First Sunday of Advent: “Keeping Our Eyes on the Road” in our Christian Journey

This blog post begins my Advent series, but is also from a homily for the First Sunday of Advent.

Look Down the Road

Before I entered the priesthood, I was a bus driver for Mississauga Transit. Each year, we would have a little ceremony where drivers who had an accident-free year were given a little award. I remember one year, one of the veterans who had an impeccable record for good driving [it was like a 20-year award] was asked what his secret was to being a great driver.  Without missing a beat, he said “I kept my eyes on the road!”  Of course we all laughed, but there’s a truth about that I’ve never forgotten because when I think of the Christian journey and especially our readings today that begin our Advent part of that journey – I think it’s good advice for us all to be mindful of as we begin again and re-dedicate ourselves as Catholic Christians.  “Keep your eyes on the road”.  We can all become distracted by other things.  We can all lose focus from time to time.  We can all fall into sloppy or unhelpful habits that make us feel more comfortable for a short time, but don’t help us where we are going.  This happens when we are in the car – or bus as the case may be.  It also happens in our Christian spiritual lives too.  We see many accounts of it with the Apostles and other disciples in the Gospels, and I’m sure that most of us can see it in our personal lives as well.  Here we are in Advent, four weeks of it before Christmas.  We have time to prepare for the greatest gift of our faith: the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus.  God loves us so much He came into the world to get us back to where He wanted us to be. That’s all of us!  Keeping our eyes on the road in our faith helps us see Jesus really is with us, always: sacramentally, through His Word, in and through others and heaven lies ahead.  Advent is a joyful time and we intently and intentionally prepare ourselves for Christmas – not only with shopping for gifts and food (although these things are important for bringing us closer to one another) we need to stop for a moment each day along the way and be mindful of why we do those things: food, family, presents: we do it because we are thankful.  We do it because we see life, the Christian life we have been given as a gift.  What does God tell us about love?  If we love Him, the gift we offer the Lord in the way we love Him is to love others.  We have four weeks to prepare for His greatest gift of love and all we have to be thankful for in that, to of course be thankful for the coming of the Lord but also to be thankful for what we have as well.  Our faith and our personal lives need to meet each other in a deeper and more attentive way in Advent.  In this way, we have the “big picture” and are keeping our “eyes on the road” so to speak.

When we keep our eyes on the road, just as when we drive we also can anticipate troubles and problems that lie ahead and how we can respond rather than react to them.  If we see brake lights ahead of us, we are able to be prepared and slow down or stop slowly and cautiously.  But if we are moving along not aware of what’s ahead, we slam on the brakes and quite possibly whatever’s in front of us and then we need to deal with the setbacks.  Often we’re not able to handle the situation we face.  Part of our Advent preparation is to look ahead.  We hear readings about Our Lady and St. Joseph and how they handled tough decisions, impossible decisions even – with a trusting faith in God.  We hear of Anna’s prophesy that Mary would experience a sword that would pierce her heart.  Her bundle of joy would be a source of pain and sorrow for her.  But we see she turned to her faith, she trusted the Lord and while this doesn’t take it away she realizes this can’t take away from the joy of the moment, and when the sad or heart-piercing moments of her life come (as they will) she is as ready as she is to embrace the moment she lives in now.  The Holy Family will teach us that we too must draw strength from our faith, praying for a deeper trust in the Lord and thus a deeper faith.  None of us want to spend our lives reacting to things (because we live in anger, frustration, bitterness) when we do.  We want to be able to respond even to the challenges and hardships we face with love all around us.  When we are thankful for all we have our problems seem less significant.

My friends, let us spend this Advent season with our hearts, minds and souls focused on all we have to be thankful for in our lives, on the source of the strength and courage we have been given in faith and let us “keep our eyes on the road” so to speak trying our best not to be distracted from focusing on faith, love and family once again.  May this be a most Blessed Advent season for each of you.  And may God bless us all!

We Must Become Fire!

Cardinal Collins 2

Each year I attend the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Director’s Conference in the United States.  In addition to spiritual retreats, this is where I find renewal and strength in my own ministry of helping people, especially men feeling the Lord calling them to the Holy Priesthood.  This year, we have been inspired by our own archbishop as Cardinal Collins gave the keynote address.  It was an important year as we all face the many terrible crimes committed by people entrusted with important roles of discipleship in the Church.  He reminded us as Vocation Directors to look for the things Jesus desires in us all, identifying them in those who come forth.  He reminded us as Vocation Directors, as priests, as Christian men and disciples to live for and abide in holy desires ourselves.  I’m sharing today the Cardinal’s talk which we will also share with those who collaborate in vocation work in the archdiocese as well; these are the Cardinal’s words:

On Becoming Fire

Breathe on me, breath of God,

My soul with grace refine,

Until this earthly part of me

Glows with your fire divine.

       I have long been intrigued by a story from the days of the Fathers of the desert. A young monk –- one might almost say, a seminarian – who is discouraged, approaches one of the venerable elders, and laments that despite all his efforts at holiness – fasting, hours of prayer, following the rules of the community, and so on – he has made no progress, but is overcome with a sense of desolation and fruitlessness.  Not only is he not advancing in holiness, but he is slipping further into sin. The old monk looked at him, stretched out his hands, and flames shot out of his fingers. He said: “You must become fire.”

I believe that this story is instructive for all of us as we seek to be better disciples of Jesus, daily growing in holiness, and particularly for those who are called by Jesus to fulfill the mission of his apostles, and to help invite others whom he is calling to discern their vocation, and to enter formation for the holy priesthood. We must become fire.

