“Une héroïne improbable” (jeudi, le 08 décembre, 2016; Luc 1.26-38)

Est-ce qu’on aime ça, aller voir les films au cinéma? Moi, j’adore regarder les films. Pendant une heure ou deux, on est transporté dans un autre monde; pendant quelques instants, on peut habiter une autre histoire – une histoire d’amour, une aventure, une guerre. On peut vivre par procuration à travers la « vie » d’un personnage – une jeune femme qui trouve l’amour de sa vie, un jeune homme qui découvre qu’il est doté de super-pouvoirs, et que, voilà, il doit sauver une jolie jeune femme, ou peut-être un personnage plus âgé, à qui la vie permet une deuxième chance au bonheur… Mais bon, éventuellement, le générique de fin apparaît sur l’écran, les lumières de la salle s’allument, la magie s’évapore, et on quitte le cinéma pour retourner …à la réalité, à notre routine, à nos problèmes, à notre vie à nous.
J’ai l’impression que parfois, notre lecture de la Bible peut ressembler à notre expérience au cinéma. Tous ces récits de femmes et d’hommes qui donnent l’impression d’être fraîchement sorties du studio céleste, armés avec un destin glorieux et une foi qui peut déplacer les montagnes. Mais c’est sûre, ce sont des saints! Moi, je suis juste quelqu’un de bien ordinaire. J’habite une société ou on dirait qu’il n’y a pas grande place (ou grand besoin) pour des héros. On habite un système social ou tout le monde est censé pouvoir s’épanouir pourvu qu’il « suive les règles » et notre bureaucratie est censée s’occuper des besoins de tout le monde. Disons qu’on a rarement l’impression de vivre des événements dont l’issue soit déterminante pour le sort de l’humanité; on a rarement l’impression que nos choix soient importants au point de pouvoir influencer le progrès du plan de salut de Dieu. On dirait que nous faisons nos petites choses, et Dieu, lui, il fait des grandes choses, et qu’on est mieux de ne pas trop se mêler des affaires divines.
Regardons de plus près nos deux héroïnes dans l’évangile d’aujourd’hui. À première vue, elles n’ont rien des vedettes hollywoodiennes. Dans notre monde à nous, on n’a pas de catégories qui peuvent nous aider à comprendre ces deux phénomènes : une conception virginale, d’un bord, et une grossesse « naturelle » à un âge très avancé (Lc. 1.7), de l’autre. Par contre, ceux qui s’y connaissent au sein du monde biblique auront l’impression de vivre le déjà-vu en lisant ce récit de naissances improbables… si on a besoin d’un indice pour nous rafraîchir la mémoire, Luc nous en donne à la fin du Magnificat de Marie, quelques versets plus loin : Marie chante « [Dieu] a pris en main la cause d’Israël … comme il l’avait promis à nos ancêtres, à Abraham et à ses descendants pour tous les temps » (Lc. 1.54-55). Abraham! Oui, celui à qui Dieu a fait de grandes promesses : « Je ferai de toi l’ancêtre d’une grande nation; je te bénirai, je ferai de toi un homme important et … Tous les peuples de la terre seront bénis à travers toi » (Gn. 12.2-3). Suite aux désastres survenus dans le jardin d’Éden, lors du déluge de Noé et la tour de Babel, Dieu décide de créer un nouveau peuple pour lancer son projet de rédemption; donc, Dieu choisit Abraham, un cultivateur de la Mésopotamie, pour être le « père » de cette nouvelle humanité. Dieu lui promet de nombreux descendants, mais il y a juste un petit problème… Sara, l’épouse d’Abraham, est stérile (Gn. 11.30). Ça promet! Une grande nation, à partir d’un couple qui ne peut avoir d’enfants! Éventuellement, à l’âge de 91 ans, et conformément à la promesse de Dieu, Sara mettra au monde Isaac (Gn. 21.1-7). Et ce n’est pas tout! Les trois premières générations du peuple de Dieu, cette « grande nation » qu’avait été promise à Abraham, étaient composées de couples dont les femmes étaient stériles!
Dieu le créateur. Il y a une raison pour cela. Dans la Bible, on retrouve un Dieu qui crée un monde, un monde qu’il aime et un monde au sein duquel il fait demeurer sa présence. Le Dieu biblique crée les êtres humains à son image et fait d’eux des collaborateurs dans ses desseins (Gn. 1.26-31). C’est extrêmement rare dans la Bible qu’on voit Dieu agir « tout seul ». Quand Dieu veut faire quelque chose, il se révèle à une femme ou à un homme, lui invite de participer dans ses projets et lui confie une mission. Quand il fut le moment de lancer son projet de salut, Dieu a appelé Abraham. Quand il fut le moment de sauver les descendants d’Abraham de leur esclavage en Égypte, Dieu a appelé Moïse. Quand il fut le moment pour envoyer le Messie et son « précurseur » envers Israël, Dieu a appelé une veille femme, Élisabeth, pour donner naissance à Jean le Baptiste ainsi qu’une vierge du village de Nazareth pour enfanter le Fils de Dieu, Jésus.
On peut énumérer trois principes bibliques concernant la manière dont Dieu agit en faveur de sa création :
1. Dieu agit à travers des êtres humains.
2. Dieu agit souvent à travers les femmes et les hommes les moins « qualifiés »; Dieu appelle souvent les faibles, les jeunes, les vieux, les pauvres, ceux qui n’ont pas une grande estime d’eux-mêmes, etc.

