Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Cast your cares on Christ, at Christmas!

Dr. Tim Kostamo is an esteemed parishioner, a devoted husband and father of four, and a respected orthopedic surgeon. But he has spent time in jail.

How he landed behind bars has a great deal to teach us.

The year was 1977. Tim had remarkable parents, deeply devout Protestant missionaries from Finland. They were the kind of Christians who knew God was talking directly to them when he said, “Go preach the Gospel to all nations.”

And so, they turned their minds and hearts to a place, not far from Finland, where the Gospel was not preached: the former Soviet Union. They became missionaries to Communist Russia and bravely smuggled Bibles hidden in the floor of their camper.

To avoid suspicion – and perhaps to save on babysitters – their children came along. The Kostamos ran a number of successful missions delivering the Scriptures to Russians hungry for the Word of God.

Until one day, when they were betrayed. The border guards knew just where to look and found the store of hidden Bibles. Immediately, the whole family was locked in a Russian jail.

And the discovery of the Bibles was not the Kostamos’ greatest worry. Tim’s mother was carrying the address list of the Christians and converts to whom they were going to deliver the Scriptures. She knew it would bring great persecution and imprisonment to everyone on the list if it fell into the hands of the Russian authorities.

Aided either by the guidance of the Holy Spirit or the memory of spy movies – or both! – Mrs. Kostamo pretended to be violently ill and dashed to the washroom before the guards could grab her. As they pounded furiously on the locked bathroom door, she ate the list.

Back in the cells, her children were drinking polluted prison water and Tim fell wretchedly ill.

But things were still worse for Mr. Kostamo. He was interrogated for four days without sleep or food. His captors told him he faced a lifetime in the Gulag, the infamous Soviet forced-labour camps. When the questioning finished, his interrogators said he would never see his family again. They offered him one chance to say a quick goodbye.

It was the most desperate situation imaginable. Tim’s father did not know where to turn, even how to pray, in the face of such terror.

Suddenly, Tim’s three-year-old brother piped up. He quoted a verse of Scripture, from the first Letter of St. Peter: “Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Such words from the mouth of a little child seem miraculous enough. But what happened next is harder still to explain. Mr. Kostamo went back to the cell and announced to the guards that they had no authority over him.

And they let him go.

That prophetic promise from a three-year-old brings to mind the words of Psalm 8: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger” (8:2).

But who among us wants to count on a three-year-old in time of crisis? And is there any family here whose children grew up so steeped in Scripture as did the Kostamos?

Tonight we celebrate the fact that a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that authority rests upon his shoulders (cf. Isaiah 9:6).

This child does not quote the Word of God; he is the Word of God. And the Word he speaks has authority and power. Power to lift burdens, power to break prison bars of addiction and despair, power to shatter the iron rods of oppression of every kind.

I don’t know about you, but my fine Catholic family did not take missionary trips into the heart of darkness. I didn’t grow up living the faith with such high stakes. So how can we claim a share of the power that delivered a family from prison, restored the health of a very sick youngster, and made sure such a dreadful experience did nothing to dampen the evangelizing zeal of Tarmo and Eila Kostamo, who continue as pastors and missionaries to the present day?

On this Christmas night, I offer a one word answer. Trust. The verse from First Peter, “cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you”, can be translated in several different ways. All of them invite us to trust in the face of our fears, be they great or small. The plainest translation, the Jerusalem Bible, says simply, “unload all your worries unto him, since he is looking after you”.

What better day to put our trust in God than the day he has shown himself to our eyes in the unthreatening form of a child?

Trust is more than the decision of a moment. It’s an attitude to God and his providence that deeply affects our relationship with him. After early childhood, trust is rarely instinctive. We learn to trust. We pray to trust. We practice trust.

In our Christian tradition, trust is linked with faith, and particularly with hope. We may trust confidently, and yet, always, there is still an element of the unknown; otherwise, trust would be the same as utter certainty. It’s not. St. Thomas Aquinas calls trust “a strengthened hope”.

In his Letter to Titus, St. Paul tells us that the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He makes it clear, though, that there is more to come, and that we must hope for it. We must wait for it.

And while we wait, we can grow in trust.

Tim Kostamo gave us a great gift by letting me share his family’s story of trust and deliverance with you tonight. The parish would like to give you a small gift that might help you grow in faith as his family did, whatever the challenges you are facing now, or may face in future.

It’s a “Litany of Trust” written by the Sisters of Life, a young religious order who vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of every human life. The prayers on this little card help us to ask Jesus to deliver us from the things that bind us, and to place our trust in his promises. The Litany is simple, but prayed sincerely and often, it has power to change our hearts.

