Report From President of Canada's Bishops

"Our Plenary Assembly this year will be largely shaped by this call of Pope Francis"

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Here is the text of the report given Monday to the Canadian episcopal conference's plenary assembly, by the president, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton.

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My brother Bishops, guests, and members of our staff,

Introduction: Sent by Christ to the Periphery

On February 11th of this year, a photographer captured a lightning bolt striking the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The photograph immediately circulated around the globe. The event was widely seen as symbolic of the jolt given to the entire Church that same day by the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from office. Few of us will forget that day. For eight years we had loved and followed him as our Holy Father, and were eyewitnesses and beneficiaries of an extraordinary papal magisterium. In Pope Benedict XVI both Church and world were blessed with a wonderfully gifted teacher, who in every letter, speech, message and homily of his Petrine ministry explained the faith in a manner at once intelligible and attractive. His personal qualities that lay beneath and gave shape to his ministry came undeniably to the fore in his act of resignation: humility, simplicity, courage and complete self-surrender for the good of the Church. Many members of our Conference participated in liturgical celebrations to give thanks to God for the gift of Benedict XVI, aware that, once again, God had blessed us with a giant of a Shepherd, and confident in the knowledge that the Pope’s legacy will continue to nurture the Church for many generations to come.

Shortly thereafter, the Church called out in prayer to the Holy Spirit to guide the choice of a new pontiff. In response we were struck by a different kind of “bolt from the blue”. I was in Saint Peter’s Square when the white smoke appeared. I can testify that the atmosphere was truly electric with the news that the Church had been given a new Successor of Saint Peter. The energy grew stronger when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was introduced to the world as Pope Francis. From that moment, and consistently ever since, he has summoned all of us to a ministry and mission that places at the centre of our concern all those whom society relegates to the peripheries. In the short time that has elapsed since his election, Pope Francis has had many occasions to speak. That which receives repeated emphasis throughout his messages is his heartfelt concern for all who live on the peripheria, the extremities of our society. Through his visits to youth in a Roman jail, to migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa, or to the destitute of a Brazilian favela, the Holy Father is summoning the whole Church to be embraced by the energy of divine love and to allow its dynamism to send us forth anew on mission.

Our Plenary Assembly this year will be largely shaped by this call of Pope Francis. We shall consider the Canadian “periphery” from a variety of perspectives, and discern together how we are being called in our day and circumstances to be present with the good news of Christ’s fidelity and love. Our planning for this week has taken as its guide Pastores Gregis, chapter seven, entitled, “The Bishop Before the Challenges of the Present”. We shall give particular attention to the role of the Bishop in work for justice and charity, in interreligious dialogue aimed at world peace, and with respect to many civil, social and economic problems that confront us. The unifying thread throughout the week will be the concept of the peripheria as we attend to the following specific issues.

Solidarity with the People of the First Nations

For far too long the Aboriginal populations of our country have dwelt on the extremities not only of our land’s geography, but also of our nation’s consciousness. Even before our meeting formally began, Bishops gathered for a special forum on the needs of our First Nations brothers and sisters. This particular initiative began last year and will continue in the future. The Church has been with the people of the First Nations from the beginning, and continues to seek ways to stand in solidarity with them as they face current challenges. At the same time, our long association with our Native brothers and sisters has enabled us to appreciate the great gift they are to the Church and country. This received particular attention and emphasis with the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. Many members of our Conference traveled with their people on pilgrimage to Rome last October to witness this historic event. The conviction that so filled and united our hearts on that occasion remains with us still. In Saint Kateri, God has given us a model of inculturation and reconciliation that should guide our work together now and in the future. Her canonization coincided with the Synod on the New Evangelization, at which four members of our Conference gave interventions. The centrality of the person of Jesus in the life of Kateri beautifully underscored the emphasis given by the Synod to a personal encounter with Christ as foundational to the spread of the Gospel.

