Catholic Family Life Conference
Lac St. Anne, Alberta
July 2, 2016
Stephen J. Carattini
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Good afternoon! It is such a privilege and a joy to be here with all of you. I want to thank Maurice Beier and his team at Catholic Family Ministries for organizing such an amazing conference and for inviting me to offer a reflection on God’s mercy and compassion. My wife and I arrived in Edmonton three-and-a-half years ago, and this is our first time attending this conference. I can’t tell you how impressed and inspired we are by your presence and your love for the Lord. Thank you for giving Catholic Social Services and us the opportunity to be a part of it all.
Maybe the best way to begin is to speak of God’s mercy in my own life. One of the neat, and perhaps few, benefits of getting older is the opportunity to be able to look back and see very clearly how God has been present throughout my life.
I grew up overseas and at one point lived in Iran from 1971 to 1979. While we were living there we attended a Roman Catholic parish staffed by Priests from Ireland. Fr. Andrew, our Pastor, would drive up to our school each week, which was about an hour away in heavy traffic, to pick up my sisters and I and a few other kids and bring us back to the Parish for faith formation and sacramental preparation.
I think I was 13 at the time and I had, unfortunately, very little interest in participating in this particular endeavor -- and I’m sure my adolescent attitude betrayed me. But Fr. Andrew was a very patient and holy Priest who ignored my behaviour and persisted in sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Church with my sisters and me.
After about a year we learned that he was being transferred by his order and would be leaving Iran. I can remember clearly the last Mass that he celebrated at St. Abraham’s. Afterwards there was a small reception and it came time for me to say goodbye to Fr. Andrew. I tried to pretend that it didn’t really matter, but the truth was I was dying inside. I shook his hand, tried to say something and then I started to cry.
I realize now that I was not only grieving his impending absence, I was also losing someone who had shown great mercy to me -- even though I hardly deserved it.
So I am grateful to Fr. Andrew for taking the time to minister to a kid trying to figure things out. The funny thing is, I don’t remember what he said to me, but I will always remember that he was kind and merciful to me. And I’m pretty sure that he would have a big smile on his face if he were to learn that one of his former and not very pious students was speaking at a Catholic Family Life Conference in Alberta, Canada nearly 42 years later.
As was mentioned during my introduction, I have the privilege of serving as the Chief Executive Officer of Catholic Social Services here in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. We are an organization founded more than 50 years ago to assist the Church in bringing the love and mercy of God to people in need.
I am blessed to work with over 1,700 employees and hundreds of volunteers who each day express God’s mercy with great compassion and competence. Our work calls us to care for the developmentally disabled, the addicted, the abused, the abandoned, the elderly, the unborn, people living with HIV and AIDS, refugees, parolees, and many, many others.
I’ve always appreciated the words of Holy Father Pope Francis when he refers to the Church as a “hospital on the battlefield” offering urgent care to those who are wounded -- materially and spiritually.
And if the Church is the hospital, then CSS can be likened to the emergency room. We are the place where the wounded may first experience God’s mercy and begin their journey of healing. We never know if the people who are brought to us have ever experienced love and compassion in their lives. Nor can we be sure that they will experience it after they leave our care. But I can assure you that while they are with us they will be treated with dignity and respect.
I want to digress for just a moment and reflect on the need for organizations like Catholic Social Services, especially here in North America. We live in what many historians tell us is the wealthiest age in history. No one group of people has ever enjoyed such wealth and material comfort as ours.
And yet there is a poverty that exists in spite of our abundance. It is a poverty manifested not in the soup kitchens of yesterday, but in our shelters and homes for children who do not know or cannot stay with their parents; for women who cannot remain in their own homes for fear of their husbands; for young women fleeing the violence and danger of life on the streets of Edmonton; and for people living with HIV and AIDS who are not accepted anywhere else.
Blessed Mother Teresa once wrote that while there may be many people dying from a lack of food in the developing world, there are many more dying in the West from a lack of love.
And that love is quite simple. It is a love that is explained to us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is a love that sees a person as God sees us -- wounded, yes, sinners, yes -- but so wonderfully created in His image and likeness, and found worthy of the sacrifice of His only Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. And if God is our father then everyone – everyone -- is our brother and sister, and we should care for one another accordingly.
And it is here that we must acknowledge that our world has changed in a very profound and dangerous way given the recent legalization of physician assisted suicide and euthanasia.
