Forgiving First, Then Truth in Charity

St. Joseph's

I spent this weekend at St. Joseph’s Parish in Streetsville.  This is a parish I am familiar with, as it has been a parish that for several years has kept the Office of Vocations busy.  There have been many men who are discerning from here and have found their way to visit me, many who have entered seminary formation.  In an archdiocese as large as ours (more than 2 million Catholics) St. Joseph’s stands out.  It’s my own prerogative (as Vocation Director) to want to understand why it is, this parish has so many men and women discerning right now?  But more than any answer or any “formula”, I give thanks to God for calling so many to discern giving their lives from this beautiful parish community.  This is my homily given there this weekend:

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of you may remember the book Dead Man Walking; there was a movie in the 90’s based on the book.  It was written by Sr. Helen Prejean, a St. Joseph Sister who worked for many years in prison ministry and with some of the most hardened death row criminals. In her book she writes of the families of both the convicts and the victims whom she comes to know. One of the stories she tells was of the father of a murdered child, who knelt at the site of where his son’s body was found and prayed an “Our Father”.

By the man’s own account, he realized prayer was not only for the things we desire, but affects us: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…

This grieving father, who had absolutely every right to grieve, realized that he would face his son’s murderer one day: and as a Christian –he would need to find it in his heart to forgive.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine even thinking about forgiving someone who killed someone I loved and I have prayed the “Our Father” many, many times. I know I can say these words but I have a lot further to go as a Christian in my own ability to forgive.  If we are to take something as simple as the “Our Father” and stop and reflect upon it, if we are to unpack it: we should come to see that our faith calls us to action, always to act and unceasingly in our desire to act.

We can’t just talk about forgiving, we must actually forgive, and yes, it’s hard; it may at times seem nearly impossible: but it is possible! We know with God all things are possible!

Our readings on this 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time give us opportunity to pause and reflect upon our personal disposition as Catholic Christians, but also to grow in our desire to live-out our faith.  Ezekiel reminds us that it is important not only to see what’s going on, but in a spirit of genuine care and concern for others to try to help others “on the right way; the right path”.  Our Lord Himself reminds us of our “vocation” to help one another, to keep each other on the “right path”.  But it’s also in how we do it.

In my role as Director of Vocations, most of my work is to intimately know the men who are in our seminaries and leading up to that, the men who are discerning possibly the priesthood.  Since St. Joseph’s has many young men who’ve discerned or are discerning: I really can say, it’s my prerogative to know your sons; your brothers as best as I am able to.  Many of these young men are heroic in their desire to serve Jesus & His Holy Church and they want to do great things in the Name of our Lord; I hope that is something we all share in common.

I can assure you, if you don’t know some of the guys in seminary from this parish; their lives and their stories are very inspiring.  When they trust me enough to talk to me about their lives, their viewpoints, their plans, and their desires as God may will, priests one day: I will admit that what motivates many young people towards a life of evangelization is to share “the truth” with others and to help lead others to know God and to live holy, even saintly lives.  That truly is great!

When these courageous, energetic and heroic young men are ready to offer the truth – there’s often another consideration that often seems to be relegated to a place of lesser importance: that part is charity, the virtue of Christian love; deep care and concern for one another.  While many of our guys are great with understanding the “Truth”, it is the case that they have to learn to allow charity and mercy to dominate as well & not be filtered out.  It’s not just the case with men in the seminary, it’s for many of us and I include myself here too.  Most of us have to learn this.  I think it’s because we live in a work that we often feel attacked in our faith or defensive that we tend to go on the attack or offense right away.  We have to let go of our defenses if we are to speak to the truth in charity and in mercy.

Fr. Neiman and I have known each other for a long time, through our seminary days together and so he knows maybe better than anyone here, that this message is one I need to hear maybe more than others. I think I relate to our seminarians because I know how fired up & punchy I’ve been many times over many things too.  I remember in seminary really taking a brother to task for something.  As I recall I was a few years in, and the faculty seemed to be kind of happy or at least accepted that I took him to task.  My spiritual director though, a very wise man did not criticize me and was rather objective about what had taken place, but then he shared a thought with me.  He illustrated the difference between the truth & truth in charity.  He spoke to me about St. Teresa of Calcutta’s life & her having to learn this lesson as well.   Mother Teresa was known as a tough woman (you couldn’t accomplish the things she did in a lifetime without being tough, assertive and sometimes aggressive), but she also came to understand that the truth on its own won’t necessarily lead us to Christ.

