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Deacon Phil Lawson

Deacon Phil Lawson

Deacon Phil Lawson is the Director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Diocese of Burlington. He holds degrees from Madonna College/Ave Maria University (MTS), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (B.A. Communication), and post graduate continuing education studies in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Certificate in Youth Ministry, and is a permanent deacon for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. If you would like to contact him, his email is plawson@vermontcatholic.org  Website URL:

Church renewal begins with each of us

“Bad times! Troublesome times! This is what people are saying.”
The lead from today’s top story?  It certainly could be.
Yet, this was the beginning of a reflection some 1,600 years ago from St. Augustine (354-430) as the Roman Empire was starting to collapse amidst numerous invasions and interior decay.  
As Jesus tells us, the “times” will always have trouble (Jn 16:33). Trouble has plagued us since the fall of Adam and Eve. The history of the world is full of the rising and the falling of peoples and civilizations. It’s why this world is sometimes referred to in prayer as “this valley of tears.” 
We are a pilgrim people, in this world, but not of this world. This is illustrated at every Mass as the priest and servers lead the congregation in procession towar the cross. We look toward the Cross, toward our salvation and our heavenly home.
How does the Lord concretely respond to our “troublesome times?” First, by sending His Son Jesus Christ (Jn 3:16).  And secondly, in each generation, raising up men and women as His disciples to share the Good News with the world.
Move forward some 1,500 years after St. Augustine, and Bishop Louis deGoesbriand, another man of faith, raised up by the Lord, is trying to establish the Church in Vermont.  In a letter trying to recruit missionaries to work in Vermont in the 1800’s, he describes the difficult conditions: “…telling you of a mission where the harvest is great, for the Diocese counts 300,000 inhabitants, but where the laborers are not many. Until now I have had only five priests. … It would also be well to explain to you the spiritual needs of my flock, as well as the poverty of the mission, for what can five missionaries do…over a vast territory.  Moreover the children of the Church are poor, so that our most common temples are their tiny cabins, our usual altars the table at which they sit” (“Vermont’s First Catholic Bishop,” Father Lance W. Harlow pp. 66-67).
Bishop deGoesbriand would go on to successfully build, recruit and nurture the beautiful foundation of the Church in Vermont. In fact, by the end of his time shepherding the diocese the number of churches had risen from 7 to 71; the number of priests from 5 to 50 (Harlow p. 97). 
That foundation has carried us till today.
St. Augustine continues his short reflection by offering this sage counsel, which was reflected in Bishop deGoesbriand’s life: “Let our lives be good and the times will be good.  For we make our own times.  Such as we are, such are the times.”  
The times will always change, but Christ does not; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8).  And the mission Christ gives us is the same, yesterday, today and forever.  That mission is no less than to go out to all the world proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ (Mt 28:19-20). 
The New Evangelization, the seeds of renewal of the Church and our culture begin with each of us, right here, today, in Vermont in 2017. 
What does that look like today?  Pope Francis maps out a path forward for us as disciples of Jesus Christ: “An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. … He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear”  (Joy of the Gospel #24). 
We have the privilege and responsibility to do just this in our present “times.”
St. Augustine concludes: “What can we do?  Maybe we cannot convert masses of people to a good life. But let the few who do hear live well” (Sermon 30, 8). We are called to be those men and women of faith today, transforming our own times with the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  May God bless and guide our efforts to do just that in Vermont in 2017.
Interested in hearing more signs of hope both locally and around the world in the area of the New Evangelization?  Deacon Lawson sends a “New Evangelization Update” email each month. Write to him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to receive these.
Deacon Phil Lawson is the executive director of evangelization, catechesis, divine worship, marriage and family and respect life for the Diocese of Burlington. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
  • Published in Diocesan

Holy Audacity and World Mission Sunday

On Oct. 22, the Church celebrates World Mission Sunday, calling for a renewed focus on and prayer for the Church’s mission to share the Good News of Salvation with the world. Included in Pope Francis’ message for this day is a call for a “holy audacity” in discovering new ways to bring the gift of salvation to the world. 

The Church exists to evangelize. Recall Jesus’ last commission to the Apostles, often called the Great Commission, “to make disciples of all nations…” (Mt. 28:19-20). This is the Church’s—our—mission.  

We can read the stories of those who have gone before us for inspiration. St. Paul, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis Xavier, St. Francis de Sales, St. Peter Claver, to name but a few. There are countless men and woman through the centuries who have carried the Gospel message to the ends of the world. Each of them, inspired by Christ, possessed the holy audacity to offer everything for the love of God.

Our own founding shepherd, Bishop DeGoesbriand, possessed that same holy audacity as he left home for this country, coming to Vermont with nothing, but trusting that “God will provide.” And God did! Recall that there were seven churches in Vermont when he arrived, and 71 when he was finished; the number of priests in Vermont increased from five to 50.  

In our own day and age, Pope Francis reminds us that “the world vitally needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  We must be the missionaries in our communities and on the peripheries, joyfully sharing the love, peace, joy and purpose that Jesus offers the world.  

To be “holy” is to be “set apart.” By virtue of your Baptism, you were set apart for God. You were set apart for a mission.

To remain “holy” is to remain closely connected to Jesus Christ, especially in the Eucharist. Thereby, when you are holy, you radiate Jesus Christ and when people see you, they discover Jesus Christ (cf. Raoul Plus, SJ).

“Audacity” is the “willingness to take bold risks.” There is a risk in every mission. Admittedly, it takes a special boldness to proclaim the Gospel in our world today. Yet, a mission undertaken in love is the most fulfilling and life-giving of all. There is a holy audacity in simply saying to the Lord, each and every day, “Lord, I am yours. Use me as your instrument however you see fit.” That’s what each of the saints did, and see what the Lord did with them! 

