1st Friday of Lent: Forgiveness is Absolutely Necessary to True Vocational Discovery

The older we get the harder it gets to free ourselves of the pains associated with other people; we have a hard time forgiving. Here in Toronto I meet regularly with the Associates, men who are actively and seriously discerning the priesthood.  One of the keys we recommend to these men is to make for themselves a commitment to ongoing and regular confession. We need to drop off our sins and be free of them so that the Lord of the harvest can cultivate the “wheat” of our faith. In order for the wheat to flourish, we need to be rid of the weeds, and so often its sin that gets in the way of proper vocational discernment.

Today’s Gospel calls us specifically to forgive our brother or sister before we come forward, and what I can offer you as both a penitent and confessor is that most of us struggle in the area of charity with others in various ways more than anything else. Many of us priests often give as a penance, acts of charity because kindness, love and generosity with others can unwind even the most sinful habits of uncharity. It doesn’t take long for us to build up a hardened and callous wall of resistance by the hurt, betrayal, unkindness, mean-spiritedness we experience at the hand of others. We become defensive to protect ourselves from being hurt again. The one thing which can’t penetrate this defensive wall is love, kindness and goodness – because when we are this way, or we react to hurt we are skeptical of anything good. Love, kindness and charity; these things open us up and make us vulnerable and we can and often are hurt by people [just as our Lord Himself was] but if we hold back we will never know what we could have done or more importantly, what the Lord has called us to do in this world. Friends, I encourage you today to hear the Lord: be big on this one and forgive the person or people who have hurt you or seek to be forgiven by someone you’ve hurt and be assured that free at last, the Lord will reveal something greater in store for you on the other side of that wall. May God bless you.

1st Thursday of Lent: Asking, seeking & knocking are Essentials of Vocational Discernment

Today’s Gospel almost seems to stand against the Gospel we heard yesterday; but of course it’s not.  Yesterday, we were told not to look for signs; today we are told to ask, to seek and knock.  When we look for signs, we are often in the mindset to look for excuses too.  When we want the Lord to dazzle us, it’s because we are more committed to not serving or following Him than following Him totally and completely.  Today’s Gospel call and promise is for the sincere follower; the one who truly wants to follow the Lord.  Even if we experience challenges [and we will] we are given these words to remind us that the Lord is never far away.  He is with us on the journey.  Many of us will experience “dark nights” in our spiritual journey and especially when we prepare to follow the Lord and live our vocation.  Many of us know the thirty year experience of Blessed Mother Teresa.  We shouldn’t be afraid, the Lord is near – and even Mother Teresa despite the spiritual hardships she underwent never lost faith and continued to trust in Him.  She accounted this experience for us to assure us of His fidelity which she died knowing.  She is a model to all of us of fidelity to the Lord but also fidelity to a life lived well and a strong vocation!

The Gospel is one which I think aptly suits vocational discernment.  Ask the Lord what it is He wants you to do with your life – and He will tell you.  Seek; look around you and into your heart & soul, see your gifts and how they might best be used, this will lead you to choose the right path.  Knock on doors; looking for those to help you answer the questions you may have, and you will enter the joyful world of vocational discernment leading you to the path you and the Lord are together choosing for you!  May God bless you.

1st Wednesday of Lent: Answer the Lord’s Call; Don’t Wait for Another

Many of us see and acknowledge all around us a pervading attitude of complacency or indifference, an attitude of worry about tomorrow when tomorrow comes, let’s live for today.  To live our lives as dedicated Christians isn’t an easy life; it’s actually quite difficult for us to try to be so conscious of everything that we do and to reform all of our ways; to become almost a completely different person in the case for some of us who have so many bad, unhealthy and unchristian habits.  One thing that we can be assured is that if we live today for today and put off reforming and renewing our ways – we will be caught off-guard when the Lord comes to us.  That was almost my story.  One element of my own vocation story took place in the early months of my “calling”, when the seed had been planted as my pastor and I was thinking & praying about it again and again.

