The sanctuary is decorated in a most unusual way this Sunday. Instead of the beautiful flowers that normally adorn the altar, we have a forest of some pretty scrawny trees.
But these trees are more glorious than the mightiest firs or the most colourful maples, because their thin branches bear the weight of grateful hearts. On these trees hang cards on which the students of St. Anthony's school have written the things for which they are most thankful.
Some of the children have written "family," others "nature," and some "God." One generous youngster put "priests," for which I'm thankful!
The students were expressing something we all feel this Thanksgiving weekend—gratitude to God, from whom all blessings flow.
Our young people have taught us a simple lesson with this display. We should never come to Mass empty-handed; we should always place before the altar something for which we're grateful. Jesus makes this clear when he asks where the missing lepers are. Of course He didn't need their thanks, but he knew they had lost out by not offering praise for their healing.
Our need and duty to give praise and thanks to God for all his gifts is surely the main focus of this and every Sunday. But a different kind of gratitude was on my mind last Sunday and I'd like to tell you about it today.
At the Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, 21 men and women were honoured with medals from the Pope for their service to the Church and the community.
These outstanding people had worked in just about every ministry or apostolic activity you could name, from Catholic education to health care to parish life.
It was an emotional celebration for me. Since I had worked in the central offices of the Archdiocese for nearly twenty years, I know most of the honorees, some of them very well. I knew better than most the extent of their labours, their sacrifices, and their zeal.
And yet one of them—a particularly worthy recipient, a real hero of mine—told me he wondered whether he should have stayed home. He felt uncomfortable with the honour, since he felt there were many others as deserving as he.
I told him "You're missing the point. We're not honouring you for your sake; we're thanking you for our sake!"
In other words, the Church was thanking them because it needed to. A community that can't say thank-you is in deep trouble; every person and every group has a deep need to express gratitude.
I'll go out on a limb and say that people who can't thank people, even Christians who can't thank other Christians, can't really thank God properly. A grateful heart will rejoice not only in God's gifts, but in the goodness of the people who reflect God's goodness to us, day-in and day-out.
We need to thank God, but we also need to thank one another. And I'm going to make that point right now, by thanking you.
There are countless things for which I could personally thank the parishioners of Christ the Redeemer, but this isn't the place for that. I do my best—which is probably not good enough—one on one. Today, though, I would like to thank the stewards among us for making possible this parish, its ministry, its programs, and its school.
Next week we will include with the bulletin the 2009 financial report—much later than promised, for which I do apologize. The report is one of several monuments to the generosity of our parishioners; it shows an increase in revenue despite hard economic times. A second sign of stewardship is this year's Project Advance campaign. We raised over $200,000, a remarkable achievement.
And of course that's not all. The parish community's support for Haiti was nothing short of astonishing, and you've welcomed visiting missionaries with open arms and equally open chequebooks. Just last week Father Joseph Kadavil wrote from India that our parish had allowed him to pay off half his debts.
In two weeks, the members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul collected a thousand dollars for their work with the needy just by standing with their one-of-a-kind poor box at the door of the church.
There's nothing I can say more eloquent than "thank-you" for the sacrifices you make and the generosity you show. It's my privilege and my pleasure as your pastor to thank our committed supporters in the name of the entire parish. And I add my personal appreciation: finances have never been my strongest point, and not having to worry about paying the bills takes a great burden off my shoulders. For many priests, money is a great worry, and I am very grateful that I'm spared that.
But as a pastor, I can't stop there. Following the example of Jesus in today's Gospel, I have to ask "where are the others?" Because not all members of the parish family have responded to the call to stewardship, and for spiritual more than financial reasons it's my duty to mention it.
At the present time, about one-third of registered parishioners use Sunday envelopes or participate in the dedicated giving program. About the same percentage support Project Advance. It's true that some parishioners are generous in the collection plate, but generally those who are serious about stewardship offer their donations by envelopes or dedicated giving and Project Advance.
Among the advantages to this kind of support is an income tax receipt that can reduce your tax burden. Another is that the parish has a record of your contributions and can thank you for them—and don't say you don't want thanks, because we want to thank you!
The dedicated giving program is something we'll talk about in a few weeks, because I'd like to invite more of you to use this convenient way of donating. It helps us budget, saves you trouble, and makes the work of our dedicated collection counters much easier.
I hope we've made it clear in the past that the spiritual benefits of stewardship matter more than the financial help it gives to the parish. The wonderful stewardship homilies of Father Dan Mahan hardly mentioned money at all. But as we are about to publish the financial report for last year, and taking a look at this year's reports, there are a couple of things I have to say about dollars and cents.
The first is that our operating income is slightly less than our expenditures. You'll see a $37,000 surplus in 2009, but that's only because a generous parishioner left us more than $40,000 in her will.
Obviously we are grateful for that bequest. But in your own family budgets, none of you would want to make ends meet with money that Great Aunt Gwendolen left you in her will. An inheritance should go into savings, or towards your mortgage—not to pay the Hydro bill.
We're not in bad shape, I'm glad to say, but getting our operating income to exceed our operating outgo is a goal we want to keep before us as we grow in Christian stewardship. It will be particularly important in 2010, since we received another bequest, a larger one, which will make our finances look rosier than they are.
Speaking of bequests—while they may cloud the financial picture, they are certainly clouds with silver or even golden linings! I would like to encourage those who can to consider what is called "planned giving," various ways of helping the parish with a major gift. The generous bequest we received this year, for instance, was donated to us as a trust during the lifetime of the donor.
There are, as many of you know, plans for the redevelopment of St. Thomas Aquinas School. When work begins, the North Shore parishes will face a great financial challenge and we need to save diligently for that day.
To conclude, I want to thank you once again for the generosity that seems to be a characteristic of this parish. But in thanking you for your stewardship of treasure, I want to mention the stewards who give generously also of their time and talent.
We are very blessed to have a dedicated team that counts the collection every week. It's a major job, and some of them have been doing it for years. Their care and attention is part of the system of excellent financial controls that ensures our parish follows to the letter the recommendations of the diocesan auditor.
Our parish finance council, made up of six parishioners—including a chartered accountant, an architect, an experienced auditor, and retired business executives—provides wisdom and accountability in our financial management.
Finally, the parish bookkeeper is a model of professionalism and efficiency, making the council's job and mine much easier.
I hope you will be pleased when you see the 2009 report next week. If you have any questions, we'll promise to e-mail you answers within a week of hearing from you.
Let me give the last word to the American bishops' pastoral letter on stewardship:
"Stewardship is an expression of discipleship, with the power to change how we understand and live out our lives. Disciples who practice stewardship recognize God as the origin of life, the giver of freedom, the source of all they have and are and will be.
"They are deeply aware of the truth that "The Lord's are the earth and its fullness; the world and those who dwell in it" (Ps 24:1).
"They know themselves to be recipients and caretakers of God's many gifts. They are grateful for what they have received and eager to cultivate their gifts out of love for God and one another."