The Gift of Humility

This is part of my homily given at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Caledon this weekend.  

In my role as Director of Vocations, I start off most of my discernment retreats and Come & See Weekends with the first words I heard from a Vocation Director when I was first discerning priesthood: “You’re probably sitting here thinking that you’re not worthy to be called by God to be a priest or religious sister or brother; and guess what you’re not, none of us are worthy of what the Lord calls us to or gives us in our lives – so we’ve got to get on with things despite the fact.  These words spoke powerfully to me when I was sitting there feeling unworthy, and conflicted about why I was thinking about priesthood. I share them because I need to hear them now and again; they are humbling words. I think we all need to think about God’s gift to us whether we deserve it or not. This reminds me of my need to be humble in living out the life God gave me.

It applies to all of us; priests, religious, married folk and a reflection on humility should not lead us to be self-deprecating or self-loathing in any way. We are all loved daughters and sons of God and loved more than we can ever imagine – we always must remember that.

God calls us to great & amazing things in this life but often in the simplest and humblest things we do. I’ve heard it said that Jesus’ most favoured virtues is the virtue of humility. He may never have said it directly, but it’s the most common threads of many of His parables and Words. If we approach life with a sense of humility, our lives take on a radically deeper meaning.

Christian writer C.S. Lewis defined humility well when he said that it is not: “thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”. Pope Francis has also stressed humility since ascending to the Chair of Peter and today’s Gospel is a message the Holy Father has made his own.

There are many good things about the world that we are living in, yet there are so many temptations new and unique to our times, that didn’t occur to the People of Israel; those people Jesus spoke directly to. We are living in an age of texting, an age of Facebook and other social media, we are living in a time when we can get just about everything good or bad on the internet. More and more we do not have to engage ourselves with other people in life and we can quickly and easily find ourselves more consumed with our own needs, and less concerned with the needs of others.

We are called to engage others, to be with others and for others we are asked to take on a great mission – to bring God to others who might not even know that they desire Him. Sometimes our words will bring this about, but more often than not, our actions and the way we behave each and every day towards others in the ordinary circumstances of our lives; this is where great evangelization will take place. People are attracted to humility, to the person who would be the honoured guest, but who considers others first. You have seen the little video clip of Novak Djokovic who held the umbrella and shared a drink with the ball boy at the French Open recently. There’s something magnetic about people putting others first, about us treating each other with honour.

So why don’t we do it more?

Well what attacks our humility is our pride, and I think that most of us have had moments of pridefulness. I know I do. With humility as a virtue, pride is its opposing vice, a common vice. Pride can be hard for us to see at times, because pride skews our perception of reality. Pride lies to us, we do deserve the credit for what we do, who we are, I deserve this or that. Pride manifests itself in selfish motives, an exaggerated ego, a low opinion of others. It’s hard to stop and think for a minute, “No, I’m not worth more than anyone else, God loves us all equally and it’s His opinion that really matters. And as for my glory, to God be all glory!  It wasn’t my wisdom or my power that brought me about, and I’ve just used the gifts God gave me to do what He gave them to me in the first place to do.

We fight pride by humbling ourselves before God and asking Him to reveal hidden pride, by taking a humble place as our Gospel reminds us of today. This week, let us place an added and special focus on the areas of our lives where pride creeps in and allow true Christian love & charity to guide us in thinking of ourselves less and a sense of the gifts & blessings God has given each one of us to help lead us to a greater sense of humble service for God and for each other. May God bless you.