It’s unlikely any of us will get locked up for smuggling Bibles. But most of us are bound by one thing or another. And all of us need to place our trust in God’s promises if we are to have the peace that the Angels proclaim on this holy night.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Limping Along in Hope (Advent 3A)

Many of you know that we have an orthopedic surgeon in the parish. I’m old enough to find that rather comforting.

After the men’s prayer group on Friday, I told him about some pain I’m having and asked if he had time to give me a new hip before Christmas. He sent me to physio, without even bothering with an X-ray. So much for healing the lame!

I was thinking like a modern man—in a rush, worrying about the worst, looking for results, fast.

And sometimes I think the same way when it comes to my spiritual arthritis. I’d like a quick fix for all that ails me, from my worries to my weariness; I’d like my prayer life to stop limping along.

Isn’t that what Jesus was offering us when he healed the lame and gave sight to the blind. Didn’t he say that anyone who asks, receives?

Well, yes.  And no. The readings for this second-last Sunday in Advent are a crash course in understanding God’s promises and living in the hope they will be fulfilled for us—and in us.

Let’s start with the second reading, from the Letter of James. I can’t seem to get away from the orthopedic angle, because my favourite commentary says the letter shows “a beautiful understanding of the Christian life and provides a strong support for all those limping painfully along the path of perfection.” [Kelly Anderson, “James,” in James, First Second and Third John, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, p. 1]

That’s a good summary of all the readings we hear this morning—they’re intended to give strong support to all of us limping along the discipleship path.

James, in particular, gives us practical advice. It’s advice we can take home with us this morning and apply in the real-life situations we’re facing. It starts with just two words: “Be patient.” The advice is simple, but it needs unpacking.

Christians need patience, the patience of a farmer who can’t do a thing about the weather. Mainly, we need the patience that comes from hope—the supernatural virtue that keeps us focused on what God has promised, not how we’re feeling.

This kind of hope is not just a positive attitude but a gift from God himself. The Catechism says it is the Holy Spirit who teaches us to pray in hope. [CCC 2657] And there is no hope greater than the hope of the Lord’s coming—the expectation of Christ's return. James makes that clear: “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.”

When was the last time you took heart in the fact that this world is passing away? But that’s what St. Paul tells us (1 Cor 7:31). Do we confront crises, disappointments, losses, and worries by telling ourselves that the Kingdom of God is near? That’s what Jesus said more than once.

Should we therefore never worry, never acknowledge our pains and losses, and pretend to ourselves that life is always rosy? Of course not. A trial is a trial. Jesus himself told us that in this world we will have troubles. But this world has the last word on nothing, on nothing at all.

St. James’ practical Biblical teaching on patient endurance, rooted in hope, is supported beautifully by our first reading from Isaiah. The prophet paints us a picture—or maybe I should say writes us a poem—that lifts our spirits wonderfully. His words tell us what hope looks like and feels like.

Hope, Isaiah shows us, is something beautiful. And, of particular importance today, something joyful.

Without denying the reality of sorrow and sadness, Isaiah’s vision invites us to live our lives with joy. That joy is rooted in patience and hope, as we’ve seen, but also in trust. The second reading is a prophetic promise that the desserts of our lives will bloom. It’s a promise we need to think about when we’re not struggling, so that we can claim it when times are tough.

We might say that Isaiah is giving us the Technicolor version of my favourite verse from St. Paul, Romans 8:28—“all things work together for good for those who love God.”

St. James tells us to strengthen our hearts.  One of the ways we do this is by reflecting on the Word of God, especially texts like these.

Today’s Gospel is less poetic and less practical than our other readings, but it’s even more important. It ties everything we’ve heard into Christ himself. It’s not just the coming of the Lord that’s near—the Lord is near. His coming is proclaimed by John the Baptist, but also by his deeds of power. The arrival of the messenger signals the coming of the kingdom of heaven; the age of the prophets comes to a close because the final age is here.

Those of us facing illness in our families or in our own selves can look at the healing miracles with envy. Why so many miracles then, and so few now?

We need to answer this question if we’re to live in the hope and joy presented in the liturgy today, and to be patient in the Christian way—not as stoics who deny suffering nor as atheists who deny miracles. Although there’s more than one answer, the heart of the matter is this: the miracles worked by Jesus are part of his preaching: as the Catechism says, they “bear witness that he is the Son of God.” (CCC 548)

The healings reported to John in his prison cell didn’t tell him that Jesus was kind, or helpful, or even powerful. The news told him that the ancient prophecies had been fulfilled; the eyes of blind had been opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. The news assured him that the desert, where he had begun his preaching, had begun to bloom.

We can accept the same assurance. Not a promise of a miraculous end to all our troubles, but a certain hope of final victory, eternal joy, and a kingdom that has no end. So let’s quit limping and run confidently towards Christmas.