I had rationalized that since I was in my early 30’s and there didn’t seem to be an upper age limit, I could think about it again when I retired.  The age I could retire at was 52.  That rationalization seemed to be compelling.  My mother, who was dying, told me at some point along the way that I shouldn’t live life with regrets, that if the priesthood were something I wanted to pursue, then I shouldn’t let rationalizations stand in the way.  My mother died when she was 52.  That was my wake-up call.  It seemed when I put this all together, I could not rationalize anymore.  I mention today my own story because one of the things which I encounter more often than I would hope for, is men and women like me who look too much for signs when their hearts are leading them to discern and follow the Lord into their vocation of priesthood and religious life.  We can find all the rationale and reasons not to answer these calls – the world gives us many.  But what we’ve felt in our heart, if it’s founded in love, service, a desire to for holiness and often affirmed for us by others; it is of the Lord.  We have to be careful of looking for signs, because fixating on things of this world often don’t bring us any closer to heavenly things, in this case answering the Lord’s call and the living out of our vocation.

1st Tuesday of Lent: Faith in Prayer is the only Way to a Clearer Understanding of our Vocation

One of the most common struggles for the young man or woman who’s discerning their vocation is how to know God is calling us to one good thing or another.  Good Catholic men and women may feel a strong call to marriage and family and yet at the same time in other moments to priesthood or religious life.  With many of the decisions we make in our lives, there is clarity but often vocational discernment is about choosing between one good and another; and so this is one reason we wrestle with the decisions we have to make in vocational discernment.  On the other hand, I know that I’ve met people who claim to have made the “wrong decisions” and in good conscience we don’t want to do that.  I would posit that “wrong” is the wrong word, that even when we feel we’ve made a mistake, there’s much to be taken away from that for spiritual growth.  We know men and women who got married when perhaps they feel they shouldn’t have, or men who were ordained to the priesthood and then figured out this wasn’t their vocation or religious sisters who did the same.

There is no easy, clear or absolute answer that will give any of us absolute certainty; but the only thing we can do is pray.  I would also share with you that even when we are living out our vocation, we are still discerning day by day, and we need to remain rooted in prayer within a lived out vocation in order to do that.  We can be assured that if we don’t pray, we will not get to the place we need to go.  We need to pray and trust that the Lord will encounter us and speak to us in prayer.  In the Gospel today; Jesus teaches the Apostles to pray, He teaches them and us the Lord’s Prayer because they ask.  We know that the Apostles too struggle with prayer, but persistence and perseverance was the answer for them and it is for us too.  It doesn’t mean things will always be clear, but it does mean that if we are faithful to prayer, we can be assured that we will be closer to the Lord, and we can be absolutely certain He will be close to us.

As Vocation Director, the men I meet are coming from very busy lives.  One of the first things I encourage them to do [if they’re not already doing it] is to begin a prayer regime with the help of a spiritual director.  As Jesus shares with us today, prayer is important and as our Shepherd and Guide, He teaches us to pray. Friends, if you hope to discover what it is the Lord wants you to do; what He has in store for you with your life You need to be close to Him to hear the answer to that, and the way we do that is through prayer.  May God bless you.

First Monday of Lent: God’s Glory found in Service

For us as Christians intimately connected to the Lord through His Church; we ask in prayer and ponder, how do we live heaven on earth?  Today’s Gospel begins with the vision of the glory of God in the heavenly realm, then our Lord Jesus brings to His followers the human reality that will lead them to discover the great glory on earth; to bring heaven to earth before we get there.  In a word, it’s through service.  Our Holy Father Pope Francis shares with us this message as well.

I am deeply edified by the tremendous love, talent, intellect and devotion I experience in the men and women whom I meet in vocation work.  It’s humbling to know that the Lord is calling saints-in-the-making to serve His Church in powerful ways in our society and in this day and age.  If I could identify one quality that I look for and so often see powerfully lived out in many, it’s the role of service.  It’s not service because it’s the thing to do, or it’s what men who might want to enter the seminary think the vocation director might want to hear or see; it’s service because in many they have servant’s hearts.  It’s service because for many who are growing in their faith, they see Jesus Christ Himself in the men and women they serve in so many and various ways.