We must learn to be gentle, reasoned, and positive and find ways to bring people to an understanding of the truth, more often than not so they get it on their own.  A Christian isn’t called merely to speak the truth, but is called to speak the truth in charity. There is a difference and to be truthful in a charitable and caring way often takes more energy and time; it’s the difference between a reaction to something and a response to a situation or event. My spiritual director did not convict me for how I had behaved, but I got the point he made gently, and this is a part of my daily examen now.

Do I speak to say the truth, or do I sincerely wish a person to come closer to the Lord? 

Today, as I work with seminarians myself, I try to be gentler and see where they are coming from first, I may challenge them but more often I might propose other things for them to consider.  I like St. John XXIII’s famous line and try to live more by these words (I’m not quite there yet): “see everything, overlook a great deal, correct a little”.  I think it’s a particularly relevant phrase for parents, grandparents, priests and anyone in Church ministry.

I am beginning to learn that I don’t need to correct all the time, the Lord provides us the times when we know we must.  We must turn to Jesus and a deeper encounter with Him in order to see that.  When Jesus scolds, admonishes, lectures, when He is blunt and direct: who is that for?  Is it for the poor sinner who is trying but shamefully fails from time to time?  Or is it for the self-righteous one who thinks they speak for the Lord in condemning others & laying burdens upon them?

In my confessional counsel, I often contrast Jesus’ words and His actions; “be perfect as my Heavenly Father is perfect”.  I contrast that with the beauty of the Sacrament of Penance we receive; the same Jesus gave us this sacrament to work out our imperfections.  He wants us to be perfect, yes, but knows we’re not & loves us imperfect as we are.  My friends, I began with a discourse on forgiveness because forgiveness opens our hearts to the rest of what Jesus asks of us.  Helping each other, requires deeper Christian love, and we can’t grow in love for others while we harbour ill-feelings, hatred or unforgiveness towards them.  Forgiveness must come first; then a desire to want what’s best for others, but also for the best reasons.  If we can try to do that we will make this world we all live in a much better place, one action at a time.  We need to start that right here in our parishes, our homes and the places we work and live.  May God bless you.


We Needn’t Bother Asking God to “Go Away”: He Never Gives Up on Us

“Depart from me, Lord for I am a sinful man”.  When St. Peter experiences the Presence of God through Jesus Christ on the Lake of Gennesaret, when he truly encounters the Lord, he has a humbling moment of unworthiness, a moment when faced with what little or weak faith he has had, realizes he shamefully isn’t ready to encounter the Redeemer.  While today’s Gospel is yet another true to life love story of a loving Lord who has mercy and redeems it is also a point for many of us to deeply ponder in our hearts and in our own lives.  This hope-filled confession is what endeared St. Peter to me as a 31 year-old convert and gave me cause to ask him to be my patron saint.  I have grown to love St. Peter more and more as I reflect upon his life, relationship with Jesus and how he aspired for holiness despite his own weaknesses.  As I journey with men discerning priesthood, I know what he could offer would benefit many, maybe even most of the young men discerning.

Unworthiness is often one of the first stumbling blocks and barriers to good vocational discernment.  We often begin to contemplate and consider God calling us to a religious vocation and then run away from the calling because of a sense of our unworthiness.  In a sense we are and always will be unworthy; we simply need to get over it.  In another sense, is it really our place to determine our worthiness if the Lord is calling us, especially given today’s Gospel among other signs?

What did Jesus do when Peter asked Him to leave him be?  He called him more deeply into the mission!  Perhaps he could have consoled him or said “there, there…” or honoured his request, but he did nothing of the sort and instead he gave him a sense of what his meaning in life would be and the purpose of that life.  Peter was called to be holy; to strive for holiness which would mean that he would need to take on the mission of Christ.  It would soon be revealed that he would in fact lead that mission.  Jesus did not leave him in any way, rather drew closer to him.

He does the same for us, and this is a fact that cannot and should not escape us.  Often it does.  Sometimes it is a low sense of self-esteem or self-worth; a lacking we might have to see ourselves the way God sees us.  This happens through a lifetime of others breaking us down.  Sometimes it’s through or by our own sense of sinfulness.  We struggle with some sin or the same sins over and over again, and become disheartened; we give up (or want to).  In all cases, when good vocational discernment ends, or a faith journey ends because of any of these things: it is a sad day indeed!