Comme St. Paul a dit aux Corinthiens, « … qui êtes-vous, vous que Dieu a appelés à lui? On ne trouve parmi vous que peu de sages selon les critères humains, peu de personnalités influentes, peu de membres de la haute société! …Dieu… a choisi ce qui est faible pour couvrir de honte les puissants. Dieu a porté son choix sur ce qui n’a aucune noblesse et que le monde méprise, sur ce qui est considéré comme insignifiant, pour réduire à néant ce que le monde estime important. Ainsi, aucune créature ne pourra se vanter devant Dieu » (1 Co. 1.26-29).

3. Dieu invite ces femmes et ces hommes à accepter des missions qui leur semblent tout à fait impossible. Dieu leur demande de lui faire confiance, d’être obéissant, et d’avancer un pas à la fois.
Nouvelle création. Comme ça, il est évident que c’est bien Dieu, le Dieu créateur, qui est à l’œuvre. Le créateur est celui qui peut faire surgir la vie là où on avait désespéré de la possibilité de la vie. Notez bien le rôle du Saint Esprit dans la conception de Jésus : l’ange dit à Marie « l’Esprit Saint viendra sur toi, et la puissance du Très-Haut te prendra sous son ombre ». Tout comme au commencement, alors que l’Esprit de Dieu planait au-dessus des eaux primales (Gn. 1.2) alors que Dieu se préparait à créer l’univers, c’est l’Esprit Saint qui fera apparaître la vie dans le ventre de Marie.
(En passant, c’est à partir de cette perspective qu’on devra aborder les récits bibliques qui nous parlent de « miracles ». Le Dieu qu’on voit à l’œuvre dans la Bible n’est pas un « magicien » cosmique. Au contraire, c’est le Dieu créateur qu’on voit à l’œuvre. S’il nous semble infiniment improbable qu’une vierge se retrouve enceinte et qu’une vieille dame mette un enfant au monde, je nous propose la question suivante : l’existence de l’univers nous semble-t-il probable?)
On peut énumérer quatre pensées pour nous encourager lors de cette saison de l’Avent :
1. Il y a un rôle pour toi à jouer dans le dessein de Dieu. Sois attentif à ce que Dieu te demande de faire.
2. Tes faiblesses sont une occasion pour Dieu de révéler sa puissance dans ta vie et dans la vie des gens autour de toi. Sois sans crainte, Dieu est avec toi.
3. Si tu te trouves dans une situation qui ne semble avoir aucune issue, prends courage; rien n’est impossible à Dieu. Le Dieu de la Bible est un Dieu qui aime les surprises. Si le Dieu créateur est là, il y a toujours de l’espoir.
4. Une vie vécue en obéissance au Dieu créateur, c’est plus “trippant” que le scénario du meilleur film. Amen.

“Advent & the end of idolatry” (Friday, December 2, 2016; Isaiah 29.17-24)