What edifies me is that through the dedication to Christian experience I see in the people I meet, I am called to give myself in a greater way.  But that’s how it works. We inspire each other and help each other to become better Christians.  If we ever want to hone and develop the ability to see Jesus in others, I can assure you that it will only be through service that we develop this ability, and the Grace of God will take us from there.  Through grace, this world becomes a much, much better place.  My brothers and sisters in Christ, during this Lenten season, may we all be a little more mindful of what we can do to serve one another; as our Lord tells us this is truly the way we find God’s glory and come to know heaven.

1st Sunday of Lent: Baptism, the Desert, the Mission: Are We Ready to Follow the Lord?

As a Vocation Director, I am getting used to telling my own vocation story.  I have to believe that because upon reflection, the Lord called me to priesthood in the midst of my baptism; in fact, the invitation came from my pastor a week before I was received into the Church – that He was giving me signs then that at 32 I needed to get on with living and giving my life for Him.  My discernment began around October or November of the year of my becoming Catholic [seven months after baptism], and then in mid December, my mother was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, cancer that would take her life in August of the next year.  This almost derailed my vocational discernment; I was reeling from the death of my mother and had moments throughout where I couldn’t understand why despite my fervent prayer my mother was taken from me.  I was barely baptized and slowly discerning and thrust out into the desert – like Jesus!  The reality is that as I turned to Scripture, to the Gospel my life and the hurt, pain, the challenges of my life were what formed me to be (I hope I am) a compassionate and giving priest.  I encountered the Lord in this hardship and then every subsequent hardship and challenge of my life.  And these hardships prepared me for the next step which was to evangelize; repenting and living for the Good News.  Your story might be different, it might not move in the rapid rate that my story does; but that’s okay.  In reflecting on Mark’s Gospel these events are accounted in rapid sequence and this reminds me; in other Gospel narratives it’s accounted differently, but the direction and manner in which Jesus begins the mission is the same – He begins from the beginning, He is led into the desert, challenged and then He begins.

Mark’s Gospel today on this first Sunday of Lent helps us to see in a very fluid way, that we are not called to sit and wait when the Lord calls us into relationship with Him – we are called to give it all, immediately!  Challenges and the desert experiences are not meant to be setbacks, but as they are for our Lord Himself; purifications which actually help us to grow and to share ourselves and with each other the great glory of the Lord Himself; we must remember always that without the Cross there is no Christ.  Friends, allow the waters of baptism to wash you clean, and be reconciled and returned to that state.  Look at the challenges, tests, the desert experiences of your lives as ways we grow closer to the Lord.  Then live, love, evangelize; live your life for the Lord serving Him in a special way through your vocation.  You won’t regret it if it’s truly your way!

Saturday after Ash Wednesday: The Lord is Calling; Are We Listening…and Trusting

We hear in the Gospel today, the call of Levi; Matthew, the tax collector – a notoriously and publicly condemned man, but a man whom Jesus invites to “follow me”.  I think Levi or Matthew’s story is one which should appeal especially to our older vocations out there because there are many who can look to him for a certain amount of assurance and strength in their vocational discernment.  Jesus calls us all, and we are often the ones left perplexed at why he would call us in the midst of our sins or sinfulness and not only seek us out to “repent and live for the Gospel”, but also to live as disciples and in this case as an Apostle.

What I can tell you from a Vocation Director’s perspective is that it’s a sad day, indeed when the men whom I work with to explore their vocational calling turn or run away from their calling because they see themselves as great sinners, as men beyond redemption – when these men have been honest (and it’s an absolute requirement they are honest with me about their challenges, struggles and where they tend to sin) and I see the Lord calling them; they have to believe.  They have to have faith in the Lord and in themselves and face their challenges.  I make this point of exception because there are circumstances where men & women are not called to religious vocation but when it comes to vocational discernment we have to remember that it’s the Lord calling and we must trust in Him.

