Personal update: back to school!

With the recent publication of the Pastoral Appointments for 2015, it was made official that come mid-July I will be going back to school. Since the news has been out, people have asked me questions about what comes next and how I am approaching this change in my life. Here's some answers.

What will I study? Where? For how long?
Before ordination priests are required to study philosophy and theology. After we obtain a general degree in theology, it is possible to study deeper in a specific area. I will be pursuing further studies in Sacred Scripture. Specifically, I work towards completing a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture. A licentiate is the second of three degrees offered by Pontifical Universities: baccalaureate, licentiate and doctorate.
Pontifical Biblical Institute
I will study at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (aka Biblicum) in Rome. The Biblicum was founded by Pope St. Pius X in 1904 as a center for advanced studies in Scripture. From the start, the Biblicum has been run by the Jesuits. Interestingly, the current head of the school, Fr. Michael Kolarcik SJ, was born in New Westminster, Canada.

If all goes well, it will take me three years to complete my studies at the Biblicum. The program will require a lot of language studies, something I find more than a little intimidating. Before the program begins in October I will go to Germany for a couple months to study German. During my first year at the Biblicum I will study ancient Greek and Hebrew. In the following two years I will take courses in biblical history, geography, archaeology and methods of interpretation. While studying in Rome, I will live at the Canadian Pontifical College (in Rome everything is "Pontifical"!). Since 1888 this has been a residence for Canadian priests in Rome. It is run by the Sulpician religious community.
Pontifical Canadian College
How do I feel about the change?
As my younger friends would say, I have many “feels” about it! On the one hand I feel sad leaving behind my family and the friends I made in the three parishes I served at in the past few years: St. Matthew, St. Joseph the Worker and St. Paul. I really love working in a parish, particularly because I have the chance to interact with so many great people. I enjoy serving them and I appreciate the kindness and support they show me. Leaving this behind will be difficult. I also feel some anxiety. I am unsure about how everything will work out, particularly because my area of studies will be quite challenging for me. On the other hand, I am very excited to go back to school. I am a big nerd so studying is something I really enjoy. I love the idea of studying Scripture. St. Jerome famously said “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”. By reducing my ignorance of Scripture, I hope to get to know Jesus better! The idea of being in Rome again makes me happy. Previously I lived there for three years while I studied theology and I love the city. I am very grateful to Archbishop Miller for this opportunity and I intend work hard and make the most of it. It will be a great chance for me to grow personally and I hope that these studies will help me to better serve the Archdiocese of Vancouver in the future. So many feels!

When I leave to study in July, the nature of this blog will probably change. Since I will no longer be working in a parish, I will not be regularly posting homilies. Instead, I hope to write some reflections about my experiences studying Scripture and living in Rome. Thank you all for your support and prayers during this time of transition for me!

Is life an all inclusive resort or a school?

Luke 24:35-48 (3rd Sunday of Easter, year b)

Mark Twain once said, “the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”  Unless we know the purpose of our life, the “why” we were born, we will never live a fulfilling life. The Gospel we have heard today in which the risen Jesus appears to His disciples helps us discover the reason why we were born.

What we see as the purpose of our life will depend greatly on whether or not we believe our existence ends at death. Do we live forever? How we answer this question influences our understanding of why we were born. If we think that there is nothing after death, then we can behave as though our life was one long stay at an all inclusive resort. At these resorts, guests pay a lump sum of money and in return they get to eat and drink as much as they like for the time of their stay. I have never stayed at an all inclusive resort and this is probably a good thing. If I did, I would try very hard to get my money’s worth by eating and drinking as much as I possibly could during the time of my stay. Sometimes we treat life this way. Being born is like the price of admission to the all inclusive resort. Death is the end of our stay. In the years that we are alive, we try to enjoy life as much as possible. We strive to obtain the best house, the best car, the best vacations, the best job and all the best conveniences. We seek to maximize the pleasure in our life and minimize the pain.

By rising from the dead, Jesus proved to us that our life does not end when we die. Death, in fact is only the beginning. The years we live before our death are like one grain of sand among the countless grains of sand on a large beach. When we believe that we have been created to live forever, we no longer view life as an all inclusive resort, but rather as a school. When we die, we do not get to bring our house, car, smartphone, money, fame or career with us. The only thing we bring with us when we die is ourselves, who we are, our character. The purpose of our life then is to develop our character and so prepare ourselves to live with God forever in heaven. During our life we are meant to grow to become more like Jesus. We might wonder why God even puts us on this earth for these years if the ultimate plan if for us to get to heaven eventually. Why do we have to suffer and go through pain? Why are we just not born and then go straight to heaven? The reason is that there are some lessons that we can only learn on this side of heaven. Our character grows most in suffering and challenges. The primary purpose of our life is not enjoyment. This will come later. The years before our death are meant to be a time of development, repentance and conversion. The readings of today all speak of this purpose. This side of heaven is supposed to be a school in which we learn to become more like Christ. We practice here was we will do forever in heaven: love God and love our neighbour.