Our text says “the deaf shall hear…the eyes of the blind shall see.”
Can you imagine being blind? …living in a world of darkness? Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that this was your reality, day by day and minute by minute. I have a very good friend who is blind. A**** is now 32 years old, and has been blind for almost his entire life. A**** is very independent, and currently lives alone. He travels around the city by bus and metro. He plays the flute, the accordion and the piano. I have known A**** for 2 and a half years now; and yet, he doesn’t know what I look like. Although A**** has been through a lot in his life, he is a source of great joy for so many people. No matter how anxious I am feeling, spending some time with A**** always helps me relax and brings a smile to my face. When A**** is alone, he uses a cane to feel his way around. But when A**** & I are together, he puts his cane away, and he puts his hand on my shoulder and lets me guide him around obstacles. During those moments, A**** trusts me to direct him to where he needs to go. A**** has faith in my ability to see, he trusts my perspective and he follows my lead. When A**** & I agree to meet on a certain street corner, he doesn’t see me as I walk up to him, but he recognizes me instantly when I say his name.
“Blindness” & idolatry in the Bible. As we can see in today’s readings, the notion of blindness is a recurring biblical theme. In the Bible “being blind” often has a symbolic meaning: to be ignorant of the truth. How does one become spiritually blind? Spiritual blindness basically comes from worshipping the wrong god. The Bible assumes that human beings are creatures who worship. People reflect whatever it is that they worship. Actually, we can say that we become what we worship. We are always worshipping something. Either we are worshipping our Creator, and affirming the fact that we are created in His image, or we are worshipping aspects of the creation, forces of nature, impulses that arise from our own hearts, or perhaps simply ourselves. Idols, false gods, demand sacrifices and always promise more than they can deliver. When humans worship anything other than God, they go against their very nature as creatures and reflect the Creator’s image less and less and therefore become less and less human.
But wait a minute, I’m a Catholic. Of course I worship the right God, right? Let’s be clear: what we worship is not determined simply by the books we read. Our day-to-day life demonstrates to the world what we worship. What is truly important to us? What gives meaning to our life? How do we treat others? What gives us a sense of security? Why do we get out of bed in the morning? It is only by worshipping the true God, our Creator, that we can live as fully human beings. This is our spiritual DNA, and that is why idolatry, in all its forms, is extremely dangerous – to ourselves, to those around us, to our world. Worshipping the true God leads to justice; idolatry leads to exploitation, abuse, greed, indifference and many other evils. Yes, even as Catholics – just like ancient Israel – we need to be reminded of the dangers of worshipping other gods and reminded of who our God – the true God – is. Like John the Baptist said to his fellow Jews – members of God’s chosen people – don’t content yourself by saying, Abraham is our Father! John told them, Change your life! The worship of the true God leads to a lifestyle of justice, towards God and your neighbour. Our behaviour shows what/who we trust, what/who we believe in. In the Old Testament, who had the tough job of telling Israel that behaviour was the best indication of a person’s theology?
The prophets! Yahweh inspired prophets to be his messengers, to speak His words to His people. One of these prophets was Isaiah. The prophetic books are rarely easy to understand and they deal with difficult subjects that seem to belong to another world. This is why we’ve been talking about idolatry. But actually, the prophets were very practically-minded people. They knew that the best way to judge a society was to look at how it was treating those who were the most vulnerable – at the time of the prophets, that meant widows and orphans. We’re going to hear a lot from Isaiah during Advent, so we better do our best to understand what he was saying to his contemporaries 2,600 years ago, and how he prepares us to celebrate the coming of our Lord. Let’s take a closer look at our first reading.
Is. 29.17-24. In a nutshell, our passage today is a promise – a promise of the time when Yahweh, the One true God, will demonstrate his reality and will come in person to set Israel free from her idols and the exile that was the consequence of her worship of false gods, in order that she can know Yahweh and create a just society. It is a promise that the living God will come and bring new life to his suffering people. It is a promise that Yahweh will come and show his people the way.
“on that day” = “the Day of the LORD”, the moment of ultimate judgment/ salvation.
“the deaf shall hear…the eyes of the blind shall see.” Today’s passage is not the first time that we find the theme of deafness and blindness in Isaiah. The first time we meet this theme is in chapter 6, the passage where Isaiah has a vision of Yahweh’s glory in the Jerusalem Temple and receives his vocation to be a prophet. As was often the case with a prophetic calling, Isaiah was entrusted with a difficult task: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand’ (Is. 6.9). Here we see that the spiritual condition of Israel at the time of Isaiah was one of deafness and blindness. Israel – Yahweh’s special people, the nation that had been rescued by Yahweh from slavery in Egypt, the people that was Yahweh’s new humanity, that had been entrusted with the mission of being the agent of Yahweh’s plan to rescue the entire world – Israel had become deaf and blind, had become unable to hear Yahweh’s voice, unable to see who Yahweh was, and therefore, unable to understand who they were supposed to be as His special people. Throughout Isaiah, Yahweh insists that He is the One true God, as opposed to all the pagan idols, who are merely mute, deaf and blind objects (cf. Is. 46.7; 44.18; 2.5-22). Remember: you become what you worship. Israel had worshipped deaf and blind idols, and now Israel herself had become deaf and blind.
“the tyrant [and]…those who…without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.” In the Old Testament, Injustice is almost always the result of idolatry.
“The children of Jacob will sanctify the name of Yahweh and stand in awe of the God of Israel.” Ezekiel, another prophet, spoke words of hope into the desperate situation of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel spoke of Yahweh “sanctifying his name”, meaning that Yahweh will bring Israel back from exile and will cleanse His people from all her idols:
“I will sanctify my great name … and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations … and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you … and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” (Ez. 36.23-25)
Once Yahweh demonstrates His reality by saving Israel from exile, “Jacob” will stand in awe of the true and living God, the God of Israel.
Still waiting. So many promises and so much time went by… Long after Isaiah had died, Yahweh’s people were still waiting for their God to return to them and set them free. This is the season of Advent; it is a time of waiting for us, the Church; we are waiting to celebrate the coming of our Saviour into the world, and we are also waiting for our Lord’s Second Advent, when “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
The human face of God. Here is the most revolutionary thing about the gospels. The 4 gospels all make the claim that the coming of Jesus “unto his own”, i.e. Israel, was the fulfillment of the prophetic promises of the Old Testament. Matthew’s gospel begins with the fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah chapter 7 – an angel tells Joseph the meaning of the name that he is to give to the son soon to be born to Mary: “…They shall name him Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” (Mt. 1.23). The coming of Jesus into the world has not made God any less mysterious but now, God has a human face. Is this child, born in a stable, truly our God? Do we recognize our God in the face of this trusting, innocent and helpless baby?
Fear and Pride. From the very beginning of the Bible, we see that there are two things, primarily, that prevent us from worshipping the true God and lead us to worship other things: fear and pride, and these two feed off of each other. I’m afraid, but I’m too proud to admit it; I want other people to think well of me, so I’m afraid to admit any weakness. And ‘round and ‘round we go. What is the antidote to fear and pride? In a word – faith. In the Bible, “faith” is trusting God: trusting that God is good, that He loves us, that He wants what is best for us, that He wants us to be happy, that He will provide for us. It also involves the belief that God is God, and we are not. It is also the conviction that God will always welcome us with open arms and will heal our wounds.
For Matthew, the promises of Isaiah had come true through the ministry of Jesus: Yahweh had returned to his people as king to set Israel free, to open the eyes of the blind, spiritually and physically. In today’s Gospel (Matthew 9.27-31), we see the healing of two blind men. As Jesus heals them, he tells them, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” The blind men trusted Jesus to heal them and were humble enough to ask for healing. In our text from Isaiah, it says, “The children of Jacob will stand in awe of the God of Israel”; in the Gospel, what do the two blind men see when their eyes are opened? Jesus – they see Jesus, and – in spite of his stern orders – proceed to go and tell everyone they can about Jesus. Jesus’ healings are sacramental: they are outward signs of what Yahweh is accomplishing in the hearts and minds of his people – at least, in the hearts and minds of those who know “how to see”, for those who believe. In the Bible, believing is seeing. Even before they are healed, the two blind men in today’s Gospel “see” who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of David. This is a strange paradox of the gospel: some of those who are blind “see” Jesus; many of those who are sighted are “blind” to who Jesus is.
Who is this God-who-is-with-us? Is he trustworthy? Does he have a hidden agenda? Is he a tyrant? Or does he care about “the meek” and “the neediest people”? Do I dare admit that I need his help? Maybe I should keep pretending that I’ve got everything under control…? What kind of a God is this, who reveals himself as a …baby? And yet, our world is so confused. Is there someone who can show us the way to true humanity, to justice and peace? One thing is certain: we cannot approach Jesus as if he was a self-help guru, as someone who will simply get us out of trouble when we need a little extra help. No, the only way to approach Jesus is with faith, trusting Him as our Lord and our God, and following him wherever he leads. This Advent, do we have enough humility and faith to put our hand on the shoulder of the One who said:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11.28-30)
This is A****’s hope. May it also be ours.

