Storing Up Treasures for Heaven

I attended this past year, the funeral of a very rich man, Fr. Joe Fenech. Now I realize that some of you who read this may know Fr. Joe and I encourage you to share this blog post with others who may know him. I didn’t know Fr. Joe very well but we met on a few occasions, first when I was a seminarian and then at a couple of celebrations as a priest. Each time I met Fr. Joe, he talked at length about certain people who were an important part of his life. He pulled out his wallet and showed me, pretty much a stranger, pictures of his family and friends; nieces and nephews, godchildren. At his funeral many of the many priests shared the same experience of Fr. Fenech; he was a man who deeply loved his priesthood and had the capacity to love many, many people in his life. It was obvious that this capacity brought forth the riches that Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel; the riches he had here on earth were riches he takes with him to heaven. Other priests who knew Fr. Joe better than I did knew that he appreciate the very simple things in life, but most important to him was surrounding himself with people. I share my reflection on his life because when I thought about how today’s Gospel might offer us something, especially for those who discern their vocation, Fr. Joe Fenech came to my mind immediately. Cardinal Collins preached to a packed church and spoke for us all when we were moved by the turnout of clergy and loved one, family and friends alike. We all desire love in this world, and often times we spend too much of our lives working for the treasures which Jesus is asked to mitigate today. We work for these treasures and then we miss out on the better part. Men and women discerning religious vocations want to know that their lives will have love and the same kind of depth and meaning that women and men who marry and have families hope to find. I can assure you that the richness that we find in family life can be there for the man or woman who discerns priesthood, religious life and even the Generous Single Life in Christ but we have to work for these greater treasures, and like Fr. Joe we will surely find it. Let us pray for this today, and be assured that at the end of our lives and as we prepare for the next part of our Christian journey, the Lord will say to us “well done, good and faithful servant!”

Sunday’s Thought: Living Today’s Gospel Calls Us to Build a Hope-Filled & Healthy Church

Excerpted from a talk I gave to a prayer group about Toronto seminarians; today’s Gospel was our point of reflection:

Several years ago, I had supper with a friend of mine, a religious sister whom I worked with as a seminarian very early in my own formation. Although this supper was merely two friends getting together; I had questions that weighed heavily on my mind. One of the things which I knew Sister struggled with was the hierarchy of the Church. She never shared these struggles publicly, but as a friend I knew this. Until we had this conversation, I had accepted that my friend (a faithful servant of God and His Church for more than 50 years) were not on the same page when it came to the hierarchy of the Church. I’m glad we talked about it; what she shared with me has impacted my priesthood deeply. Sister told me that in her many years of religious life, she had been treated poorly many times, that she had often been counted by clergy and people as “lower” than priests and bishops, that she had her vocation tested by these things in the parishes and ministries she had worked in over the years. She had seen the hierarchy of the Church she loved so much at its very worst; problems perpetuated at times when the clergy who had the power and authority would use it to further their desires and subjugate or hurt others. Sister told me that years earlier when she was studying theology she had questioned other possibilities to change or alter the hierarchy. She knew women who had skills to lead in the Church and would have made good leaders; were deeply compassionate, loving and merciful. She told me that she realized as she was called to leadership in various ways in her community that servant leadership is not only for the ordained but what we are all called to and assist others in their call. Sister believes that we are all responsible to build a Church that is loving, merciful and just, where we are all living as [today’s] Gospel calls us to. I share this story as segue but also to offer a hopeful message to all. This supper influenced my life greatly; Sister and I haven’t seen each other for a couple of years now and I can’t imagine she knows what an impact her sharing had on my life as I pondered these things in my heart as a seminarian and try to live them out as a priest now.  The hierarchy, that is all of us from any Church leader all the way up to the Holy Father himself need to strive always to do better!  Jesus counts upon us to see this!

I am an ordained priest and I love being a Roman Catholic Priest for what I can do through my vocation to get myself to heaven, and most importantly to bring as many others with me as I can. I love the Catholic Church and I chose my faith and to live it as a Catholic when I became one at thirty-one. I deeply, profoundly, powerfully encountered the Lord our God and His Son Jesus Christ through the Church. I try to teach the beautiful message of the Gospel and to live it the best that I can. I love the Sacraments and love receiving them, most especially Confession where I am accountable for what I do wrong and I am reminded that God & His Church are loving and merciful above all things.

Through the priesthood by the Grace of God I too have been given that “power and authority”, and I appreciate the time I have to reflect upon the conversation of many years ago with my dear friend because I realize now in my role as Director of Vocations, I am part of a group of men assisting in opening doors and forming men who will be our future priests, and serving the people in our parishes. I spend a lot of time in conversation with the Seminary Rector and the faculty and formation team listening to them about how our seminarians are doing; we also work together to provide the men with the best pastoral experiences. The power and authority given belongs to Jesus; bishops, priests and would-be priests (our seminarians) must always remember that. We need to be reminded of it, because we can fail the people sometimes, make mistakes sometimes – but [today’s] Gospel ought to be words to live by for anyone given any ecclesiastical position of authority. Like James & John, we can believe that we are ready, but when “the rubber hits the road”, we must be gentle with it, loving always and prepared at every given moment to serve people.