How do we build character? How do we become more like Christ? How do we become more loving? More patient? More peaceful? More joyful? God does not suddenly zap us as we are walking down the street and produce these characteristics in us. There is no pill we can take and no book we can read that will make us have these characteristics.  We gain these characteristics by being in the exact opposite situations. For example, we develop peace in the midst of chaos. It is easy to be peaceful when you are laying on the beach sipping a drink from a coconut. When everything in your life seems like it is falling apart and you are able to trust God in the midst of it, it is then that you learn to be truly peaceful. Developing more patience follows the same principle. Do you know how you grow in patience? Go to Costco here in Richmond during peak hours and try to find a parking spot! Likewise, we learn to be loving by being around unlovable people. It is easy to be kind and caring with people that you like. We learn true love by being around unpleasant and difficult people. Finally, we learn how to posses true joy in the midst of sorrow. We gain Christ-like characteristics by being placed in the exact opposite situations.

Life is a school in which God is trying to develop our character through everyday events and interactions. For this reason, it is critical that we take on the attitude of good learners. In particular, we need to strive to have the virtue of docility. Sometimes when we hear we are supposed to be docile, we think that we are supposed to be weak or a bit of a pushover. Docility actually means something quite different. It comes from the latin word docere, meaning “to teach”. A docile person is someone who can easily be taught, a good learner. When we have docility, we are open to being taught by God. We have a different attitude when we approach experiences, especially difficult ones, in our life. When we encounter challenges or suffering our reaction can often be to ask God to simply make everything better. When we are docile, however, our reaction to hard times is to ask “what is God trying to teach me in this?” It is a tragedy in life when a child is unable to grow up to become an adult. We should think the same way about our spiritual life. Unless we work on developing docility, we will remain spiritual children. We will not grow and develop to become more like Christ.

The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why. The Resurrection reminds us of our purpose. We are made to live forever. We were born in order to learn how to be people who can live in heaven. The purpose of our time here on earth is to develop our character, which is the only thing that we get to bring with us into eternal life. Let us be good learners.

In defense of Bandwagon Canucks Fans

I used to think that people in Vancouver were not very religious. That was until I went to my first Canuck’s game last year. My friend won tickets and although I do not know much about the sport, I was happy to go. Though the game was fun to watch, I found all the ceremony surrounding the game much more fascinating. It was a masterfully executed religious event! I would know, I am in a very similar field myself.

Walking to the game, I found the positioning of Rogers Arena significant. In the past, cities were often centered around a place of worship like a cathedral, synagogue or mosque. This tradition continues, only now the temple is the arena. During the game there were many effects aimed at producing an emotional response: special lighting, smoke, and music (complete with an organ!). Most impressive was the sense of ownership that was instilled in the spectators. The announcer repeatedly told us to cheer for “our” Vancouver Canucks. We are all Canucks! It’s like when I tell students in catechism class, “the Church isn’t a building, YOU are the Church!”

This new religion has its own system of morality for fans. The greatest virtue a fan can possess is loyalty. A good fan is a diehard fan, a real Canucklehead. The greatest sin a fan can commit is to only support the team when they are doing well. A bad fan is a bandwagon fan. Now that the Canucks have entered the playoffs, die-hard fans express their displeasure with the bandwagoners’ sudden interest in the team. It’s like Mass on Christmas Eve. The Catholics who come every Sunday start griping that the “Christmas and Easter” Catholics are taking up pew space.

Here’s the thing: supporting the Vancouver Canuck’s is not like supporting an orphanage somewhere in the developing world. Giving your time, attention and money to an orphanage is a good thing to do. Ignoring or withdrawing your support, especially when the orphanage is most in need, would be a bad thing to do.

The truth is, they are not “our” Vancouver Canucks. They are owned by people who hope to make money from the team. It is in the owner’s best interest that we feel the team belongs to us. It is in the owner’s best interest if team loyalty is exalted as a virtue. It keeps the money coming in when people follow the team with a religious devotion. I don’t know exactly how much the players make, but I assume their monetary compensation is enough to overcome the hurt feelings that arise when fan numbers and enthusiasm fluctuates.  We are not all Canucks. Those paid by the team are Canucks. The rest of us are just consumers.

