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?

Lives writ large… and messy

On the surface it would seem to me that people in Halifax have messier lives. The people I’ve encountered seem to have more problems, more emotional wounds, and more psychological scars than people in my parish in Montreal. That of course is a load of bunk. There are no more failed marriages, broken relationships, at risk children, crisis situations, or abuse survivors here than anywhere else. I just hear about them more at St. Benedict.
It isn’t that I hear about them because people come to me in confession or spiritual direction and open up about these troubling aspects of their lives, though, some do. However, most of the time, I hear it when they testify in their Connect Group, during a prayer session or at an Alpha night. They are willing to talk about the issues they are facing because they expect to be supported in their struggles by a loving community and never judged as a failure. They are also willing to share because they expect that people will pray with them, over them, and for them. However perhaps the biggest reason they are willing to talk openly about the messiness of their lives is because they expect those prayers to be answered, they expect the Lord to bring them healing.
Up to now it’s been my experience that not too many Catholics actually believe that the Lord will answer their prayers. Not too many believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, or that Jesus wants us to be healed and will often bring real physical and spiritual healing. Too many of us have become, for all intents and purposes, Deists; that is the belief in a creator of the universe and rational beings, but who has no ongoing involvement in creation. Couple that with the lack of widespread occasions where we truly feel part of a loving community of faith, and perhaps that is why few of us are willing to openly talk about our pain; physical or otherwise.
A couple of Thursdays ago we had the final Alpha evening for the winter session. This was more a celebration than a typical Alpha night. This was also meant to be the come and see for the next session of Alpha, so people were asked to invite others to come out for the evening. Part of the evening included a few people who had just completed the session witnessing about the impact Alpha had for them.
There was a lot of messiness there. One woman spoke quite openly about how much of a struggle she’d been going through dealing with a personal tragedy and an ongoing situation involving one of her family members. It was heart wrenching to hear her speak to her pain and her anger toward God and the world. She also spoke of her apprehension about Alpha being of any use to her. But then she talked of how the people in her Alpha small group allowed her to feel safe enough to open up about her struggles. How on the Holy Spirit weekend she was skeptical, but felt comfortable enough to allow people to pray over her. And then she witnesses that in fact the Holy Spirit did come into her heart, that she then spent the rest of the weekend letting go of all the bitterness and anger that had been gripping her and letting God’s love fill her. She talked about how much more at peace she feels since then, and that she is now able to deal with her situation in a healthier and more loving way.
Those in her Alpha small group had heard this before, however all of us who were hearing this for the first time were incredibly moved by her vulnerability and her testimony. I’m sure she helped more than one person that night become more open to faith or at the very least to commit to trying the next session of Alpha. That is the power of witnessing and that’s the power of God working through this community. This woman felt comfortable enough and loved enough to talk about the details of her struggle in an open way in front of strangers even, because she knew that sharing the messiness of her life had brought her healing and she knew that other people could benefit from hearing her witness.
As a priest I don’t often hear that kind of vulnerability expressed in confidential conversations, let alone being talked about openly. I’m sure people have lives that are just as messy in Montreal and elsewhere. There is no shortage of heartache and pain in the world. To my ears however it remains exceptional that people are willing to be so honest about their brokenness and their struggles with issues of faith. Yet hearing about the messiness of her life, the healing she received and the support she felt is not uncommon at St. Benedict, it is in fact actively encouraged by all the staff, Connect Groups and Alpha leaders.
Lives here are transformed, as they may very well be elsewhere, but at St. Benedict we hear about them. We hear about the messiness and more importantly, about the prayers, healing and loving support people have received. That in turn encourages others in their own struggles and woundedness, affording them hope, if not the expectation that the Lord will bring them healing too. All of which builds a community and a culture that expects great things from God.

God Bless our mess

Fr. Michael Leclerc

Legacy of Love

CAs we read more of the Easter passages, I cannot help but notice the impact that Jesus had on his apostles. Each story reveals how Jesus is remembered for the love that he showed to others, for his attitude towards the marginalized and his critique of any injustices that he witnessed. This is the way he is remembered by all those who encountered him.

The resurrection stories recount how he brought a sense of peace and comfort for those who were blessed to see him. He forgave those who may have abandoned him during the passion and he reconnected with the friends who could not understand what had happened. In each case he left a legacy of love and hope.

