May 2, 2011
[Acts 17:22-33; 1 Peter 2:4-9; Luke 5: 1-11]
Today we gather in a spirit of profound thanksgiving and deep joy as we dedicate the new Saint Joseph's Seminary. It has long been an essential part of the fabric of the Church in Western Canada and other dioceses of our country. Together with Newman Theological College, the seminary occupies a special place in the hearts of our people. We are grateful to God for the gift of new buildings in which the vital missions of the seminary and college will now continue. St. Peter reminds us that, by his paschal mystery, Christ has formed us as a chosen people and royal priesthood. The ministerial priesthood serves that of the baptized, and in today's liturgy we ask God's blessings upon this seminary so that, here, true shepherds will be formed after the heart of the Lord to lead the people Christ calls his own and for whom he gave his life.
Our celebration today takes place in the immediate wake of the beatification of Blessed Pope John Paul II. By the working of God's grace this great Pope left to the world a beautiful example of sanctity. By that same grace he has also bequeathed to us an extraordinary legacy of teaching. Much of his magisterium influences seminary life today. We need only to think of the direction given to overall formation by Pastores Dabo Vobis, and to the shaping of the theological curriculum by his great encyclicals. From among his vast writings, there is one document in particular that stands out as providing the necessary context in which this new St. Joseph's Seminary is called to carry out its mission.
To the Church the new Blessed gave Novo Millennio Ineunte as the map to guide us across the threshold of the new millennium. As you will recall, it took as its principal source for reflection the very same Gospel passage proclaimed in today's Mass. Pope John Paul focused upon the instruction of the Lord to St. Peter, and extended that same injunction to the entire Church: "Duc in Altum!" Put out into the deep! Jesus knew exactly where the nets were to be let down on the Sea of Galilee, and he knows precisely where the Church must cast its nets in the deep waters of today.
This call, Duc in Altum, is echoed symbolically in the bronze doors of the chapel of our seminary, because it is counted among the very first seminaries to be built in the new millennium. The design serves as a reminder to all that, here, we are training men to be priests of the new evangelization, sent into the deep waters of our day under the direction of Jesus Christ. Only if we begin in and from the Lord will the catch be abundant. Apart from him, we shall simply "work hard all night but catch nothing".
Those deep waters are many: the mystery and dignity of human life with the many current threats against it; the modern pressures of the family; the world of our youth, with their many hopes and trials; and the manifold instances of social injustice at home and abroad. These are just some of the challenges of the new millennium, and the Lord is calling us to set out into these realities with the good news and transformative power of the Gospel.
As we do, the experience of St. Paul indicates something of the challenge that awaits us and the attendant responsibilities of this seminary. The reading from Acts recalls the Apostle plunging into the deep waters of pagan Athens. Although this narrative recounts an event that occurred in Christianity's early days, St. Paul's Areopagus experience is remarkably similar to that of the Church in the first years of the third millennium, and this in two significant ways.
The first has to do with language. In the verses immediately prior to the passage proclaimed in the first reading, some of the Athenians spoke of Paul as a "chatterer" or a "babbler" and told him directly that his teaching was rather strange. Unfortunately, many people today would readily empathize with the ancient Athenians. When one has not encountered Jesus Christ and heard his call to discipleship in the Church, the language of Christianity is not easily understood, let alone appropriated. Even among our own people, the rich philosophical and theological vocabulary used throughout the Tradition to communicate the beauty and joy of the Gospel is no longer accessible to most. A new language must be found for the timeless message. It is incumbent upon this, and, indeed, all seminaries so to imbue the students in the Tradition of the Church that it becomes part of them. Only in this way can priests of the new millennium be sure that the one and same Tradition is being handed on as their proclamation assumes ever evolving forms.
Second is the issue of reception, once the message is clearly communicated. At first the Athenians listened attentively to Paul as he recalled the great workings of God through history. His speech, though, was very abruptly interrupted when he said this: God "has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead". At this point he was rudely rebuffed by scoffing and by the dismissive "We will hear you again about this," which might be loosely translated today as "Don't call us, we'll call you."
The underpinning of their difficulty lay in the fact that resurrection of a human body was not something they had ever witnessed. Because it was beyond their experience it lay also outside their reasoning. In other words, for them human experience was the measure of the real. We see the same perspective operative in the contemporary empiricist mindset. Whenever human reason circumscribes divine possibility, the mind will be closed to the Gospel, which speaks of a transcendent God who has broken into history with a redemptive power beyond all imagining.
Furthermore, St. Paul announced that the resurrection was God's affirmation that Jesus alone has been appointed as judge of the living and the dead. He is proclaiming, in other words, the unicity of Jesus as Saviour of the world. Obviously, such an announcement evacuates the pagan pantheon of all substance, and the Athenians would have none of it. We see ancient Athens rendered modern whenever people posit a variety of paths to salvation. Such persons will resist with equal strength the clear message of the Gospel that Jesus is the world's universal Saviour by the grace of his paschal mystery.
Thus does the Apostle's experience in Athens give us insight into the challenges we face. Yet that is not all that the Areopagus has to teach us. We also learn an important lesson from St. Paul's failure there. Words are not enough. Over time what attracted and convinced those who did accept Paul's message was not the strength of his argument but the integrity of his witness. They knew he was ready to die for the Gospel.
This lesson is reinforced by the example of our patron St. Joseph. He is the silent witness. No words of his are recorded in the Gospels. In fact, very little is known of his life, except the essence of his testimony. Joseph was the just man, who surrendered in trusting obedience to the plan of God. This is the heart of all witness through which the power of the Gospel is effectively proclaimed.
What does all of this mean for a seminary? Of course, in any seminary of the new millennium we need to teach our students to proclaim boldly and unapologetically the complete and unadulterated truth of Jesus Christ, fully aware of the challenges that face the Church of our day. Our first priority, though, must be to foster within the hearts of seminarians a deep communion of love with Jesus, such that they, too, will surrender their entire lives to the plan of God and their particular place within its unfolding. Living from this communion they will be made the authentic witnesses that our world needs today.
From their knowledge of Christ's love for them will also arise the conviction that the challenges before us are no obstacle to hope. After all, as St. Peter reminds us, the very stone rejected by many as a stumbling block has been transformed by God into the very cornerstone of that temple of living stones we call the Church. God converts all to the good in accordance with his purpose. He transformed the rejection of his Son into the means of the world's salvation. We have confidence, then, that our modern challenges and instances of rejection are not the last word, but will somehow, by the working of the Holy Spirit, be changed into new occasions for the spread of the Gospel and the growth of the Church.
Duc in Altum! The summons to the new evangelization, etched in the doors of this chapel, is both exciting and challenging. We are truly blessed to have our new seminary, which, together with Newman Theological College, stands ready to provide to this Archdiocese and to the Church in Canada the formation necessary for its accomplishment.
+Richard W. Smith
Archbishop of Edmonton