A Time to Mourn

I remember an incident in dealing with a family for a funeral a few years back. The deceased man in his 90’s had four children in their 60’s, two of whom were not on speaking terms with the other two. At the funeral home the family had asked that we have a small service to mark the closing of the casket, prior to departing for the funeral at the Church. During that service, the crucifix and rosary that were with the deceased were removed and the funeral director gave them to one of the daughters. She placed the crucifix in my hand and asked me to offer it to one of her sisters, saying “she won’t accept it from me.” I turned to offer it to the sibling, who was standing not five feet from me, yet who acted as though she had not heard any of the previous exchange. Her response was “Oh thank you, that is very kind of you.” I was aghast that these siblings, who had adult children of their own, could persist in acting like petulant children and were unable to put aside pettiness, even during the funeral of a parent.

I never did find out what was the origin of that rancour and infantile behaviour, but in my experience over the years, it is usually some small disagreement or perceived slight that gets blown out of all proportions. Open communications and the ability to have a crucial but loving conversation while still fresh would prevent most of these family disputes growing into entrenched bitterness. Communication is essential for healthy relationships, be they among families, friends, colleagues, and even for parish families.

The other day I was listening to a webinar on parish leadership offered by AmazingParish.org, during which Pat Lencioni spoke about the need for clear and deliberate communications to all areas of the parish before undertaking any major change. He also talked about acknowledging that people need to mourn the past before being able to move forward with change. I found this last point to be insightful.

Over the past few months I have been in Halifax, experiencing a vibrant parish culture, slowly realizing that fundamental changes are necessary for parish growth. Learning about new approaches and paradigms that will enable my parish in Montreal to move from maintenance to mission. But I realize that I have also had time to learn to let go of old models. I have been mourning if you will, the old model of parish, and, in fact, of priestly leadership. I have been immersed in this for nearly six months, and as I near the time to return to Montreal my mind and imagination have turned to how to implement what I’ve learnt here.

But I now recognize that I need to slow down a bit. If I were to compare it to learning a new language, it’s as if I moved to another country to immerse myself in the culture and language while my parishioners signed up for a Berlitz class. We won’t be at the same level, and it will be my job to help them learn by always communicating deliberately and clearly in order for everyone to understand and to catch up. Above all I realize that I can’t simply barge ahead or I risk leaving some behind and perhaps even fracturing the community.

