Thursday After Ash Wednesday: Ready for Christ?

I’m living in a world where the essence of Jesus’ message and today’s Gospel are the essence of consideration: “…pick up your own cross, deny yourself and follow the Lord”.  This is the essence of a vocation, any and all vocations and this is what we want from someone discerning – to “own” these words for themselves.  Whether we are living out our Christian Discipleship or coming to discover what our vocation is (how we will uniquely and completely live out that Discipleship) we need to prepare ourselves for these three things.

Picking Up Our Cross(es).  Our lives will be filled with joy and blessing, we will feel “in sync” with the world around us when we have a good sense of what our meaning and purpose in this world is as Christians.  But we must remember that while the greatest part is joy and fulfilment, the crosses we carry are every bit as important a part as the more positive stuff.  We are actually formed more by our crosses and hardships than we are by the successes we experience in life.  People that find success in everything they do and accustom themselves to only that, or don’t suffer along the way tend to have a hard time dealing with the hardships when they come (and they will come).  Fear may keep us at first from embracing the crosses but we must remind ourselves that fear is a barrier to a truly Christian life.  Pushing through our fears will lead us to the treasure of true and real faith and the treasure of holiness.

Denying Ourselves.  Often we think our vocation or the Discipleship we are called to live is for ourselves – what is God’s plan for me!  A vocation, Christian Discipleship is for others and the only way we can truly and fully give ourselves totally and completely for others is to deny ourselves in the process.  We are not being called to give everything away and have nothing for ourselves; even Jesus took care of Himself as He ministered to others, but if we’re not prepared to deny ourselves we will deny others instead.  We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to give, to be available – for others.  And in doing so, we encourage others to do the same.

Following Christ.  Last but most certainly not least is to follow Christ.  The first two actions precede following Christ.  In order to follow Christ we need to be like Him.  He picked up His cross, not only just before Golgotha, but at Cana – when He began His ministry.  He was prepared by God for that and then picked up the Cross.  We know He denied Himself throughout the Gospel as He experienced the attacks from all sides and He followed God’s plan as we do.

In these holy days of Lent, as we consider our Lord’s plan for us, may we make this here our motto: Picking up Our Cross, Denying Ourselves & Following Him!

Conversion – One Day at a Time

As a Catholic convert and the privilege of my ministry listening to the Lord’s powerful calling of people to serve His Church as priests, religious and dedicated Disciples; todays feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is another occasion for deep and profound reflection.

We like to hear the powerful and dramatic conversion stories, like that of St. Paul, St. Augustine or Thomas Merton among so many others. In fact, the accounting of my own vocation story has dramatic moments or elements to it; but I have come to appreciate that rarely is a conversion as dramatic as we make it out to be.

It would be a mistake, my friends to fixate on the moment of Saul’s conversion as the most important part of the story. It isn’t. There are many who have stories similar to his whom we don’t remember and aren’t talking about. Why? The “drama” didn’t bring that person to the life long conversion which we celebrate in the person of St. Paul as he left his life as Saul of Tarsaus behind.

I have a good friend of mine, a priest of more than 40 years who came to talk to our Associates a couple of years ago who offered an important piece of wisdom from his lifelong commitment to his priesthood and priestly life. He told these young men about the ups and downs of his life in an honest way, of joys and struggles. He spoke of the day of his ordination and the importance of the ‘yes’ he made before the bishop on that day but stressed the importance of the ‘yes’ every single day of his life. He made a profound point for myself, the other young priests there and many of the young men discerning. I can attest to the joy and appreciation many have for this priest’s vocation and his life. But the moment it began isn’t as important as the daily commitment. It’s the same as for St. Paul. His daily commitment is why we celebrate his conversion. Remembrance of an event, but the less obvious event of his life.

Will others celebrate the “event of our lives”. We all have a conversion, reversion or deeper conversion moment; we may even be having one right now. The focus should not be what other people do in the celebration of our life, but as people of faith the recognition that Our Lord celebrates with us. The Communion of Saints celebrate with us. Will they be celebrating the moment – this moment – when we lived every day for the Lord and for others?

St. John the Baptist: May We be More Like Him Everyday!

exaltation of the cross

St. John the Baptist should be a model and mentor for how we live as Christians.  His life given totally to God and “preparing the way for the Lord”, even though we can be fairly certain he didn’t know exactly how the Day of the Lord was to take place.  He didn’t need to, he had faith and surely his faith grew as he committed himself to trust God.  Certainly he was given the gifts he used to bring people to a “baptism of repentance”, but unlike each one of us Christians, he did not have the blessing of knowing the whole story – he did not have the big picture that we are blessed to have by being born anno Domini nostri Jesu Christi and having the Holy Tradition and Holy Gospels of the Church.  Given that, I think it’s even more remarkable, the faith and trust John had.

