We Are in Need of a Good Shepherd

This weekend I was in Raleigh, NC giving a reflection for Vocation’s Sunday and Franciscan Formation weekend as an attempt to raise interest in and support for the friars, the shepherds of so many. I ask that you take these petitions seriously, that you may follow Jesus more closely and in return, share with others what Jesus has given you.

Without a shepherd, the sheep are lost.

Without a shepherd, the sheep are lost.

Sheep are interesting creatures. Born without horns, claws, strength, speed, or really any way of defending themselves, the only thing sheep have is each other: when frightened, they clump together as a giant flock protecting each other through a strength-in-numbers technique. Their instinct to look to one another for safety is the very thing that keeps them safe; unfortunately, and quite ironically, it’s also their greatest danger. Sheep are natural followers, having no instinct whatsoever to lead. When clumped together, any movement from the heard is interpreted as a sign of leadership and the rest blindly follow along. It’s no wonder, then, how sheep have been known as entire flocks to walk right off a cliff.  In turkey a few years back, 1500 sheep ran right off a cliff, one after another. How could an animal be so stupid, we wonder. They act without thinking, are often lost or confused, and go with the crowd because they’re afraid to be different.

You wouldn’t happen to know of any other animals like this, would you? I wonder… Have you ever intended to do one thing and ended up doing another; got distracted with what you were doing, went with the crowd, and ended up somewhere you never wanted to be; have you ever been tempted to do things that were not good for yourself or others, led astray by something or someone that didn’t care about you? We can be just like the sheep sometimes, can’t we, wandering through life looking for help in all the wrong places.

We are a people in need of a Good Shepherd, someone to guide us and protect us.

Luckily, we have one: his name is Jesus, and he has risen from the dead, alleluia! He is the Good Shepherd because he knows his sheep and cares for them. He loves his sheep so much that he gave up his place in heaven to come down and be a sheep himself. He has walked the life we walk, suffered the pain that we suffer. He took on everything about us but our sin. Jesus Did this because he loves us; because he loves you. He cares about you. He wants to know you. Jesus is the perfect Good shepherd because he is at the same time shepherd and sheep, God and human, because he was willing to lay down his life for the flock. His life, death, and resurrection remind us of the great love he has for us as his flock.

We are in need of a Good Shepherd, and we have a Good Shepherd.

If we follow Jesus, we will never be weak for he is our strength; we will never be lost for he is our guide; we will never be alone for he is our great love! With Jesus as our Shepherd, there is nothing we shall want. He guides us where we need to go and gives us everything we would ever want. We have no need to fear because we know he is with us by our side. If you think about it, our cups our truly overflowing with his many blessings. How can we even begin to count the many ways he has loved us?

We are in need of a Good Shepherd and nothing more.

Where do we find Jesus? In our brothers and sisters. In this community of faith. Jesus may be the Good Shepherd, but we are his hands and feet. From him, through us, and to the whole world Jesus loves his sheep. It is through you and me, the humble and lowly, the lost and confused, that Jesus brings strength, guidance, and love to the whole world. Because of this,

We are in need of good shepherds, people to do Christ’s work.

Some people, like myself, have been called to religious life, and one day to become a priest. God has called me to lay down my life for his sheep, to give up my own life for the sake of others. What does this mean? I think pope Francis has it exactly right: at the end of the day, a good shepherd smells like the sheep. This is what I want. This is what Franciscans do. We are called to live a radical life with the poor, for the poor, as the poor. When we enter, sure, we give up our money and possessions. But it’s much more than that: when we accept Jesus as all that we need, vowing to live a life for him and for others, we are truly without worry. What could there possibly be to worry about? Seriously. Advancement in our careers? People won’t like us? Wouldn’t have enough money to buy the latest clothes or get the coolest technology? In this life, all that I ever have to worry about is how I’m going to love God’s people for him. That’s it. It’s a remarkable life being a shepherd in this way.

We are in need of a good shepherds to devote themselves entirely to the Church as priests, brothers and sisters.

