What is an “Urbi et Orbi” blessing?

Pope Francis has decided to deliver an extraordinary ‘Urbi et Orbi’ blessing this Friday, March 27, in light of the ongoing pandemic keeping the world indoors and Catholics away from physically receiving the sacraments.

German priest Johannes Grohe, a professor of Church History at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, explains: “The ‘Urbi et Orbi’ blessing is known as the papal blessing. The newly elected pontiff imparts it from the benediction loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is given to the city of Rome and the Catholic world spread throughout the globe. The same blessing is given on the day of the Nativity of the Lord and on Easter Sunday of the Resurrection.”

The blessing dates back to the time of the Roman Empire. Over the years, it was eventually extended to the entire Catholic population. “The formula of the words, ‘Urbs et Orbis’, was seen for the first time in the title of the Lateran basilica: ‘omnium Urbis et orbis ecclesiarum Mater et Caput’. These words frame the first cathedral church, built in Rome during the time of Emperor Constantine, “says Professor Grohe.

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We Are Children of the Light; Fourth Sunday of Lent

Today is Laetare Sunday or Joyful Sunday. It is called that because we are more than half-way through Lent and the joy of Easter is approaching. As we look around our world today it might be hard to see the joy.

The news is pretty grim right now and the very fact that you have to join Mass this morning through Facebook is one sign of that. As Christians however, we are called to see in a different way and to be able to find the hand of God even in the darkest time and our Gospel reading today helps us to reflect on that.

When Jesus and his disciples encounter a blind man we first assume that this man’s biggest obstacle is his blindness, the fact that he can’t see. But this man has been blind from birth, he has never known anything else, for him the darkness around him is as natural as for us being able to see. But that is not to say that he is life is without complications.

Take the first reaction of the disciples. They immediately consider the man a sinner, wanting to know from Jesus what the man or his parents could have possibly done to for him to deserve such a fate. We find out then that the man was a beggar, meaning that there were no opportunities in his community for someone with his dis-ability to make a living or to be productive in a meaningful way.

Once the man regained his sight the people questioned whether this was really the same guy at all, meaning that they had not really looked at him for years, they couldn’t recognize him because they had just walked past him for years as if he was a fixture and not really a human being, a member of their own community.

Once the man regained his sight, we find that he was not really the one who was blind to begin with. The miracle Jesus performs sheds light on the blindness of all those around him. The Pharisees were blinded by their righteousness, focusing not on the miracle that has taken place but only on Jesus and what they perceive as his blasphemous actions.  The man’s neighbors were blinded by apathy and the self-centered routine of their daily lives that allowed them to overlook their brother in his need, even the disciples were blinded by a pre-conception and judgment about who this man was and what his life was really like.

This is truly one of the saddest miracles in the bible because nothing really changes except that the man has now lost his source of income and the people, in their anger drive him away. But then we have the second encounter between him and Jesus. Where Jesus reveals his own identity, calling himself the Son of Man and the man believes and expresses his faith and we know that his life has been changed that he has received true vision.

In the letter to the Ephesians we read,

“anything exposed by the light will be illuminated and anything illuminated turns into light.”

We are children of the light and we know the Son of Man, we know Christ who is our brother and our Redeemer. Because of this we are called to see beyond the darkness that surrounds us and to know the hope that comes from God and brings light into the world.

During these difficult days let this hope dispel your worry. Let the light that comes from God shine through you so that you can be a sign for others. Reach out to your neighbor, from a safe distance and let them know that they are not alone and trust that all will be well. With faith in God, all will be well.

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Faith in Difficult Times; Monday in the Fourth Week of Lent

The words of the Prophet Isaiah sound wonderful to us. I am building a New Heaven and a New Earth. A place for people where there will be no more weeping, no more sorrow. We can dream about such a place when we are going through hardship and trying to endure pain whether it is physical, emotional or spiritual. We might wonder whether such a place can exist, certainly not in this life it seems. Granted it is a beautiful world we live in, but it is far from perfect.

But what Isaiah is describing is not heaven, a place we cannot expect to see until we die, instead he is talking about a new way of being, a place we can encounter here and now if we turn, and place our faith in God

Trust in God is at the heart of our readings today. Isaiah was speaking to a small remnant of people who had maintained their faithfulness while so many others had lost hope. Isaiah’s message was for everyone but so many had turned their backs and no longer cared to know that even in the most difficult times God was always with them, reaching out, calling to them.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus experiences similar rejection, even from those who should have known him best. But when he encounters the people of Samaria and of Galilee he discover people of faith, people who are longing to hear what he is teaching, not because of signs and miracles but because they know that their lives are better, simply because they believe.

