this Mass for Sunday. They go to the heart of the problem, of the sickness, that is besetting Syria and so many other places ravaged by war, and at the same time prescribe the remedy.

The illness is idolatry, which is worshipping as god something which is not God. In the case of the ancient Israelites that we hear about in the first reading from Exodus, they fashioned for themselves a golden calf and attributed to this inanimate object of their own creation the powers of the living God! In different ways we can see the same thing happening in our own day. We are constantly fashioning "golden calves" out of money, reputation, possessions and so on and allow these inanimate things to rule us. Among the most dangerous idols wreaking great havoc today are those of power, hatred and pride. These give rise to what Exodus evocatively calls being "stiff-necked", unwilling to listen to the other, to compromise, to admit wrong. This creates barriers of hostility that keep hearts separated from one another long after any outward hostilities may have ceased. Sadly, in the noble land of Syria, we are witnessing the triumph of this idolatry, and countless thousands of men, women and children are the victims.

The antidote to all of this is mercy. St. Paul had been one of the most stiff-necked of all the persecutors of the Church, as he recalls for us in the second reading. What changed everything for him, and indeed for human history, was his encounter with mercy. This happened when he met Jesus Christ.

This same Jesus, speaking in the Gospel, tells parables that underscore the truth of God's mercy. God is not aloof, indifferent to the plight of his people. No, God comes looking for his lost ones so that he might show them mercy and heal them. Like the shepherd in search of the sheep or the woman in search of the lost coin, he does not give up on us but continues to search. All that he asks is that we accept our need for him. All he asks is that, like the prodigal son, we give up the illusion that we can do it on our own and return to him in sincere repentance.  Then, like the father in the parable who welcome his repentant son with joy beyond telling, he welcomes every repentant sinner, everyone who turns away from their illusory idols and back to him, with the embrace of love, mercy and new life. Then, having received this mercy, we are called to be merciful to one another, merciful and not hateful.

So let us continue to pray, and to pray earnestly, for an outpouring of mercy on the land and people of Syria. May this mercy heal the combatants of any idolatry that keeps them closed in on themselves and their ideologies and away from one another. We know that prayer works. In the first reading we heard how Moses interceded with God, pleaded with God, on behalf of the people, and God heard and responded. God hears our prayers. God answers our prayers. And so we pray with confidence and persistence.

This particular day is the national day of prayer and fasting on behalf of Syria called for by Canada's Bishops last June. It is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, by which Jesus Christ broke down the barriers of hostility separating his people from one another (cf. Ephesians 2:14). By God's providence this day follows beautifully upon the one called for by Pope Francis. Let us pray together that the power of Christ's Cross will bring a true and lasting reconciliation and peace to the people and nation of Syria and throughout the Middle East.

Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton
September 14, 2013