Protecting Life and Family

As the environment wherein such an encounter is fostered, nothing surpasses in importance the family. As the first school of holiness, the family provides an apprenticeship for the apostolate (cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem, 30,2). Thus is a healthy family, living as a domestic Church, inseparable from effective evangelization. This is one of the principal reasons we as members of the Conference have proposed elements for the establishment over time of a national plan for life and family. In May we marked our first national week, and have agreed that this be an annual event. As Bishops we rejoice in the many families who are living their vocation with great joy, and thus serving to strengthen both the communion of the Church and the fabric of society. At the same time, we acknowledge with concern that God’s intention for the family is encountering in our day a variety of obstacles that tend to relegate the divine design to the margins of human consideration. These come not only from the trends in our country that presume to envision and implant a notion of family other than that written by God in the very constitution of the human person, but also from the increasingly diverse and negative influences that confront families on a daily basis, such as substance abuse, pornography and even domestic violence. Our responsibility as Bishops is to teach the beauty and wonder of life, marriage and family, and to draw near in support for any who are struggling. Therefore we have invited staff from the family life offices of the Archdioceses of Québec, Montreal and Toronto, as well as the Diocese of London to lead us in a session on the reality and needs of the contemporary family, so that our individual and collective pastoral planning will be based on the most up to date information.

The Ministry of Caritas

On the margins of our society continue to be found the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the addicted and the prisoner. Through the countless charitable actions of the people and institutions of our member Dioceses, the Church is present in loving service. Since our last Plenary Assembly, Benedict XVI issued motu proprio his Apostolic Letter Intima Ecclesiae Natura on the Service of Charity. Following upon his teaching in Deus Caritas Est, the Pope in this letter reminded Bishops of the primary responsibility that is ours for the ministry of diakonia, and provided a particular legal framework for the ordering of the various organized ecclesial institutions dedicated to charity. As we know, emphasis is given in the letter to the responsibility and involvement of the local Bishop in his Diocese’s charitable ministries. In addition, however, it also directs attention to the role of the Episcopal Conference. This is made particularly clear in a subsequent letter this May from the President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, in which Cardinal Robert Sarah indicates some of the practical aspects for implementing themotu proprio. Consequently we shall be dedicating a day of our assembly to this question. To guide us in our reflections, we shall be pleased to welcome Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga and Mr. Michel Roy, respectively President and Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis. Their presentations on the presence and ministry exercised throughout the world by Caritas will provide the basis for our own discussions on the relationship of our Conference to the diakonia of charity within our own country.

Of course, our pastoral concern and service of love extends far beyond our national borders. For years we have worked through the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association in service of our sisters and brothers in various peripheral situations throughout the world. Of most recent concern is the situation in the Middle East. In May of this year I joined on your behalf with the leaders of other Churches and ecclesial communities in Canada in signing a letter to the Prime Minister. This letter from the Canadian Council of Churches expressed our concern for the countless suffering people throughout the region, and asked for whatever action or pressure would be possible to help them. Most acute at the moment is the situation in Syria, and we have partnered with Development and Peace in response to the plight of the people there. Working in tandem with CNEWA and Jesuit Relief Services, Development and Peace will use funds raised in our national collection to support the work of sister Caritas agencies. As you know, when this financial campaign was launched last June the Bishops of Canada called for a national day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria to be held across our country on September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Since that time Pope Francis called for such a day to be held universally on September 7th, the vigil of the Birth of Mary, Queen of Peace. Thus have we been blessed recently with the opportunity to mark two days of prayer that, with the help of the intercession of Our Lady, the power of the Cross will bring to Syria and the entire Middle East a true and lasting peace. A session led by our Episcopal Commission responsible for ecclesial and interfaith relations will guide our discussion of what more might be done to promote better understanding in our dioceses, especially in view of how the Middle East crisis has affected relations among faith communities.