Not that there is anything wrong with being a consumer! In the end, supporting the Canucks is entertainment. We all spend our time and money on a variety of things that entertain us. Do you enjoy being a die-hard fan, supporting the team through all its ups and downs? Fantastic. Do you enjoy being a bandwagon fan, only paying attention when the team is performing well? Wonderful. Be whatever kind of fan makes you happy. Be aware, however, that if you attach moral significance to fan loyalty or disloyalty, thinking one is “good” and the other “bad”, you’re the one who got played.

Easter: How we experience the Resurrection

John 20:1-9 (Easter Sunday, year B)

As part of a project for the students at our school, we placed a large, wooden cross in the Church’s sanctuary at the start of lent. During these past 40 days, the students gradually blanketed the cross with leaves they made from green paper. Finally, before the Easter Vigil, we covered the the cross with paper lilies students created from tracings of their hands. Eat your heart out Pinterest! This project caught the attention many parishioners, some of whom asked me what was going on. One woman summed up the questions of many when she asked “what’s up with the cross? It looks different!” I was glad she recognized that the cross looked different. The entire purpose of this endeavour was to help students and parishioners look at the Cross differently. Because of Easter, we want to look at both the Cross of Jesus and all the crosses we carry in our life differently. In fact, with this project we tried to demonstrate visually an ancient expression used by Christians as they struggled to look at the Cross differently:
Behold how the Cross stands revealed as the Tree of Life!

The first story told in the Bible is about the Tree of Life, Adam, Eve and a garden (Gen 2-3). We read that after God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in a garden.  In the garden’s center were found the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told Adam and Eve that though they could eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden, they were not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, “for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die” (Gen 2:17). We know the rest of the story. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In response, God exiled them from the garden and barred them from eating any longer from the Tree of Life. This story reveals fundamental truths about our human condition. Because of sin, our relationship with God was severed. This is represented by our exile from the garden, the place of close communion with God. As a result of sin, death entered the world. This is represented by our being barred access to the Tree of Life. This death was eternal. After our physical death, we would be permanently separated from God, the Author of Life. This was the hopeless situation we all found ourselves in before the coming of Jesus.

One of the last stories told in the Bible is about the new Tree of Life, the New Adam, the New Eve and a new garden (John 18-20). Jesus is the New Adam and Mary is the New Eve because they always remained faithful to God, whereas the original Adam and Eve disobeyed Him. In the Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, a garden plays an important role. “At the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in this garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been buried.” (John 19:41) After His death, Jesus is placed in the tomb just like a seed is planted in the dirt of a garden. After three days Christ rose from the dead, like a seedling breaking through the ground. The new life of the Resurrection came about because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Christ, the New Adam has undone the damage caused by Adam in the original garden. We once again have access to the Tree of Life. Behold how the Cross stands revealed as the Tree of Life! The Resurrection of Jesus gives us a certain hope that after we die we will rise like Him. Because of Jesus, the Cross is no longer a dead piece of wood. His death transformed the Cross into a source of life for all of us.

We must learn to look at the Cross of Jesus differently. This is the only first lesson the student’s project teaches us. The second lesson lesson is that we need  to look at our own sufferings - our crosses - differently. The new life brought about by Jesus is something we experience here and now, not just after our death. In our lives, God brings new life from our sufferings just as He did from the Cross of Jesus. God is able to transform any painful or difficult experience into a tree of life. In this we truly experience the Resurrection.

This is something I have experienced personally. When I was in university I went to work at High Tech company in Japan for two semesters. My first few weeks were extremely difficult. The work was way above me, there was a large cultural barrier and I was hitting my head on the many low ceilings! On top of this, I began having health problems like I had never experienced before. Suddenly and without warning my heart would start racing and I would begin feeling terrible all over. To add to my stress, I had no idea what was happening to me. One night when I was walking towards a Metro station, I had my worst episode of all. At the time I thought I was having a heart attack. It got so bad that I could no longer stand up. In broken Japanese, I asked some people to call an ambulance. I thought to myself, “this is it, Nick, the end” and I laid down in the Metro square under the blinking neon signs and loud street noises. Eventually an ambulance came and the workers lifted me onto the stretcher and took me away. Now, when Japanese people lift something heavy, they tend to say “Yish! Yish!”. I can tell you that there were many “yishes” coming from the ambulance attendants that night! Eventually I found out that what I was experiencing were panic attacks. For two months they continued. They would come at work, on the bus or when I was out on the street. It was a very dark time for me. I felt helpless and lost hope that things would improve. Thankfully, after some time, the panic attacks became less and less frequent until it was something I could manage.