We Are Called to be True Disciples of the Lord

What does it mean to be a true Disciple of Christ and to truly follow Him?  To live according to the Gospel, seeking constantly through prayer to be close to Jesus, Lectio Divina (praying with Scriptures), knowing and understanding the teachings of the Church and to seek to live a life of self-giving love and charity; living for God and for others.  These are some of the most important things which constitute a True Disciple.  There can be a tendency for us to lend ourselves to a “cafeteria-style” faith life.  That is, to do the things we like to do or agree with and to ignore the things which we don’t like or agree with or don’t understand and so we dismiss these Christian ideals as “too hard to understand”. Cafeteria Christianity is a deadly brand of the watering down of faith to the point it really can become irrelevant because we all stand for something different and there is little unity among Christians and the message of Christ.  It also divide us because we all see Jesus and His Teachings as we want to see them and really the only way for us to grow in understanding is in the direction of our own interpretation of things.  Of course, Christians aren’t robots and we don’t all see things exactly the same way, but this is where the Church plays its role.  The Church is not stodgy old men in Rome or abroad making all the decisions or telling us how to think.  The Church is profound, mysterious, not merely a human reality; but the vehicle or instrument God chooses to continue to convey and perpetuate His message to us to this day!  I know that many of us, and I’ve certainly fallen into this trap too; have criticized Church teaching and stand adamantly opposed to the “teachings of the Church” or “tenets of faith”.  In my own desire to be a true follower of Christ, I have had to admit to myself that when I take a strong position like this, I am also quite likely not to have a full or complete understanding of what and why I am opposed to a particular matter.  At times, the best I can do is reserve judgment or opinion and make sure that I am clear that I do not understand enough about a particular matter to disagree with it.

I try hard not to be a “cafeteria Christian” because I have come to see that not only does this not get me very far, it also places myself (not Christ) at the center of faith and the message.   Our Gospel today speaks of ten bridesmaids who go about with frivolous work that doesn’t really prepare them to meet the Lord face-to-face.  This is not where we want to be.  It may seem like we have a lifetime to figure this all out, and in some ways we do (the Lord knows we are all a work in progress) but I can’t imagine that it’s not our desire to be on the “right path”, doing the right things, moving in the right direction.  What is that direction?  Listen to the Lord’s Word, hear what He is telling us, turn to the Lord’s Church, He has given us it for a reason.  We need to live like Jesus Himself, and if we use Him as our model and guide we can’t go wrong.

We All Need to Hang in There

Sometimes it can be really hard to “hang in there” as a Christian.  There are so many things which test us and it sometimes seems like we are going in a different direction from the world around us.  That’s in part why St. Paul refers to us “fighting the good fight, running the race” or to compare the Christian life to a marathon rather than a sprint.  If our lives were a sprint, it would be easier, we psych ourselves up, we train hard and then all that work will be put to the test and over in a flash.  It’s not to imply sprinting is easy, but our theology and faith journey  is more likened to a marathon.  A marathon requires just as much training but then off we go and it seems at points and times along the way that it’s never going to end and most marathoner will tell you that their minds need to be sharp too because there are points along the way, even for the seasoned marathoner when you want to quit, give up, pack it in – but you know the end is greater than the beginning and the sense of what was accomplished is great and you push pass the weaknesses of our mind, overcome and when the marathon is over not only can we be amazed that our bodies endured, but also our minds.  In our faith journey, we seek to give our bodies, minds and souls.

It’s not easy being Christian in this world when rarely do we get acknowledged positively for it, when it seems to annoy some and bother others that we believe there are moral absolutes, when we stand for something that many believe is irrelevant or archaic.  We are not only tested in big ways as our brothers and sisters throughout the world are, where they experience blatant religious persecution and are killed or tortured for being Christian. We are tested in the society and world we live in here – where we seem to be always out of step with others.  But just as a marathoner can’t have his or her coach run the race with them and for them, and there are periods along the way of abandon where we need to know what we’ve trained for will get us that next quarter mile or even to the next marker; so too must we trust that God Himself has not led us into the wilderness of life lived as a Christian, or to give ourselves in our vocation within that life of faith without reason, or without the gifts and strength to do it.

Our Gospel today provides us this point to ponder: we are going to have days along the Christian journey that are not the highlights or charismatic moments.  They may not be the low points either.  We are going to have “ordinary days” that is where the “rubber hits the road” and where our faith is really tested – how do we live by faith in the ordinariness of life?  That’s what makes Ordinary Time in our liturgical cycle so important for us.  It’s easy to be drawn close to the Birth of our Lord in Advent and Christmas; and to be reflective and penitential when we consider the Lord’s gift in Lent and through Easter – and we should do that.  But what impact, what implication does that have for us day by day otherwise?  Let us consider that today, as it’s one of those days.  Let us hear the Lord ask us, “what have we done to show the world you are My Disciple today?”

