Whew. What a week.
After spending some time at home after the Christmas Masses, I left on a jet plane on Dec. 28, 2013. My destination: Ottawa, Ontario, for the Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO) Rise Up conference.
This conference was a very special one, coming during CCO’s 25th anniversary as a movement. It was also a very special conference for me, as I have a deep connection to this movement. It was actually 12 years ago in the same hotel (now the Delta in downtown Ottawa) at a similar Rise Up conference that I, then a staff member with CCO, was particularly challenged and became resolved to more seriously pursue my vocation. CCO and Rise Up were pivotal elements that helped me discover my vocation as a priest. Thus, it is not a stretch by any means to say that the ministry of CCO has completely changed my life. I am immensely grateful to God for this movement!
As a result, the conference this year was a sort of homecoming. I didn’t have any particular role to play at the conference (such as leading a workshop, which I was honoured to do last year in Saskatoon). My involvement this time was to basically show up, be available, help with confessions on the one evening, and be inspired by the enthusiasm of young adults, religious brothers and sisters, my fellow clergy, and the CCO staff.
I was able to reconnect with many people that I’ve gotten to know over the years, including some whom I haven’t seen in a long, long time. That was particularly wonderful.
It was also wonderful to meet in real life some people with whom I’ve conversed online. These included some amazing sisters, especially Sr. Miriam James Heidland, SOLT (@onegroovynun; she gave a couple of very moving presentations), and Sr. Helena Burns, FSP (@SrHelenaBurns; she is a major hockey fan who sadly cheers for the Maple Leafs, and she gave a workshop for women at the conference which was very well received). I also was able to meet (and shared a hotel room with) Fr. Stéphane Pouliot (@fatherstephane), among several other dedicated and generous priests and religious.
Ultimately, if I were to condense my experience of the conference into one word, it would be: joy. That is, my experience was that of the joy that comes from encountering Jesus Christ, and of seeing others encounter Jesus Christ.
It was joy to be present as people came into the lobby at the beginning, meeting people from many different places in Canada and elsewhere. And throughout the conference, these young university students shared their joy of knowing Jesus in our prayer together, in their openness to the will of God, and in their tremendous enthusiasm.
It was a joy to concelebrate Masses presided by Archbishops Terrance Prendergast (Ottawa) and Paul-André Durocher (Gatineau), as well to hear Archbishop Gérald Lacroix (Québec) give a brilliant session on the death of Jesus. Jesus was truly present in his Sacrament, in his Word, in his people, and in the bishops and priests who presided and preached. It was also a joy to meet so many priests and religious from all over Canada and the United States, who reveal Jesus by their radical living out of the gospel.
It was a joy to pray along with Catholic singer/songwriter Audrey Assad for the second time in 7 weeks. She sang mostly from her latest album, Fortunate Fall (review) and it was an absolutely beautiful prayer experience.
It was a joy to be able to hear confessions throughout the conference, particularly during the penitential/Adoration time on Sunday evening. I am extremely humbled to be called to be an instrument of Christ’s mercy through this sacrament, as I am very conscious of how much I need that mercy myself.
It was a joy to hear so many other truly brilliant talks and homilies, including those given by Fr. Clair Watrin, Henri Lemay, Brett Powell, Renée Sylvain, Michael Dopp, Fr. Raymond de Souza, and Fr. Thomas Rosica. The CCO founders, André and Angèle Regnier also graced us with their inspirational wisdom and their “holy goofiness” (Angèle’s own words!). They are long time friends and colleagues in the mission of the Church, along with Brett Powell, Jeff Lockert, Jackie O’Donnell, and so many other amazing staff members – too many to name here – who gave entirely of themselves during the conference. Rest well, my friends; you’ve earned it! (But not for too long: we need you back out there!)
It was a joy to be a part of a special evening where participants were invited to come forward and sign a letter to Pope Francis, recommitting themselves to their baptismal call to be missionaries of the gospel. After signing the letter, they could then approach one of us priests for a prayer. I was amazed and gratified to see the lineup extending to the back of the room, then around both sides. Many students were in tears as they made their signatures and approached us for prayer. Please pray for them (and for us all) that they may grow in the commitment of their baptism to be missionary disciples.
It was a joy to hang out for an evening with other supporters of the movement, several of which I have not seen in many, many years. Without these people, this movement would simply not exist.
It was a joy to spend time with the CCO staff on numerous occasions. Did I mention yet how incredible these men and women are?? CCO Staff: Your dedication, prayerfulness, and hard work inspires me to try and be a better Christian and a better priest.
It was a joy to attend the New Years eve banquet and party, and to pray in the new year. Fr. Thomas Rosica gave a rousing address, followed by equally beautiful words from Jeff Lockert.
I could go on and on. Ultimately, it is the fact “that Jesus is proclaimed, that is what brings me joy” (cf. Phil 1.18).
During my trip home I began to re-read the recently issued Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). I am convinced that we lived a good portion of it at Rise Up. In particular:
3. I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace”. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy. Christ, who told us to forgive one another “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22) has given us his example: he has forgiven us seventy times seven. Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!
God is good. God is faithful. He continues to raise up new leaders in his mission field. He does “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3.20). Thank you, all who are involved with CCO, for allowing yourselves to be conduits through which I’ve encountered Jesus Christ and his joy – both in the past (including, especially, in my vocational discernment), and also now. I pray for God’s abundant blessings on all involved in this movement as we work together as missionary disciples in the great vineyard of the Lord.