Archbishop Smith reflects on a year of challenge and change

31 December 2019

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

It has been a year of achievements and challenges in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

Newman Theological College celebrated its 50th anniversary, which coincided with the canonization of its namesake, St. John Henry Newman. Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith hosted the first annual Archbishop’s Dinner, a sold-out event, and made an historic visit to South Korea. Thirty-six students are at St. Joseph’s Seminary studying for the priesthood, including 16 for the Archdiocese of Edmonton — the largest number in over a decade.

The year 2019 also presented challenges.

A new $5.6-million business plan has been approved to make the Camp Encounter and Our Lady of Victory Camp sustainable for the future. Both camps are set to reopen, provided the funds are raised for necessary capital improvements. They were shuttered in 2019 in an effort to deal with aging infrastructure and an annual deficit of approximately $100,000.

In the Alberta legislature, a private member’s bill to protect the conscience rights of health professionals sparked criticism from those who feared it might limit access to abortion and support from those who feared that without legislation, doctors may be required to participate in euthanasia. United Conservative Party MLA Dan Williams’ bill would have ensured that health practitioners — and organizations — could conscientiously decline a procedure without worry that they would be penalized or, at worst, lose their job. The bill died on the order paper when the legislature session adjourned, but advocates hope it will see new life in the spring session.

Nationally, Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public servants such as teachers, police officers and judges from wearing religious symbols while at work, is being fought in the courts. And internationally, Pope Francis hosted a historic summit on child protection and the clerical abuse scandal, setting eight priorities to deal with the crisis.

In a year-end interview, Archbishop Smith reflected on these issues and on the achievements, challenges and hopes for the year ahead.

As we look back over 2019, what stands out for you?

I love to touch base with people in our parishes. There’s nothing more important than celebrating the Eucharist together, and to see how the Eucharist is celebrated in different ways throughout the Archdiocese — especially when I get into parishes that are linguistically based or ethnically based — is a real joy. To see that it’s one and the same Mass, it’s one and the same faith, and yet, there can be nuances depending on the circumstances. It’s beautiful to experience that.

Your pastoral letter, Living in the Word of God, sets the priorities for the Archdiocese. In what areas has there been progress and what are the challenges ahead?

I have a sense that people have responded to it. Whenever I’m in meetings, people are instinctively beginning their meeting by picking up the Bible and reading a passage of Scripture — usually the Gospel of the day. The more we can centre everything we do by focusing on the Word of God and allowing that to guide us, the more I hope that will take deeper root in the hearts of our people.

We live in a tsunami of noise, babble and chatter. It’s hard to figure out in the midst of all of that what’s good, bad, right, or wrong. To develop the discipline to put that aside and focus on God’s Word, that is a challenge that I think faces all of us.

We’re now in Year 3, which means we’ve moved to what it means to do the Word of God – through worship, witness and service. For this year of worship, we want to do some outreach and catechesis-based video conversations with people, based on different aspects around the mystery of worship.

What we hope to get at in this process is not so much how to celebrate liturgy, but the essence of it. What does it really mean to worship? To unite the entirety of my life to the self-offering of Christ that happens in the Eucharist, and all of the implications of that for our engagement with the world. Those are rather profound questions that we do need to grapple with.

The economy in Alberta is not doing well right now. The Archdiocese has approved a $5-million plan to redevelop Camp Encounter and Our Lady of Victory Camp. Why are these camps important?

The people of the Archdiocese love the mission of the Church and they want to be a part of it. When they see institutions that are so critical to the unfolding of that mission, they’ve shown themselves ready to step forward and provide us with whatever we need. That’s what gives me confidence as we move forward with funding for the camps. They’ve provided such a beautiful venue for our young people to be solidified in the faith.

That $5 million we need will be coming entirely from donors ̶ that’s the way we’ll have to approach this. Given what I’ve heard from the deep commitment of many people to the camps and their importance for our young people and families, I think even in the midst of economic difficulties, people out of that love and conviction will rise to the occasion.

Eight of 10 legislative committee members, including some of MLA Dan Williams’ own UCP colleagues, voted against moving his private member’s bill on conscience rights bill forward. Why should we, as Catholics, be concerned about this issue?

Conscience is not subjective feeling; conscience is an inalienable aspect of the human being. It’s an innate and God-given capacity where the human person can make a judgement in any given situation as to what must be done. Not what I would like to do, but what I ought to do ̶ so that my actions are in accord with objective truth. When we understand conscience in that way, then we realize that freedom is absolutely necessary for its full and proper exercise.