“I am not the Messiah” is a key phrase in today’s Gospel account of this piece of John’s life.  He is not, yet was indeed empowered by the Lord to prepare everything for the coming of the Messiah more deeply into the hearts of those who wanted to be close to God.  We are not the Messiah, nor should we ever think ourselves to be when we utilize our God-given gifts and evangelize in the world today.  We most definitely should not shrink or shy away from the gifts, the tools the Lord has given us to “prepare the way” for others to be closer to Christ.  One of the greatest tragedies for the Christian faith, is Christians shrinking away or hiding themselves so that others don’t feel “offended” by us.  We may believe that we live in a time where we believe that the mention of our faith, that our firm purpose to profess ourselves Christians will offend people – and maybe it will.  But all we need to do is open our Bibles, and to look at the Gospels to know that Jesus, and John the Baptist “offended” people too.

We need to radiate the faith that is ours.  There is a way to do it, of course.  We must radiate love, compassion, joy first.  We know all too well that this is not always the case.  Although John the Baptist, and even Jesus may be remembered in the Gospel as challenging certain groups by calling them out, “you brood of vipers” if somehow we have it that this was the predominate message, we’ve lost perspective on the Life of Christ altogether.  Love, compassion, mercy, joy, love (yes, I did mention love twice) predominated the Gospel message.

I can assure you, that I too am someone who needs to hear these words and to live by them.  I can assure you that today I am going to do what I can to be more like John the Baptist (which also means more like Jesus) and prepare the way for the Lord, and remember “I am not the Messiah”, but I am someone by my own Baptism in the Lord who needs to seek to allow Him first to enter more deeply into my own heart, and then seek to be fearless in bringing Him into the world of ours – that so much needs Him.  May God bless us all in this!

Our Thankful Hymn of Praise to God

Today’s Gospel is traditionally known as the Magnificat, Our Lady gives praise to God for the great work He plans and delivers upon through her.  Mary’s Magnificat is an important proclamation because it demonstrates a humble young woman with a thankful heart who is ready for the great vocation God has in store for her.

Gratitude is an important disposition and attribute for every one of us.  If you’re anything like me, you can find yourself annoyed and irritated and “glass half-empty” too often in your life, so trying our best to have a constant spirit of gratitude is essential to healthy growth as a Christian.  It was something that was impressed upon me when I first began spiritual direction, and as a priest and a Spiritual Director myself I usually asked my directees to begin their times of prayer with some gratitude to God for the gifts He has given us.  Gratitude allows us to see God’s beautiful work in our lives and with thankful hearts we can see more clearly God’s action in our lives.  Key to Mary’s thankful disposition is also the disposition of humility; to accept that everything is gift from God and nothing “deserved” helped her, and it helps us to be even more thankful for what is given to us.

Perhaps as we prepare for the Lord’s Coming, more deeply into our hearts, our souls and our lives; maybe we can spend a little time today with Mary’s Magnificat and following her lead offer a Magnificat of our own.

Gaudete Sunday: Are We Truly Rejoicing in the Lord?

Advent is not merely a season we pass through on our way to Christmas; it is an important liturgical season, but even more than that: it is a season of our own very Christian lives.  We rejoice today at Christ’s first coming, at His coming again (to us in this season as we prepare and commit ourselves to a deeper faith) and His Final Advent when He returns to bring us all who truly desire it, with Him.  All “Advents” are vitally important, all are worth rejoicing in.

God in His great love for us entered human history as one of us, He came and redeemed us, as we were all in need of redemption.  We have been getting it wrong since the beginning, in the Garden of Eden.  The faithful, or those who were becoming faithful prepared for the coming of the Christ child and our Gospel readings and Isaiah’s Prophecy reminds us of how amazing, special, important and earth-shattering that First Noel really was.

God in His great love for us, continues to be with us first of all by giving us the ongoing Presence of His Son in Word (Gospels) and Deed (Sacraments, most especially the Holy Eucharist).  This means His Son has never left us, but today’s Advent is by means of the Holy Spirit who enters more deeply into the heart of the believer (hopefully us) and allows God’s love to penetrate more deeply.  We prepare the Way for the Lord in our hearts as we reflect upon another year and seek greater wisdom and understanding so that we may be more dedicated Christian Disciples today and every day.  What a reason to rejoice!