Jesus Calls Disciples to this Very Day

I love hearing call stories.  This is one of the greatest joys of being Vocation Director, you get to hear “call stories” almost every day.  It’s great that we get time to stop and reflect on call stories in the Gospel when we hear of how the Apostles are “called” by the Lord. One thing we experience is that every call story is unique, yet beautiful and personal.  The Lord is not calling a group, He is calling people, individuals to come and follow Him.  We celebrate the Feast of St. Bartholomew today and even though there isn’t a lot we know about him, all we have to do is look around us to know he had an important part to play on the Christian faith we have.  Just as we do.  We too have an important part to play.  We too have a call story.

As much as I love call stories, I know from my own experience and now working with other men discerning how quickly we dismiss the possibility that we might be called.  We don’t see ourselves as special.  We don’t immediately trust or value the stirring in our own heart.  We are hard-pressed to truly discern.  We often need others to help us see the authenticity of our own calling.  We often need others to validate what is happening, helping us to see that we are not crazy or somehow mistaken.

Our call story begins with a personal invitation, just as St. Bartholomew’s did.  Jesus invites us to come closer.  We should not be afraid.  We may not know what we are being called to, but we can believe that it is real and authentic if it’s “of the Lord”, He will give us everything we need.  As we begin the discernment of whatever our vocation is to be, there may be a lot of “ifs” in our prayer life.  I remember many of those “ifs” in my own life.  As a “late” vocation, entering seminary after more than twenty years in the work world, I was not confident that I could do the extensive studies required for priesthood. I struggled with the initial philosophy studies and there were many visits to the Lord when I simply asked “if you want me to be a priest, you’re going to have to help me and show me that I can do this”.  I can look back on that time and know that the Lord called me closer because He did not abandon me there.  If I wasn’t able to do the studies, then it might have been a sign that I was called to something else.  I think of others who struggle with the life commitment they will make and the chaste celibate life that is an integral part of the priestly vocation.  Men and women are praying all the time for the Lord’s help and are shown the way, one way or another.  Either they joyfully discover gifts of self-giving love – that they will always give and receive deep love in their chaste celibate (religious) vocation or they are shown that their self-giving love will be expressed within a three-way relationship of God and a spouse in the married vocation.  There are some who are shown the way and they share their lives with others, again in self-giving love within the Generous Single Life in Christ.  No matter what, our “call” story will be one which we offer ourselves as a total gift of ourselves for others.  No matter what, we are “hard-wired” to a particular way of life, that is God created us for a purpose as He did St. Bartholomew.  No matter what, when we sincerely, humbly, seriously and prayerfully approach the Lord and ask Him (and others appointed, anointed or placed on the journey to help) we can be assured that through our own vocation lived out, we too are called to be disciples and to change the world (as the Twelve did) by bringing Jesus Christ into it.

Integrity An Important Part of Being Christian

It’s important for the man, woman or child who is going to live out the Christian faith to have the courage and integrity to be exactly who they appear to be.  I remember a time when I used to begin almost every sentence with “I swear to God…”, convinced that this would help people believe what I was saying.  In the early days as a Christian, around the time of my own conversion, it also began to make sense to me of just how wrong this was on my part.  First of all, and perhaps most obviously this is taking the Lord’s name in vane (invoking His name to somehow make my words more meaningful) but also knowing that what I was saying wasn’t always exactly true, sometimes embellished, sometimes completely untrue – I had habitually used the Lord to live a lie.  I’ve been given many graces in my life, one was (with the Lord’s help) to break this habit.  To strive to have my word mean something, to work towards my own sense of personal integrity.  I know that I have embellished and there have been times when I have fallen short in my personal integrity, but today through prayer and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I begin again and I try to live a life of greater integrity.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls out the Pharisees for their lack of integrity.  That they appear one way to the people and behave differently is not something which only Jesus sees.  He calls them out because this is what many people see.  This is not just their sin, it can be ours too.