Others, no less important, are needed as shepherds in other ways. Where would we be without teachers that take care of our leaders of tomorrow; police officers that keep us safe and together; public servants that lead us to where we need to go as a society. As the laity, each of you is called to a special vocation, to be a shepherd in a way that we friars simply cannot be: you are called to evangelize people outside of the Church with your lives. Since you live and work in the world, you interact with people of all faiths and backgrounds, people that do not know or believe in Jesus, people that would otherwise never enter these walls to hear us preach, to be guided in faith or by the Church. Everything you do is a form of evangelization. This is a vocation truly your own.

We are in need of good shepherds to live by example, evangelizing everyone they meet with love.

And lastly, how can we forget the greatest group of shepherds we know: mothers. Mothers are the shepherds of the family, the ones that guide us from the time that we are very little and keep us safe. Without mothers, I’m fairly sure that by the age of five we would have all been like the sheep wandering straight off a mountain. If you want to talk about a person that lays down their life and smells like the ones they serve, there’s no better example than mothers. [I actually have the interesting, and frankly terrifying, opportunity today in that my mother is actually here. So, whether she wants the attention or not, I have to say that] My mother has meant the world to me. She has worked hard to give me everything I have and supported me in everything I have done, including becoming a friar. Before I had even considered it, one of our friars said to me: You’d make a great friar. I laughed at him. I thought it was a great joke and so I told my mom that night. Can you believe what father said to me today? Her response: you would make a good friar. If that’s what God is calling you to do, I would definitely support you in that. Trust me when I say that that was not the answer I wanted to hear… but it was the answer I needed to hear. My mother’s support helped me in my vocation.

We are in need of good shepherds that will raise good families and encourage their children like my mother has.

So I leave with you a threefold petition:

The first is easiest but most significant. Please pray for more good shepherds in our world. Make it a daily practice to pray for vocations to the friars, to communities of sisters, and to the diocese. Pray for good men and woman to take leadership in the church, society, and in their homes, to live lives worthy of following. And pray for the people who have already chosen to be shepherds that they may have strength and be guided by the Holy Spirit. If we are a people that believes in the power of prayer, I beg of you that you take this petition seriously.

The second petition is that you support our way of life with a monetary donation. The friars have many men who dedicated their entire lives to the Church, giving up everything they had for the sake of others, and are now growing old and infirm, no longer able work. On the other side, we have 17 men like myself training to be the shepherds of tomorrow. So that we can be the shepherds that the world needs and deserves, we need your help paying for the six years of school and character formation each of us goes through.

Lastly, I ask that you consider being a shepherd yourself. Maybe God is calling you to lay down your life for others, either in society or in building a family. These are incredible vocations we desperately need. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the face that there is a tremendous shortage of able men and women running the Church today. Which makes me wonder: is God calling fewer people today than he did before, or are fewer people willing to answer that call. Maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to live a radical life with the poor, for the poor, as the poor. Why not you?? Mothers, the shepherds of our families, why not your son or daughter? Have you ever encouraged your son or daughter to a life in the Church, to become a friar, sister, priest? Why not? I know that I would have never even considered it had it not been for the support of my mother, and trust me when I say, I couldn’t be happier.

We are truly a people in need of a Good Shepherd and we have one. Jesus is there to be our strength, our guidance, and our love. All we need to do is follow him, and to share what he gives us with others. And so I ask you: how has Jesus called you to be a shepherd today?

If you would like to learn more about partnering with us in mission in any of the ways mentioned above, please visit the province’s development website here.

Renewal of Vows

I profess to live in poverty, chastity and obedience for the period of one year.

I profess to live in poverty, chastity and obedience for the period of one year.

Like the process of dating, engagement and marriage, the process of becoming a fully-professed member of a religious order takes on many stages. Last August, I professed for the first time my vow to live in poverty, chastity, and obedience in the way of St. Francis of Assisi. In a way, these vows were a test: I was testing the life to see if it was truly where I was called.

And wouldn’t you know it? Time’s up on that first year. In the Church’s great wisdom, however, the time has not come for me to make my lifetime commitment: for the next three years, all I have to do is profess vows for a period of one year as I continue to discern my place in the Order of Friars Minor.