Though my struggle with panic attacks was a difficult cross, I see now that God transformed it into a tree of life for me. When I went to Japan, my faith was weak. I prayed little and was not really sure what I believed. At the time my plan in life was to become an engineer. My suffering made me rethink the purpose of my life. It started me on a journey to rediscover my faith. It made me question what my vocation was. God certainly brought life from my suffering. If I had not struggled with panic attacks in Japan I doubt I would be a priest today.

Behold how the Cross stands revealed as the Tree of Life! Easter forever changed the world. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus we have the certain hope that we will live with God forever. Because of the Resurrection of Jesus, God works to bring life from our suffering. Today, take a moment to think of one cross you carried that God transformed into a tree of life and give thanks. If you are currently carrying a cross that seems too heavy to bear, try to surrender it to God today, trusting that He will bring life from it. “What’s up with the cross? It looks different!” Because of Easter, we should never again look at any cross in our life in the same way.

Good Friday: Do I want justice or do I want mercy?

(Good Friday, year B)

The front page story of today’s Vancouver Sun describes the horrible terrorist attack in Kenya. Masked gunman killed 147 university students simply because they were Christian. The media has interviewed many people, victims’ relatives, politicians and members of the general public. They all express a desire for one thing: justice. This action was terribly wrong. This is not the way the world is supposed to be. Spoken or unspoken, those interviewed and all of us following the news ask the same questions, “Who is going to pay for this? Who will be held responsible?” Whether the hurt is grievous, like a terrorist attack, or minor, as when a friend insults us, whenever someone wrongs us our inclination is to want justice.

When we are the guilty party, however, things are very different. For example, at the end of one semester at university I become swamped with exams and assignments and completely forgot to do one essay. By the time I remembered it, the deadline had passed. I quickly finished the assignment in a day and went to the professor to personally hand it in. As I walked to his office, my mind was racing with excuses. There was too much to do! The due date was unclear! My computer crashed! Everything in me wanted mercy. But the truth was, I messed up. I was late and deserved to be punished by having marks deducted from my grade. What a difference in my response. When someone hurts me, I want justice. I want them to apologize, preferably in public, and make up for it. However, when I am guilty, I beg for mercy. I want to say sorry quietly and have my transgression quickly swept under the rug.

In his letters, St. Paul vividly describes the grave situation we find ourselves in because of our sins. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins… we were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1,3). Let this reality sink in. We have all sinned, hurting others and destroying the order and goodness of God’s world. We all deserve punishment, not mercy. St. Paul explains that if justice were carried out, we would all be found guilty and sentenced to the ultimate punishment of eternal death. This is the hopeless situation sin leaves us in. We do not deserve mercy. We deserve to be held accountable for our sins.

But here we come to the reason why we call this Friday “good”. In the darkness of sin, the light of God’s mercy and love unexpectedly breaks through. When we look at Jesus hanging from the Cross, we realize that we did not get what we deserved! God gave us mercy, not justice! Justice looks to hold the wrongdoer accountable, following through with the appropriate punishment or consequences. However, in His infinite mercy, God chose to take the punishment for our sins upon Himself. He paid our fine. He suffered in our place.  “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins ... by his stripes we were healed.” (Is 53:5ff). We did not get what we deserved.

Mercy is not meant to end at the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus unleashed a fountain of mercy that is meant to flow in and through us to those around us. God is merciful to us so that we can be merciful to others. Each one of us has been hurt. We have all been insulted or betrayed by friends, family or coworkers. Some hurts seem impossible to forgive. Jesus knows our pain because He suffered the same. Mercy does not pretend no wrong was committed. Rather, when we are merciful, we choose to cancel the debt others incurred against us. In doing so, we break the power these hurts hold over us and become free to love as Christ calls us to do.

Does mercy end at the Cross for you? Is there someone in your life that you cannot forgive? Is there some hurt you cannot let go of? Are there people in your life from whom you demand justice and stubbornly refuse to show them mercy? What might this say about your understanding of what Jesus has done for you on the Cross?

Today when you look at the Cross, think of one person who has hurt you. Look at the Cross and soak in the unfathomable mercy God has shown you. We did not get what we deserved! In view of the Cross ask yourself, what do I want for this person who has harmed me? Do I want justice or do I want mercy?