I’ve had the past months to adjust and integrate, and indeed mourn some of the past. I have seen what is possible when old paradigms are abandoned and reaching out to the unchurched becomes the core value of parish life. My parishioners have not had that same experience. In fact many probably don’t yet realize the past needs to be left behind in order to move forward. I need to properly communicate why we need to move on, not just where we want to move to, and I need to allow people the time to properly mourn the past.

I can see that nothing I do as the leader in my parish in the next six months to a year is as important as making sure I communicate clearly, lovingly and repeatedly why we need to move the parish from maintenance to mission. Max DePree, a noted author on servant leadership, said that “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Defining and communicating why we can no longer hold on to old models and ways of being a parish will have to be my first priority. Clearly painting the picture of what is possible when we focus on our mission as a parish will be the second. All of this must be done in a loving way so that, as St. Paul writes “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” (Eph 4:15)

But I need to allow people the opportunity to mourn as well, otherwise it can tear the community apart. If not done well our parish risks becoming like that divided family I described above: A parish family where everyone behaves like a two year old throwing a tantrum, where motives are suspect, where resentment and bitterness become so toxic that no one is able to listen to one another, let alone accept a token peace offering, even at a time of crisis. The difference between succeeding in moving a parish from maintenance to mission initially depends on how well it is communicated. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving as a family, or irreparably splitting a family apart, it is that important.

God Bless us all.

Fr. Michael Leclerc

N.B. This is posted as the Divine Renovation Conference is about to get underway here at St. Benedict, in which five of my parishioners from St. Ignatius are joining 600 delegates from 11 countries to discover something about parish renewal. Please pray for us during the Conference.

Father’s Day

hFather’s Day is a time for us to take stock and reflect on our relationship with our own father and to give thanks for all that they have done for us. As in many family relationships that we have, our relationships with our fathers may not have reached the ideal that we would have desired. Some of us have been deeply hurt by our fathers.

Nevertheless, the role of the father in the growth of the child remains an important aspect in their psycho-social development. Pope Francis in his exhortation, On Love in the Family, says,

“God sets the father in the family so that by the gifts of his masculinity he can be “close to his wife and share everything, joy and sorrow,hope and hardship. And to be close to his children as they grow – when they play and when they work, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they stray and when they get back on the right path. To be a father who is always present. When I say ‘present’,I do not mean ‘controlling’. Fathers who are too controlling overshadow their children, they don’t let them develop” Some fathers feel they are useless or unnecessary, but the fact is that “children need to find a father waiting for them when they return home with their problems. They may try hard not to admit it, not to show it, but they need it.” Amoris Laetitia, no. 177

Children need their fathers and I believe that fathers need their children. Men become better persons through fatherhood. For those men who for various reasons do not have children, they can be father figures for children who do not have a father. To accept fatherhood is to have the courage to engage in a relationship of love and protection.

So this Father’s Day, may we pray for all fathers and father figures, that they be the best that they can be and instruments of God’s unconditional love.

Witness Envy

The following is an excerpt from the CBC radio program ‘Under the Influence’ that looks at topics in marketing. (“Brand Envy 2016”, originally aired April 21 2016)

“One night back in 1898, two travelling salesmen checked into the very crowded Central Hotel in Boscobel, Wisconsin. But there was only one double room left. Although they didn’t know each other, John Nicholson and Samuel Hill decided to share the room. The two got to talking, and discovered they also shared a common faith, and both had toyed with the idea of creating an association for Christian businessmen. So they decided to try it together. One year later, they held an open meeting for any men who were interested in joining a Christian association for travelling salesmen. Only one person showed up. His name was William Knights…[who] had an inspiration. “We shall be called Gideons,” he exclaimed. The reference was to an Old Testament judge named Gideon who led a small group of men to defeat a much larger army. So Gideons it was.

In its first four decades of existence, only traveling sales and marketing men could join. One of the things they all shared in common – beyond their faith – was the fact they spent many nights in hotel rooms. That led them to the idea of providing bibles to hotels across the land. Not only would the books be of use to fellow travelling Gideons, but also to any other guests who needed them. They called it “The Bible Project,” and the first Gideon bibles were put into the 25 rooms of the Superior Hotel in Superior Montana in 1908. It would be the start of a journey that continues today.

Because the Gideons were originally sales and marketing men, they have a strong operational foundation, and they’ve done their research. For example, they know that the bibles have a six-year life span. When they wear out, they get refurbished, and sent to prisons for distribution. They know 25% of the people who check into a hotel room will read that bible – therefore each bible will potentially reach 2,300 people.

The Gideons aren’t upset if you break the Thou Shalt Not Steal rule, either. If you need the bible, take it, they will happily replace it.

The Gideons’ have a rolling counter on their website that keeps track of the number of bibles distributed. That number is over 2 billion… and counting. For nearly 110 years, the Gideons have survived and thrived. They offer a unique service, and virtually everyone knows what a Gideon bible is. And maybe more importantly, where it is. That is amazing branding.” Under the Influence – Brand Envy 2016

When I heard that I thought it amazing that all this occurred because two strangers were unafraid to talk about their faith. I can only imagine the conversation between two men meeting in a hotel for the first time, probably exchanging pleasantries, asking about each other’s work, about their families, perhaps about the difficulties of life on the road. However it must have quickly deepened to the point where they were willing to open up about how their respective faiths have impacted their work, their families, and their life on the road.