In other words, it’s like a lease to an apartment: I either have to resign the contract or move out. For now, as is fairly obvious from the picture, I have discerned that this life if for me and will continue for another year. Last evening, kneeling before our Vicar Provincial (essentially the Vice President), I spoke these words once more:

To the Praise and Glory of the Most Holy Trinity, I, Brother Casey Cole, since the Lord inspired me to follow more closely the Gospel and the footprints of Our Lord Jesus Christ, before the Brothers here present and in your hands, Brother Dominic, with firm faith and will, vow to God, the Holy and Almighty Father, to live for the period of one year in obedience, without anything of my own and in chastity, and, at the same time, I profess the life and Rule of the Friars Minor, confirmed by Pope Honorius III, and promise to observe it faithfully in accordance with the Constitutions of the Order of Friars Minor. Therefore, I give myself to this fraternity with all my heart so that, through the efficacious action of the Holy Spirit, guided by the example of Mary Immaculate, through the intercession of our Father St. Francis and of all the Saints and supported by your fraternal help, I can constantly strive for perfect charity in the service of God, of the Church and of mankind.

This I promise.

603A4757It was a quick and simply ceremony within the context of Evening Prayer, but was the result of careful discernment and conscious action. Each year we must step back, look at our lives, and ask ourselves with great conviction: “Where has God called me to be?” For the next year, I believe that God is calling me to continue in the way of St. Francis in the Order of Friars Minor, taking one step closer to formally committing myself to God and his Church.

Begging For Your Respect

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?

Have you ever been so desperate you had to resort to begging?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday when I was riding the bus to school, a man in his thirties got on the bus and began soliciting help from everyone one the bus. For the next fifteen minutes of the trip, he walked up and down the bus repeating this story:

Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping that you could help me out. My name is Christian, and I was hit by a drunk driver nine years ago and lost my job and for three years I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t work but I’m better now. I still have some issues, you see my bruises [shows legs and arms with serious scars] but I’m working really hard and I run and when I do the dishes at night I do pushups in between each dish to get strong, you see, and it takes me an hour and a half but I’m getting stronger and able to work I even run each night although that can be really difficult I’m getting better. I used to be a glass installer making $60,000 a year before I got hit by the drunk driver and the company said that they would hire me back now if I got strong enough but in the mean time I’m on disability but I’m out of money and just need help for two days, I’ll get my disability check May 1. If you have any paper metro cards with anything on them or just some spare change or anything I could really use your help you know its just a few days but I don’t know what I’m going to eat and anything would help. If you don’t have any money that’s fine but I could really use some prayers so please pray to God that I get this job because it would get my life back together. Thank you so much, God bless you.

And again…

Excuse me sir…

And again…

Perdon Señor…

His story sounded genuine and my heart went out to him. At the same time, the cynical side of me analyzed everything he did, looking for a reason to make me believe that he was just a mooch on society, lying to people to get free money, or would go and immediately spend that money on drugs.

And do you know what? Those questions are irrelevant compared to the way people reacted to him. Person after person refused to look at him or even acknowledge his presence. One person didn’t even take his headphones off to see what he wanted. Because they had heard the story just a minute earlier when he had told it to someone else, they knew what he wanted, and completely shut off contact.

For all I know, he was a drug addict. For all I know, he was lying directly to my face. For all I know, he had blown his money on useless things like cigarettes or alcohol. I can’t prove that he hadn’t, and I’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that this man was in a really bad place. He was in such a desperate place that he was willing to get on a bus, share his story with complete strangers, and lower himself to begging. How humiliating and dehumanizing! Even after being rejected by the first few people and having others refuse to even acknowledge that he existed, he kept trying, restarting the story in an attempt to get, as he said, “Even if you have a few pennies that will help.” Have you ever been so desperate that you had to ask complete strangers for pennies?

What should we as Christians do in situations like these, I wonder? Some will say that you should never, under any circumstances, give money to a person like this for fear that they might use it to hurt themselves with drugs or alcohol. There is a lot of merit to this argument: beyond that fear, money can serve as a way of simply getting rid of the person so that they won’t bother you anymore, making the giver feel good about giving but never actually having to enter into relationship or be challenged.

On the other hand, how can we look on someone in time of great desperation, even if it is their own fault, and do nothing?

