If You Were on Trial for Being Christian: Would You Be Convicted?

“If you were charged today with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

Christian-Persecution-1

I remember being struck by this question; the first time I heard it phrased this way was reading a brief biography of former US President Jimmy Carter and a question which guided the course of his life and the importance of his Christian faith in his life.  It’s a good and important question for us all to consider.  Would there be the evidence to convict us, if we were charged with being Christian? Sadly, there are many days that I think that there would not be the evidence to convict me of being Christian.  So, if you can answer this question as I do sometimes, “there’s not enough evidence…” then what are we doing about it?  The great thing about being Christian is that we are a reconciled people and we know by faith the Lord gives us each day as another chance to get it right – if we try!

We don’t wait for another time or another day to try.  When I was beginning to seriously discern my own vocation to the priesthood, I was really dragging my heels on making a decision.  I thought about continuing to just live my life with comfort and complacency, retiring at 52 from my career at Mississauga Transit and maybe then, the priesthood.  It was my mother, from her hospital bed who spoke to me as Jesus does in today’s Gospel.  “Yeah, you can wait, but should you?  Don’t live your life with regret for not having done what you’re meant to do.”  She was less than a week away from her own death at 52.  That was perhaps one of the greatest wake-up calls I’d ever be given, and something I think of to this very day.

I begin my own day in prayer, asking God to give me the courage, strength and insight to see where and how I can give witness to being a Christian today, each and every day and then I try.  While I convict myself of the times I’m not much of a Christian – every day, every moment of the day is a time to begin again.!

And there must be a sense of urgency and desire to want to begin again.  There must!  Failure to have been a Christian cannot be the cause for us not to try!  We cannot shrink away from trying our best always.  Today’s Gospel offers us this to reflect upon.  What are we doing with the gifts we’ve been given?  Are we storing them up and waiting for some future time?  Are we waiting for a “tomorrow” that may never come?  Are we waiting for things to get better, brighter, and more conducive to what we want of the world?  And if so, what would happen if today were our last day in this world?  Would we have done what we’ve been called to do…or would we regret that we hadn’t?

Lord, Show Us the Way…

I offer a reflection on a beautiful experience I had today, a blessing of my ministry as Director of Vocations for the Archdiocese of Toronto.  We held our first “Road to Emmaus Hiking Retreat” today.  It was a beautiful day where 23 men hiked the Bruce Trail, through the Cataract in Caledon; college and university men, men living out their vocation already, seminarians and men discerning.

Hiking Retreat 1

The Lord was with us as we began our Hiking Retreat early this Saturday morning.  Not only was the Lord with us as we prayed and asked for the Holy Spirit to be present throughout the day, but had blessed us with a gorgeous day for walking the Bruce Trail, by the Credit River, to the Cataract Falls amid the beauty of the autumn colours with the sun gleaming through the trees.  Just over twenty of us; men in college and university, men discerning God’s plan for them in their lives, seminarians, Fr. Ryan Alemão, Joe Di Fonzo and myself prepared ourselves ahead of time for this walk.

Joe Di Fonzo is the Program Coordinator at the Office of Vocations.  He has been instrumental for the past nearly ten years in the office in planning of retreats for young men.  He facilitated our high school retreats that helped young men in high school see God’s love for them and call them to service in Christ.  He is eminently qualified for this task, as a retired Catholic High School teacher of more than thirty years.

This is a new project.  A couple of years ago, Joe and I began discussing the decline we were seeing in those who were coming to the high school retreat and while we have run and will continue to host Discernment Retreats, we have been looking for new ideas to reach young men – an important part of the work we do at the Office of Vocations.  Happily, the decline in part is due to many good retreats and engagements for young people elsewhere; youth and young adult ministries and great ways Catholic Christians are being nourished.  The Office of Vocations never wants to compete with this – it’s not our mission.  The mission of our office isn’t simply to draw in more priests for the Church (that is my own priority) but to provide opportunities and encounters to help people desire holiness.  When we are on the road to living the universal call to holiness, it’s then that we will hear the Lord call us to our particular and unique vocation, whatever that may be.

Joe and I have both come to see the value in doing “guy things” with guys and Joe has run with this from there.