On the cover of the brochure and program for this year’s conference is Rembrandt’s moving and powerful depiction of the return of the Prodigal Son. It is an image of mercy, of reconciliation and of a father’s undying love for his son. But imagine a different scenario with me: The prodigal son, having turned away from his dissolute lifestyle and seeking to return home, does so only to find his father already dead because of a decision made in the depths of despair over the loss of his son; or because his death has been hastened by the older son’s desire for his own inheritance.
Or imagine with me the Parable of the Good Samaritan in light of state-sponsored and funded death. The wounded man, perhaps suffering grievously will ask the Samaritan to help him by putting him out of his misery. And the Samaritan will be called “good” because he does so.
My friends, we are in real danger of severing the bonds that bind us together as human beings and as family. As Cardinal Collins shared yesterday, it is not independence that we should be glorifying, but rather interdependence. Our faith teaches us that we are indeed our brother’s and sister’s keepers.
In J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece, The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo tells Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” To which Gandalf responds, “So do I… and so do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And so my brothers and sisters in Christ, what do we decide to do with the time that has been given to us?
For Catholic Social Services, this means that we choose to promote the sanctity of life and the God-given dignity of every human being by protecting, nurturing and advancing life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death. We choose to serve people of all faiths or no faith while always respecting an individual’s personal freedom and dignity. And we choose to affirm a holistic understanding of each person we encounter by offering material and spiritual care.
I don’t think that it’s an overstatement to say that we are in a battle -- a battle for our very lives. There is a great discontent that we see manifesting itself around the world. It is made evident in desperate and terrible acts of violence, in language that disparages and denigrates the immigrant and the outsider, and in policies that consistently disregard the needs of the poorest of our societies. It is made manifest in the tragedy of abortion and now in the deliberate killing of people who are no longer deemed to have a sufficient “quality of life.”
I don’t think this is what the Samaritan meant when he “saw the wounded man and was filled with compassion.”
The word “compassion” comes to us from the Latin, “to suffer with,” to accompany someone in their pain. And we know that Jesus did not come to put an end to suffering, but to join with us in our suffering; to show us how to make of our suffering an offering to God, and to one another.
It does not mean that we must allow someone to suffer pain without relief, or that they must suffer by themselves. In fact, the opposite is true.
It is the Good Samaritan who teaches us how to truly minister to those who are wounded: To begin with he sees the wounded person on the side of the road. How often do we fail to see the wounded and the suffering on our own path -- our spouse, our child, our friend, or our neighbour?
The Samaritan, having seen the wounded man, then stops his own journey at great inconvenience and perhaps even peril to his own life, gets down off of his animal and begins to tend to him. He pours oil on him to clean the wounds and uses wine to disinfect them. He puts bandages on him and then places the wounded man on his animal and walks the rest of the way to an inn. We read that he stays an entire day with him at the inn and when he leaves, he instructs the innkeeper to continue to care for him and gives him money to do so.
This is what compassion looks like.
I wonder, though, if while he was ministering to the wounded man, whether he thought to himself if it wouldn’t have been easier to continue walking and let someone else take care of him. Or maybe he could’ve thought that the man must have done something to invite catastrophe. Maybe the wounded man was a thief himself and deserved his fate?
But despite any misgivings he might have had, he chose to involve himself in the fate of a stranger, because I think the Samaritan knew who he was: a child of God and a fellow pilgrim. I doubt he started out from Jerusalem that day planning to save someone’s life. I suspect that very few of us ever begin our days with that thought in mind. It’s worth noting that the Priest and the Levite were also on the same path and probably not expecting to encounter a man left for dead on the side of the road. Each of them did, but the Priest and the Levite forgot who they were. The Samaritan remembered and acted accordingly. The wounded man was his brother and he was willing to accompany him in his suffering.
This notion of accompaniment, of companionship, is central to the work that we do at Catholic Social Services. It’s not enough that we preach life; we must do everything we can to help sustain it.
It is good when an expectant mother who has come to our Edmonton Pregnancy Crisis Centre chooses life. It is truly compassionate when we accompany her throughout her pregnancy and for as long as she will need our help.
It is good when one of our terminally ill residents who is dying chooses not to end his life prematurely. It is truly compassionate when we ensure that he is never alone nor left in intolerable pain.
It is good when a young woman chooses to leave her life of suffering on the streets of Edmonton. It is truly compassionate when we accompany her without judgment on her journey of healing and recovery.