Be filled with hope; with the virtue of hope!  St. Peter (who wasn’t quite a saint yet when this account took place) continued to grow in holiness, faith and love day by day.  He worked hard to fulfill the mission.  He confessed so often that nearly every account in the Gospels is something of a confession – but one thing he did not do (and neither should we) is give up.  Let’s use St. Peter as our model today and every day.  May we never give up, knowing that the God of love will NEVER give up on us either.

Life is About Being with God as well as Doing for Him

Jesus Tempted

Life has a natural ebb and flow to it, we soon come to discover.  Just as we cycle through the seasons, so too do we cycle through the seasons of our own lives. Most of us (myself included) in a spirit of trying to be in control of things in our lives don’t “go with the flow”.  We seek to orchestrate things the way we want them to go and find a lack of peace at times; then we need to reassess how we live our lives.  Life takes on a greater peace and calmness when we realize that despite having our ups and downs, trials and tribulations, busy times and calm times – we must do what we can and then trust and entrust the rest to the Lord our God.

In today’s Gospel; we hear another account of Jesus healing; this time it’s Peter’s mother-in-law from what ails her.  Jesus is constantly healing, we hear it accounted again and again.  He is constantly and tirelessly (it seems) extending the love, mercy and compassion of God to everyone He meets.  The Son of God invites everyone He heals to a deeper and more commitment life with God but then we hear in today’s Gospel as we hear again and again He withdraws to a “lonely place”.

I feel a sense of conviction, but also happily a deeper sense of calling when I reflect on the healing miracles of Christ.  Jesus is always generous in His Ministry, which I remind myself is supposed to be the ministry I share in, in whatever way I am called to.  But He retreats: He withdraws to a quiet, lonely, “away” place, a place of solitude; essentially a place to pray and to be in uninterrupted communion with the Father.  Jesus models the ebb and flow of the Christian life, not simply in what He does but also in His disposition, His disposition of prayer.  I feel a sense of conviction because I value myself by what I am doing and I have since my teenage years.

I had a part-time job when I was 14, working in landscaping, then at a gas station, then many other jobs, some more interesting than others but I have for more than thirty years of my life put a lot of personal worth and value on how hard I work.  This is a quality that I have been praised by many people for and even as a Catholic priest, I take great satisfaction on working hard and a hard day’s work.  I find myself convicted, because I easily let go of my own prayerful nourishing at the first opportunity to do some more work.  I generally fulfil my priestly obligations and do pray because I have wrapped my head around “the work” of praying as a priest.  Thanks be to God, by His Word He convicts me to withdraw and be with Him.  My priesthood is better for it.  My life is much better for my own communion and conversation with the God who loves me.

It’s not one or the other.  It’s always both, in the ebb and flow of life.  We all must acknowledge that.  The Lord values both, we must too.  In my own life I have, for many years found great value in a strong work ethic.  That is the person I came to be.  Now as a Christian man and a Catholic priest, I acknowledge the Lord is calling me to see His value in being close to Him; to fostering now and always a strong prayer ethic.  The foundation for this helped me see clearly that the Lord was calling me to the priesthood.  Seminary formation helped remind me of this, but old habits die hard.  If my story resonates with you: let’s both be reminded and reflect on today’s Gospel as a deeper calling to both generosity in our Discipleship and generosity in prayer.  Let us pray for that for one other today and every day.

A Few Thought from a Reluctant Blogger

Every now and again I hear from people that they get something from my blog reflections, which is nice to hear – and praise the Lord for that!   My own introduction to the “blogosphere” and my trying my hand at blogging came from my days as Associate Pastor at St. Patrick’s in Markham and an alternative to emailing my homilies when requested by people.  Our Youth Ministry Coordinator introduced me to this form of communication and social media.  It is still somewhat uncomfortable for me to fully engage this work because I feel like it borders on self-promotion for me.  That is not a judgement on others because from the odd Christian blog I’ve read, it occurs to me the need for some great writers to share their reflections in faith for us.  I don’t consider myself among that league of Christians writers, maybe because I’ve never been much of a writer at all.  The only reason I have anything to post is because in the interest of the people I preach to, I need to have a text with me, otherwise my homilies would be very long!

I have continued the blogging into the Office of Vocations, because wise people have continued to encourage me to do this and I figured that I could tie this into my ministry somehow.  My ministry is evolving, and I find myself less often in parishes preaching as I once was.  Relational ministry is the essence of a Vocation Director’s work and I find with more discernment groups and more people to meet; there are less weekends free for parish preaching (as much as I love it).  Without as many new homilies, I find myself blogging less and less.