It was a great day of walking through the woods, encountering God in His created world, hearing inspiring reflections from Jeremy Zou, Sean Jacob and Cole Powers, three of our seminarians and having Marko Busic and Matthew Tulio share their own stories and experiences as seminarians, but more importantly as Christian men as they helped lead the retreat and journey the men who joined us.  Fr. Ryan and I concluded the day of reflection and retreat with Holy Mass.

My hope is that everyone received what the Lord intended for them.  He certainly filled my heart with joy and re-energized me in my own life.  He gave me a sense of continuing on my own journey and to appreciate everything I am encountering along the way and to continue to be sensitive to the beauty around me and not just looking for what’s to come at the end of it all (although that’s an even greater glory).  Today I appreciated the time I had to be with others, to be with the Lord in all of His magnificent beauty.  The Lord revealed to me that I need to continue to be inspired, as I was, and am by the people I am blessed to work with – the seminarians, the priests, my staff, and the people who I meet each and every day.  I journeyed and continue to journey with each of the five seminarians who helped to lead this retreat and I received so much more from them then I can imagine they could receive from me.  I’m sure that I’ve been a help to them but they truly inspire me!

I hope and pray we all receive what the Lord wants for us to receive.  We were in the midst of so many people out enjoying the day.  As a priest and a Catholic Christian man, I was immensely proud of the group of men who witnessed to Jesus Christ amid the people and places we all share.  Each and every man who came and joined us today was an inspiration in a world that needs to be inspired!

Taking Up the Cross for Others

Taking Others' Crosses

We might be considering in our personal reflections of today’s Gospel – the personal crosses we bear and take the time to “configure” those crosses to the Cross of our Lord: a worthy exercise to be certain and most definitely a part of the Christian experience.  We might even be prepared at this point to “weather” the comments from people who ridicule us for this as the “absurdity” of Christianity that we create for ourselves a way to put on a happy face about suffering in this life, but delude ourselves.

Something worthy of consideration today might be to ask ourselves: “am I prepared to see today’s Gospel in light of the crosses I bear in serving others”?  Denying ourselves – taking up our cross – following Jesus.  These are all important parts of the Christian life of service too.  In serving others if we are truly servants, there will always be a growing commitment to self-denial.  True Christian service cannot be seen as a part-time desire, it requires a certain part of ourselves that will always bring about the tension of our own desires.  Of course we need to take care of ourselves too – this is important – but we need to be constantly seeking and searching for ways and places to serve others whom the Lord has put in the path of our Christian vocation.  This is going to require self-denial.  Sometimes putting the needs of others before our own needs.  Often being more generous with our time.  Often being more generous with our availability.  Often with a greater sense of awareness and focus on the needs others present to us.

The crosses we may bear might at first glance seem self-evident; but I would suggest that this might be the discomfort of self-denial.  It’s in helping others carry their crosses sometimes, or carrying the cross of being there for others that are the crosses we bear in service.  And it’s those crosses that we must consider – always knowing that as heavy as they may seem sometimes; our Lord is carrying the heaviest part (that person’s and your) Cross Himself.

Finally, we need to remember for every helping action we take, every moment we give, every kindness we extend, everything that we do – we do for the Glory of God and in the Name of Jesus Christ!  Always and without exception.  This may not be something that we talk about or even need to say.  “They will know we are Christians by our love…” was the title of a song I recall from my childhood.  This too often is the truth of today’s Gospel.

What Do You See When You Look in a Mirror?

Ash Wednesday

How many of us kept the ashes we received at Mass today on our forehead?  How many of us wiped them off after Mass and as we headed back home or work?  How many of us wore them as a source of pride?  Certainly if the Cross was pronounced or stark, it would be a talking point for some.

Now how many of us felt a little perplexed to ask what should we do, in light of today’s Gospel?  Jesus tells us not to make a spectacle of our faith and make a show of it – INSTEAD, we should “pray in our room and in secret”.  Have we got it all wrong in keeping our ashes?