The official who asks Jesus to come and heal his son certainly wanted Jesus to come with him and stand at his child’s bedside to perform a miracle before his eyes the way that he had heard Jesus could do. But when Jesus looked at him and said,  “your son will be well” he did not hesitate, he returned home immediately to find that it was exactly as Jesus had spoken, in his heart he knew that all would be well.

Our faith does not necessarily change the world directly, but it does change us. It allows us to stand up and keep going even when the wind prevails against us. Our faith reminds us that we are not alone and that our strength is not our own. It comes from knowing that whatever happens God is at our side. With this strength we can reshape our world and find its meaning even in our darkest moments.

Just recently a family approached me and asked for a blessing as they traveled home to their community. They had just experienced the sudden and tragic loss of a brother and were deeply grieving. Though their sorrow was evident, I was more struck by the resilience that was exhibited as they stood before me and asked for prayer so that they could deal with what they were facing. No, my prayer would not restore their brother to life, but it would help remind them of the source of the power that was in them to withstand the cruel blows that sometime come in this life. It would help remind them that God was close and that with the help of God they would get through this together, as a family.

Turn to God in your sorrow, know that the Lord is near. Don’t let the anxiety of these present days wear you down but know that God is preparing an new Heaven and a New Earth for all those who believe.

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Let the Waters Flow; Tuesday in the Fourth Week of Lent

The Mackenzie River or Deh-cho, as it is known by the Dene people who live in the communities along its banks, is the longest river system in Canada. It flows from the outlet of Great Slave Lake in the southern region of our diocese all the way to the Mackenzie Delta and the frigid waters of the Beaufort Sea in the north. The river has always been the lifeline of the people of the north who have used it as a highway for travel and trade, as means of efficient communication from one community to the next and as a source of plentiful food all year round. Without the fertile soils of the river deposits little would grow here and without the river itself the Canadian north would be a very barren place.

So, today’s image from the prophet Ezekiel, of a river running from the temple, bringing new life wherever it flows, to all the arid lands and to the distant places is one which is easy for us to grasp. It reminds us of all the life that takes place around our big river and all the rivers and lakes that flow into it. The river is a source of goodness, it is a source of life. It provides us food and gives rise to the cultures that have thrived here for thousands of years.

But Ezekiel’s vision is about more than physical water. He is speaking about a life-giving spirit which has both a source, and a destination. For Ezekiel the source of the water is the temple. The temple, of course, is a place of worship, a place where we meet God, our creator, the one who makes all good things, who gives them life and sustains them. But the source of our life, the source of all good cannot be contained, God wants to be set free across all the land and so the spirit of God flows out and that spirit flows out through you and me.

The spirit of God flows across the land and where it flows the land is changed, it is formed and channeled. And where the spirit flows God’s mark is left there and as long as the spirit flows good things will grow there and communities will thrive. Like a mighty river, God is the source of our life and it is through us that the waters of God’s love will flow.

In the Gospel reading Jesus encounters a sick man who is waiting to be healed by water, but there is no one to carry him to the pool. Jesus looks with mercy upon the man and heals him with a word, “Get up, carry your sleeping mat and walk”. Jesus’ words flow over the man like the fresh water that, until now, had been so elusive.

A stagnant pool does no one any good except perhaps a few mosquitoes. But for this man Jesus was a source of living water, a spring of mercy and healing.

We have been baptized in that spring, into that living water and, in that baptism, we are called to bring the life we have received wherever we are and to wherever we go. Let us be a source of goodness and life in our communities by letting spirit of God flow through us.

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Saying Yes; Feast of the Annunciation

Today we celebrate the great “Fiat” of Mary, the moment when she says yes to the proposal from God that she is to become the mother of the savior of the world. Our scripture readings for this feast allow us to have a bird’s eye view of this moment and to be able to see it from two perspectives.

The first perspective is that of God, which we interpret through the readings from the Prophet Isaiah and in the letter to the Hebrews.

In the first reading we find King Ahaz worried with concern for the survival of his Kingdom. Isaiah’s words to the king at first seem stern but they are in fact words of comfort. He reassures the king that God will not let his kingdom fall and that he could even ask God for a sign to prove the promise was true. With false humility Ahaz refuses the challenge, on the premise that he would not dare to presume to test God with such a request. Isaiah sees through the King’s posturing, perhaps noting that it is only fear of the unknown future that keeps the king from asking.