We live in hope; hope that we’ll live the Gospel better tomorrow than we do today. Our hope is this: the men who are being accepted into seminary formation are these kind of disciples. The Archdiocese of Toronto has excellent men close to the heart of Jesus, who love the Church, love the priesthood and love the people! They welcome every opportunity they are given to be with people, and as I travel from parish to parish, from place to place – I hear the people praise the seminarians and what many people don’t realize is that our men are very generous. Much is asked of them, and much is offered by them. They sincerely want to try to drink from the cup, but they don’t enter situations looking for the place of honour. Out of respect for their freedom, a freedom that they need for good discernment of their vocation, we don’t showcase our men (and it’s not because we aren’t immensely proud of them); they too are capable sons of the Church, obedient sons who are easing into the roles they will one day assume. I live in hope and I hope you will share that hope with me too; our men are good men who are close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and who will listen, who will seek to understand, who will offer love, mercy, kindness and compassion. When I am struggling or when I am old this is the kind of priest I want to have walking the journey from this life to the next with me. This is the kind of man we are looking for; we have these kind of men and we have many more in the archdiocese preparing to answer the call. One day soon I will get together with my friend who helped me see the true meaning of this Gospel through her lived experience, and I will be proud to tell her that most of the men I know who are being formed to be our priests tomorrow are the kind of disciples she will be proud to call “Father”.

Let’s Pray for Marriage & Families: The Bedrock of All Religious Vocations

Sunday’s blog reflection is excerpted from my homily given at St. Leonard’s Parish in Brampton:

I want to reflect on our readings today, because in any homily I preach on vocations, I am mindful that it would be an oversight to speak of any religious vocation without speaking about the vocation that is the bedrock and foundation of all others – the vocation of marriage. It is from the home, the family, from the vocation of marriage that all others pour forth. Even our Lord’s vocation found footing in His family life with Mary and Joseph. It would be an oversight to believe that Jesus’ freedom & ability as the Son of God to respond to the Father’s love didn’t find its foundation in what was offered Him at home. In today’s Gospel, Jesus seems to take a very strong position on the ‘Law’ and seems to raise the bar even higher. The Mosaic Law allowed for divorce, and Jesus seems to challenge that. This has caused some discomfort and difficulty for us to this very day whenever we talk about marriage & divorce as Catholic Christians. When Jesus is challenged, He provides for His disciples (that’s us too) with a clearer sense of the teaching, Jesus is calling us to a deeper love, a deeper sense of commitment, a deeper sense of selflessness and self-giving. He is not casting judgement on broken marriages or people hurting in any way. He may not mention it right here, but we know it permeates everything our Lord Himself says through to the very moment of His death on the Cross where He says “Forgive them, Father for they know not what they do…” We cannot truly embrace the kind of relationship, be it marriage or otherwise without a radical sense of forgiveness. We cannot grow deeper in our commitment to love if we don’t allow ourselves to grow in forgiveness. I am not indicating that this will solve every problem; but I think we all can acknowledge that what causes the greatest damage to any relationship in our lives is an inability or difficulty to forgive. I know it well. I have struggled & still struggle with hanging on to things; not asking for or offering forgiveness. It’s hard to forgive; it’s hard to love; but our faith calls us to go beyond feeling. We must forgive when we don’t ‘feel’ like forgiving – that is, to act, to tell ourselves over & over again we forgive and to love in the same way; love & forgive are verbs, they are action words not things that will just happen without our acting. If we stay close to our Lord and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we can be assured by faith that healing is going to happen. Healing, forgiveness and a commitment to love when we don’t always feel like it help us in all our relationships.

In my ministry as a priest, I have seen that healing is possible if we let it happen. I’ve worked with people as they’ve sought annulments, and I know that this can be a healing experiences & event too. I have seen good marriages and people have shared with me their insights on what it takes to develop a healthy marriage. In many ways, I try to model my own priesthood on the vocation of marriage and what Jesus teaches us about marriage & relationship.

For priests, this is our ‘marriage’ in a sense to the church and our relationship with God and those whom He loves – you, the people we serve as a priest need to be at the centre of our lives. If we look at it any other way, we soon lose our priestly identity and our lives might as well be to live as comfortable Catholic bachelors, but that’s not what most of us want, and it’s not what the men who come to see me want out of life. Just as our identity as husbands & wives, mothers and fathers are also important; and if we don’t identify ourselves with the roles we have; we lose sight, focus, a sense of ourselves in relationship with each other. We are teaching these men based on our own experiences to care for others and to journey with them.

We are teaching them never to judge people or apply legislation to them; but to meet them, embrace them, love them, help them.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about the Synod on the Family that is beginning. Our Holy Father has themed joy and mercy in his papacy; he has included a desire that we as a universal faith community consider our families and relationships too. Many of our bishops worldwide, including Cardinal Collins have gone to Rome for this discussion. What we need to do here is pray, because no matter what happens, no matter what takes place there– it is a blessing in our time that we are talking about these things and we as a global community of believers are talking about one of the most important relationships we have in this world; the family. Our consciences should be raised to consider families because the way we see God, each other and the world depend upon it. The way we reach out to others and love others depends upon it too.