Because two people shared their faith and listened to each other, billions of people over the last century have read and found comfort in the bibles they distributed. Who knows how many have actually found their faith through this non-denominational Christian group (the Gideons are not a religious denomination; they do not hold any religious services). That is what evangelization is, and it can have an enormous impact on our world.

I think that evangelization is intimidating to Catholics, because either we think it requires us to have all the answers in case somebody asks us a question about our faith. Or, perhaps we feel it is simply rude or impertinent to ask someone about their faith and share something of our own faith experience. If it is the former, well then I agree, and I don’t have all the answers either. But luckily we aren’t required to have all the answers. If it is the latter, then we need to create a culture where it is normal to share our faith.

At St. Benedict they make great efforts to address both these issues. To the first concern about finding the answers to questions, St. Benedict has two ways of equipping people; Discipleship Groups which allow people to grow in their understanding of the faith through Bible Studies and faith sharing programs, and the Alpha program which is designed to help people understand the answers to life’s big questions. The key however is not to get evangelizers to take Alpha so that they have the answers themselves, but rather to offer Alpha as the place where the evangelizer can invite someone to join them to find the answers together.

To the second concern, St. Benedict tries to make witnessing and sharing our faith and our story a normal part of the parish culture. In Connect Groups people are encouraged to share with others how they came to know Jesus, or how their faith has impacted their lives. At mass there are occasionally short witness talks given by ordinary parishioners tied into the theme of the homily. Any appeal or announcement at the end of mass done by a parishioner is expected to be presented as a witness to how a particular program or activity has positively impacted them. At different gatherings or workshops, sessions usually start off with short ice-breakers as a way to get to know some of the people there, but also because it makes sharing something of our lives normative.

Sharing our faith is not something that comes easily to a typical Catholic parishioner, and St. Benedict is no different than any other parish. But they do know that it is essential if a parish is to fulfill its mission of making disciples of all nations, so it deliberately and intentionally tries to equip people to live out that mission. St. Benedict gives people the tools to learn more about their faith (Discipleship Groups), provides a place for people to invite others to discover more about how faith can make a difference (Alpha), and most importantly intentionally creates a culture where sharing our faith is normal.

Because two men shared their faith in a hotel room in Boscobel, Wisconsin, the Gideons were formed and more than a 110 years later over 2 billion bibles have touched people and brought them comfort. What then can one parish do when it equips and encourages every parishioner to share their faith? The mind boggles.

Lord Jesus, you commissioned all of us to make disciples of all nations, send your Holy Spirit once more to give us the courage and clarity of purpose to be able to share the Good News with unabashed joy.

Fr. Michael

Enough for All

This Sunday we celebrate the feast called Corpus Christi, or the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ as celebrated in the Eucharist. The Gospel passage is the story of the feeding of the five thousand. In the story, Jesus is teaching a crowd of people over the day. It is estimated that they were over 5000 people. At the end of the day, the apostles want to send everyone home.

But Jesus turns the tables oVIN & PAINn them and says they have to feed them. They had a bit of food with them, but not enough to feed 5000 people!

I often wonder about this part of the story. How do the apostles react to Jesus’ stance? Do they all want to give up their food? Does this mean that they will go hungry? I am reminded of myself when I am asked to stretch myself a little bit, to give the extra time, the extra resource, the extra donation.

The apostles do take a chance and give of their food. Then something extraordinary happens. Jesus takes the bread, offers it to God, blesses it and breaks it. He then asks the apostles to distribute all of the food. Lo and behold, there is enough for everyone, with a few doggie bags on the side. They have witnessed a miracle.

I am reminded of how many times, when we take the risk to give just a little bit more of ourselves and to offer this time up to God, how we end up with enough for all. God does provide, But we need to learn to trust. In Jeremiah 1:5 God says to Jeremiah ” Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”. God provides for us before we even know that we are in need. We are assured that there will always be enough.

Can you think of sometime when you felt called to stretch yourself and came to realize that all worked out in the end? What did you learn about yourself and about God?

Bring on the Mess

In my last post I talked about the “Belong, Believe, Behave” model they have adopted at St. Benedict parish and especially how that is applied in bringing people to faith and in sacramental preparation. (It would probably serve you better to have read that post before going on with this one.) The result of applying this model is messiness. There seems to me to be no other way to describe some of the situations that result from encouraging people to belong to the parish, or at the very least belong to a group in the parish, before they come to faith in Christ and his Church, and before they are expected to behave according his teachings.

Situations arise where there are people who have been away from the church for decades, who join Alpha, come to faith, and begin to come back to church on a regular basis. Sounds wonderful. But as you get to know the person and what is going on in their life, you see just how messy their situation sometimes is. You have to be ready to accept a lot of confusion, a lot of missteps, ignorance and uncertainty from them as they learn what believing and behaving mean for them. And you have to hope they are ready to accept a lot of the same things from us in the parish too.