Isaiah proceeds to share with Ahaz the sign that God will offer, that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son whose name would be Immanuel, which means God is with us.

As we move ahead to the New Testament, at time when the promise once made to King Ahaz has now been fulfilled, we find in the letter to the Hebrews a description of God’s motivation, the reason why God would send us this sign, which is his Son.

And the reason is love. For so long the relationship between God and us had been broken. We had strayed from the path and no matter what we tried we couldn’t make it right. So, God intervened and, in his Son, gave to the world the one perfect offering that would mend the rift between us.

But God wanted our cooperation, this gift would not be imposed but rather it would be a collaboration that would include us and so he approached one of us, he chose Mary, and asked her to be the mother of Jesus.

Our Gospel today describes Mary’s response. First, she is disturbed, who wouldn’t be afraid to be approached by an angel. Then she was confused. “How can I be a mother when I haven’t even been with a man?”, she asks, which is seemingly a fair question. What is most important, however, is that despite the normal human reactions, Mary is able to rise to the heroic response of saying “Yes” to what God is asking of her and in doing so, what had been prophesied as the hope for King Ahaz, becomes the hope for all of us, that the relationship between us and God would not fall but would be secured forever by the gift of God’s Son, Jesus.

What was it in Mary that allowed her to say yes to something so great? What allowed her to overcome her fear and to cast aside her doubts in order to participate in God’s plan? It was Grace, the love and mercy that comes from God not because we are deserving but because he wants us to have it.

This same Grace is in you. God’s grace is with you. Do not be afraid, cast aside your doubts and know that you are loved by God. Ask God for the help to say yes to the path that he has put before you. Choose to follow the good and say to God, “be it done to me according to your will.”

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The Mercy of God; Thursday in the Fourth Week of Lent

The image of the people of Israel worshiping a golden calf, stands perhaps as one the best representations of rebellion against God in the bible. Let’s recall the story of what took place.

Not very long before this incident, this very group of people had been living in slavery in the land of Egypt. But God was able to free them from the hands of their captors and, with Moses as their leader they journeyed through the desert towards a land that God had promised them in order to start new life. As they journeyed, God established with the people a covenant and a rule of life by which they were to honor and love God and one another and, in return, God promised that he would love them and protect them and never leave them. This covenant which was established was to last forever.

In order to ratify or to seal this deal between God and man, Moses climbs to the top of Mount Sinai where he is to meet God face to face. But, in order to do this, he must leave the others behind. What could possibly go wrong. If you have ever been the parent of teen-aged children, and you left them home alone for a weekend for the first time you might be able to remember the worries that went through your mind.

No sooner has Moses left the people then they begin to act out. “Where’s Moses”, they say. “He has been gone so long and left us on our own.” Suddenly the structure that has kept this group together through a difficult journey begins to breakdown. The rules that had been established for the good of the society and everything that is in the covenant is quickly forgotten and, as a result, they get it in their  minds to construct an idol out of gold and they begin to celebrate what they consider to be their new found freedom.

What would you do if you were God? Imagine coming home from your well-earned weekend away only to find that your loving children have turned the house upside down and the neighbors have had to call the police because of the noise. We would react as God reacted and naturally, God was furious.

Lucky for the people Moses was there to intervene. In a way he is kind of like the calming influence of Mom when Dad is ready to hit the ceiling. Moses reminds God of all that they have been through. The generations of people that God has walked beside and the time they have shared. And, yes, they are a very stiff-necked and stubborn people, but at the end of the day, he reminds God, that he loves them. Pausing to consider what Moses is saying and knowing it is true, God relents and shows mercy.

We have received so much mercy from God. Time after time we fail and fail again. As St. Paul says, we do so many things that we know we shouldn’t, and we don’t do nearly enough of the things we know we should. Yet God continues to love us. We are his stiff-necked and stubborn people and God never gives up on us.

The season of Lent is a time for us to remember the mercy we have been shown and to be grateful to God. We can show our gratitude by sharing what we have received. God’s mercy abounds, let us be merciful to one another.

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The Prayer of Christ

The earth—our earthly nature—should tremble at the suffering of its Redeemer. The rocks—the hearts of unbelievers—should burst asunder. The dead, imprisoned in the tombs of their mortality, should come forth, the massive stones now ripped apart. Foreshadowings of the future resurrection should appear in the holy city, the Church of God: what is to happen to our bodies should now take place in our hearts.

No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ. His prayer brought benefit to the multitude that raged against him. How much more does it bring to those who turn to him in repentance.

…The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours. If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too are to rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.

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