Recently I’ve asked members of the Vocations Team to create more and write more, and so I too need to “put my money where my mouth is”, so to speak.  Now that I have shared my thoughts today on blogging, I offer you a very short reflection, based on one of my other social media tools which I use more often (because it’s a little easier), my Twitter account, my daily “tweet”.  My Twitter handle is @FatherLemieux.  I also use @vocationsTO, which is our Office of Vocations handle: but it’s a shared account so I use it less frequently and it is less personal than mine.  Anyway my tweet today was this: “Jesus gives us HIS authority over unclean spirits (evil) doing the work of making the world a GOOD place, one action at a time”.

My friends, I truly believe this.  Of course, as a Catholic priest I would never deny the presence of true evil and demonic possession, but these cases are rare.  The Gospel isn’t going to speak to each of our hearts if we consider something that most of us will never directly encounter in our lives: evil in this form.  But there are unclean spirits all around us, evil happening in the world, the community and the places each of us live.  I’m not talking about bad things happening to good people, because that is not evil in the sense of what we’re talking about here.  God’s children doing bad things to each other.  And it doesn’t have to be all that dramatic either. The most insidious of things happen when we are indifferent and complacent in helping others.

But what we are given God’s power and authority to do (each one of us) is to do good and to change the world, one good act at a time.  Friends, as we contemplate today’s Gospel, let us give this some thought.  If any one of us can say we’ve done everything we possibly can – praise God for the good we’ve brought to the world.  If we can do more good and be less complacent or indifferent, then welcome to my club (because I know there’s more I can be doing too) and let’s take the power and authority that comes with being Christian and make this world a better place…one action at a time!

From the Vineyard: The Joy of the Gospel

A couple of days ago, I had the great pleasure to break bread with my Vocation Director whom the Lord used to help me follow Him.  He was an instrumental part of God’s plan in my life; in my own vocation story.  He picked up the phone and called me when he arrived to the Office of Vocations, when I had put discernment of the priesthood on the back-burner and helped me to see past my own limited way of thinking when I was ready to pack it all in (as I struggled with philosophy in the early years).

We have remained friends, and so it’s good to get together as brother priests, with someone who knows me as well as a Vocation Director gets to know men he works with, and now as Vocation Directors sharing ideas.

It was his joy that was an important witness for me in the early days of discernment. Even though I didn’t grow up with any thoughts one way or another about the priesthood; I tended to worry about my own suitability as a man to give my life to something I could sense was as important and noble as the priesthood.  Fr. Liborio was a very real guy, and he shared with myself and many of the men discerning at the time some of his own challenges and struggles – but nothing came in the way of his articulated and evident joy.  I often reflect back now on what I was experiencing as I discerned, and while the evident joy in the men who set examples for me might not have been as profound a reason then, I believe that it truly what compelled me to follow Jesus and give my life to the Church as a priest.  Little by little we are presented with the challenges that a religious vocation has (and there are challenges of course, as there are in every life).  We face our own fears and insecurities and hopefully with good spiritual direction we see past our own noses.  But a man living a good and healthy life, a self-giving life, a life filled with the giving and receiving love-life a priest does in a chaste and celibate but no less intimate way – this is the key to what will beget more priestly vocations.  I am certain more religious vocations in general.

My visit with him the other day was another joyful encounter.  As I have succeeded him as Director of Vocations, and he is once again in parish ministry; it was great to hear of an ever-deepening joy that he experiences as a pastor shepherding (and loving) his people.  It enriches my own ministry to hear the joys of his.  Our conversation helped me to appreciate my present role and ministry all the more, but to also be reminded of the joys of parish ministry too.

Joyful witnesses all around us; as Christians this is what will attract others to want to be Christian.  Living for God and for things greater than ourselves; living lives that are free from many worries, anxieties, fears but in a way that we have to seek to understand rather than merely see in obvious ways: these free us also to live joyful lives…or they should.  When we accept our own shortcomings, weaknesses, sins as opportunities to encounter and grow with the Lord as absolutely and unconditionally loved people; when we accept every good thing about ourselves as gifts given by God and to be shared with others…when we make the grace-filled decision to share our lives generously with others – we will look at many things, and hopefully and eventually everything with the lens of Christian joy.  This is the Joy of the Gospel.  This is the joy which Pope Francis and so many others have encouraged us to seek, to pray for, to never give up on aspiring to in our lives.

Friends, this joy will lead us all to grow today and every day as Christians and if we are open to it; this will lead us to our particular and unique Christian vocation.  My Vocation Director and others helped me find mine.  Who is or will be helping you?