Friday After Ash Wednesday: Fasting Helps Us Find Balance; Balance is Needed for our Vocation

One of the greatest challenges to our faith and living a spiritual life is all the “rules and practices” we are committed to.  This is perhaps part of the reason that many people reject certain aspects of our faith, and our readings today call to mind – fasting.  On Ash Wednesday, I made mention of freedom and when we are called upon to “step out of our comfort zone” we can often see this as an impingement upon our right to choose and on our freedom.  But if we were to put the aim of our spiritual life and of our faith into perspective, I would say that these rules and practices aid us in finding balance.  That is one of the difficulties in the world we live in today because this is not necessarily something that we easily find.  Think about the Lenten sacrifice that many of us offer.  Usually we avoid something or add something to our life that we recognize has consumed us [the classic is chocolate, which we’ve probably noted at one time or another we’ve eaten too much of] or something that has been lacking [we recognized that we haven’t prayed enough, so we add that in].  Even if our practice is just to sacrifice in honour of our Saviour, we still recognize something that we are not always mindful of in our faith lives – and that’s a good thing (only if we aim to correct it)!  It still is (whether we call it such) a movement towards a more balanced existence.  And we need that.  It may feel rough when we try to find that balance, but once we are there it feels great to be living a healthy, balanced life.

Fasting is a part of that.  Of course, we fast with meaning and purpose; which is the way we want to live our lives.  For us as Catholics, we fast because we know and acknowledge day by day during Lent the great sacrifices and sufferings our Lord Himself underwent for a fallen humanity of which we are a part of. We are not meant to equal or even come close to His Divine & Heroic Sacrifice, but we are meant to make some effort to configure our life to His, a life that was about joy, love, sharing as much as it was about sacrifice and suffering.  Fasting is not meant to make us gloomy or melancholy and there is an unfortunate and inaccurate image of the Catholic Christian suffering or gloomy which is simply not true.  This is fasting misunderstood.  When we struggle in the moment, are conscious in the moment of temptation to break the fast, it is our Lord whom we turn our mind to and in strength resist the temptation.  Fasting is meant to make us stronger, not weaker.

And as I think of the virtue of fasting, I think of how valuable and important fasting is to a vocation, especially a vocation to priesthood.  I spent seven years in seminary formation, and what I can assure you is the man who went in is not altogether the same man who left there.  Essentially I was of course the same man, but much of my life had changed – and it continues to.  We should desire the change that fasting and spiritual practices offer us.  As Christians, we are on a road to self-discovery; and when we fast we are self-aware, which is not enough.  We have to marry self-awareness with the Lord, that is turning to Him in our emptiness and continue to allow Him to fill us with His grace.  That goes for our daily spiritual practice which deliberately includes fasting especially during Lent, but day by day as well.

This self-awareness that we grow in daily will lead us to the discovery of our vocation if we are patient.  Men do not enter the seminary, knowing with absolute certainty that they are meant to be priests, even if they have a strong feeling and draw.  They must come to know first the Lord, then His priesthood but seeking and finding himself, to discover who he is as a man before God.  Fasting is a part of it.  Feasting takes place when we come to know and love God and begin to become aware that He will use us as a powerful instrument of His grace if we let Him.

Fasting allows us to encounter the Lord in our emptiness, the emptiness we share with Him because as I mentioned in my Ash Wednesday reflection – there is no cross without Christ.  There is no vocation without the Cross; that is, the challenges, the sufferings, the struggles that make it complete and true.

As we reflect today on this Friday after Ash Wednesday, may we recognize that we the disciples of Christ who give thanks for all that we have received, fast now because we recognize the need to draw ever closer to our Lord and to find balance, feasting and fasting which makes our vocation true and pure.  May God bless you.