If we who are bishops and priests do not become fire, and if those preparing for the priesthood do not, but instead become trapped in the dark and cold embrace of the world, the flesh, and the devil, then we are bound for destruction, for the lake of fire that is described in the Apocalypse (Apocalypse 20: 13-15), and we fail those entrusted to our pastoral care. As we are all aware, that has happened since the days of Judas, and is much in the news now. If the flame entrusted to us at Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination flickers and dies, or is abruptly extinguished, and the darkness of evil envelops the priest or bishop, then havoc is wrought upon the most vulnerable, and the splendor of the Holy Priesthood is sullied, and hidden from those whom God is calling to be priests of Jesus Christ. Satan entered into Judas, the light went out, and it was night. (John 13:27-30)

So we must become fire.

I propose to reflect upon four facets of the scriptural theme of fire, and to apply them to the priestly life and to the ministry of encouraging and guiding those who are called to the Holy Priesthood. I will also make a few observations about how some priests and bishops have gone over to the dark side, but that must not be the focal point of our thoughts or actions. It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. We would be naïve not to take note of the wickedness of Babylon, whose discord and darkness is destroying this earthly city through which we are passing, and has clearly infiltrated deep into the Church itself, but our hearts must be set on the fiery, dazzling beauty of our true home, the heavenly Jerusalem.

We must become fire. But how do we do that?

I will propose these four facets of the theme of fire that can focus our thoughts, move our will, and guide us in our actions:

  1. The Fire of Sacrificial Love: This is a common theme in scripture. The sacrificial offering is totally consumed by fire, as we must be by our priestly mission. We are not to hold back, but to give our lives fully to Christ and his people, a fact that is also symbolized in the ordination rite when we lie prostrate before the Lord during the Litany.
  2. The Fire of Purification: This is a frequent theme in both Old and New Testaments. Fire destroys that which is evil, which must be burned away. And gold and silver are tested in fire. (Sirach 2:5; I Peter 1:7) If we are to serve the Lord, and to invite others to do so, we must experience constant purification, and live in a spirit of repentance. Let the weeds and chaff within our hearts be thrown into the fire. We are currently going through a great and life-giving purification in the Church. The scandal is not that we become aware of evil in the Church, and to our shame so does the world around us; the true scandal is that evil occurs in the Church, and it is at its worst when it is hidden. It festers in darkness. The truth will set us free. Let there be light, and purification can begin.
  3. The Fire of Pentecostal Zeal. God came down in tongues of fire upon the apostles, cowering in fear, and they were granted apostolic zeal, that boldness which we see in the Acts of the Apostles. The early servants of God were on fire with the Gospel. So must all disciples of Jesus, and especially all who are called to the Holy Priesthood.
  4. The Fire of Majesty and Mystery. Every priestly vocation begins at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-12), in the presence of the majesty and the mystery of God. A vocation is not a career, but a personal call to the service of the Lord God and of his people. It is sublime, and it is divine. Profound awareness of the majesty of the Lord who calls us must penetrate to the depths of our souls; if it does not, then priesthood and episcopate can become worldly, and can be corrupted.

I will offer some reflections on these four facets of the biblical theme of fire, and will seek to draw from them some practical suggestions for our life as priests or bishops whose mission is to invite candidates to discern whether God is calling them to the holy priesthood.

The Fire of Sacrificial Love

          The theme of sacrifice is constant throughout the Old Testament, and is deepened in the New Testament. The sacrificial offering is placed upon the altar and is consumed by fire. To this day, in sacramentals of our Catholic liturgy, we have reminders of the Old Testament vision of sacrifice, as in vigil lights which burn until all the wax is consumed, and in incense which is burned as a sign of worship and prayer. This is an exact continuation of ancient sacrifice: “Let my prayers rise as incense before you, O Lord.” (Psalm 141:2)

The offering itself, the victim, is to be the best that the person can give to God. We too must give the best we have to God. Candidates for the priesthood, and priests and bishops, vary greatly in what they may have to offer, but whatever it is, it must be the best they have. No left-overs for the Lord, or for the priesthood.

The offering is then totally removed from the control of the one who offers, by being totally burnt up before the Lord as a sacrificial gift. There is no holding back, no clinging to that which is consumed by fire.

Sacrificial fire speaks to us of the totality of the gift of love: everything is offered, and nothing is held back. In the sacrificial love which is prefigured and symbolized by the fire of sacrifice, our lives are offered completely to the service of God and our neighbour. How many false gods and earthly distractions are jockeying for a place in our lives, so that we offer ourselves to God half-heartedly, not whole-heartedly? But Jesus, recalling Deuteronomy, commands us: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. (Mark 12:30; Deuteronomy 6:5)

Two wise guides to a priestly life of whole-hearted sacrificial love are Bishop Sheen, in The Priest is Not His Own and Cardinal Manning in The Eternal Priesthood. Priests and bishops are to be self-sacrificing, consumed by love of God and neighbour in selfless ministry, until at death they come before the Lord, and hope to hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Their prayer must be that of John the Baptist, Christ “must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

When the sacrificial fire goes out in a priest or bishop, then he begins to put first his own wants – not his needs, but his wants. He wants control, or adulation, or a comfortable life, or worldly success, or popularity, or satisfaction of his lusts. Outwardly going through the motions of priestly or episcopal service, and saying all the right things, his actual conviction is that Christ must decrease, but I must increase.

When the fire of sacrificial love goes out, we can become self-indulgent. If priests or bishops lead self-indulgent lives, then we should not be surprised if shocking instances of abuse occur. Self-indulgence is the culture in which both sexual and financial corruption flourish.