O my God, let me never forget that seasons of consolation are refreshments here, and nothing more; not our abiding state. They will not remain with us except in heaven. Here they are only intended to prepare us for doing and suffering. I pray Thee, O my God, to give them to me from time to time.

Shed over me the sweetness of Thy Presence, lest I faint by the way; lest I find religious service wearisome, through my exceeding infirmity, and give over prayer and meditation; lest I go about my daily work in a dry spirit, or am tempted to take pleasure in it for its own sake, and not for Thee.

Give me Thy Divine consolations from time to time; but let me not rest in them. Let me use them for the purpose for which Thou givest them. Let me not think it grievous, let me not be downcast, if they go. Let them carry me forward to the thought and the desire of heaven.

St. John Henry Newman

Prayers, Verses and Devotions (Ignatius Press, 2019)

Sunday, November 17, 2019


It was a joy to welcome Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast--a good friend whom I first met when I was a high school student and he a Jesuit scholastic at nearby Regis College--to celebrate the morning Masses at Christ the Redeemer today. The Archbishop was in Vancouver to speak at the annual Priests' Study Week.

With his kind permission, his homily appears below.    

As we gather for the Eucharist on the Lord’s Day I would like to share with you the theme of our Pastoral Year in which the faithful of the Alexandria-Cornwall and Ottawa dioceses proclaim that, “Christ is everything for us”.

          We so value our relationship with Our Lord and his teaching that we have made our own a challenging Scripture text: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6.68).

We believe that when you let Jesus into your life, when people put Jesus at the centre of their lives, it changes everything and puts joy into their lives. Our big challenge today is to introduce people to Christ so they get to know him. Isn’t this the purpose behind the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s initiative called “Proclaim”?

To fully implement what Archbishop Miller proposes in his recommending of Alpha, of Catholic Christian Outreach’s Discovery series and other such parish encounters means that we have to do so by introducing individuals to Christ one person at a time. We the Catholic community have to appeal to each individual person’s mind and heart.

We know that a lot of young people are looking for community and to belong to something. Our challenge, then is to build trust and to open each person to building a relationship with Our Lord so that together we might all experience the Joy of the Gospel. And that will not be something we keep here in church rather such a relationship with Jesus will push us to share it with his friends, the poor.

          The Home Missions collection is being held today to support the First Nations Catholic missions in your Archdiocese along with the good work done with the seafarers who visit your ports; it is an opportunity to assist them with ongoing prayer and a sharing of our blessings.

          In this way, we express that our experience of Christ Jesus as Lord and Saviour guides us in all that we are and do as we wait in patient hope for his return in glory at the end of time when all will be made right.

          Today's gospel is taken from the final address of Jesus’ public ministry to his apostles then and now to us. Like the speeches found in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25, this speech in Luke’s gospel is apocalyptic in nature.  It “uncovers” or “reveals” God's designs for the future of his chosen ones, in this case the disciples of Jesus, members of the Church. 

          It is important, however, to realize that, since the future of salvation for the world remains hidden within God's sovereign wisdom, even what is revealed cannot be fully understood by us human beings.  So, we draw from it general advice: don’t be afraid; don’t go after false prophets; allow the Holy Spirit to give you the words you need to defend your faith; hold fast to the end!

          You see, faith in God and trust in his saving designs are called for so that one may correctly interpret what Jesus is telling us of the future.

          Jesus urges his disciples to a patient endurance, rooted in faith, love and hope.  They are not to be frightened or led astray, but are to be assured that in persecution Jesus will give them an eloquence and wisdom that their enemies will be unable to resist or contradict. Finally they are to be confident about what is to come because he is the Lord of History.
                   The closing weeks of one Church year and the opening week of another—the First Sunday of Advent in two weeks’ time—are linked by a focus on the “Parousia”, a word that means the “Presence” or the return of Jesus in glory.  Our Christian reflection today focuses on the third part of the acclamation of faith we say or sing at Mass: “We proclaim your death, O Lord and profess your resurrection, until you come again!”

          “Malachi” means “my messenger” and this Old Testament minor prophet tells of God's promise to send a figure in the end times who would “prepare the way” for God's renewal of Israel's faith life.  The anonymous author of these oracles lived in Judah two generations after the people of God had come back from the Exile in Babylon (about 460 BC).

          Though the Temple had been rebuilt, it was a sorry sight.  The 20,000 returned exiles were poor and without material resources to rebuild the Temple.

          As well, the People of God had grown weary in their religious practice.  Jews divorced the “wives of their youth”, to marry pretty foreign women (Malachi 2.4).  The wealthy not only cheated the poor; they were even selling them into slavery (Malachi 3.5).

          The prophet's oracles are a kind of catechism, laying out convictions about: God's special love for Israel, the sins of the priests, God's opposition to divorce, God's love of justice, criticism of ritual offenses and other signs of religious tepidity.