If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? (Ja 2:15-16)

My experience with the poor and homeless is far from thorough and so I in no way claim to be an expert, but there are a number of things that I am trying out myself to see how they work. The first is making sure that I get every person’s name that I speak with, and make it a point to mention mine as well. We can never underestimate the power of humanizing a person that is rarely treated with respect. I let them talk, and I ask them about their life. It’s good to know what they need, and most times I will ask them if they know of a place where they can get food/shelter/clothing. The second this I do is carry extra food or gift cards that I know will go directly to a need. Granola bars are great to keep in my backpack because I know they won’t go bad for a while, and $5 Subway/McDonalds gift cards won’t break the bank for the few I give out but I feel that they are better to give than cash. Lastly, I tell them that I will pray for them, and then I offer a prayer for them right then as I walk away and as well as that evening at communal prayer.

Ultimately, people have to go with their comfort level when it comes to direct service such as this. Some people don’t feel comfortable giving out money, and that’s not a bad thing. What I will say, though, is that when you come to realize how humiliating it must be to beg, to walk up to a complete stranger and ask for something, you know that you can’t just pretend like you don’t see them. You have to acknowledge them, acknowledge their desperate situation, and at least speak to them as a human being even if that is just, “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything.”

For me at this point in my life, I think that I need to err on the side of charity not judgment. Sometimes we are simply called to be a brother or sister to someone in need, not wonder whether or not they’re being genuine or not. I look to Matthew 25:31-46 as a reminder that how I treat the poor is how I treat Jesus. Do I want to be his brother, or his judge? I imagine begging for his forgiveness is much more difficult than begging for a dollar on the street.

The Joy of Salvation

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn't even finished yet this is so far ahead!

This was hands down the best liturgical experience I have ever had. Second place hasn’t even finished yet this is so far ahead!

All around the world, Christians are celebrating! Christ has risen from the dead! Our salvation is at hand!

How does one even begin to celebrate such a moment? At St. Camillus, we celebrate in the way of the Roman Catholic Church with the night watch of the Easter Vigil:

Just after sundown, turn off all of the lights in the church, and sit in the physical and spiritual darkness, awaiting Christ’s coming in joyful anticipation. We retreat outside of the church where a candle is being lit, the Paschal candle, the light of Christ in our darkness. With great praise, Christ illumines the night. From the One true light, everyone keeping vigil lights our own candle and processes into the church, now illumined by 1200 or more flames. What can we do but sing? Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. Lumen Christi. There is anticipation of the joy to come in our voice, but our celebration is yet subdued. Three of the four priests approach the ambo, and taking turns in English, Spanish, and French, sing the ExsultetIt is emotive, haunting, and joyous all at once.

With only the light in our hands, we now sit for a journey through salvation history. Six readings, proclaimed in four languages, recall our journey from darkness into light, from Adam to Abraham to Moses, from sinfulness to forgiveness, from diaspora to reconciliation. We journey as a people in need of the light. Between each reading we sing a response, praising God, using many tongues to express our praise: Latin, French, Hebrew, Spanish, and Bangla are among them.

And then, all at once, there is a great light. The church lights are thrown on and the whole multicultural community cries out in joyful exultation the best way we can: Gloria Deo in excelsis, Gloria Deo sempiternam, “Glory to God in the highest.” From English to Spanish to French to Bangla, repeating the response in Latin, we are united in our diversity, made one from many in our great praise. An epistle from Romans is read, the Gospel and a homily is proclaimed in three languages, and the liturgy has just begun!

Those wishing initiation into the church are presented, so many they stretch the whole width of the church. We kneel and invoke the intercessions of the saints in a prayerful litany, Pray for us. Twenty eight people step into a pool of water for baptism, and each in their native language, have three buckets of water poured on them: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” With each there is an eruption of cheers and a joyful Alleluia sung. The rest of us are renewed in our own baptism with our own “sprinkling” of water, chanting Wade in the Water like you’ve never head it before. The other catechumens are then received, either into full communion or through the sacrament of confirmation. 98 sacraments are received throughout the evening.