Bad examples on the part of Christians can be the greatest obstacle to faith and actually has the greatest effect on “anti-evangelization”.  Fewer people desire to be Catholic Christians because they witness first hand how we pay lip service to our faith.  It may not be the whole picture, but it appears to people who see us sometimes that we are more about the exterior structures of our faith than the interior disposition that a deep faith offers us; peace of heart and a great love for God.  Of course, there are layers to this and its not all that simple.  I remember a conversation with a good friend of mine in seminary.  I told him it impressed me that he was so happy all the time.  He told me that he wasn’t, and that he struggled like everybody else – but that he tried to make sure that especially when he was struggling, he put a smile on his face.  At first, I thought that this was “fake” but he further explained that “everybody shouldn’t be having a bad day because I am”.  This is integrity.  He was not living in self-denial but thinking of others besides himself, the mark of a good Christian.

Good examples on the part of Christian can be the greatest tools to faith and evangelization.  I know more than a few call stories inspired by the examples of good Christians.  Integrity and the courage to be who Jesus calls us to be, both in the outward way we live our lives that others see and inwardly in the time we give to prayer and the disposition of our souls; these are the marks of a true and authentic Christian life.  May God bless you.

Queens in Our Time

Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of England is someone we often see adorned with beautiful clothing; tiaras, gowns, bright and colourful clothing.  She lives a life of opulence and grandeur befitting a “queen”.  What has always impressed me about the Queen is her desire for simplicity and her strong faith.  Certainly I know that there are many people who would like to see us do away with the institution of the monarchy because it has (through scandal and redundancies) rendered itself unnecessary, but I for one feel that monarchs as earthly anointed people can be great ambassadors for faith in God and Jesus Christ and from some of the things which I have seen, Queen Elizabeth II is a good example of a Christian.  She may be a part of an institution which is majestic, but she herself appears to be a very humble servant.

I reflect briefly upon her because I think of another Queen, the Queen we celebrate today, Our Blessed Mother.  She too is a majestic queen and a humble servant.  Mary did not come into this world full of ambition to be something great, but God chose her for something great.  She was born for a purpose.  She was given gifts and those gifts were not for herself but for others.  She humbly approached her own gifts and her giftedness with humility and faith asking God to provide her the answers along the way – and He did.  She gave herself totally and completely for others, she gave love unconditionally even when it cost her dearly as those she loved died and her heart was broken.  Last week we celebrated her Assumption into Heaven, the reward for a life lived well, but today we celebrate her place in heaven, as Queen next to her son, Christ the King.  She may be Queen of Heaven, but we celebrate in faith and devotion that her royal status does not stop her from receiving the prayers and intercessions we ask of her.  We know that as much as this lady loved those around her here on earth, she is loving even more in heaven.  Why is that?  Because absolutely nothing stands in the way of her love.  She also has the answers to all the questions she had here on earth.

What does the Queenship of Our Lady have to do with us though?  Everything.  I began with a short reflection on Queen Elizabeth because there are examples of people who seek to embody the qualities of our lady as Christians in this world.  Queen Elizabeth is someone we all know, but there are many others who try hard to be the best Christians that they can be.  Many of our own mothers resemble Mary in her queen-ship.  Our mothers are important and loving figures in our lives, our homes, in our communities.  Our mothers often pray for us more than others do.  They love us so completely they’d give their lives for us without a second thought.  Many beautiful Christian mothers take in and love their children’s friends too with a mothers’ love.  And there is a special place in our hearts, in the family and in the Heavenly Kingdom for our mothers too.  Whether your mom is here in this world, on her way to heaven or in heaven – we pray for our moms today and we ask Our Lady, Queen of Heaven and Earth to pray for them too.

We Can’t Go Wrong with Love

Today’s Gospel is Jesus’ response to yet another group testing Him on His seemingly radical approach to religious practice.  Many of us spend a lot of time thinking inside the structures of our faith and in many, many ways that’s a good thing; because in humble submission to the Will of God and operating within the traditions and practices of our faith’s traditions, we reign ourselves in and our traditions assist us in giving ourselves in service to God and others generously, totally and completely.  I for one, would never want to “throw away” the traditions and practices of our Catholic Christian faith because the Church in her wisdom and expression offers us these things, so that we might get on with the very best part of the mission – evangelization!  Joyfully proclaiming the Good News to all the world!  As I celebrate Mass or hear confessions, or anoint someone or baptize someone; I see the faith alive in the people whom I minister to; a desire and thirst for Jesus.  With all that said, sometimes and in certain ways we need to think outside the box and take radical approaches to things as Catholics too, otherwise we fall into the trap that the Sadducees and Pharisees do of feeling that we know it all and that our interpretation of things is the Mind of the Church.  We can easily miss the truth when this happens.