And God is His Greatest act of love ever, desires us to be with Him forever and the meaning and purpose of our lives and everyone else’s, whether they know it or not is to joyfully prepare for the Last Advent when Christ will come and the fullness of redemption will be completed.  In so many ways, we cannot place our focus on this because we wouldn’t be as engaged in being Christian and living as we ought to today if we were awaiting that Last Advent.  In another way, it is good to be consciously aware of it, as to do so brings about a sense of urgency in being or becoming the very best versions of our Christian selves we can be.  St. Teresa of Calcutta was known for imploring priests “celebrate this Mass like it’s your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass”.  I have really tried to own these words as we all should in participating at the Mass as well – but the sentiment extends beyond Holy Mass to everything we do as Christians.  We cannot and should not wait for another day to be amazing, ardent and evangelizing Christians.  We have our mission: to get ourselves to heaven and bring as many people with us as we can!  Let’s then do so joyfully on this Gaudete Sunday when we are aware or should become aware of how very much indeed we are loved and may we rejoice in that.

2nd Saturday of Advent: Do We Really See the Lord?

A couple of years ago, we had a Jesuit retreat master for our priest’s retreat in the Archdiocese of Toronto.  He was very good, but made a comment about the state of our political climate of our country and even within the political climate of the Church that in a desire to be open to everything going on in the world around them they were what they might fashion, open-minded.  The retreat master added, “their minds were so open, their brains fell out”.  Of course, we all laughed at the humourous quip; but I can imagine that we all sat there and imagined somebody else, someone we knew or had met or had listened to – and we knew that person but I’m guessing that if you read most of our minds in that room (I’m sure it was mine), hundreds of priests though we were – not one of us was that person.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Jesus would come and tell us directly and without any possibility for interpretation; whether He preferred we celebrate Holy Mass facing the people or ad orientum, in the Extraordinary Form or Novus Ordo, what how exactly He wants us to treat the topic pastorally of same-sex relationships, trans-gender, divorce and remarriage and the list goes on.   Wouldn’t it be amazing if we weren’t left hanging or guessing?  Well, based on my best guess about what we were thinking when our retreat master presented our current world reality to us – is to ask: is there a chance we’d miss it anyway?

This is only one man’s guess, but I think part of the reason that Jesus doesn’t give us every single answer is that He gives us exactly what our disposition as Christian Disciples is meant to be, and because He gives us that and expects us to apply it to our lives – everything else should be seen with the lens of that.  I’m the first to admit (right now) that I get caught up sometimes in all the polemics of the Church and I tend not to read the paper because the commentary on our political landscape and the politicians tends to rile me (and I don’t want that in my life, in the morning especially).  It is true that what some present as open-minded is not that at all, as there are very clear signs that those same people are closed to something else, someone else and someone else’s opinion.  I am not saying that we need to be open to all opinions, because that isn’t necessarily true either; but our disposition should be open to all people and seek to understand things before being understood about things.  This very basic principle of life is one which I think many of us need to pause and consider – how many of our arguments are a result of our needing to be heard and be right?

Jesus speaks Elijah having come (John the Baptist) and some heard, but many did not.  He spoke in their midst and how many heard and recognized God among them?  How many of us would?  This is why we need to work on our disposition, and Jesus gives us EVERYTHING we need to do that.

  • Love above everything else; we need to love one another with the greatest love
  • Try to understand others first, before wanting to be understood by others
  • Acknowledge our own wrongdoing (the “log”) before pointing out the wrongdoing (the “speck”) of others
  • it sounds cliche, but ask honestly “what would Jesus do?” not the Jesus in our mind, but the Jesus we know intimately through His Word (Scriptures) and Deed (Sacraments)

Surely there are other things, but these are a few thoughts for the day.  If we focus on these things, we can and will build on it from there.  We need to have Christ’s disposition before we’ll ever recognize Him in our midst.

Ignoring Our Calling

Ignoring our vocation is not an option for the Christian.  I am speaking of vocation firstly in the broader sense of the calling everyone of us has been given by God Himself; to be holy.  Our relationship with God and with the world as His Disciple is the most important thing we do in this life and everything else centers around it.  Everything.  We can live as married men and women or religious and consecrated men and women.  Some men can live as priests – and still not be holy, so as not to fulfill or honour their primary vocation.  And they won’t live effectively their secondary or particular and unique vocation very well without honouring the first.  Ignoring our call to holiness isn’t going to get us very far, certainly not closer to God and heaven and our faith is neither an ideal or a set of precepts but about an encounter and relationship and we must follow the call that has been made for all time: come to me, follow Me and I am with you and want you with Me; now and in Paradise!  That is Jesus’ call to us and for us.