          Sometimes today we feel a similar discouragement. The evil around us and the difficulties we face—such as the way  members of the Church have suffered through reports of sexual abuse and other faults of our faith community and the pain so many in the church experience—all of it causes us to grumble and grow weary. We need renewal.

                   Malachi's prophecy said that the world could soon confidently look forward to a day when the least shadow of evil would be blotted out.  He used the image of the sun of righteousness shining out with healing in its rays.

          In the ancient world, one of the principal gods was the sun, who was believed to provide for his devotees warmth, life, light and law.  Malachi employed this symbolism, identifying these qualities with God's saving action towards the remnant in Israel who had remained faithful to God and neighbour in difficult times.

          According to Pope Francis, the fulfilment of this promise is what the Risen Lord Jesus offers us. In his recent apostolic exhortation Christus vivit, Christ is alive, the Holy Father says that the Risen Lord can and does continually revitalize us.

          Francis observes that, “Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive! He is in you, he is with you, and he never abandons you.…When you feel you are growing old out of sorrow, resentment or fear, doubt or failure, he will always be there to restore your strength and your hope.”

          Today's epistle also shares in the teaching about the end-times that colours the liturgy in these closing weeks of the year. Paul’s conviction proclaims a central biblical truth: we can trust Christ because he is steadfast, he is our lord and our friend, he will never let us down.

          Take courage, then in Christ’s closeness to you and strive for ways to make him known to those whom he wishes to draw close to himself, namely your family members, your associates at work and indeed every person you meet.

[Texts: Malachi 3.19-20 [Psalm 98]; 2 Thessalonians 3.7-12; Luke 21.5-19]


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Things Worth Dying... and Rising...For

War is hell. Who can argue with these famous words of the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman? Certainly no one who has seen the photos of soldiers blown apart on a battlefield, or even huddled terrified in foxholes or trenches.

And yet on Remembrance Day the horrors of war, the tragedy of wars, will not be front and center for most people. Why, do you suppose, that is?

Why, for that matter, do we encourage and honour these young members of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets and their officers who are with us this morning, and welcome them to make our parish center the base for their weekly activities?

There are good answers to these questions. Some come from the field of thought called civics, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship. But other answers are specifically Christian and Catholic.

Catholic thinkers have long devoted themselves to the question of war. St Augustine, and later St Thomas Aquinas, provided the foundation for much of the Church’s teaching on the ethics of war.

Augustine taught at length about what’s become known as the just war, teachings further developed by Aquinas. Both saints argue that war is terrible, to be avoided whenever possible, and to be motivated by a desire for peace.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states plainly “Because of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it” (CCC 2327).

And Catholic teaching firmly rejects the saying “all’s fair in love and war”—the moral law remains fully in force in time of war. As the Catechism says, “The Church and human reason assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflicts. Practices deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes” (CCC 2328).

Following these ancient principles, the Second Vatican Council declared that when all efforts at peace have failed defensive war may be just and even necessary. The council also stated that those in the military make a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace when they conduct themselves properly (cf. Gaudium et spes, 79).

Such teachings must guide the Christian conscience in time of war. But what can we learn from war in time of peace?

Today’s first reading offers one central lesson. There are things worth dying for.

Although Christian history is full of martyrs who meet their death sooner than deny the Faith, the Jewish martyrs of the Second Book of Maccabees are the equal of any. We heard only part of their story  today—chapter seven of this powerful Old Testament book records the death of all seven of the brothers.

Most moving of all, it tells how their mother, when given the chance to persuade her sons to give in and save their lives, encourages them forcefully to accept death sooner than violate the Law of Moses.

The virtue of integrity might be enough to justify the courage of the seven sons and their mother, who is herself executed when the last of them is gone. Surely the world is a better place because some people are prepared to resist tyranny even unto death.

But there’s more to the story, and it has great importance to the Christian understanding of war and its sacrifices.

By the time the Second Book of Maccabees was composed, only about a century before the birth of Christ, many Jews had come to believe in the resurrection of the dead. If you read the whole story of the mother and her sons, you’ll find that one of her motives in urging them to resist is her belief in life after death.

“Accept death,” she tells the youngest brother, “so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again together with your brothers” (2 Mac 7: 9).

The young man himself tells the murderous king Antiochus “our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of overflowing life” (7:36).

In today’s passage we already heard the first brother proclaim his faith in the life to come: “He said to his torturers, ‘One cannot but choose to die at the hands of humans and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised by him” (7:14).

Elsewhere in the part of the story we don’t read today, another brother says with his last breath “you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (7:9).

These Jewish heroes speak words that should resonate in every Christian heart on Remembrance Day. Even as we lament the tragic loss of lives, most of them young, we reflect on the eternal life promised to those who die fighting for truth and justice and freedom.