And as if this were not enough, it was then, after two and half hours, we begin the liturgy of the Eucharist. The gifts are presented with a traditional Bangla dance, and the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the gifts to make them new. A wonderful blending of cultures and languages, the Eucharist was blessed and communicated, uniting people from all around the world in the utmost pinnacle of our faith, the real presence of our Lord, now risen, here among us.

Throughout the whole liturgy, I was overwhelmed with the overflowing, almost tangible, emotion that I felt and witnessed. The absolute tipping point was after everyone had received communion, the whole church stood up and began to dance, shout, sing, and embrace one another as if a war was called off and we now knew we were going to make it; it was as if we had just been reunited with someone lost many years ago; it was as if we had been given an unexpected day to live when we had lost hope. And in a way, it was all of these things. Although we receive Christ in the Eucharist every week, even every day, there was something even more being celebrating among the more than 1200 people last night: we were celebrating our salvation. Christ has RISEN! The darkness is no more! The true light is with us, and dwells with us! Death has been conquered, our fear has been taken away.

If you’d like to see what I mean by overflowing joy, click the link below to see one of the baptisms, the “sprinkling” of water, the Bangla offering of gifts, and the communion song:

The Gift of Sacrifice

Jesus' gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

Jesus’ gift is Himself, broken and shared. All that is ours to do is be thankful and receive.

In this time of Holy Week as we enter the Triduum (The Holy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter Vigil Liturgy), our focus as Christians is the on suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are reminded of the injustice done to Jesus, the spotless lamb, who was sacrificed for our sake. We are moved by the way He took our burdens away from us, removing the stain of sin. We transition from the deepest sorrow to the most exultant joy in a matter of days. All of this because of the gift that was given to us, Jesus’ passion.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that “gift” is a difficult concept to understand for many of us because I doubt many of us actually know how to give or receive a gift in the purest sense. That’s not to say that most people aren’t generous: we give and receive gifts for birthdays, going out of our way to do something nice on that special day, and for Christmas, most of us “exchange gifts” with people we love. This is a wonderful practice of building relationships.

At the same time, however, I have to wonder why “exchange gifts” is not seen for what it is, an oxymoron. The very essence of gift is that it is freely given love from one to another without any expectation of return. To “exchange” gifts or to have any expectation of a mutual return is not giving a gift, it is an economy of friendship; it is a transaction, albeit well-intentioned and often fruitful.

With birthdays and Christmas, special holidays and end-of-the-year celebrations, there is, like it or not, an expectation placed on each of us to engage in this exchange to some extent. And while it’s not necessarily bad because it shows people affection and is a great way to build relationships, I wonder if that can even be considered “gift” at all. If it is owed to them, that sounds more like justice than it does gift.

Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel of Luke:

When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Lk 14:12-14)

There is a sense here that a true gift is something given freely without any strings attached. It is an end in itself. The giver gives simply out of love and the receiver is not compelled to do anything but receive graciously. Is this the case when we give gifts? For me, I often receive a wonderful present and wonder, “How am I going to match this on so-and-so’s birthday?” Worse yet, I have been disappointed at the present someone has given me because I put so much more money and effort into their present than they did into mine. Such an attitude, I believe, completely undermines the whole purpose of gift in the first place.

Such is the case, returning to the Triduum, of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is gift in the truest sense, freely given love that requires absolutely nothing in return. I think that our often-distorted view of gift exchange detracts from the beauty of his sacrifice. When we enter this Holy Liturgy, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with guilt because it is our sins that made Jesus do this and feel compelled to help Jesus carry the cross to take away His pain; we despair in the fact that we are unworthy to receive such a sacrifice or how incapable we are of returning it; sometimes, we futilely attempt to “make up” for our sins anyway. Our first response is to return the favor that Jesus has done for us in his sacrifice, but this is absurd. He did not do it because we deserved it or because He was looking for something in return. He did not do it only for those that would be thankful. Jesus’ sacrifice is a gift. It is freely given, unmerited favor, and it requires nothing from us in return because that is the very essence of gift.

And so, this evening as we enter into this most holy Triduum, all that is ours to do is to be thankful. Jesus is offering us a gift of great love. Graciously accept it knowing that there is nothing that we could possibly do to return the favor, and that we’re not expected to even try. What a joyous occasion it is! May you have a blessed Easter knowing this!