Upholding Religious Freedom

Hope for the beginning of a new and peace-filled life in the Middle East is buttressed by the story of the Church currently unfolding in Ukraine. Last month, I visited that country in the name of the Conference for an event of truly historic proportions. For generations, the Greek Catholic Church in that land lived not just on the peripheries but was actually forced underground. Until liberation in 1991, this Church lived and worshipped in the catacombs. Yet in August of this year, as they marked the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of the people of Kyivan-Rus’, their Major Archbishop, in the presence of thousands of clergy, religious and faithful from around the world, consecrated a magnificent new cathedral on the eastern bank of the Dnieper River. Appropriately, this wonderful new edifice has been named the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. This event was testimony to the power of faithful witness. Through the resilience and fidelity of the Ukrainian people in the course of many years of tyranny and oppression, God has fashioned a new beginning full of hope.

As I mentioned to the Ukrainian Bishops when I addressed their Synod, I believe their example can serve as an inspiration to us in Canada. In admittedly different circumstances, the Church is needing to confront in our own country pressures seeking to relegate us to the margins. This is turning the question of the relationship of the Church to the periphery on its head. In virtue of our Gospel mandate, the Church willingly goes to people on the margins to affirm their dignity and foster their full inclusion in society. Yet as we go to the edge, many seek to keep us there, even push us over. The question of freedom of conscience and religion, and the contribution of the voice of the Church to the common good, was addressed in 2012 by the Permanent Council in the document dedicated to this topic. The concerns remain actual. Therefore, under the guidance of our Episcopal Commission for Doctrine, we shall once again give serious attention to this in the course of our plenary gathering. The trends we see are worrying, yes, but hardly surprising. For the Church faithful to her Lord it was ever thus. The fidelity of our sisters and brothers in Ukraine and elsewhere in the face of their suffering encourages us to be faithful and steadfast, confident that the Lord will turn all to the good.

Anniversaries

Together with the attention we give to these many pastoral concerns, we shall also have occasion to mark in the course of our plenary some significant anniversaries. This year we mark the 50th anniversary of Pacem in Terris. We have asked our Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace to lead us in a reflection upon this document and its importance for us today. In 2013 we also have an anniversary of particular significance for the CCCB. Our Episcopal Conference was founded 70 years ago. We will mark this with a celebratory dinner to which our Past Presidents have been invited and at which two of them will share some memories and insights.

The Administration of the CCCB

Of course, the work of the Conference relies heavily upon a competent and efficient General Secretariat and support staff, working together in a financially sustainable manner. The last two years have seen an intensified effort at reorganizing the General Secretariat of the Conference. This has involved both cost reductions wherever necessary and new investments in areas hitherto neglected. For example, our annual payroll has been reduced by a net amount of more than $945,000.00. Over $250,000.00 was spent on upgrading our information technology, something that had not been done in fifteen years. These latter changes have made it possible for us to transmit up to the minute details to our dioceses concerning important events in the life of the Church. We are now able to broadcast important events in Rome on our website, thanks also to the collaboration of Salt and Light Television. As you know, it would be impossible for the Executive and Permanent Council to carry out our duties without the help of many people, especially the professionals who work for the Conference. On your behalf, I extend to them our heartfelt thanks for their dedication and hard work in providing support to all the Bishops of our country.

Conclusion

At World Youth Day in Brazil, more than 1000 Canadian delegates were part of an assembly of nearly four million that heard Pope Francis echo the call of our Lord to go forth and make disciples. In the context of that extraordinary event, he met with the Bishops of Brazil, and spoke of the need of countless people in the world today, specifically the need “to be reached by the merciful gaze of Christ the Good Shepherd, whom we [as Bishops] are called to make present”. Clearly, those same words could be addressed to us, as we consider the countless men, women and children of our own land who need to encounter and be given hope by the loving and merciful countenance of Jesus. May our time and deliberations together this week strengthen us in the fulfillment of our call to make Christ present and to announce, not only at the peripheries but also in every circumstance and at all levels of our society, the new life and hope that Jesus alone can give.

+ Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton and
President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

23 September 2013