There are some of the more muddled situations like a baptized Catholic on their 2nd marriage to a non-Catholic spouse on their 2nd marriage, both of whom come to faith. What to do? Then there are all the issues the last two synods on the family grappled with and which, I think, can fairly be categorized as still lacking definite clarity. So if the Church is uncertain about how to address these issues – expecting pastors (rightly, in my humble opinion) to deal with certain cases individually – we have to expect confusion on the part of the faithful, and ignorance on the part of those coming back to their faith.

Or what to say to a person who has grown up with no formal religion and who believes in some mix of new age philosophy, but after a friend invites them to Alpha, experiences a conversion. Now they have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and who was incarnate, died and resurrected, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. They are joyfully attending mass every Sunday and really excited to be learning more about their new faith in the RCIA class. They participate fully for the six month program we have in place, and come Holy Week are perfectly accepting of the Creed, but are unable to let go of one or two of their new age practices or beliefs. Do we baptize them at the Easter Vigil along with the 27 year old baptized Catholic, who took the RCIA just because she was told that in order to get married in the church that summer she had to be confirmed? This is a bit of a tricky situation for the pastor or anyone else in that ministry.

Then there are situations that I would categorize as more awkward than problematic. For instance, consider a single mother of two, aged 14 and 11, who rediscovers her faith that she had drifted away from years earlier and recommits herself to bringing her family to Church. However, only her oldest child was baptized as an infant and neither have ever been exposed to church since, but she now wants her children to come to faith as well. How do we as a parish respond to her needs?

In Quebec, as religious education has moved out of the schools, most dioceses have kept with the school grade level model for sacramental preparation. So the traditional year for 1st Communions corresponds to grade 2 or 3 and Confirmations in the ridiculously young grade 6. As I mentioned in my previous post, catechizing her children probably wouldn’t evangelize them in any event. And shoehorning them according to our current models would mean placing the 14 year old in a class with 7 and 8 year old children and not knowing what to do with the unbaptized 11 year old. Too old to baptize as a child and too young to place in RCIA. We all know that our models will not meet this mother’s desire to see her children come to embrace Jesus Christ the way she has. I also know that expecting this woman who is just now discovering her faith to be able to evangelize her own teen or ‘tween children is asking too much. Do we place the older child in the youth group and the younger one in with their faith formation age level and hope for the best?

Becoming a parish of missionary disciples is going to be messy. It will create awkward situations, it will require difficult pastoral decisions and judgement. It probably will require a complete overhauling of some of our existing structures surrounding sacramental preparations. “Belong, Believe, Behave” will mean letting go of certain expectations of conformity and what is considered normal. It will require vision and leadership and courage and above all hard work.

I can’t wait! Because it will mean we’re finally fulfilling our mission, it means we’re making disciples, and living out our faith together. Bring on the mess.

God Bless us all

Fr. Michael

Belong, Believe, Behave

A few years ago I was at a get together of recently ordained priests, the primary purpose of which was to meet with our then new Archbishop, Christian Lépine. In this informal gathering one of my colleagues asked a question concerning marriage preparation. The basic premise was that for the past year he had been in a parish that saw dozens and dozens of weddings each year, and that he spent hours with each couple leading up to their wedding, talking with them about the sacrament of marriage and the important role faith plays in married life. In all of the couples he’d worked with he had not seen a one return to church after the wedding itself. His question to the Archbishop was how do we reach them? Archbishop Lépine’s response was that we are spending too much time catechizing people who have yet to be evangelized.

Over the past couple of years I have recognized the truth in his statement, and that this principle applies not simply to marriage preparation, but to nearly all of our sacramental preparation; baptism, first reconciliation and communion, and confirmation suffer from the same problem. We have spent countless hours and money and energy developing new catechetical programs, and new ways to prepare parents for baptism, children for first reconciliation and communion, and teens for confirmation. I’m quite certain we already have great programs that teach parents what baptism confers and what symbols will be used during the celebration. I know we have programs chock a block full of great information for children about Jesus, the Eucharist, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I have been the priest full of pride when the bishop or monsignor asks the confirmation class about the gifts of the Holy Spirit during his homily and the children are able to name all of them. But ultimately it matters not one whit because I know that the next weekend no more than a handful will be back in church. In fact, many I will never see again. While I may see the few who will one day decide to get married in a church, where the charade of catechizing them can begin again.

I have thought about what the Archbishop said; Evangelize before Catechize. But looking back on RCIA classes I have been involved with, (I have to look far back as St. Ignatius shamefully hasn’t had an RCIA class in years), I don’t even think that evangelization is enough. The best classes I’ve been around have a wonderful bond that develops within the group, where each person feels part of something greater than themselves. This cohesion is wonderful to see and allows people to grow in their faith. Yet even in this environment, where people aren’t taught so much as challenged to deepen their relationship with Christ, doesn’t seem to be enough. They may commit to becoming a disciple of Christ, that after all is what baptism is. But not long after the RCIA meetings have ended a good number of them have fallen away from practice of the faith too. I now realize it is because the feeling of belonging, which was an intense part of the process, is lost when they try to integrate into the larger parish community.