Often I have been asked when I speak about vocations, “what if God wants me to be a priest and I don’t want to or ignore God?”  Obviously there are many layers in a question like this, but I always begin by asking those who think this way, to put God first.  Be holy and everything else will be taken care of.  Striving for holiness and becoming holy means that we have the humility to listen to God in prayer and know that He speaks to the heart and calls us to a life that is for Him and for others.  Sacrifice is a part of it, but a particular and unique vocation is going to fit the person.  We can and will see that when we are striving for holiness.  Even the process of discernment contributes to our ongoing growth in holiness.

First thing’s first: we have to be talking with God.  Prayer and spending time with the Lord is important because we are developing and growing in relationship with (Him) the One we love.  Serving and giving to others is important because all vocations are a total gift of ourselves for God and for others.  There aren’t vocations that are self-serving, self-centered or selfish.  We need to continue to get to know Him, which is why we are always focusing on Sacred Scripture and allowing the Church and the Church’s teachings to be an important part of our lives.  That is why we allow the Sacraments to draw us ever closer to God.  When our lives are centered on these things: we are growing simultaneously as Disciples.  As we do this, in time, we begin to ask the question: “Lord, how do you want me to live my life as a Disciple?” and “Lord, what do you want me to do with my life?”

But we don’t put the cart before the horse, so to speak.  When we do, we confuse things.  We don’t ask whether we should live our lives as priests, husbands, wives, religious sisters or brothers until we are seeking day by day to live a holy life and answer the Lord’s call each day.  If we seek to do this, there’s little chance that we ignore the calling God has for each one of us, His invitation or our acceptance of that invitation

What’s the Difference Between Heaven & Earth?

In today’s Gospel Jesus makes a distinction between what we see in this world and what Heaven will be.  John the Baptist is the greatest of the Prophets, for he prepared the way for the Lord, the Incarnate Son of God to come into the world and most pointedly, into our very hearts and lives.  He was the one who prepared those who opened their hearts – to receive God.  As we hear the Baptist’s words in Advent: are we prepared to receive God into our very heart and souls, or perhaps in a deeper way?  Even though John the Baptist was a Great Prophet and a very important instrument of grace; Jesus tells us that Heaven will blow our minds with magnitude, splendor and greatness.  By offering us a sense of how great Heaven is – Jesus shares with us the importance of our being ready for that reality; our preparation here in this world is for the eternal reality we hope for.

As a Disciple who lives out my discipleship as a priest, I am asked the question (and consider it for myself), when is enough enough?  When have we/I done all we need to do?  When can we be assured we are living as the kind of Christians we are called to be?  The answer, when we get ourselves to heaven and we bring as many with us as we can.  That may seem like a non-answer or a pious platitude that doesn’t actually say anything: but it says everything!  Our encounter with God is a relationships and the very best of relationships don’t end.  They require constant work, and while we can enjoy the relationship and really, we must, we don’t sit back and become complacent friends or spouses.  Our relationship with God is no different and of the greatest importance.  God the Son gives us all that is required and when we have completely fulfilled that: we are ready and assured of heaven!  And that is a lifetime’s opus!

Our first task this Advent season is this: encounter God again.  This is not to imply we haven’t been, but read and hear the Gospels with fresh ears, new eyes and an openness to what God the Holy Spirit wishes to impart.  Then we must live our Christian lives in an even more committed and dedicated way.  Be encouraged that by living in more committed ways, no matter what we struggle with, God is with us and we must then invite others to do the same.  We cannot wait to be saints to call others to the same.  We must remain sinners who seek to be saints to invite others to the same.  That is what Christians must be!  We are not hypocrites in this way unless we deny our sinfulness.  We reconcile with God through confession and acknowledge our sins are “thorns” that remind us how in need of Jesus we really are.  Regular reconciliation paves the way to live for the very best part of what a Christian does.  To evangelize and to spread the Word – God loves us, calls us close to Him, wants us with Him forever in Paradise.  Paradise is not here: it’s in heaven.  Let us head there together.

2nd Tuesday of Advent: Jesus Speaks in the Most Unassuming Ways

In today’s Gospel, we have young Mary and her relative Elizabeth, both women who are so very different, but share something in common.  Most certainly it is that they carry the Gift of Life within them, lives that will arguable be some of the most impacting lives in human history; but they also share in common that they, themselves are two of the most unassuming people who are essential to human history themselves.