Each one of us leaves a legacy when we die. How we live our lives, the actions we take, the attitudes that we adopt send a message to the people we leave behind. Not too long ago, I attended the funerals of several people that I knew. At these funerals, the persons closest to the deceased would give a testimony about how the life of that person impacted them. For the most part, the testimonies were positive and each person shared what they cherished most about the loved one they had lost.

Most of us are not thinking about what will be said about ourselves at our funerals. But it is good to reflect on how we want to be remembered. What we do with our lives will speak much louder than what we say. Does our life reflect our values? Are our actions congruent with who we would like to become as a person? It is never too late to begin to act differently than we have done in the past.

We always have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the people we know and with our wider circle of contacts.

How do you want to be remembered?

The Joy of Love

papa-francescoThere are two words that are hallmarks of the papacy of Pope Francis. These words are Joy and Mercy. So, it is not surprising that when last Friday, Pope Francis’ much anticipated Apostolic Exhoratation on the family came out, he named it “The Joy of Love”.  It draws together almost three years of consultations with Catholics in countries around the world on the role of the family in the world.

Although I have not read it all myself, the title is very enticing and speaks to how real self-giving love brings us joy. This week, instead of writing a reflection, I would like to encourage you to read some of the summaries and commentaries that are available on the internet concerning the Joy of Love. You may even want to read the document in full. Let me hear your own thoughts.

Happy reading!

Ten Top Takeaways on The Joy of Love

Bishop Robert Barron

Q and A from Bishop Barron

A Deeper Look

A Canadian Perspective

Resurrection in the Ordinary

iStock_tulipes_Small (1)As we move through the Easter season, each Sunday there is another gospel story about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples. This coming week is the story of Jesus appearing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as he watches the apostles from the shore.

They have now returned to their previous occupation as fishermen. But they did not have much luck with their catch and they slowly became discouraged. They notice Jesus on the shore, who tells them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat. Their nets are filled to the brim. As they have breakfast together, Peter is reconciled with Jesus as Peter declares his love for Jesus three times. Each time Jesus responds by telling Peter to follow him.

In this story, as in the other stories of the appearance of Jesus after the resurrection, there is a moment of healing for those who encounter Jesus.

But each meeting is very ordinary. When Jesus meets Mary Magdalene on Easter Sunday, She recognizes him when he calls her name. When he meets Thomas, Jesus asks him to touch his wounds. And the reading for today shows how Jesus appears by calling to the disciples to cast their nets in a different way. There is no fanfare, bright lights, or astounding phenomenon. The appearances are ordinary and everyday.

God reveals himself to us most often in the everyday. Small gestures, discreet moments of awareness, humble stirrings in our hearts are God’s way of reaching out to us. One way to notice these events is to pray the examen. There is a wonderful new app called “Reimagining the examen.” It is a beautiful way to pray and become aware of God’s presence in our ordinary day.

I invite you to try it and see how God may be speaking to you as you go through your day.

Divine Mercy Sunday

Divina_Misericordia_(Eugeniusz_Kazimirowski,_1934)The first Sunday that follows Easter has been designated by Saint John Paul II to be called Divine Mercy Sunday. It is a particular Sunday in which we recognize and pray in a special way to experience the mercy offered to us by God. The mercy that God offers us is another way that God shows his compassion for all of humanity. This virtue is nowhere more evident in the gospel for this coming weekend.

The gospel this Sunday is one of the stories of Jesus’s appearance to the apostles after the resurrection. Thomas, one of the apostles, is absent when Jesus reveals himself. When Thomas does see his friends and they speak about having seen Jesus, he does not believe them. In fact he tells them that he will only believe that Jesus is alive, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Quite the statement.

But Jesus, true to his word does reappear to his friends and this time, Thomas is present. Jesus knows and loves his friend. He knows that Thomas has difficulty believing that which he has not seen. He has compassion for Thomas and invites him to touch his wounds. Thomas no longer doubts. Jesus loves his friend in spite of Thomas’ skepticism. He accepts him for who he is and reveals himself to Thomas in spite of his difficulty to believe.

God looks at us in the same way that Jesus looks at Thomas. Our flaws do not define us in God’s eyes. We are loved unconditionally. As Jesus continued with his relationship to Thomas, God desires that same close relationship with us.

Pope Francis says that “The name of God is Mercy”. May we allow that mercy to touch us and open our hearts to that love.