I think it’s how we wear those ashes that matter, my friends.  If we wear them “as a source of pride” or ANYONE around us can see a contradiction between the ashes we carry and the person behind them…we’ve got work to do.  I think most of us humbly begin Lent recognizing that we have work to do anyway.  When we look in a mirror, are we reminded of what those ashes signify?  That we are mortal and that our lives, while they are of great value and matter greatly to the Lord our God and surely to many other people too – are more than the earthen vessel (our bodies) which contain our immortal souls.  Is what “moves” us to action a recognition of a need to be like Christ?  Or are we comfortable to be inactive; living for ourselves, for comfort, for today, for the lesser things in life – in which case, we do the world a disservice wearing ashes or calling ourselves God-loving, God-fearing people.

Friends, if and ONLY IF we are prepared to wear our ashes as a sign of a new beginning today, then we can wear them in the Joy of Christ who shall be ever closer to us through these forty days ahead.  May God bless you!

Are We Becoming the Best Christians We Can Be?

Jesus Being Baptized

Today’s Gospel gave me occasion to reflect once again upon two contrasting periods of my own life; my youth and young adulthood and my middle adulthood and conversion.  As a boy, a teen and a young man I was lost and without a “compass” in my life.  Surely now I know the constant anger I carried with me was one born of this sense of loss without hope.  In that period of life, I most definitely did not “know” or have Jesus Christ in my life, and while much of the reason for that was my own anger, ignorance and stubbornness (walls the Lord tore down and continues to in my life); it was also due to the very bad example of Christians in my life at those times.  I had them, and while it might at times seem “just” to name names, I know the Lord who brought me to conversion can do so with those who “in the name of Christ” gave me the sense I never wanted to be a Christian.

The other period was my slow-moving and wonderful conversion of heart.  Still skeptical, resistant, hard-headed in many ways – I was open enough to let the Lord in!  It was also very much the amazing example of generous and devout Christians who showed me the joy my life could be about, not living for myself but for the Lord and for others.  They didn’t merely talk about it, they lived it.  They admitted their imperfections but didn’t live in sin.  They knew they were sinners, but well aware of God’s love for them.  They made Jesus Christ and His Church attractive and I was captivated for several years before I actually “made the plunge” and asked to become a Catholic Christian myself.  That was 16 years ago now, and while I struggle to be a better Christian day by day; it’s a joyful struggle.  It’s joyful because I am filled with hope now.  Hope that God truly does deliver on His Promise.  Joyful because I too know that despite my sins and weaknesses (and I have many) I am a loved sinner.

Today’s Gospel highlights for me the importance of being a good Christian!  It gave me cause to reflect (from my own life experience) on what could happen to a person when we aren’t a good witness and while bad examples contributed to keeping me away from God for many years; I am not resenting or unforgiving towards those people.  Instead I pray for them.  I pray that if they’re alive or if they are gone, that Jesus won them back.  In my own conversion story, they gave me cause to forgive and the grace when I did so.

The other part of this story is that I don’t reflect back on that time of my life now and point a finger at those people without accepting that it is very possible there are people in my life now who did not see the best example of a Christian in me.  There’s a possibility that I have been that bad example too, and while I might not even be aware of who those people are; I pray they have found Jesus sadly, without my help and I pray that if I were to come to know them I would have the courage and strength to ask forgiveness.  This morning, as we consider God’s love and mercy expressed in the readings, most especially the Gospel – can we have the strength to commit ourselves today and each day to being the best Christians we can be?

Are We Reaching Out to the Scattered?

Jesus Gets the Lost Sheep

I really love today’s Gospel, because I often reflect upon being one of those sheep who went astray and the Lord in His Great Love (with better things to do and better people to save) chose to come and get me.  I also know He did so through some really great people!  While I think about this often (as you probably notice if you’ve read a few of my reflections) I also know I’ve got a long way to go in being one of those people who is a true Instrument of the Lord in bringing others back.

It’s hard to let go of the security we have and find in our faith.  As a priest, I am called upon by the Lord to emulate Him as Shepherd.  It is my role and duty to leave the 99 and go find the one and yet it’s very easy to preach to the choir.  We priests can find ourselves so busy that we stay in our churches, among the gathered and don’t find the time to reach out to the scattered.  This is where we are not doing our jobs unless we empower others to take care of the gathered, as they themselves are gathered and then empower even more to come and help us reach the scattered.