At St. Benedict there is the maxim; belong, believe, behave. This refers to the notion that people need to feel as though they belong to something, then they will be open to hearing the Kerygma and to believing in Christ, after which they are ready and willing to learn more about Scripture or the precepts of the faith. All the while they need to know that they belong, it is the foundation upon which evangelization and catechesis are built, and without which they will crumble at the slightest adversity.

Alpha uses this belonging before believing dynamic to bring people to Christ. But beyond Apha the goal is to maintain the sense of belonging, which is why they have Alpha Team, Connect Groups and Discipleship Groups. Each is meant to foster the sense of belonging to community, while being part of a larger parish community. They understand that attending mass on Sunday with hundreds of other anonymous people does not foster the same sense of belonging that helped bring people to Christ in the first place.

Adapting all sacramental preparation to this belong, believe, behave model is a work in progress at St. Benedict. For instance it works better with Marriage preparation than with Baptism. Engaged couples are asked to go through Alpha together, where they are placed with others like them in order to feel connected as a group on the way to hearing the Kerygma and prior to being catechized. It doesn’t work with everyone, and some balk when they find out what they are asked to go through in order to get married at St. Benedict. But I dare say that the batting average here is better than the .000 average the young priest in Montreal was experiencing.

I recall a priest who had spent more than a decade working among the poor in Montreal telling me that the greatest poverty he has encountered is loneliness, and that it crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. People long for a sense of belonging.

I do not believe that a new approach to catechesis is going to answer any of our problems. I think we need to heed Archbishop Lépine’s call to evangelize before we catechize, and I think that giving people a sense of belonging is the foundation upon which evangelization needs to be built. Only then should we think about how to teach them about our faith. As I heard Fr. Mallon say “we’ll have the rest of their lives to catechize them.”

Gob Bless us all

Fr. Michael Leclerc

Corpus Christi Procession

One of my favorite events of the liturgical year is the feast of Corpus Christi. The belief in the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine is central to the Catholic faith and distinguishes us from most of the other Christian denominations. On the feast of Corpus Christi, Catholics celebrate that faith. Jesus really gives of Himself to the faithful.

The evening of Corpus Christi in Montreal begins with a celebration of the Eucharist at Notre Dame Basilica. Notre Dame is a beautiful church in the heart of what was once the centre of the city of Montreal. The carvings, paintings and statues bring us back to an era when artisans would honor God by using their  artistic talents to build a church.

As the Eucharistic celebration finishes, the host is placed in a golden receptacle called a monstrance and is then carried out into the streets with the faithful following. The procession that follows is one of joy and peace. People of all walks of life gather here, young, old, strong and less strong supported by others. Everyone walks with a candle, lighting up the dark streets like a stars in the sky. They pray, sing and walk in solidarity of their faith. Each time I participate I am uplifted as I walk with the crowd. It is difficult to describe the sense of communion that I feel, but something in my heart is touched in a very deep way.

I am reminded of how community supports my faith. Our culture today often supports the axiom of being “spiritual but not religious”. Yet, I know in my heart that through community or religion, my spiritual life is strengthened. Yes, sometimes I am even challenged by my community, but that only makes me stronger.

This coming Thursday, May 19th, I will walk again with my fellow pilgrims of faith. Why not come along? The details are here. Let me know what it was like for you?

In God’s time

iStock_tulipes_Small (1)The warm weather has been late in coming this year and the chilly nights still remind us that this spring is still in its early stages. But nevertheless, several signs of spring are coming forth. The birds are singing even louder during the morning and the daffodils and crocuses are peeking out of the ground to bring color to the garden beds.

The season of spring reminds us that life is made new even after a long winter. It is fascinating to watch as the bulbs grow out of the ground. First come the stalks of green, peeking out, as if testing to see if it is safe to come out in spite of the cold. If they grow too fast and there is a frost, they risk being frozen and loosing their blooms.

The same goes for the buds on the trees that burst forth as they feel the warmth of the sunshine inviting the leaves to come out and adorn the trees. The most beautiful are the magnolias that blossom open with enormous pink flowers and bring a show of color to the walkways. I love this time of year as it demonstrates that there is so much potential in the earth that needs to grow and give life.

In his excitement to see the bloom, my three year old grandson tried to force open a tulip bud, only to realize that it does not work to force the blossom, it only breaks instead. How many times are we too excited to wait for something in our lives to happen and try to force the situation, only to find out that it take the time it takes. We can call this God’s time.

It takes God’s time to grow in faith, to emerge from our own times of winter and become the person we were created to become.

Is there something inside of you that is emerging and needs to grow? Is it hard for you to take the time it takes for you to blossom and show your colors? Can you allow God to be the guide?