My brothers & sisters in Christ, today’s Gospel is indeed one of love, not of Law. Jesus teaches that love & relationships are the most important things we have in this world. They are what heaven is about too. In the reality of the world we live in, relationships do break down and this is when our faith community must be at its best, helping and embracing our brothers and sisters in pain, who are hurting. We must help and not hurt those who most need us. We must set the example of good relationship at all times, by giving ourselves 100% to love, to commitment, to forgiveness. The essence of a vocation, any vocation is to meet God and to give ourselves to what He has called each of us to do in a particular & unique way. He calls many of us to be husbands & wives, mothers & fathers. He calls some of us to be priests and some of us to be religious sisters and brothers. But no matter what it is the Lord calls us to do with our lives, He calls us to do it with fidelity, commitment and love. I ask you to pray for vocations, all vocations but perhaps today in a special way for the vocation of marriage. The world needs powerful witnesses in this way. May God bless you.

Let’s get to Heaven & Bring As Many with us As We Can.

Today’s blog posting is my homily for the Scarborough-Durham Regional Altar Server Awards at St. Barnabas in Scarborough: A couple of years ago when I was training with Fr. Hansoo who was the Vocation Director before me, I was at a Young Men’s High School retreat. Maybe Fr. Hansoo remembers this: I’ve never forgotten it, but a young man who was in Grade 10 at the time answered a question that was asked of the whole group: what does it mean to be a Christian and a disciple of the Lord. His response was simple and yet profound and powerful. “To get to heaven and to take as many people with you as you can”.

After 7 years of seminary and at least 2 years of preaching by then, I couldn’t and I wouldn’t have said it better myself. This young man who might have been 16 years old certainly gave me pause to reflect and I remember that to this day: more than a year later.

What I’m sharing with you here is of threefold importance for us all: first of all, that this young man, close in age or not much older than any of you was given by God this profoundly wise understanding of what Jesus wants us all to remember. Also that just because we grow in learning, wisdom, experience in life doesn’t mean we grasp any better what our Lord wants us to know – so as we grow in knowledge all of us need to be humble enough to learn from others, even from people we might least expect to learn from AND that we need to be open to hearing what are the right reasons for rejoicing in our faith – for every single one of us, reaching heaven is our goal and bringing as many other people with us as we can, by seeking to do God’s will each day in our lives.

That is the essence of our lives. That is what Jesus teaches the disciples in today’s Gospel. That is what we are quite simply but most profoundly put are these disciples and the lesson today is as much ours as it was for those who stood before Jesus amazed by what they had done. Jesus gave them a reality check, He informed them that it was (and always is) what the Lord has done through them. We need to always give thanks to God for what He can and will use us for and never allow ourselves to be amazed at what we can do on our own. What I’m talking about here today concerns all of us and is a really important message we need to hear and be reminded of: we have all received the same mission that was given to the 72 disciples. To preach Jesus as Lord and Saviour. We may have success as well as failure when we bear witness to Jesus & His teachings. But we have reason to rejoice when our attempts to share the message may not seem visibly successful because if we stay true to who we are (followers of Christ) we are assured of great rewards in heaven. We rejoice because like the disciples; we have Jesus with us in the Holy Eucharist, we have Him with us in the Gospels we hear, pray over, reflect upon, we get closer & closer to Him in prayer and through the Sacraments. Not just kind of …really…truly. My dear altar servers, the Bishop, your parish priests, your families – we all come together today to honour the important work you do as disciples. Serving at the altar is important. In addition to the visible witness & example you give to all of us, showing us how the youth care about their faith, our Lord, the Sacraments and serving – there are many things which may lay hidden. As most of your priests and the bishop would tell you, all of us grew in our calling by serving at the altar. Because I work with many religious sisters too, I know that many sisters really grew stronger in their faith & desire to serve as altar servers too. For the bishop and all of us priests, when we were in the seminary, we experienced something similar to what you are today. We had the bishop come to the seminary, and in a very serious way install us as acolytes. This was an important part of our vocation to priesthood and it was a point when for all of us, it became more real that we were called to give ourselves in discipleship and an important part of our journey to priesthood. Not all of you will become priests or religious sisters, but we pray to the Lord that some of you will! But you will all, if your open to it will find your right vocation; the one you and the Lord choose together! It might be marriage, it might be to remain single dedicated to the Lord & others. It might be priesthood or religious life. You too will rejoice in whatever it is you do & the Lord will do great things for you & with you. My young friends, I want us to pause for a moment after this, and thank God right now for all He has done for you and continues to do for you and for others through you. Never, never underestimate what your work for the Lord means to your parish community, but to all of us. Your will get a beautiful medallion here today and you should be proud of it, but there is much more you do and should continue to do to help the Lord and His Church, and much of that we will rejoice in heaven over when we all get there with many, many others. May God bless you!