I think of my first parish assignment, at St. Patrick’s in Markham.  I remember being told by some of my mentors and priest friends that I should not spend an inordinate amount of time in the schools, that what I had a passion for as a seminarian was not my job as a priest.  I took it to heart that too much time in the schools might be self-serving and that I should consider my place in celebrating the Sacraments inside the parish.  I took this to prayer and really felt that the Lord showed me it was not selfish or self-serving and I don’t recall a time I neglected to show up for the parish sacraments, and I did more in our feeder schools than I did as a seminarian.  I don’t share this to make a point about me, but rather to say that we need to rely on the Lord in this way.  For the many (many) things the Lord needs to continue to reveal to me, one thing He has already shown me is the importance of going out in search of the “scattered”.  I spent a lot of time in the schools as a parish priest, and I know as many of us do that there are a large number of students, just as their parents have stopped coming to Church – have very limited ways of knowing the love and mercy of God and I saw in the questions of these kids a thirst for something that was not mine to decide to give or not give.  The Word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ is not meant for who we decide it should be for – only the worthy.  It is for all.  I am a recipient of that, when I was far-scattered, I am truly thankful the Lord came to me!

Do We Set Limits Upon the Lord?

jesus-heals-paralyzed-man

In today’s Gospel, Jesus forgives sins and then when He is challenged by the scribes and Pharisees, performs the lesser of the miracles and grants the paralyzed man his ability to walk and move.  Of course it bothers us that Jesus is challenged by these narrow-minded ideologues who are threatened by the “authority” they believe they deserve and not this “man from Nazareth”.  But what our Gospel calls us all to consider today is not how ideologues can get in the way of the Lord’s work, but to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Can we be narrow-minded when it comes to the Lord’s saving work in our lives and the lives of others?
  • Can we place limits on what God can do?
  • Can we miss the “big picture” of what God is trying to accomplish because of what we think should be accomplished?
  • Why should we (and do we) have faith in God and trust Him?

There are many more questions today’s Gospel could call upon us to reflect upon but I think about my own faith journey and how I spent so much of my own life with great limits that I placed upon the Lord.  When I accepted Jesus Christ, my heart became more and more open to so many important things:

  • I learned how to truly love and be merciful and compassionate to others
  • I learned how to begin channel my own passions in life (which were manifested mostly in anger to that point)
  • I learned what it means to be truly human, truly alive, to truly live
  • I learned what it means to live for something much greater than myself.

I’ve learned some of these things, but must admit that I am a work in progress this way and I need to continue to grow and learn through my faults and failings too.  Jesus has performed the greatest of all miracles for me – and now as I live my own vocation as one of His Priests, through me as well:

Jesus has forgiven me of my sins, He continues to forgive me of my sins and has extended to me Infinite Love and Infinite Mercy – and has asked me to do the same as a follower.  In and through my vocation, He has also called me to extend this very miracle of forgiving sins.  And if that’s not enough (and it truly is) He has also given me (us) our life back.

2nd Sunday of Advent: Does our Vocation Include Being “John the Baptist”?

Jesus Being Baptized

These words of the Prophet Isaiah were fulfilled by St. John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.   Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”   We hear these words in our Gospel today.  If we carefully and slowly meditate upon these words, we too by our own vocation are called to be John the Baptists in the world today.  We too were set apart at birth (connecting us again to Mary yesterday) and we too were given our mission.  What’s different is that unlike Mary and St. John, who lived most of their lives completely in God’s mystery and thus had to have complete faith and trust that God’s plan was coming about (so had to rely on the virtue of hope as well) we are given much of the Mystery already!  We follow the Mystery – the Son of God, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  Our Immaculate Re-Conception and our Mission is given to us on the day of our Holy Baptism – when Original Sin is taken away from us and we are made New in Christ.  From that day, we seek to be like Jesus and we are people who throughout our lives must seek to pave a way for others to follow the Lord.  

We seek to get ourselves to Heaven and bring as many people with us as we can.