When the fire of other-centered sacrificial love flickers, or goes out, we can also turn inward, and exalt the ego. A priest can become a star: a narcissistic star. The parish revolves around him, and he is beyond rebuke. People become dependent not on Christ, but upon the priest, an addictive situation that can destroy a parish. But as St Paul says: “what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” (II Cor 4:5) I remember reading a book that aptly summarizes narcissism: The Object of My Affection is My Reflection. That is toxic in the leader of a community, bishop or priest, especially since he is called to be a spiritual father, and a spiritual shepherd who must be ready to sacrifice even his life for his flock. I recommend reading the description of the poor parson in the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He was a shepherd, and not a mercenary. He did not run off to London to advance his ecclesiastical career, but stayed at home, visiting his parishioners far and wide. Christ’s teaching, and his apostles twelve, he taught, but first he followed it himself.

So when we are accompanying potential candidates for the priesthood, and when we are presenting the priesthood to them, we must stress the fire of selfless, sacrificial love: humble, unassuming, other-centered, sacrificial love. Watch out for signs of self-indulgence and narcissism.

And watch for positive signs of humble service, concern for others, and unassuming hard work. The priest is not his own.

Because it takes time for signs both positive and negative to become evident, it is good to have a lengthy period of discernment and formation, to allow hidden problems to surface before ordination. A program of discernment and formation is more like a crock pot than a wok: it takes time. That is why in my own diocese and seminary I have lengthened the process: more time before entry into the formation community: a year or two in the associates program, four years of College Seminary for some,  plus a propaedeutic year, and four years of theology, and a parish internship too. Can’t we speed it up a bit? No. No. No. As the title for a great book on time management puts it: If You Don’t Have Time to do it Right, When Will you Find time to Do it Over?

The Fire of Purification

We must become fire, and the fire of purification allows that to happen, for it burns away our sinfulness. As the book of Sirach says: “My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, remain in justice and in fear, and prepare yourself for temptation… Gold and silver are tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation” (Sirach 2:1, 5).

We are all sinners, and as Isaiah says, men of unclean lips. In his great vocation experience in the temple, described in Isaiah 6, God purifies his lips and his life with sacred fire, and makes him ready to be sent. “Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me!” (Isaiah 6: 6-8)

To concentrate our minds, and to keep everyone on the straight path, it is good to remember the fire and brimstone that obliterated Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), and the Lake of Fire in the Apocalypse, which is the second death, the death of mortal sin, and which is the destiny of those who are unfaithful to their call (Apoc 20: 10-14). It is a good practice to pray, not only in the Rosary, but all the time, the prayer: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.” Mercy is founded on a recognition of the reality of justice, of right and wrong, of the fact of sin, and of repentance.

Our actions have consequences, as is evident in so many parables of the Gospel, such as that of the rich man and Lazarus. We sometimes forget that Jesus begins his ministry as John the Baptist did, with the words: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near at hand.” And at the end he speaks of the separation of the sheep and the goats. This is sharp, and clear, and calls for a decision. We should listen to the prophet Malachi, who warns the people about the coming day of judgment: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” (Malachi 3:2) Paul helps us to live rightly in the present moment when he speaks of the time to come when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (II Thess 1:7-8) . Any one of us who is tempted to lapse into complacent self – indulgence will be shaken by that vision of the fire of judgment, which is the ultimate sign of accountability.

Disastrously, a toxic sentimentality, in which both the call to repentance and the vision of judgment are obscured,  has entered into the Church, and never more so than in the few decades following Vatican II, from the seventies to the mid-nineties. There was a blurring of the clear lines of morality, and the creation of a distorted and highly subjective concept of conscience. It is no coincidence at all that this was the very period, we now clearly realize, in which most of the devastating incidents of priestly and episcopal abuse that are now in the news took place. Designing policies and other things to deal with this abuse is surely necessary, and largely has already been done. But that is radically insufficient. We surely do not need a policy to stop us from engaging in self-indulgent evil that leads to the Lake of Fire. All Christians, but especially bishops and priests, need to listen to and act on these simple words of Jesus: Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near at hand.

It is also true that when the moral and spiritual demands of Christianity, or of the priesthood, become no more than an ideal, much to be praised in honeyed words, but with no practical relevance, and held to be impossible to actually live, then individually and as a Church we have become gnostics. But neither Christianity nor the priesthood is an abstract ideal; God does not play with us, holding out to us an ideal that it is impossible for us to live. By God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, every single one of us can actually become a saint. Vatican II spoke of the universal call to holiness, not the universal call to mediocrity. With a vision of the purifying refiner’s fire to keep us honest, we are challenged every day to be happy, healthy, holy priests. Nothing less than that. That is the reality of the priesthood.

All of us in pastoral ministry, and especially we whose mission it is to accompany those whom the Lord may be calling to the priesthood, need to live repentant lives. Just as a personal suggestion, I recommend that at the elevation at Mass, when we raise the Host and the Chalice, we pray quietly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And we need to get to confession frequently.  Every day, may the fire of purification burn away within us all that is unworthy of Christ.

As we consider applicants for the seminary, we need to look for a repentant and contrite heart. Certainly no-one is worthy of the priesthood, and everyone is a sinner, and humanly imperfect. We can talk glibly about being sinners, but in ourselves, and in those considering a vocation, it is vital that the fire of purification actually be burning brightly, that we truly (though, of course, without scrupulosity) be aware of the geography of our souls, and that we trustingly resolve, despite our weaknesses, and by God’s grace, to actually live a life of holiness. This is not an impossible ideal, despite our frailty. In fact, consciousness of our weaknesses leads us to know our need for God, and to realize that we will be faithful and spiritually fruitful as priests, not because of our own efforts but because of the power of Christ. We should listen to that great sinner and saint, St Paul, in II Corinthians: “a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (II Cor 12: 7-9).