As Pope Francis ends his message for this World Mission Sunday, “May the Virgin Mother help us to say our own ‘yes,’ conscious of the urgent need to make the Good News of Jesus resound in our time… May she intercede for us so that we can acquire the holy audacity needed to discover new ways to bring the gift of salvation to every man and woman.”

Originally published in the October 21-27, 2017 issue of "The Inland See" bulletin.
  • Published in Diocesan

Are we ready to listen?

“What do you want me to do for you?”
(Jesus said to the blind beggar.)
--Luke 18:41
Jesus is seeking a conversation with you. He is awaiting your response. He is calling you to enter more fully into His life.
“In the New Testament, Jesus asked 183 questions, gave three answers and answered 307 questions with a question in return like a true rabbi,” Sherry Weddell points out in “Forming Intentional Disciples.”
He waits for us. He listens to us and waits until we are ready to listen to Him. Only then does he ask a question for us to ponder in our hearts.
We see this dynamic over and over again in the Gospels. Jesus engages Nicodemus in a conversation. He draws a story out of the Samaritan woman at the well. He goes to dinner at Matthew the tax collector’s house! He asks the rich young man to consider where his treasure really is.
What does this mean for evangelization? Two things. One, what is your response to Jesus? One of the more beautiful features of the Gospels are the stories of individuals encountering Jesus. We see Jesus lovingly speak to the depths of their hearts, healing wounds, challenging notions and offering a better way.
The 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization highlighted this need for all of us. According to the 2012 Synod of Bishops, "New Evangelization for the Transmission Of The Christian Faith," calls, "all believers to renew their faith and their personal encounter with Jesus Christ in the Church.”
Second, to evangelize we must listen first. If we hear the questions a person is asking, then we can answer them. The noted 20th-Century theologian Francis Schaeffer was once asked, “If you had one hour to evangelize someone, how would you do it?” He responded, “I’d spend the first 55 minutes listening.”
There is a lot of wisdom in that response. Jesus just could have given long lectures on the principles of the Christian faith—and that probably would’ve been less time-consuming for Him. Yet, He took the time to engage in conversation, to ask questions and then to listen. We must do the same in all of our encounters and conversations.
Concretely, as we move into Lent, think about what Jesus is asking of you. Perhaps this Lent, take some time each day, or each Sunday to look at some of those encounters in the Gospels. Spend some time in adoration or the quiet of your home meditating on these encounters. For our encouragement, the Church offers many of these examples in the Sunday readings during Lent.
Let us joyfully seek to continue drawing closer to our Lord!
Deacon Phil Lawson is the director of evangelization and catechesis for the Diocese of Burlington. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.

From one father to another. . . happy Father's Day

Several years ago, my wife Patty and I gave a presentation on marriage to a group of high school juniors. Just prior to discussing the best part of marriage, my then 2-year old, who was happily crawling around the classroom floor, happily shouted "Dadddeeee!" The whole class burst out laughing. I told the students, that's the best part of marriage–children. I pray that I never lose the heart-moving sense of awe, amazement, and responsibility that that simple word "Daddy" inspires.

One of the best books on fatherhood I've ever read is "Legacy: A Father's Handbook for Raising Godly Children" by Stephen Wood. Patty had given it to me for Father's Day prior to our first child's birth. You can tell how much I enjoyed it by the many markings and curled pages throughout! As the book states, "The most important job a man has is fathering his children, but raising godly children in today's world isn't an easy task." Wood offers tips, suggestions, statistics and anecdotes for raising godly children. He states, "The relationships built through shared work, adventure, and sports are like a bridge that the Faith can cross over to the hearts of your children. The stronger the bridge, the stronger the Faith conveyed." In helping prepare couples for Baptism, it's one of the books I recommend or give as a gift. Wood shares many stories to illustrate his points. One of my favorite humorous anecdotes from Legacy is the following:

"Fathers are often blind to the universal inclination of children to imitate them. Our children are always watching our actions, even when we are not aware of it. When my youngest son was two years old, my wife Karen found pennies in his dirty diapers. My son had observed that I put money in my wallet and then stuck it in my back pocket. Since he had no wallet or pocket, he just stuck loose change he found around the house down the back of his diaper."

A second book is by Dr. Meg Meeker, "Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: 10 Secrets Every Father Should Know." Dr. Meeker is a pediatrician, with more than 20 years counseling girls. In both her practice and substantial research she makes the point that the determinative factor in how a young girl becomes an adult is dependent on her relationship to her father. (Having grown up in a family with only brothers, I figured I could use all the help I could get when it came to raising a daughter.) As is made clear to me every time my daughter asks me to dance around the living room, or what I think of how she looks, raising a daughter is a lot different than raising sons.

On this Father's Day, I would be remiss if I didn't make note of the many spiritual fathers out there. As a priest friend, Msgr. Joe Hirsch (Diocese of La Crosse), likes to say, "every man is called to be a father and every woman to be a mother." This fatherhood does not have to be biological. How many men there are who fill gaps in young people's lives, even though they aren't the biological father? There are many male coaches, men who volunteer with groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, men who teach or mentor and in various ways play a fatherly role. May God bless you for your generosity!

For those of you "experienced" fathers thank you for the sacrifices you've made (and continue to make). It is by your example that my generation of fathers and the next looks to emulate. And please say a prayer for us younger dads!

From the "Book of Blessings":

"God our Father . . . bless these men, that they may be strengthened as Christian fathers. Let the example of their faith and love shine forth. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen."

Phil Lawson is the diocesan director of Catholic Formation, Evangelization and Catechesis

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