Choices Make Our Vocation: Thursday After Ash Wednesday

Our readings today remind us that our whole life is about making choices. I can probably reasonably presume that if you’re reading this reflection and this blog, you’re a person prone to making good choices. I say that because I haven’t always been that person, and I wouldn’t have been the person reading reflections like these for ¾ of my life (fortunately, by the grace of God I have been doing better these last 14 years or so). In our first reading today from Deuteronomy, we hear it said: “See, I have set before you today life & prosperity, death & adversity.” We have been given the gift to choose and it is a gift. God loves us beyond measure, totally and completely but He doesn’t force us to love Him because that wouldn’t be true love. Likewise, He gives us every reason to have faith, and to respond to that faith in generosity through our own particular and unique vocation – but again, He doesn’t force us. In our Gospel today, Jesus expresses what He must suffer and undergo. This is met with rebuff by the disciples, but He doesn’t express it with an attitude of regret or reluctance. Perhaps a sense of sadness because the state of humanity has come to this; but He is willing and committed to make the choice to give His life totally and completely for others. While He calls us to do the same, Jesus knows that few will be called to make the ultimate sacrifice; but all are called to total and complete commitment. That is what we are all called to; if we accept Jesus as Lord and the Gospel as truly the Good News of salvation, then we can’t give ourselves in half-measure or with divided hearts. And this is a sacrifice; this is something that we have to prepare for, which is why we’re reminded of it at Lent. And this, if we live it out – is our vocation. Friends, we are given a choice; live the Gospel or pay lip service to it, and then carry on only mildly committed to it. Our lives will be affected either way. If we are not fully committed, then neither will be fully committed to our faith but if we are committed to it, then we are well on the road to discovering what God has in store for us; that is our vocation.   May God bless you.

[Ash Wednesday]: The Cross an Important Part of our Vocation

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, it reminds us that we won’t in fact, life forever but for us as Christians that is not cause to be morbid or melancholy.  It’s simply a reminder; but one that we need to remind us not to simply live for the day; but to live our lives with meaning and purpose today and every day for the rest of our lives.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is one of the pronouncements made as the ashes are placed on our foreheads.  It’s easy for us to place ourselves at the centre of our own universe and to forget that we are but a part of the universe.  For us as Christians we must remember that we are an important part of the universe; God has given us a role, and we are by that role an important part of the universe.  That is step one for us on Ash Wednesday, because this is not simply a message offered to the one who hasn’t been living life as a Christian at all.  Even for us as Catholic Christians who have lived by faith, we too can fall short in our daily habit and set aside our role or wallow in self-pity or begin to allow ourselves to become mundane or too routine in our lives.  “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”.  These are the other choice words offered to us as we are marked by ashes today.  These words are offered by Jesus to His followers whom He understood had lived far away from God and needed to come close in order to truly live by the Word.  It is the case for most of us as we’ve reached adulthood, that we have made certain and often many choices which need to be reconciled before we are free to grow in deep love.  Just as in any meaningful relationship we experience in life, if we are to grow in passion and love, forgiveness will always be a part of that relationship; it’s necessary, it’s essential and there really is no other way because to try to move on or move past without forgiveness, without repentance we are always somehow limited in our ability to love.  Believing and living for the Gospel requires unbridled and uninhibited love, otherwise we will always hold back something.

This is a vocational reflection, a reflection on God’s personal and unique calling for you, and other than the obvious connection that we need to be good and true Christians to follow God’s will and desire for us; what more can we reflect upon on this Ash Wednesday?  Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent and the forty days that follow is meant to be life-changing, reflective and to call us to more closely follow Jesus Christ in our lives.  These are all key components of the living out of our vocation too.  Lent in its penitential or sacrificial practices reminds us that without the crosses, there is no Christ.  Crosses are not only an important but an essential part of our Christian life and it is only when we carry them, sometimes suffer them but allow ourselves to be purified by them that we discover what it really means for us to be Christians.  The joy of the Gospel but also the challenge it offers us lead us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, His Church and this leads us to the discovery of our vocation.  No matter what our vocation is, whatever it may be; it will be one of radiant joy that we experience and share with each other; but it will be one that requires purification and one that requires Lent.  It’s only when we allow ourselves the commitment of Lent each year that we break habits that creep up upon us and make ordinary and sometimes even mundane – and force us to think about being extraordinary! When we think this way, and believe that this is truly what the Lord has called us to be and equipped us to be by our baptism; we are ready to commit or re-commit ourselves to our vocation. May God bless you.