The Fire of Pentecostal Zeal

In my former life of almost twenty years of preparing seminarians for the priesthood, I recall discussions of men who were not obviously incompetent or immoral, who might even be doing quite well academically, but who seemed to be inert. They were drifting towards ordination, with no clear reason to stop them. But did they have the apostolic fire? Were they driven by a true love for Jesus? Or were they simply going through the motions?

Someone who is ordained needs to have the apostolic fire of Pentecost: “When the day of Pentecost had come they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2:1-4)

Some are introverts, and some are extroverts. Some have more lively personalities, and some are more quiet. Those superficial temperamental characteristics are irrelevant. Exuberant zeal is not required, and may in fact become a problem. But deep within, each person who is to be ordained must burn with the Pentecostal fire. As the prayer at one of the ritual Masses for ordination says: “make these your servants worthy ministers of your altar, and ardent yet gentle heralds of your Gospel.” Priests and bishops, and seminarians, must be ardent: they must be on fire with zeal to serve God and his people. The fire of Pentecost must burn away all self-referential careerism, as we boldly head out into the streets of the  secular city, like the apostles after Pentecost, in love with the Lord and forgetful of self, ready to  lose ourselves in our priestly ministry.

So we search for candidates who already burn with the Pentecostal fire, and who show it by their acts of generous initiative in their parish and in the activities of their life in society. Our seminary formation program must provide opportunities to develop and manifest that zeal. I don’t want to ordain a dead battery. One of the joys of working with candidates for the priesthood, as I have done almost all of my priestly life, is to have the privilege of being with zealous and inspiring seminarians. And that is one of the greatest joys of being a bishop, as I have been now for twenty one years: to be the bishop of such zealous and inspiring priests.

If a priest is himself alive and on fire, then he will be able to pass that on to others, as the flame of the Paschal candle spreads from taper to taper throughout the church at the Easter vigil, until the whole church is bright with the light of Christ. It has been said that education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire; that is even more true of evangelization. We must keep in mind the example of the Lord Jesus on the road to Emmaeus. The two disciples marvelled: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:33)

So that is what we should look for in candidates for the priesthood: men who are on fire with love for our Lord and with zeal in his service. And we need in our program of formation to help the seminarians become so profoundly committed to the life of holiness, that the fire will burn steadily and quietly throughout their priestly life. There are two times when a priest or bishop is horizontal in Church: face down at his ordination and face up at his funeral. In every moment between those two points, he must be on fire with sacrificial love and priestly zeal.

The Fire of Majesty and Mystery

We must become fire, and we catch that fire from the burning bush, where Moses discovered his vocation. It is in contact with the mysterious majesty of God that we discover and daily renew our vocation to the holy priesthood. Priests are not branch managers, and bishops are not CEO’s: woe to those who think in those terms, or who think of a priestly or episcopal career. We are unworthy servants and messengers of the living God, and we must live our mission in this fallen world always conscious of the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem, which is our home.

If we look to the vocation stories of the Old Testament, so often they are set in the context of divine glory, of the fire of majesty and mystery. God makes a covenant with Abraham in a fiery theophany of sacrifice (Genesis 15:12-21), and Moses hears the Lord’s voice from the burning bush.  Isaiah receives his vocation in the temple, in a vision of the glory of the Lord, as an angel of God touches his lips with a burning coal. Elijah passes his mantle to Elisha, and is swept up into heaven in a chariot of fire. (II Kings 2:9-11) Jesus reveals his glory in the transfiguration on Mount Tabor, and Paul is dazzled by divine light in the road to Damascus.

A vocation to the Holy Priesthood is never prosaic; it is always glorious, though it is rare that the glory is as visibly manifested as in the Biblical vocation accounts. We are servants of the living God, and must never forget it. Some have forgotten it, as did Judas when Satan entered into him, and it was night. But that requires effort to resist God’s grace. There is a marvellous image of the Last Supper in the chapel of Prince of Peace monastery near San Diego: there are shiny haloes over Jesus and all of the apostles at the table. But on the left, Judas is leaving the table, and walking away from his halo. Bishops and priests have sometimes done that.

We need to be conscious of the sacred office that was entrusted to us at ordination. We are stewards of the mysteries of God. To use that sacred office for personal benefit is simply wrong. I used to advise my seminarians that when they are priests they should go to the end of the line, unless doing so would be false humility that insults others, and wear clerical attire, as a sign of their mission, though not when buying a car.

So our vocation ministry must be founded on a profound awe of the privilege of being called to serve the Lord God as priests. And the holy priesthood must be treated with reverence – the priesthood, not the priest. Clericalism is not too high an estimation of the priesthood, but too low an estimation: it is using the holy priesthood to advance one’s personal desires, as sadly has happened. The priesthood is to be lived with sacrificial love, not used. If bishops or priests use their sacred office to dominate others, to take advantage of people’s quite appropriate reverence for the priestly office, or to manipulate that reverence to satisfy the cleric’s self-indulgent desires, then that is not simply evil; it is sacrilegious evil.

Every day we need to remind ourselves of the majesty of the Lord, whose servants we are. That is one reason why making a daily holy hour of adoration is such a good idea, and why the celebration of the Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration, should be at the heart of our vocation efforts. In any case, all Jesus ever told us about vocations was to pray to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into harvest. We need constantly and consciously to return to Mount Tabor, and to the heavenly Jerusalem, if we are to be faithful and fruitful in our priestly ministry in this vale of tears. As we pray before the tabernacle, the fire of the sanctuary lamp is a visible sign of the majesty and mystery of God.

You must become Fire

In every age until the end of time the Holy Priesthood is entrusted to frail and sinful men. Many priests have become famous as saints; most priests try earnestly each day, by God’s grace, to be faithful and humble servants; and some priests have betrayed their mission and their Lord. The priesthood of Jesus Christ is glorious, but we are not. We are called not just to do the minimum, or to shine by our own light, or to advance within the earthly structure of the church; we are called to become fire.