It’s timely that this civic day of remembering happens during the month of November, when Catholics pray for all the dead. Faith in life everlasting is a cornerstone of our belief and central to our personal relationship with the Lord, who is “God not of the dead, but of the living.”

At 11 tomorrow morning, our voices should be silent, but our hearts should be speaking with God in prayer.

Saturday, November 2, 2019


My mother’s funeral liturgies, both the evening prayer and Mass the next day, will be a central memory of my priestly life, even if I live as long as she did.  My father’s funeral was also exceptional, although of course there were no vigil prayers since his funeral was on Easter Monday.
When our Ontario relatives heard about the evening service for Mom—my brothers and sisters couldn’t stop talking about Father Jeff’s homily—they were a little confused.  The custom there is to have visitation at a funeral home, not prayers at the church the night before.
So, since I come from Ontario, I knew exactly what Cardinal Timothy Dolan was talking about at the Upper Room conference last weekend when he related a conversation he had while standing before an open casket.
A man beside him paying his respects was weeping copiously. So the young priest put his hand on his shoulder and said “you must have cared for him very much.”
Weeping even harder, the man said, “Bob saved my life.”
Cardinal Dolan let the man compose himself before he asked him to explain.  It turns out that the deceased had been a co-worker of the crying man, who was what was sometimes called a hopeless alcoholic.
The man, whose name was Rod, had reached that stage where his life was falling apart in every way.  He turned to Bob, whom he had admired for his good nature, patience, and kindness, and asked how he did it.
“Well,” Bob said after thinking about it for a moment, “I suppose it’s my faith.”  And that began a conversation that led Rod into the Catholic Church—and, as he said, saved his life.
At the end of the story, Cardinal Dolan paused, and said, “Bob was my father.  We were standing at his casket.”
Despite the dramatic ending, the Cardinal’s point was simple.  Every single Catholic has the ability to be a missionary. To be a life saver.
And the point of last weekend’s Upper Room Conference was equally simple.  Every single Catholic has the call to be a missionarya life saver.
Our Upper Room was much bigger than the one in Jerusalem where the Apostles, the Blessed Mother, and other disciples—both men and women—gathered to wait for Pentecost.  More than a thousand people gathered in Vancouver for the launch of the Proclaim movement.
I certainly wasn’t the only one in the Upper Room who felt a lot like those first disciples.  And I didn’t doubt for a moment that this was a kind of Pentecost, something entirely new for the Church in the Lower Mainland, something that was going to make history—something powerfully inspired by the Holy Spirit.
It’s not easy to describe this experience to those who weren’t there, and it’s even more difficult to explain what the Proclaim movement is.  But I’m sure going to try!
Brett Powell, a senior Archdiocesan leader who was one of the conference organizers, offered a short definition: “Proclaim is a new missionary impulse with a strategy and a structure.”  I’m going to repeat that: one, a new missionary impulse; two, with a strategy; three, with a structure.
This new missionary impulse responds directly to a call from Pope Francis.  In his letter “The Joy of the Gospel” he wrote: I dream of … a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”
The strategy is based on three principles.  I’ve already mentioned the first:  making every baptized Christian a missionary disciple.  The Proclaim movement promises to invite, equip, motivate, and commission lay Catholics to share the Gospel in effective ways.
A second key principle will make it clear that the mission field is right here on our doorstep.  We are called to share the Gospel message with our family members, neighbours, co-workers, and friends.  Archbishop Miller said we won’t find the people we need to evangelize in foreign lands, but on our soccer fields, in our minivans, offices, and at Tim Horton’s.
The third element of this strategy is narrowing our focus for greater impact.  Brett Powell mentioned that there must be a hundred good programs to help Catholics become missionary disciples.  But it’s not possible for the Archdiocese to offer training and support for a hundred programs, or even for ten.
Instead, the Archdiocese of Vancouver has committed to offer first-class training and central support for two proven methods of spreading the Gospel.  And—here is something truly wonderful for our own parish—those two programs are the two we’ve already concentrated on at Christ the Redeemer: Alpha and the Discovery faith studies.
This strategy reminds me of the politician’s wife who slipped him a note half way through a major public statement.  All she wrote, in capital letters, was KISS.  When the politician asked her later why she was so affectionate in the middle of his speech, she said “KISS stood for ‘keep it simple, sweetheart.’”
This raises the question some have already asked about our parish’s focus on Alpha and Discovery: why these two?  Brett Powell explained that Alpha Canada and Catholic Christian Outreach are organizations with good track records, and they will be partners with the Archdiocese who will bring a great deal of support and experience.  He added that their materials, especially Alpha’s, are available in a number of languages.
As for the structure, we’re talking about a carefully-planned cycle.  Brett Powell assured us that the Upper Room was not a “one-off”.  There will be an annual Upper Room conference designed to keep the momentum going and ensure we measure results.  A gifted long-time CCO missionary has been hired full-time to direct our Proclaim movement.
The Archdiocese is going to provide resources galore to help us grow these two activities and use them to make joyful missionary disciples. There will be promotion, training, and coaching, starting right now.
Is this risky?  Sure it is!  We’re shifting the Church’s resources to the folks we’re trying to reach, instead of those we’re trying to keep.  Mission is going to trump maintenance for a while around here.
Is this scary?  Well, it’s scary for me, anyway!  I already hear some people say “Oh, enough about Alpha already.  Let’s talk about something else for a change.”  Brett Powell had an answer for that in his speech at the conference: “Repetition is our friend.”  Most successful movements rely on one or two great ideas repeated endlessly until they become deep-rooted in our hearts.
Just like most Catholics, I’m scared to share my faith with those who don’t believe.  I can preach to you with total comfort, but put me in a situation where I have to talk about Jesus with a stranger and I would much prefer to shift the conversation to the performance of the Canucks.
Yet Archbishop Miller says this is not the time to play it safe.  In fact, he told the conference this is exactly the right time for a new and daring initiative.  He quoted St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver: “This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel.” I was on the altar with the Pope and heard him speak those words back in 1993.
 What was true then is even truer today.  Scandals, embarrassments, attacks of every kind—nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ nor cancel our calling to make him known to the world.
Apart from our shy Catholic culture, the big reason we don’t evangelize is because no one ever taught us how.  Proclaim will help us to use Alpha and Discovery as tools with which to share the Gospel.  It will also show us how to deepen our own relationship with Jesus.  Because, as is often said, you can’t give what you ain’t got.
Archbishop Miller seriously challenged every one of the thousand people gathered at the Upper Room. I give the same challenge to each one of you today: “Don’t be afraid to be bold—go out on a limb.”
That’s exactly what we’ve been striving for at Christ the Redeemer during these past months, as we charted the discipleship path. And we intend to stay boldly out on the limb, grateful for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the leadership of our chief shepherd.
And perhaps, as with Bob Dolan, someday someone will stand weeping before your casket, saying “he or she saved my life.”
Because that’s what we’re called to do—to save lives. “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Lots to learn on the Proclaim website And check out the Proclaim Podcast here or here