Everything is not love, but if we approach our faith with love as the foundation of our lives we can’t go wrong.

I want to reflect today on tradition.  First of all, it seems that those who challenge Jesus hide behind some of the “traditional” practices and this gives us a sense of where tradition can lead us astray in the practice of our faith.  Far too often though, it seems “all the rage” to attack Catholic tradition and Catholics who are “traditional” because we feel they are part of what’s wrong with the “modern” Church.  If this is what we think when we reflect upon today’s Gospel, this is altogether disappointing and we’ve missed the bigger picture.  Although there are people who can act like the Pharisees and there are those who desire a return to more traditional things for the wrong reasons – it worries me that too many people are dismissed for their approach to their faith too quickly.  I know this well because as Vocations Director, I am often challenged by the people I meet along the way “not to take in” guys who are into more traditional things namely the liturgy and might be considered “ultra-conservative” or “old-school” and typecast with other such terms.  I’ve had the occasional person directly compare all such people as Pharisees.  This is sad and wrong.  I’ve had the occasional person whom I’ve know well enough to tell me that we need only “forward thinking” men as priests.  Being a traditional Catholic is not synonymous with being backward thinking.  Perhaps I get a little defensive on this point, because I am deeply inspired and proud of our seminarians and many of the men discerning.  The seminarians are filled with a desire to love and serve.  I see this in so many of them and in the generosity they offer the Church in the Archdiocese of Toronto.  Some of them may be very appreciative of traditional liturgy and often far more versed in these things than I am.  But loving and serving people comes first and we see it when they are in parishes.  They put the needs of others before their own needs.

Today’s reflection is inspired by the seminarians of the Archdiocese of Toronto.  As we begin our discernment groups in the next few weeks and the seminarians return to the seminary, my hope is for everyone to pray for them.  They are great men, with servants’ hearts, deep love for God, His Church and His people.  They need our prayers.  Seminary isn’t easy, it opens up deeper and greater self-reflection for everyone which might seem easy – but it’s not.  We celebrate their gifts (which are many) but they are challenged in their weaknesses and personal struggles and like the disciples on the boat on the Sea of Galilee, the ride can be pretty rough sometimes, so they need to have great hope and know the Lord is close.  Their love for God and for you urges them on, day by day.

Ordinary People with an Extraordinary Mission

Today’s reflection is based on my homily given at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto.  

We have a slogan which we use on our vocation posters & brochures in the Archdiocese of Toronto, “Ordinary Men and Extraordinary Mission”.  It’s not original, and I can’t or wouldn’t lay claim to it, but it’s the truth and it applies to men discerning diocesan priesthood, but to all of us as Christians – Disciples of Jesus Christ.  We are ordinary people with a mission that is extraordinary; beyond the ordinary.  Our Christian vocation is to live an extraordinary life in Jesus Christ.  We are given supernatural abilities to do that.  Love to the end, forgiveness beyond what seems reasonable, radical hope in life eternal that allows us to make extraordinary sacrifices and surrender in a truly extraordinary way.  When our Lord Himself said to St. Peter; you are the rock upon which I will build my church; surely Peter saw himself as we so often see ourselves, ordinary and not exceptional, capable perhaps but not able to do extraordinary things on our own.  But we are not on our own.  God is with us when we simply say yes to the mission given to us by Christ, to be committed Catholic Christians in the world and live for something beyond ourselves.  And God can do truly amazing things.  I’m sure that we all have examples and moments of grace in our lives that we know this to be true; I know I do.  I spent seven years in seminary and when I entered, I came from about 20 years of working in the world with great sense of trepidation in my own heart about the daunting studies I faced there.  Academic formation is important to the vocation of priesthood, we usually finish our Master’s studies in seminary.  I had a crisis moment early on where I had to make the decision to leave and go back to my old way of life or trust the Lord.  As you can imagine, I trusted although it was hard because if I had stopped to think about it, I was still the same guy who struggled with studies.  I simply let go and let God and grace take over; if the Lord wanted a priest in me, He needed to give me what I didn’t see in myself.  And he did.  I still worked and struggled, but because I trusted God and relied on grace over myself – He led me to something extraordinary.  It was towards the end of seminary that I came to know more about the story of St. Jean Vianney whom we celebrate at Mass today.  St. Jean was himself not a gifted student, and failed at the seminary.  As the patron saint of parish priests I think we all give thanks that he trusted God enough to persevere and to allow the Lord to transform him in his weaknesses.  He’s an example to us all.  He embodies this idea of an ordinary man with an extraordinary mission.  He may be celebrated by us priests as our patron, but he offers us all his prayers today as a saint.  In his sainthood, he lived out fully, extraordinarily and wonderfully his vocation as a Christian; the vocation we all have been given.  The vocation we continue on discerning today and each day.  May we be blessed by the Lord this day as we take the Eucharist out into the world today and live our lives in an extraordinary way.