We must burn with the fire of sacrificial love, not holding back, but offering everything we have and are to Jesus and to the mission upon which he sends us. We must be repentant, alert to God’s justice, and trusting in his mercy, made holy in the fire of purification.

We must be filled with the fire of Pentecost, boldly proclaiming Christ in the darkness of the secular world.

And with awe and wonder we daily come before the Lord in prayer, meditating on his Word and receiving new life from him in the celebration of the Eucharist and in Eucharistic adoration, seeing reality as it truly is, in the light of the fire of divine majesty and mystery.

The young man said: what must I do? And the wise elder replied: you must become fire.

Thomas Collins

Archbishop of Toronto

September 17, 2018















23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: It All Begins At Baptism

Jesus Being Baptized

In my role as Director of Vocations right now, I don’t have the opportunity to baptize very often these days.  I loved baptisms and I always felt an excitement when I was the celebrant of them at the parish.  To welcome new members into the Body of Christ was beautiful – absolutely beautiful!  I would often give variations of the same homily, where I would talk about Jesus’ baptism and where I share John’s account was the Holy Spirit descending and the Father declaring: “This is my Son the Beloved in whom I am well-pleased.”  I would extend this to these children and young people and declare in the name of Christ as a priest: that the Holy Spirit is descending and the Father is declaring “This is my son/daughter, beloved and in whom I am well pleased.  There may be some who feel I am taking some license here, and others who feel I am wrong but hear me out: I declare this because it is Jesus’ Baptism they are being baptized into, and beyond our simple and somewhat simplistic and limited ways of understanding, if it’s His Baptism, then it has the same effects!  I also believe in faith that this is true and DON’T imply that this means anything unless the family and the baptized child lives his or her Christian faith; and this I offer we must all work together to give him or her every chance to do.

I speak about Holy Baptism today because I think about this beautiful first sacrament every time I ponder today’s Gospel.  Jesus declares: “Ephphatha!” (be opened) and this we ministers of baptism mark the baptized with at their baptism.  We do what Our Lord Himself does in the powerful action of opening one’s senses to allow God the Holy Spirit to enter; but everyone involved can also contribute to closing those senses too.  If a baby’s heart, mind and soul are opened by Christ through the minister; his or her heart, mind and soul can be closed by others who choose not to teach the child the Christian faith, or teach a misguided version of the faith.  I also think of the terrible sins of the clergy; and I wonder how many beautiful children who had every possible hope of being dedicated and amazing Disciples of Christ had this taken away from them by people with chose evil over good.  There are many things we can do to close a person off from God’s possibilities for them but the Good News is that there are many things we can do to work with God in continuing to allow His Will be Done and that when they become Beloved Members of the Body of Christ – that they respond to the “miracle” Jesus performed (among others) on the day of their Holy Baptism: “Ephphatha! Be open to receive My Life; to be My Light and to share My Word, My Love with everyone you will meet in this glorious life you’ve been given!”

Celebrating the Sanctity & Vocation of Our Blessed Mother


I remember having one of my most challenging discussions with a group of “recently minted” Catholic Christians (Neophytes who had just been received into the Church at Easter) about Mary’s life and role.  I was discussing the Immaculate Conception and the Birth of Our Lady and it’s importance for us as Catholics.  One of the women said, as I recall: “It seems a little odd to me that we celebrate Mary’s life as it matters little beyond her Son’s life.  We would never want to tell anyone else that their lives mattered little outside the context of someone else…why do we do that or say that for Mary?”  

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but something to the effect of “this isn’t just anybody else” or “this is why we call her the Mother of God” but I am quite sure it wasn’t an adequate answer and the woman probably politely accepted what I said so as not to be antagonistic and derail me.  She likely will never read this blog, may have even long forgotten me, but I have not forgotten her because I know she deserved an answer far better than I was equipped to give her.  I have thought about her observation many times because it challenged me to think, and thus to have deepened my own faith in the process – why do we celebrate Mary’s life as almost not her own?  Her life’s purpose and everything we celebrate seems to leave her without her own personal identity.  What I offer you here today is not a theological or intellectual treatise, but my own thoughts which have led me to honour and respect Our Blessed Mother all the more.

Mary is a model of all things virtuous for us.  We honour her life above the saints and other holy lives – because it was as close to perfection as any human being can get.  We don’t see her life, her sanctity, her vocational response, her commitment to virtue and her faith as something unattainable, but as something attainable.  If and when we think of Mary, we are wrong if we think of a life that isn’t something each one of us can and should aspire to be.  We also would be off if we thought of Mary as not being her own person; as we all are free-thinking people who spend our lives aspiring, living, loving, giving and being deeply committed to our relationship with God and other people.  Mary is every one of those things.  Mary’s beautiful life was dedicated to faith and trust in God every step of the way.  Mary’s life was one lived in the world and of this earthly world but lived with a meaning and purpose meant for Heaven.  Much of her identity might be inseparable from God, but the Blessed Trinity and most remarkably the Son of God who was also her Son.  So too is that the life we should all aspire to; as Christians we should hope and desire that people identify Christ in us, and less ourselves – this doesn’t mean people don’t see what makes us uniquely ourselves, but we should hope they see what makes us like Christ in every way.

We celebrate Mary’s holiness today.  To celebrate her holiness means to also recognize that she made choices that brought her closer and closer to God and to others throughout her life.  We see that clearly in what we Catholic Christians celebrate about her (tradition) and what we now can read and reflect upon about her (Scripture).  We celebrate as well, her ongoing response by faith throughout her life to what God was calling her to do (her vocation).  Her actions had consequences, just as her inaction also would have – just as our response to our vocation has consequences either way.  She is a model for us in so many ways; but it’s Mary’s primary and secondary vocation we celebrate today on this beautiful day we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lady.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and until the hour of our death!