We do have already in the province a status quo which is good. It balances these rights in such a way that a health care professional can exercise conscience, even as it involves the question of referral. The bill, as I understood it, was simply to enshrine in legislation this status quo. If people were arguing against the bill, it made me wonder if in fact there was a deeper motivation to change this status quo. That is not something we could stand for. We’d need to speak up against that.

This past year saw a change in government at the provincial level, from the NDP to the United Conservative Party. Should Catholics be more politically active and how so?

We always need to be politically involved and that can take a number of different forms. We understand politics is a noble profession; our own people are called to look very seriously at public service as a vocation if God has gifted them with the capacity to do so.

There’s also a dimension where we have to keep an eye on what’s coming out of the legislative process. Are they serving the common good? Are they serving the needs of the poor and disadvantaged? From a perspective of our faith tradition, we do see areas that need to be challenged and where our leaders need to be called to account. We need to be prepared to step forward and do just that.

Are you concerned that Albertans – young people in particular – are turning away from organized religion? How would you assess evangelization efforts in the Archdiocese?

There are some that have turned away from organized religion; that has to be a concern for all of us. But I’m meeting a lot of young people that are moving in the opposite direction. Over the last number of decades it’s fair to say religion has been reduced to personal sentiment — religion is a matter of feeling. A lot of this is a very inaccurate understanding of religion. We understand religion as a world view — a world view that grows out of an encounter with Jesus Christ.

We have the gift of God’s self-revelation, above all in Jesus Christ. We have the gift of reason that the Church really honours. Through that, we come to an understanding of the truth. Religion, properly understood, is not just a set of rules and dogmas that confines us. It’s a worldview that speaks truth clearly and in such a way that it liberates and it frees.

I’ve discovered that verified in the lives of young adults. I’ve met with university students and they talked about the terror and anxiety they feel when told they must figure everything out on their own. Some of those same people have looked to the Church with its tradition, its parameters, its liturgy, and the transcendence that is experienced there. Here we discover the truth of ourselves in this community defined as a religion. We’re part of a story that is extraordinarily liberating.

An Angus Reid poll in May showed more than half of practising Catholics indicated the Church has done a poor or very poor job handling the sexual abuse crisis. Further, the Archdiocese of Vancouver has taken steps to publishing the names of nine priests convicted or named in lawsuits. How will the Archdiocese of Edmonton continue to address this issue?

Because of the horror that’s involved here, the Church can never be complacent in thinking that our response is sufficient. We realize this is a lot more than policies and protocols. We want to make sure that all of our church environments are safe places. We decided back in 2011 to engage with an outside party, Praesidium Inc., an objective organization that has expertise in safe environments, and help us move forward to a place where we meet their objective standards. We achieved that accreditation and they have to continue to hold our feet to the fire to make sure we maintain the accreditation. That’s done through periodic audits.

It’s an ongoing journey. We have a special committee in place to find what’s the best way we can make the diocese the safest place possible for our people, what more can be done to make sure victims feel they can come here and will receive a listening ear.

As Archbishop you deal with often very serious issues. Was there a favourite moment of levity or inspiration over this past year?

I had a great opportunity of making a personal retreat at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City at the beginning of the year. The people of the Americas, including yours truly, have a special devotion to her. There’s one line that the Blessed Mother spoke to the St. Juan Diego that stood out to me. It is encapsulated and incorporated right on the side of the Basilica itself: “Am I not here who am your mother?

She’s the mother of the Church, and her love towards us and engagement with us is precisely that of a mother. We trust that Mary’s with us with that maternal love, protecting us and leading us always and ever more closely in greater unity of Jesus. Neither will she abandon us or keep us down.

As Archbishop of Edmonton, what keeps you up at night?

Nothing keeps me up at night. At the end of the day, we are a people of faith. We hold to the fidelity of Jesus and His promises. He promised always to be with His Church. The Church lives in an organic and mystical unity with Jesus. The Lord is always at work within the Church to bring things to completion.

Long before problems come to my attention, the Lord is aware of them. Long before I think of any solution, the Lord knows what it is. By the agency of the Holy Spirit he’s working through all the different relationships, all the different debates and quandaries, working through all of that to bring things forward to the conclusion He knows is right and good for the Church. If He’s with us, we don’t need to be afraid at all.

What are you looking forward to in 2020?

I’m looking forward to the Lord’s surprises. God, all through the Scriptures but especially in Jesus, showed that He’s faithful to us. God, as He exercises His fidelity to us, usually manifests it in ways that catch us off guard. I just find it so wondrous that God, even in the smallest details of our lives, nothing is outside His sphere of concern or His gaze. He sees all. He’s always surprising me and He’s always surprising us. I’m looking forward to seeing what that’s going to look like in 2020.