Jane Catherine Smith: Archbishop Miller’s Homily

I have already posted my mother's obituary and some thoughts I shared at her funeral Mass.  In this final post, I am pleased to share the homily given at the funeral by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, whom Mom very proudly called my Archbishop.

Dear Bishop Monroe, Monsignor Smith, brother priests and deacons, family of Jane Smith and dear friends in Christ:

At the outset of this Funeral Mass allow me to express my heartfelt condolences to the family of Jane Smith: her children, Gregory, Sheila, Nancy, Stephen and Kevin; and to their spouses, ten grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Non-family members too mourn the loss of a beloved friend, and I humbly but readily include myself in that number. We have all come here to pray with the Church, that our merciful God will lead Jane to her true homeland where she will delight in its everlasting joys.
Even though the event of death is a disquieting enigma, for us believers it is illumined by the “hope of immortality” (Wis 3:4). Death is not merely a biological occurrence but a new birth and a renewed existence offered by the Risen One. Our earthly experience concludes with death, but through death full and definitive life beyond time unfolds for each one of us.
Dying, then, is not just a falling asleep, a descent into the abyss of a silent void, but an intensely human act in which the soul, though separated from the body, remains fully aware, indeed more intensely so than ever before. For the one dying, the true moment of death is not biologically indicated but the blazing encounter with the Lord of merciful judgment. At that moment we become fully alive in him.
While at the end of this life, death certainly deprives us of all that is of the earth, it does not deprive us—and it did not deprive Jane—of that Baptismal grace by which we are forever plunged into the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even as Jane slipped silently from this world, she remained clothed in Christ, prepared to meet him. Her death opened the gates to the fullness of life (cf. Jn 10:10), to what the Apostle Paul described so beautifully in our Second Reading as “the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor 4:17).
Hidden from our gaze, but experiencing an intensity of life  hitherto unknown, she would surely have been rejoicing and whispered to the Angels who were ushering her to the Lord’s presence, what we all sang as the response to the Responsorial Psalm, “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Ps 122). Jane would no doubt have been saying: “I can hear him calling to me, ‘Come to me, you who are weary and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28).”
 As people of faith, we share the sure conviction that death does not destroy the bonds of love forged in this life. It only places a temporary, if painful, barrier between us. It will be lifted when we are reunited in the heavenly Jerusalem, where the sound of weeping is heard no more (cf. Is 65:19) and the light of the first day of creation is forever undimmed (cf. Gen 1:3‒5).
God blessed Jane with a good and happy and life: a loving husband and family that surrounded her with attention and affection, and many friends who sought her advice and the pleasure of her hearty laugh. She had a keen sense of independence, and an unpretentious and practical piety no doubt forged in the years before her entry into the Church.
In the last few months of Jane’s slow and sometimes difficult journey to the “Father’s house” (Jn 14:2), she remained serene, smiling and, of course, spirited. What St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians became very true for her, as in those last weeks she experienced that her “outer self” was gradually “wasting away” (cf. 2 Cor 4:16).
There comes a time in the life of many people—and it seems that this was the case for Jane—when a person in a situation of compromised health comes to understand, “walking by faith” (cf. 2 Cor 5:7), that they can simply and honestly say to the Lord: “I’m worn out and am waiting for that promised dwelling from God which is in heaven” (cf. 2 Cor 5:1). To paraphrase the words of St. John Henry Newman, such a person might well say: “God has created me to do him some definite service. He committed a work to me which he did not commit to another. I have completed my mission.”[1] My earthly body has done what the Lord intended.