Jesus Still Making All Things New Again

Jesus Tempted

I imagine the scribes and the Pharisees quizzing Jesus on why His Disciples unlike other disciples (including John’s) don’t observe the fasting – really didn’t get what He was telling them; but then do we?  On the very basic plain of fasting or not; some don’t bother or believe we’ve done away with the practice, others stringently uphold the rules of fasting but are highly critical and judgmental of those who are not.  Jesus came to renew things, not just change things.  He came, comes and is coming for that purpose.  We are living in a time, at this very moment, where fasting and abstinence ought to be very important to each one of us as Christians.  If it’s not, we’ve lost sight of Jesus and we’ve lost focus on the message of the Good News Jesus gave us.

Recently, we’re witnessing (hopefully) a purgation in the Church.  We’re experiencing a number of disturbing news reports almost daily that shock, dishearten, sicken, anger and challenge us.  We hear of crimes committed by clergy; the very people who were meant to be shepherds for us.  As a priest, these reports disturb me in all these emotional ways and sadden me greatly.  Especially as a Vocation Director; someone who spends almost every day speaking to the People of God and to those discerning religious vocations – these kind of reports and those yet to come, are a challenge and concern because I begin to ask myself why would anyone else want to come forward to serve as a priest or religious sister and brother?  But people do.  Young people do.  And while there are and unfortunately always will be people who take advantage of others, even in horrific ways and commit horrible sins against others: Jesus renews His Church and through the Church, the world!  And He will continue to do that and He calls forth disciples to do just that!

Recently, we’ve been asked to fast and pray as a Christian community for our Christian community, for the people who have suffered, for the people who are suffering, for the purging and purification of the Church and for healing as well.  Even if we feel this request comes from the mouths of people we think have lost credibility, it comes from Jesus Himself.  In these dark moments for us as Catholic Christians, we are well aware of some of the places the Bridegroom has not been with us, even if the reason is because we’ve left Him behind He was not with us in those moments because we chose something other than Him but He still wants to be with us, no matter how far away we’ve been or how we’ve completely messed things up.  So we pray and we fast; but not in an old way – in a new way!  If we begin here, we can be assured that we are part of the solution, we are bringing light (the Light of Christ) into the darkness!  And we can be assured that prayer and fasting are the first actions, but a renewed commitment to the Good News in our actions as disciples will follow.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, today is a brand new day and we are called upon in a committed and renewed way to follow the Lord today and each day of our lives.

May the Lord, Who Has Begun the Good Work in You, Bring it to Fulfilment



Recently, Cardinal Collins & I had the pleasure of spending a few days at Mount Mary Retreat Center with most of the seminarians for the Archdiocese of Toronto.  The seminarians get plenty of very fine spiritual retreats throughout the formation year at the seminaries; this was more of an opportunity for the men to spend time with their very busy archbishop and to build fraternity with one another.  Throughout the three days (Wednesday until Friday) our seminarians talked about their own challenges in formation, played sports, (ate junk food), had casual conversation and even came up with a game of “Church Jeopardy”, which I stoically observed (but would have lost at had I had participated).  This retreat was also an opportunity for our seminarians already in formation to meet the 11 seminarians joining them this year!  This gathering came at the end of their busy summers – most of our seminarians serve in parishes, serve at our shrines (Marylake & Martyr’s Shrine), evangelize as missionaries for Totus Tuus and work in various secular positions (landscaping, MacDonald’s, etc.) and a few in archdiocesan offices like the Office of Catholic Youth and Office of Vocations.

It is ever so vitally important for our seminarians to build this fraternity and unite themselves in the Mission of Jesus Christ that God may be calling them to.  In the climate of the Catholic Church we are all living in, with so many challenges and where many of the most recent reports we read and hear about are so serious, dark, negative and concerning to us all – I think it’s important to share something upbeat and positive here today!

We are blessed; truly blessed!  The Archdiocese of Toronto has 56 men in formation in various years at 2 major seminaries; St. Augustine’s Seminary (which includes Serra House Pre-Theology Seminary) and the Redemptoris Mater Seminary.  In a society which I’m sure we all can see has it’s challenges in so many ways – we have very good men who desire holiness, who are servants and who really do seek to be shepherds after the Heart of the Good Shepherd.

Our men are not perfect, nor are they (yet) living saints!  But I can assure you that they are self-reflective and honest men who are generous and who live in this world but desire something greater than this world can EVER offer them: a life always in Jesus Christ; sharing His love with their sisters and brothers.  These are men of faith who desire holiness and men with hearts that have a great capacity for love.  They are men who are emotionally and mentally healthy (this is an important matter to me as Director of Vocations) and who realize that who they are as men is as important as anything they can do for themselves spiritually or academically; and so their honesty with me and their seminary formators is paramount to who they are to become when they are (God willing and with their own willingness) ordained Catholic priests in the future.  They are men who desire to be fathers in every sense.  Our men need to know and accept God the Father’s love first; and as men to have a good sense of what it means to be a father to people in this world, modeled on St. Joseph, other saints and other fine examples of fatherhood in the world, often their own fathers.

Cardinal Collins spoke to them about so many different things.  One of the most important things he shared with them a sense of the Lord’s mission with them and assured them that they were an important part of that mission in the Archdiocese of Toronto.  We are also blessed to have an archbishop (who knows formation better than many) who despite his many responsibilities has always made time for his men.  I look for ways to make this happen, and this retreat was one such a way.

