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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:

Unwrapping the Good News

“…I proclaim to you good news of great joy…”(Lk 2:10).
 
The angel’s announcement at the birth of Jesus let all who heard it know God had fulfilled His promise: He had become one of us in “all things but sin” to set us free from the tyranny of sin. This is Good News of great joy! This angelic announcement was given to a world not unlike our own, riven with strife, political difficulty, senseless violence, tears and hardship, especially for those on the margins — the poor, the sick and those of low status in Roman society. And it was to these — the poor shepherds — that this announcement of Good News was first given.
 
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. … Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:18-21).
 
As He begins His public ministry, Jesus proclaims that the Good News first foretold by the prophet Isaiah to the people is now fulfilled in their hearing: He is here to offer liberty to captives, glad tidings to the poor and to bring sight to the blind. Who reacted with joy? The captives, those whom Jesus healed and the poor whom we see Jesus encounter throughout the Gospels, embraced Jesus with great joy. Yet not all reacted with joy — the leaders of the people responsible for governing and those responsible for leading them closer to God often reacted with hostility. What is our reaction to this Good News? Do we see that it is Good News? Are we ready to encounter Christ and look more deeply at what this Good News means for our lives — how can we be “set free?” Are we ready to sell all for this “priceless pearl” and bring others to encounter Christ and also be set free?
 
“The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”
 
Pope Francis reminds the world of the Good News as he begins his apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Gaudium:” “The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness” (EG, 1). This is Good News! For who? For everyone. God heals wounds, fills empty hearts, provides purpose and gives each of us the grace to become that which He called us to be from the beginning. I have seen this repeatedly in my work with those entering the Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process. This is Good News for everyone: those who are wounded, suffering from addiction, lonely, insecure, purposeless or seeking love. In the silence of our hearts, when we find ourselves alone with God, we realize our complete weakness and how much we need Christ and this Good News! Come Lord Jesus and set us free.
 
How do we unwrap the Good News?
 
The joy and peace of Christ should be tangible wherever the Good News is shared and lived. So as we look around our parishes and communities, we can ask what we see and compare the scene to what Francis describes in the early Church:
 
“In the Acts of the Apostles we read that the first Christians ‘ate their food with glad and generous hearts’ (2:46). Wherever the disciples went, ‘there was great joy’ (8:8); even amid persecution they continued to be ‘filled with joy’ (13:52). The newly baptized eunuch ‘went on his way rejoicing’ (8:39), while Paul’s jailer ‘and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God’ (16:34). Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?”(EG, 5)
 
And why was there such joy? The Good News brings great joy! God has become one of us, Emmanuel, God with us. God has come among us: We have a Savior who knows us so completely and loves us absolutely so that we can always trust in His merciful love. He will always come to us when we call, and in that encounter He changes our lives for the better. Good News yesterday, today and forever. May we unwrap this Good News in our hearts and joyfully announce it anew to our communities and the world.

--Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

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.”

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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..


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