The Christian Vocation: Called for Others

Setbacks and disappointments are a part of the Christian’s journey.  Today’s Gospel reminds us that even Jesus experienced such things, and the Son of God who knew and made manifest the Divine Plan “withdrew” at the news of the murderous beheading of John the Baptist; he who came to make way for Him.  But like Jesus, and just as the Gospel illustrates, we cannot be thrown or “derailed” in our Christian mission.

There are many challenges to us as Christians.  There are especially many challenges to men and women who contemplate religious vocations; men to priesthood and women and men to religious & consecrated life.  As we discern, we discern from the heart and we ask God and ourselves whether we’re strong enough in mind, body and soul to give ourselves totally to God (and not to God and another human being as in marriage).  But then we experience the “human” side of a religious vocation. That is where a vocation is tested.  The human dimension of a religious vocation will expose, if even only to ourselves our own weaknesses and shortcomings and we ask God often in lamentations, where do we go from here?  The human dimension can often reveal the dark side of humanity.  John the Baptist was a popular preacher and led many people to Christ Himself, but before his work was fully accomplished, his life was taken from him.  Even though this surely was Divine Providence, because here we are more than 2,000 years later drawing strength and courage in our own Christian lives and vocations from the Baptist, it was a great blow to the “Divine Mission”.  Jesus withdraws and finds strength; He is called forth because the People of God need Him.  So too for us.

Canadian society and the laws of the land are becoming harder and harder to understand; being a good Catholic and playing an important role in Canadian society seems to be becoming harder and harder.  And this seems to extend worldwide.  The “culture of death” seems to be permeating the minds and social conscious of many places in the world.  Many who are outspoken see the Church as “irrelevant” in our times.  Even within the confines of our own Catholic Christian Church we have seen horrible abuses by clergy and evils by many of our people which seem to contribute to a sense of this irrelevance.  We feel a need to withdraw, to retreat and to regroup; to refresh ourselves in Truth, in catechism, in theology, in apologetics and IN LOVE & MERCY.  But like our Lord, we are called to go back out into the mission fields and bring the much needed, most important message of salvation to all!  We are all called to do that as Disciples of the Lord.  Most especially those the Lord calls to religious vocations cannot be afraid.  Dedicated men and women cannot be afraid of what the world “villanizes”, even if it’s the priesthood or a religious vocation.  I highlight these vocations not to take anything away from the married vocations, which have suffered too – we need dedicated Disciples of Jesus entering the sacred bonds of marriage as well.  Through them, religious vocations are founded and grow.

We also need perspective.  This is NOT the worst time for us as Christians; it is a trying time, but so was the time God chose to enter the world – John the Baptist and Jesus had it harder than we do.  Darkness and sin has attached itself to the Church throughout the ages and the Lord’s words to St. Peter must be words of hope for us: “the gates of Hades” will not prevail against the Church.  Our Church may be leaner at times, with less committed members, but as Disciples, we are calling forth others to be dedicated to the mission – and we can be assured they will come.

And we must remember, that although setbacks can be demoralizing and we may retreat or withdraw to prepare ourselves; we cannot remain there.  Like Jesus our Lord Himself gives witness especially today: we are here in this world for others, and outward and onward we must go for the good of us all!  May God bless you.