I am deeply grateful to the Lord to be their Vocation Director!  I am aware that this is title given to me to define a role I have – because Jesus Christ is and always will be their true Vocation Director!  I spend a lot of time with these men before they are given the green light to apply for seminary formation.  This can be a challenge.  It’s a challenge because men feeling called themselves to the priesthood – is really only the beginning.  I owe it to the Catholic Church, to the Archdiocese of Toronto and I owe it to these men in formation to really test a man’s call before he enters seminary.  I don’t do that alone.  I am blessed to have Cardinal Collins giving me clear direction, support and encouragement.  I am blessed to have a great and honest relationship with key seminary faculty and we work together to ensure our men are getting the best formation.  I am blessed to have a great support team (eleven Vocation Assistants, priests who assist me in key roles as well as three dedicated office team members who help us find ways to engage as many people as we can).

One of the challenges most Vocation Directors face today is a reluctance on the part of many to come forward.  In many places, Vocation Directors resist the urge to take just anyone when they don’t have a lot of men presenting themselves in the first place.  Most Directors also hear from many people that they should be more open to the men who do come forward.  At times, among my brother Vocation Directors I feel reluctant to say much since we still have a number of men discerning and a number of men entering formation every year.  But we don’t have as many men entering as represents our Catholic population of over two million in the Archdiocese of Toronto.  I look at this as a worldly concern, and I keep reminding myself it’s not a concern given to me by the Lord.  I am not exaggerating when I say that we could have more than double the men in formation that we have, and at first glance that might seem to serve a need of offering Mass and having more parish priests – but that will not serve any of us in the future!  It’s also why I know that it’s important to empower a team to help me in this task – I want to be sure to have strict enough requirements to help the right men enter formation, but not so strict that I discourage an authentic and true calling because of my own limitations.  And then I need to listen: first and always to the Lord Himself, then to my archbishop, then to those who share in this ministry with me.

We are truly blessed that these men are the men the Lord has given to us, to discern for us and please God to serve us in the future.  To have an abundance of diocesan priests is not the Lord’s desire, but to have the right ones is.  That’s what I hope and pray for, and I hope it’s what you will pray for too.  May the Lord who has begun the good work in them, bring it to Glorious Fulfillment.

Celebrating St. Thomas the Apostle: Hope, Faith & Trust Meet

One of the little routine habits I’ve been faithful to since becoming a priest is to quietly repeat the words of St. Thomas the Apostle, “My Lord and My God” when I kneel during the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament at Holy Mass.  In the rubric of the Mass, we genuflect as a sign of reverence for what is taking place through Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, but I have added this nearly silently as an added sign of my own reverent awareness of the weakness of my faith, while offering for us all the greatest act and sign of faith our Lord Jesus has given us – His coming into the midst of us in His very Person, but in a manner that we will all receive Him, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity and hence forth as Christian brothers and sisters go out into the world and proclaim Him Lord for all to know.

Jesus praises those who do not need to touch His wounds, or see Him and yet believe.  He accommodates Thomas who comes to believe.  As a convert and as a man who often defaults to skepticism, often doubts and needs to have things proven to him (certainly a degree of stubbornness), I can identify with St. Thomas and hence, “My Lord and My God”, a sign of my own struggle and the satisfaction of a growing and strengthening faith – my weakness yet indefatigable desire to have the faith of the Apostles and saints of the Church.

Jesus praises those who have no need of the “proof”, but He offers Himself to Thomas, I believe, as a sign to us all to “keep fighting the good fight” of belief.  Keep seeking Him, abiding in Him and He will bring us to His wounds and give us everything faith provides.  This is why we hope.  Hope is the virtue of giving ourselves to the Lord day after day and simply placing our trust in God’s promise and hope is rewarded.  I meet people all the time who have a strong and solid faith and their ability to trust in God totally and completely is a great witness for me.  I admit I seek that kind of faith, and pray for it.  As much as I wish I didn’t have to admit it, I have many moments when I rely more on what I can do, than what the Lord can do.  I have many occasions for which I must trust more and question less.  I do have faith, but my faith is tested in little ways again and again and I try to be attentive to these moments, and turn to Our Lord and to St. Thomas (asking his prayers for me) to help me “in my unbelief”.

St. Thomas is forever to be known as the great skeptic of the Apostles, but he is an Apostle all the same and he met the moment the Lord had prepared for him to give his greatest witness (his martyr’s death) with full faith and trust in His Lord and God.  I really think that it’s less important how we get to where the Lord desires us to be – but that we get there!  Of course our daily actions of faith, trust and hope are very important and on this pilgrimage of life, we need to seek to constantly move forward and not backwards, but let us consider for today that we are quite alright, and let us ask for St. Thomas’ prayers for a greater faith and place our trust, the faith and trust we can muster now in Our God who loves us with the greatest love.  May God bless you!


It’s Time to Move from the Sidelines

For God So Loved the World

John 3:16; “God so loved the world, that He gave His only son…”  If I were a betting man, I would bet this is this is probably one of the most often utilized Scripture reference.  I imagine that most people that hold up signs at sporting events or otherwise highlight this as their favorite verse, know what this verse is (I have met a few who did not though).  God so loving the world – is beautiful!  No doubt about it, but the rest of the verse ought to impact us deeply too, as should the verses that follow (3:16-21).  These verses connect very closely to our parable in today’s Gospel and ought to impact us to our very core.  It happens that we can and often do become complacent, apathetic, lukewarm in our faith.  God does love the world which is why He gave us prophets, legitimate apparitions and most importantly His Son.  And the fate of the prophet of the past, might be our fate!  Why, because after the Lord came, we ought now take on the role of prophet as we are the new generation of prophets!  Would anyone know that about you?  Would they know it about me?