To accompany people in their suffering is never easy. It takes courage, it takes love and above all it takes faith -- a faith that cannot and must not be hidden, especially within our Catholic institutions.
While we are very blessed to have courageous Bishops in our province and across Canada who stand boldly for life, we must pray that our hospitals, our schools, our social service agencies, and our parishes remain places of refuge, and of safety; places where the true love and mercy of Jesus Christ can be provided freely and generously without judgment or reservation. Places where the sanctity and dignity of our lives will truly be protected.
This will not happen without your help. Please pray for our Bishops and Priests, for our Catholic hospitals and schools, for our parishes and for our service organizations that we will always be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, the magisterium of the Church and the teachings of our faith.
At this time of year I have to admit that my mind wanders to another occasion of God’s mercy in my life, and that was the opportunity to walk the Camino de Santiago. As many of you may know it is a 1,200-year-old pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of St. James in the city of Santiago in northwestern Spain.
It is a journey of faith and love. People will often ask me what exactly I learned as a result of walking nearly 800 kilometers to go to Church.
In some ways, and this might sound odd to some, I learned what I already knew: That God loves us very directly and very personally. This was brought home to me each day on the Camino as I experienced God’s transcendent love in the beauty of his creation and His tender mercy in countless acts of compassion extended to me by my fellow pilgrims and the people of Spain. Truly, there were many times when I was the wounded man on the side of the road and someone always came to my aid.
I learned that I could be the Samaritan, and that I could also be the Priest or the Levite. Let me explain:
On the Camino there are hostels -- the Spanish word is “albergue” -- in each of the towns we passed through. They are specifically for pilgrims. They are not Hiltons or Fairmonts, or even Motel 6s. A typical albergue would consist of several rooms or floors depending on the size of the building with as many bunk beds as could be crammed inside. After several days of walking, I quickly realized along with most of my companions that getting a bottom bunk was the goal since it was too difficult to climb up and get down from the top bunk. The innkeeper assigned bunks as you arrived. The innkeepers also filled each room before they would assign bunks in the next room.
I remember walking about 25 kilometers and arriving in a very small town with only one albergue. The first room had already been filled and I was given the very last bottom bunk in the second room. That meant that the only open bed was the one above mine. I was pretty happy. I felt like I deserved the bottom bunk. It was... my precious.
So I went to shower and wash my clothes. When I came back to my bunk to rest I noticed another pilgrim coming into the room and knew that he would have been assigned the bunk above mine. I remember seeing this pilgrim on a number of occasions usually as I passed him each day. He was walking very slowly primarily because he was about 75 years old. His name was Pietro and he was from Italy.
I tried not to make eye contact with Pietro as he cast off his backpack and made preparations to take his own shower. But before he left he gently tapped me on the shoulder and apologized to me in his quavering 75-year-old voice for the fact that he would probably wake me during the night, as he would have to get up to go to the bathroom several times. He added that he was going to go see if he could find a chair that he could put next to our bunks so that he could get up and down more easily.
So he went off to shower. And I sat there and I wish that I could tell you that I gave up my bottom bunk to him, but I did not. Like Gollum, I held fast to that ring -- I mean bunk. I had earned that bunk. And if he wanted the bottom bunk, well then he should have walked faster.
And to this day I regret my decision. I had the opportunity to be kind and generous, and yet I failed to do so. I found out how easy it is to be the Priest or the Levite.
In case you’re wondering, when Pietro went to ask for a chair, the innkeeper exercised the compassion I lacked and opened up the next room and gave him a bottom bunk.
About a week later I found myself in the town of Samos, which has a beautiful monastery. I had breakfast with a couple that was celebrating their honeymoon on the Camino. It turns out that they both were part of the Madonna House Ministry in Ontario. We had a lovely conversation and said our goodbyes. I left and started walking. I had gone maybe three kilometers when I realized that it was Sunday. I knew that Mass would be celebrated in the Monastery but that meant I would have to do something which no pilgrim ever did: turn back. I stood there for a few minutes debating what to do. Surely God would understand if I just continued to walk.
But I turned around and started walking back to the Monastery. Almost immediately I encountered a pilgrim walking towards me with tears streaming down her face. She came up to me and said to me in Spanish: “Ayudame senor, estoy perdido. Donde esta el camino?” (“Help me sir, I’m lost. Can you show me the way?”)