During this Advent season, it is important for us to stop and think about the people around us, the people in our daily lives who make a great impact upon us and the world we live in.  They are often times the most unassuming people.  Recently, there was a very sad article in the news of a couple of police officers who made fun of a young woman with Down’s Syndrome.  While the media sources villainized these police officers, the young girl and her mother, while disappointed in the behaviour of these men who should have known better – were very forgiving.  This was a story which was only in the news cycle (as best as I could see it) one day: but had a powerful impact upon me.  Sometimes news outlets publish these kinds of stories to evoke outrage in us, and the behaviour should be something we find deplorable but it was in what was least important that I found the most in this story myself.  It was the forgiving spirit of this young woman.  She was not hung up on the things the rest of us were.  She taught me in her response to the reporter’s questions to relax and get off my own high horse and to let more go.  I don’t know if she was a Christian, but she certainly acted like Christ.

I think you get the point; this news story was not on the news as a feel-good story, it had no religious overtones; but this young woman taught me humility, generosity and something about forgiveness in a very unassuming way.  Every one of us encounters these kinds of people and situations all the time, and we’re only sometimes aware of them.  We’re aware of the unassuming yet generous nature of Mary and Elizabeth, because we’re expecting it and awaiting it in the Gospels.  What the Gospels teach us is what we need to go and discover in the world we live in day by day.  Let us consider today, where will we encounter Christ in the most unassuming ways and people.  May God bless you.

From Seed to Harvest to Seed Again: The Cycle of Faith

Another cycle in the Office of Vocations (for 2016-2017) concludes and at the same time we begin again (for 2017-2018).  This may be more the manner in which the staff and I reflect upon the year and not the reality of vocation work which really never ends and besides that each of us, most especially myself – we need to be attentive to the Lord and the needs of His Disciples when they come.  It is just a little quieter around the office right now and it’s the time I’m taking to reflect upon the last year as I prepare for a new one.  It’s time to gain a little perspective.

I feel truly blessed to be a part of the vocations scene in the Archdiocese of Toronto.  This is an amazing ministry to be a part of.  To have the grace and blessing to be a part of someone’s life as they discern is great honour.  When a man or woman discerns God’s will in this way, they need to be close to God.  Unless its a work of vanity or a narcissistic ambition, which a true vocation never will be: it can only be discerned with the help of God and a sincere desire to experience God, to be close to God.  To “weed out” narcissists and the ambitious is part of the Vocation Director’s role and one that I take very seriously.  My own love for the people I have been blessed to serve motivates me to be very attune to these kinds of things: I am happy to say we have had very few of these kinds of candidates.  Young people with loving hearts, a deep love for the faith that they have been given as a gift, a passionate love for the Church that gives them life and a sincere desire to serve gives us a number of very fine candidates for priesthood and religious life.

We’re looking for more.  It’s also part of my role to consider the ways we reach out to people and how we make priesthood especially attractive to men who may then in turn consider a vocation.  Rarely though will it be anything that I do or can do which will lead a man to discern priesthood; he will already have considered it.  This is why our seminarians are such a key part of God’s plan in calling others forward.  When men encounter the men already discerning it helps them to see this is not such an absurd vocation in the world we live in.  In fact, it is heroic, noble, powerful, Christian; it is true Discipleship and it is rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is important that those discerning seeing joyful witnesses of the Gospel (which is why Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation was so important) because priesthood and religious life while it may be in many ways “counter-cultural” and not the natural choice for many: it is a beautiful life, a powerful life, a life lived closed to our God.

Our Readings at Holy Mass this Sunday speak of sewing seeds, seeds themselves and the harvest.  They gave me food for thought and reflection on the cycle of life.  Cycles are important, because we see the cycle of life in almost everything living.  As a Vocation Director who has discerned with many in these past few years; I’ve seen the beginnings of vocational discovery in discernment, through to men making the decision to enter seminary (and women discerning religious life too).  In a few years, I hope to witness a few of the men I’ve spent time with ordained priests too.  I leave all of this in God’s hands because I know with absolute certainty that He has been the one who has given birth, life and will be the One who brings holy vocations to fulfilment.  I know it because I can see how the Lord has brought this about (and continues to) in the cycle of my own life.

Let us pray today for vocations; not necessarily for an increase in numbers, but rather an openness in desire and in the freedom that men and women have to respond.  And let us not forget to pray for the married vocation in the same way because we mustn’t forget that this is the foundational vocation that has served to beget religious vocations.  The Domestic Church (the family) feeds the Universal Church making Her strong and healthy!