Throughout human history, God has spoken directly to us.  The prophets and even for us the apparitions which we have received may impact us for a time but then we get on with our life and forget about them.  Jesus, Son of God came into the world and while we can certainly say as Christians we acknowledge that and accept that He is the Son of God and perhaps we aren’t the tenants who killed the Son – we must indict ourselves if we’ve stood by and watched as someone else has.  What I mean by this is that there are times we are going to have to fight for our faith.  There are times when we are going to have to make choices that are not popular that may lead us to be ostracized, ridiculed or mistreated by others because we live in a culture and society where angry atheism, secularism and anti-religious sentiments coexist.  Coexisting doesn’t always mean in peace and without conflict.  It doesn’t mean compromising our moral or ethical principles or adapting them so we all coexist peacefully.  It doesn’t mean hurting other people, condemning them or getting up on a moral high-horse either.  It means standing for something rather than little or nothing.

We need to absolutely love being Christians, we need to know that being a Christian means we are constantly seeking to know the Lord Jesus better every day and trying to be like Him in all ways.  We start with the Gospels, we allow the Sacraments to saturate and permeate our souls.  We reflect upon our Baptism and draw strength from our Confirmation – and as we gain knowledge, wisdom and strength – we go out and set the world on fire with love, but love that means something!  Love that stands for something!  Love that isn’t watered down by our own agenda or an overriding desire to be liked by everyone because that’s not love.  It’s time for us all to move from the sidelines and move into the forefront of being messengers or prophets of God, come what may!

Celebrating the Solemnity of Jesus’ Body & Blood

The Lamb of God

I often speak of my conversion experience and my becoming a Catholic (many years ago now).  A few months before “taking the plunge”, I was challenged by my RCIA Coordinator in a way that saw me almost walk away from my becoming Catholic right there.  It was customary for catechumens, such as I was, to have a meeting with the RCIA team and when asked about my personal understanding and belief about the Eucharist, I could not or would not accept that the bread and wine actually and truly became the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  We had a very short conversation with follow-up questions but in the end I was told in no uncertain terms that “if I did not believe what the Church teaches here, I could not go forward and become a Catholic”.  My sponsor helped me keep it together, one of my priests took the time to explain everything to me and to talk with me (for nearly three hours) and at the end of it all, I still did not believe!

Every explanation given, every logical argument made could not and did not bring me to a place of assenting to this truth.  The priest left me with the linchpin for this dilemma or crisis I was having; he told me that he had given me all the apologetic and Scripture-based arguments and explanations that he could give me and he told me that I should not set my intellect or reason aside for this matter either, but that our logic, intellect and reason could only bring us so far.  This was a matter of faith, and I had to ask God to take me the rest of the way.  I had to pray about this and understand that love is at the root of the Eucharist.

For years, first as a seminarian and then as a priest I have told this story because I did not set aside my doubts or concerns, but I do know that the Lord gave me what I needed, as He will us all!  I believe wholeheartedly in the Real Presence and I stake my life on it now.  I can’t completely explain it but I believe it; on this among other things “I walk by faith and not by sight ( )”.

This was once again tested when I was a parish priest and one of the parents of a child receiving First Holy Communion told me that their child was told by someone that the Eucharist wasn’t really the Body and Blood of Jesus.  In an instant and because there might have been others who heard the same thing, I had to talk about this with the children.  I talked about prayer and asking Jesus to help them understand this.  I also talked about how the Real Presence is rooted in Jesus’ love for us.  We find real, physical tangible ways to express our love for those whom we love, and more than anything; this is at the heart of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity we celebrate each time we come to Holy Mass.

Jesus, Son of the Living God have mercy on me and continue to reveal to me and deepen within me a true devotion to Your Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.

No One Told Us Being Christian Would Be Easy

Persecution of the Christians at Rome by Nero

I was baptized and received into the Catholic Church in 2003, some fifteen years ago now and in that time, I have met some amazing people doing amazing things as committed Christians, loving as they are called to love, raising families, ministering, living their lives and their vocations in so many different and powerful ways.  I am edified by Christians most days and in so many ways these people (others too of course) make me want to be a better man!  How empty these words of mine are to be, unless they are tested in some kind of way.  How noble sounding these sentiments are unless I am prepared to live them as a Christian, come what may.  I have met the best Christians and they are an example for me of living and committed faith, sacrificing and standing firm in the faith that has given them everything including surely the persecutions or denial as well.  What we endure here is relatively light persecution, as secularism and a distaste for religious belief may make us feel ridiculed or uneasy about sharing our faith publicly.  Others have it much worse, but whatever persecution or torment we receive for being Christian, it is a test for us we hope we pass “when the rubber hits the road”.

No one told me that being a Christian was going to be easy, although there have been times I have to confess that I expected them and wanted them to be.  On my prayerful days when I am more intimately and profoundly connected to Jesus, I realize the importance of surrendering my own willful desires and making the necessary sacrifices asked of me as a Christian – but that is not every hour of every day, I hate to say.  It’s important for us to seek that communion with God at all times, so we are doing the Will of the Father, by whose authority we live and love and give as Christians, as often as we can.  We will be tested, as Jesus is tested in today’s Gospel.  We must be ready for that test.  We needn’t answer the question, just as Jesus doesn’t answer this question (because it’s a misguided and malicious question meant to trap Him anyway) but we needn’t answer it because it should be an occasion for us to reflect for ourselves upon why we are doing what we do – is it for Jesus?  Or is it for ourselves?  Let the answer be, as best as we are able to make it, that we do all things for Jesus and His Church, His people.

We pray for the strength and courage today, to be Christians in mind, heart and soul.  We pray also to give firm and constant witness to our faith even through our suffering.  Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, pray for us!