Such a trusting attitude reminds me of the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote, reflecting on his imminent death, as we heard in the Second Reaading this past Sunday, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).  But they are also like the words of the dying Jesus on the Cross: “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). He accepted his death as the completion of the mission given to him by the Father.
It is a great grace when we can likewise say: “mission accomplished”; “I have finished the race.”
What is particularly striking and, I believe, truly beautiful is the way in which Jane left this world. She had the grace of a happy death, on the dawn of her 87th birthday. She celebrated Thanksgiving with a festive brunch at Amica Lions Gate with her family. On that same evening she was fortified by the Sacraments of the Church: receiving the Body and Blood of her Lord in Holy Communion and the Anointing of the Sick from the hands of her son and pastor, Gregory. On Tuesday afternoon the family again gathered, this time to recite the Church’s Prayers for the Dying, which includes the Commendation with its moving words (to which I inevitably hear the magnificent rendition of Sir Edgar Elgar in his oratorio of Newman’s “Dream of Gerontius”):
Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you
in the name of Jesus Christ, 
Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit
who was poured out upon you.
Go forth, faithful Christian.

What was not visible to the naked eye was the presence of Christ by the bedside. He himself was taking Jane home, because he knew the way (cf. Jn 14:6).

Our faith fills us with comfort at the thought that, as it was for the Lord Jesus, and always thanks to him, death no longer has dominion over us (cf. Rom 6:9). For us, “life is changed, not ended.” Its power has been swallowed up in the victory of the Risen One who says to all of us, just as he did to Jane before they met in judgment face to face: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28‒29).

[1] Cf. St. John Henry Newman, “Meditations on Christian Doctrine,”  “Hope in God – Creator” (7 March 1848) in Meditations and Devotions.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Thoughts during and after my Mom's funeral Mass

The photo above is a final caress by Mom's great-grandson Asher, not long before her death.

I suppose I am prejudiced in the matter, but my mother's funeral liturgies – both Vespers last night and the funeral Mass this morning – were entirely, absolutely glorious. I am too drained to even start to thank those who attended and planned it, but I thought I'd post my own remarks at the Final Commendation below.

After I use Archbishop Miller's homily as the basis for my own at a small family celebration in Toronto this week (we will lay Mom to rest beside my Dad in the family plot in Hamilton), I will post that as well.

My first assignment after ordination was to St. Patrick’s Parish in Vancouver. I had barely unpacked before I heard about Msgr. Louis Forget, who had been the pastor there for nearly 45 years. He had been dead for more than twenty years, but the people still talked about him often. 

The first thing I learned was that Msgr. Forget had inspired more than one hundred young men and women to enter seminaries and convents. I resolved then and there to do my best to imitate him by promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Can’t say I’ve been quite as successful – my record is still in single digits (though there’s still time!) 

The second thing was that Msgr. Forget regularly cried from the pulpit. I thought that was really weird – a monsignor crying in public. Can you imagine!

Being unable to speak when I’m emotional is a pretty serious occupational handicap, no more so than today. But like many other handicaps, it has an upside. It justified my imposing on the Archbishop to preach today, in the midst of one of his busiest times. 

Archbishop Michael, I am deeply grateful to you for having presided at the funerals of both my parents. I did preach at Dad’s, but only because – for some unknown reason – he asked me to. Mom didn’t ask, so I didn’t preach.  

I’m also grateful to Father Jeff Thompson for preaching last night. He has only been with us at Christ the Redeemer since July, but my mother liked him immediately. In one of their first conversations, which he related last night, she said brightly, “I hear you like martinis” and he replied, “I certainly do – I live for Friday nights.” To which she responded, “And I live for 4:30.” 