I smiled because I knew that I was being given the opportunity to redeem myself by helping this young woman. I told her, “Todo esta bien; el camino esta alla.” (“It’s okay; the path is that way.”)
In some small way, I was the Samaritan that day.
But maybe the most profound lesson of the Camino for me was one borne out of a complaint.
Everyone who walks the last 100 kilometers of the Camino can receive a document from the Cathedral in Santiago certifying that one has completed the pilgrimage. You can imagine how those of us who walked 800 kilometres might feel about that because we also receive the exact same document.
As we drew nearer to Santiago more and more pilgrims appeared on the journey, often on organized tours where their backpacks were transported for them from hotel to hotel. It was very difficult not to judge and to remain all holy and calm.
On one of the last nights on the Camino, I was having dinner with several pilgrims and one in particular was having a very difficult time reconciling this injustice. It was ruining his pilgrimage and it nearly ruined mine. But as I prayed that night I received an insight from the Holy Spirit: It’s not where we start our journey of faith; it matters only that we realize we are on one.
Because I think when we realize that we are on a journey of faith -- from the moment of our conception until the moment of our natural death -- it changes everything. It changes how we think of our lives and what we choose to do and how we choose to behave. We are no longer searching for the truth; we’re trying to figure out how to live it. And we understand that we are all pilgrims on The Way.
Perhaps this is also what the Good Samaritan understood as well. He knew that he was on a journey of faith, and he was able to see the wounded man as a fellow pilgrim, someone who needed help to complete a portion of his journey.
And isn’t this what we should be doing? Helping each other on The Way and accepting the opportunities that come to us to be kind and compassionate, even as we learn to accept compassion from others.
A little over three years ago I was blessed to meet a man named Philip living in our Kairos Home. Kairos Home is a ministry for formerly homeless men and women who have contracted HIV and AIDS. I remember the very first time I ever went to this home. I parked in front and then sat in my car for about ten minutes, afraid to go in. I had never knowingly met anyone who had HIV or AIDS, and here I was about to enter a home where eight men and women with HIV and AIDS were living. My normal practice when I visit our homes is to meet and shake hands with all of the residents in our care. Could I do this at Kairos House? Would I sit down and have a cup of coffee with them drinking from their china and using their utensils?
I eventually went to the front door, rang the doorbell and was greeted by one of our outstanding caregivers. Within a few minutes I was introduced to Philip and he put out his hand for me to shake. And I did. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. He was so pleased that the CEO would come to his home. He showed me his room and was especially excited to share the stereo system with the awesome speakers that his son had given him. I learned that he really liked Van Morrison.
I visited Philip regularly over the next three years each time noticing that his health was declining. He was clearly dying. Whenever I would come over he would be sure to tell me that he was praying for me. When I told him that my wife had been diagnosed with cancer he immediately began praying for her. I visited Philip as often as I could.
Earlier this year I received a call from our team leader at Kairos House telling me that Philip was coming to the end of his life and that he had asked to see me. When I visited him he weighed about 90 pounds and could hardly speak. Yet when I walked into his room he insisted on trying to get up out of his bed so that he could give me a hug. He was too frail to do so, so I sat next to him holding his hand. We were there like that for several minutes in silence and then he asked me in a whisper, how I was doing. I didn’t know how to respond. He said, “Stephen, God loves you and I have been praying for you.”
We said our goodbyes; I hugged him and told him that I loved him. And he told me that he loved me too. Philip died two weeks later. He left me a CD of Van Morrison’s greatest hits. I was blessed to be able to accompany him on the last stage of his earthly journey. And in the end, it was he who taught me the meaning of compassion.
I am truly blessed to be able to work with an organization that in the words of our Holy Father Pope Francis “embraces the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinner.” I humbly ask for your prayers that we would carry out our mission with humility, compassion, and respect.
I am grateful to each of you for your presence here today and for your kind attention. You are a great witness to the love of Jesus Christ and a powerful example of faith in our world.
I want to leave you with a few words from the Gospel of Mark where we read about Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. You recall that we find Bartimaeus in Jericho calling out as Jesus passes by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He does this over and over again to the point where people around him tell him to please shut up.
But Bartimaeus knows the truth of who Jesus is and he persists.
Jesus hears him and tells his disciples to go and get him. And when they do, they say to him, and to all of us assembled here this afternoon:
“Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you.”