First Sunday of Advent – Year B
Pastoral Visit to Saint Francis Xavier Parish, Camrose
[Isaiah 63: 16b-17; 64:1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37]
Our celebration today coincides with the liturgical feast day of this parish’s patron – Saint Francis Xavier. Appropriately, you have his statue featured prominently just in front of the sanctuary. It is good to call to mind his example, because it offers us a gateway into the message of the biblical texts for this mass.
As depicted in the stained-glass windows above me, St. Francis Xavier is well known for his heroic missionary efforts in Asia, most notably the country of India. This puts me in mind of a trip I took to that land a few years back. One of the images I retain from that journey is that of an elephant being driven through town on the back of a flat-bed truck. Now, I can’t remember the last time I saw that happen in Edmonton. Perhaps it occurs more often here in Camrose. But when I saw it in India it symbolized very clearly the vast differences in culture today between that noble country and ours. All the more dramatic would have been the cultural change that Saint Francis himself experienced in the early sixteenth century.
He was a missionary in a foreign culture. Increasingly, that is what it feels like – that is what it is! – to be a follower of Jesus Christ in our day, even within our own cities and country. The steady encroachment of secularization pushes faith to the margins, even at times off the page of awareness altogether. Isaiah’s ancient description of his contemporaries applies well to our era: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you.” When God is not on the radar, a culture will form that is increasingly alien to the Gospel. We have ample evidence of that happening in such phenomena as the legalization of euthanasia, angry polarization among peoples, and definitions of human nature contrary to that fashioned by God. St. Francis experienced culture shock after a lengthy sea voyage from Europe to Asia. That happens to us every time we step outside the door.
In spite of the challenges he faced, our patron saint did not shy away from his missionary task. He was convinced within his heart of the beauty and urgency of proclaiming Jesus Christ. This led him not to run in fear from the people of different cultures but engage them boldly in meaningful ways so that the Gospel might be proclaimed and understood. In consequence, he led to conversion and Baptism some 30,000 souls. Neither do we shy away from our call to proclaim the Gospel, regardless of the “alien culture” in which we are immersed. Convinced as we are that our world needs to know Jesus Christ and be converted by the power of his love, we cannot fail to give witness to him in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
Our missionary call is underscored by the beautiful baptismal font situated prominently within this church. Pope Francis has repeated often that our Baptism makes us missionaries. This sacrament unites us to Christ and makes us members of his Body, the Church, which means that we are called to participate in his mission of bringing the reconciling love and mercy of God to the world. To be a missionary does not necessarily mean we have to travel to far-off lands. Rather, we are missionaries in our homes, schools, workplaces, and neighbourhoods.
It is in this context that I invite us to receive the Lord’s command in today’s Gospel to keep awake and remain alert. In one sense it means being ready to meet the Lord when he comes again at the end of time. Since the Lord calls us to be missionaries, it also means staying alert to every opportunity he gives us to make him known.
And on this point, I must say that the people of this parish are very alert indeed! Here is what I’m seeing.
First, you’ve built a beautiful church and maintain it well. This is a clear sign that you are alert to your missionary call, because there is no more effective way to evangelize than the mass. In the sacrament of the Eucharist, the Lord is really present in the gift of his true Body and Blood, and a beautiful celebration of liturgical worship announces not only that the Lord is with us but also our joy in being his followers. Second, you are clearly awake to your need to be formed for mission. The emphasis you place on Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and celebration of Reconciliation speaks clearly to your alertness to have hearts that are formed by the grace and mercy of God. In addition, the many opportunities for catechesis tell me you are alive to the necessity of knowing the faith well if we are to proclaim it. Finally, your missionary awareness is evident in your many forms of pastoral outreach. Evangelization passes through charity, which I have seen in the education of students in your Catholic schools, the attentiveness to patients in hospital and residents in nursing homes, the assistance given to needy persons in the community, the welcome extended to new and returning parishioners, and the accompaniment of youth, young adults, and families. Thank you for these and the many other ways you are embracing the call to be missionaries of the Gospel, following the example of St. Francis Xavier.
With this mass, we enter the holy season of Advent, a special time to be alert and awake, ready for the Lord’s return. Let us remain always alert, too, to our missionary call. May the grace of communion with our Lord root us more deeply in his mission and grant us all the gifts we need to fulfill the beautiful and challenging vocation that is ours.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
Saint Francis Xavier Parish, Camrose, AB
December 3rd, 2023