We work in whatever ways we can to remove obstacles and barriers for people so they find their way to Jesus.  When I think about how I “found Jesus” late in life (in my late 20’s, and Jesus found me, I didn’t really find Him) it was the holy example of others, not the pulpit they preached from or the position of moral superiority I recognized.  I have come to hear beautiful things from pulpits (and hopefully share a few inspiring thoughts myself) and have come to see the importance of a good clear sense of morals, but these did not come first for me, they are not the “roads” or “paths” I must take as a Priest of Jesus Christ, nor are they of value first for anyone.  People must “know we are Christians by our love, our faith and trust, our peaceful sense of hope amid the challenges of the world, our true and authentic joy even in turbulence, strife, struggle and uncertainty.

Are we preparing a way for the Lord, into the hearts of others?  Perhaps on this Second Sunday of Advent, we might consider how we can continue doing this or begin to do this this very day!

What Does the Immaculate Conception Have to do With Us?

Immaculate Conception

Mary, the Mother of Jesus (of God) who we affectionately and personally call “Our Lady” was born fully and completely human and by the Grace of God had the stain of Original Sin, which affects us all – taken away from her.  Why do we accept and believe this?  Why is this important?  And what does it have to do with us?

We accept and believe that Mary was conceived immaculately because her life was given in service to the Lord, from the time she was born, through her childhood, adolescence, young adult and until her dying day, she served God with every virtue given (faith, hope and charity) and every virtue she worked at day by day.  This is important because it brings together the freedom every one of us have been given (to choose to do God’s will or not) and Divine Providence (that Almighty God Himself knows every action and the outcome of a life).  In knowing this, Mary is given (and we are given too) special gifts, in her case because her vocation is best suited by it, she is conceived immaculately.  Mary was fully capable of sinning and we sometimes forget this – but in choosing not to, she responded daily to God.  She responded with an openness and obedience; a faith deepened constantly by trust.

Mary in the truest sense, lived and breathed her vocation.  Mary lived out from beginning to end her life’s purpose!  She is a model Christian, and we can learn a lot from her.  We may not have been conceived immaculately, but then we need to remember that our vocation is no less important to the Lord, or to Our Lady.  We, like her were given gifts from our conception, gifts that we can only know with prayerful self-reflection: not to use for selfish purposes but for self-less giving to God and to others.  Divine Providence is in play in our lives as well; that is, God has a plan and a desire for each one of us and there is something universally and personally important for us to be doing in and with our lives: maybe to be a Priest of Jesus Christ and make present His Sacraments for us all, maybe to be a Religious or Consecrated Sister or Brother and dedicate our lives to service of God and His Church in ways of the utmost importance to salvation, maybe in the Generous Single Life in Christ giving ourselves totally and completely to Christ and His Church and maybe as a devoted Husband or Wife; Mother or Father married to God and to our spouse and building up the Church through the family we love and minister to; creating Holy Families throughout the world.

Have You Been Healed by Jesus in a Personal Way?

Jesus Heals Two Blind Men

Have we (you) had a personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ?  Has He healed you of your blindness?  I have had one of those experiences and I was healed, but I continue to need healing from so many of the ways that I am blind.

In today’s Gospel we hear of two blind men calling out in public for Jesus the Messiah (Son of David recognizes His predicted coming in the line of King David, as it is written) to have mercy on them.  They are aware of the Messiah in their midst but we also hear that Jesus waits until they are inside the house to speak to them: placing a premium on the personal encounter and it is there and through that personal encounter they are healed.

I’ve spent the majority of my life being hostile to religion and to religious people, most notably Christians because almost everyone I knew was Christian.  I had no interest in anything religion was about until I came to a point of realization that I wasn’t living for anything real or significant in my life: the very accusation I made against religious people.  I wasn’t an atheist, I did believe in a Creator God and it was to Him I prayed.  I had a personal encounter with Jesus His Son, first through the Word and then a few years later through His Sacraments and through His Church.  Over several years, the love I was coming to receive, know and accept from God was leading me to “see things” I was not and had not seen before.  Little by little, I was less blinded by my opinions and judgments and more open to the grace and love of God in my life, and then as God desired it – I had sight to see the goodness of people.

I think of the amazing “miracles” of healing that have taken place in my life.  I think also of the work the Lord still has to do.  When I read and reflect upon today’s Gospel, I also think of how I gained sight through my own personal encounter with Jesus.  And I am blessed to spend my life (through the priesthood) thanking Him for it and asking Him to continue healing me of what I need healing from in order to live the best Christian life I can.