Needless to say, I am deeply touched to see my dear friend Bishop David Monroe and so many brother priests and deacons along with the wives of many of our permanent deacons. 

And thank you all for sharing this beautiful but painful time with our family. I wish I could express my gratitude to all those who have made this liturgy and this church so beautiful today. But if I try, things will go downhill fast. I will try to put some thoughts in writing in due course. 

Speaking of which, I do hope you will look at the few words at the back of your Mass booklet, which include a brief summary of my mother’s final days. I mentioned that I’ve tried to follow Msgr. Forget’s example in promoting vocations, particularly to the priesthood. Well, as most of you know, my life as a priest has been indescribably happy, but had it been entirely miserable, my final 48 hours with my mother would have been more than enough to make these 33 years well worth it. 

I hope every young man in church, and everyone who reads my words on the Internet considers the amazing blessings a priest can bring his family in return for the blessings they have brought to him.

To the mothers and grandmothers in the congregation this morning: Did you like this funeral?  Well, there’s only one way to get one like it! [They got the point—to have a son a priest—and the church rocked with laughter.]

And back to Msgr. Forget’s tendency to weep: no one should, for a moment, interpret my strong emotions today, or those of my siblings, mainly as grief. They are not. It’s gratitude, not grief, that bring our tears. 

My family and I are filled with gratitude – for my mother, for our friends and hers, and for those wonderful doctors, nurses, and caregivers that helped her reach the end of her life with such dignity and comfort. 

As Father Jeff said last night, this glorious Eucharistic liturgy is but a foretaste of what Mom has inherited as a reward of faith and a faithful life. We conclude now with a beautiful Rite of Final Commendation. It draws our attention to powerful symbols, including the Easter Candle at the head of the casket and the baptismal robe that drapes it. We use holy water as a reminder of baptism. And we normally use incense, a symbol of the prayers of God’s people rising before his throne in heaven. 

But not today. Towards the end of her life, I thought Mom might bring up the subject of her funeral. She didn’t. So the only wish I had to honour was a lighthearted promise I made to her many years ago. For some unknown reason, she really disliked incense, which led me to promise more than once that there would be none at her funeral.  I’m keeping that promise today!  

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Jane Catherine Smith 1932 - 2019

Jane was born in Hamilton, Ontario, the third and youngest child of Sheldon and Jessie (née McInnes) Banwell. She had a lifelong love for the city of her birth, to which she returned for some years before moving to British Columbia after the death of her husband Neil McCabe Smith, who died in 2011.

Jane and Neil had five children, Gregory, Sheila, Nancy, Stephen and Kevin, whose marriages brought David, Dennis, Nicole and Erin into the family. They were blessed with ten grandchildren, Jennifer, Geoffrey, Kimberly, Sarah Jane, Jessie, William, Neil, Alix, Adam, and Charlotte. Jen’s marriage to Kevin gave Jane two lovely great-grandchildren, Quinn and Asher.

She was predeceased by her brother Douglas, sister Margaret Rymal, and son-in-law Dennis Webster.

During her years in B.C., Jane was an active member of Christ the Redeemer Parish, enjoying many parish activities and the Catholic Women’s League. She joined St. Pius X Parish when she could no longer drive, returning to Christ the Redeemer this year when she moved to Amica Lions Gate just two blocks from the church.

While she would want to be remembered first as a devoted wife and mother, Jane had an amazing capacity for friendship, treasuring long-time relationships and making new dear friends at both Banff Court and Amica.

Her years of physical decline were made much happier and healthier by the dedicated care of Dr. Tim Kostamo, Dr. Klaudia Biskupska, and Dr. Nicole Barre, whose regular visits to Amica were a key source of peace during the last eight months for both Jane and her family members.

The kindness, competence and generosity of the nurses, staff and caregivers at Amica Lions Gate was deeply appreciated by Jane and her family members. She found both physical and emotional security in their 24/7 attention, and her final days were blessed by incomparable tenderness and professional attention. Amica calls its caregivers “Resident Care Partners,” but the family will remember them more as angels in human form.

Jane celebrated Thanksgiving with a large family brunch on Sunday, received Holy Communion and the Anointing of the Sick from her son and pastor that evening, and by the evening of Thanksgiving Day was clearly failing. She had at least one of her children with her from then on. On Tuesday afternoon, they gathered for the recitation of the Church’s prayers for the dying.

During the night on Wednesday, she briefly opened her eyes and managed a slight smile. Jane died on the morning of her 87th birthday, October 16, as her two eldest children stood praying beside her bed.

The funeral Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, October 29, by the Most Reverend J. Michael Miller, Archbishop of Vancouver, with funeral prayers Monday evening at 7:30 p.m., both at Christ the Redeemer Parish, 599 Keith Road, West Vancouver.

Console one another, then, with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:18