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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

Saying 'yes' to God

By Deacon Phil Lawson

She said “Yes!”
 
Some 13 years ago, I got down on one knee in the adoration chapel and asked Patty to marry me.
 
After a short pause, (during which the mind tends to operate very quickly!) she said “yes.” My heart soared at that one word response.
 
Some 2,000 years ago, the Angel Gabriel approached Mary and asked her to be the Mother of God. At her “yes,” all of heaven rejoiced. In the years since, our Lord has continued to ask for our “yes” to His call or even his proposal to be part of His life and to be His instruments in this world.
 
This year we mark the 100th anniversary of Mary’s appearance to the three shepherd children in Fatima. And when she appeared, for what did she ask? For their “yes” to being part of God’s plan.  “Are you willing to offer yourselves to God and bear all the sufferings He wills to send you as an act of reparation for the conversion of sinners?” To which they said, “Yes.” And no doubt Our Lady smiled. For these precious three children, had echoed her own “yes” so many years before.
 
Being a person of faith, at its root, is simply about saying “yes” to the Lord, which is exactly what Mary and the three shepherd children did. It’s that simple; it’s that difficult! We said “yes” to the Lord at our Baptism, at our First Holy Communion, at our Confirmation. We say “yes” to the Lord every time we go to Mass. And we say “yes” to the Lord, every time we listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and act in accord with the Lord’s will.
 
Pope Francis, commenting on Mary’s “yes,” stated: “Every yes to God creates stories of salvation for us and for others…. God desires to see us and awaits our “yes” (Dec. 8, 2016).
 
What does this look like in terms of evangelization? We say “yes” when the Lord allows us to enter into someone’s life. We say “yes” when we are invited to pray with and for someone. We say “yes” when someone encounters Christ in us. We say “yes” when the Lord allows us to share the joy and beauty of our faith with another (1 Pt 3:15). We say “yes” when we willingly witness the importance of faith in our lives. We say “yes” whenever someone sees the joy of the Gospel in our life and thereby, as Pope Francis shares, create stories of salvation for countless others, as both Mary and the children of Fatima did in their own lives. All of these “yeses” are forms of “evangelization.”
 
There was exultation in heaven when Mary said “yes,” exultation when the children at Fatima said “yes.” And there will be exultation in Heaven as well each time we say “yes” to the Lord’s will.
 
As a final note: The name of the church where I proposed to my wife? St. Mary.
 
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..

Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of 
Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

Coordinator of evangelization and catechesis

Joshua M. McCusker says that evangelization begins with becoming friends with people. 
 
New to Vermont, the coordinator of evangelization and catechesis at St. Luke Church in Fairfax and Ascension Church in Georgia is doing just that.
 
He understands the importance of showing interest in people and concern for what is happening in their lives. “Treating everyone with dignity and respect is key,” he said.
 
He plans to get involved in the community and befriend people who are not Catholic in hopes of showing them the beauty of the Catholic faith. He wants to work with youth, particularly the teens in the community. “I hope to help them fall in love with the Lord just as I did at that age,” he said.
 
This is the first time the parish has had a full-time person to address catechesis and evangelization. “It can be helpful when the same person who invited you to the Church is the one who accompanies you and instructs you in the faith,” said Father Henry Furman, pastor, adding, “Every confirmed Catholic has an important responsibility to spread the Gospel.”
 
Pope Francis in “Joy of the Gospel” invited everyone to be bold and creative in the task of rethinking goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities, noted Deacon Phil Lawson, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Diocese of Burlington.
 
He called hiring McCusker to have full-time responsibilities for evangelization “a very exciting development in our Diocese and one that I hope can be a model for other parishes going forward.”
 
Currently there are two parishes in the diocese with a staff member that has part- time evangelization responsibilities: St. Mark in Burlington and St. Francis Xavier in Winooski.
 
In the Fairfax and Georgia areas, McCusker “will be helping with both outreach in the community and in equipping and inspiring parishioners to be joy-filled missionaries of the Gospel,” Deacon Lawson said. “Father Furman and St. Luke and Ascension churches are to be commended for responding to Pope Francis’ call to be bold and try new models in fostering the New Evangelization.”
 
McCusker’s job in Fairfax/Georgia will entail catechetical adult faith formation, confirmation preparation, baptism preparation, marriage preparation, “Post-Cana,” altar-server training and forming new ways of evangelization both within the parish and beyond it for adults and youth.
 
“When I first heard about the need for evangelization and missionary work among the Catholics in Vermont, I was instantly drawn to the challenge,” he said. “From the time of my Confirmation, God has placed this desire on my heart to be missionary and to evangelize in the parish, but also outside it.”
 
Many people have never heard the Gospel. “Many lapsed Catholics have never been approached by the Church since they left. There are many on the peripheries,” Father Furman said. “There are a number of people awaiting the first announcement of the Good News to them. As our Lord says, the harvest is rich but the workers are few. For these reasons a coordinator for evangelization is important.”
 
McCusker was born in Rochester, N.Y., and also lived in Rhode Island and Georgia.
 
He was a member of a vibrant and faithful parish community and spent much of his time as an altar server and volunteering in the middle school and high school youth groups, Respect Life Ministry and Knights of Columbus. “I loved everything about parish life and all that it had to offer,” he enthused.
 
He attended Ave Maria University in Florida, earning a bachelor’s degree in theology with a minor in history. 
 
It was there that he met his wife, Jovannah; they were married in June.
 
McCusker enjoys sports, music and the outdoors, and he has worked various jobs during the past eight years in restaurants, landscaping, radio communication and athletics.
 
“I know that God is calling me to work for the Church, and I could not be more excited for this opportunity here in Vermont,” he said. “Catholics are called to evangelize. It is part of our faith, and it is an obligation. If we truly believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, how can we not share this truth with others?”
 
 
 
 
  • Published in Parish

Convocation of Catholic Leaders

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl urged participants at the "Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of The Gospel in America" to take a look at each other in the hotel ballroom and realize that they, as lay leaders in the Church, are responsible for spreading the Gospel message, and they shouldn't waste the moment.
 
"This is not something new that we haven't heard before," he told the delegates in Orlando in a July 2 keynote address.
 
The cardinal stressed the sense of urgency of evangelizing and inviting others to Christ, stressing that Catholics have a perfect role model for this in Pope Francis, who has continually presented the church as inviting and open.
 
Cardinal Wuerl also acknowledged that Catholics are not always comfortable with the idea of evangelizing but they need to be willing to step out of themselves and talk with people about their faith as part of an encounter often spoken of by Pope Francis.
 
An encounter is not meant to tell people "they can be as wonderful as we are," the cardinal said. It is about telling them about Christ. He also noted that as people take this Gospel message out to the peripheries that doesn't just mean economic peripheries either but spiritual ones as well.
 
People need to be asked about their faith and encouraged in it, he added.
 
He spoke about an experience he had on a plane where a woman sitting beside him asked him if he was "born again." When he said he was at his baptism, his seatmate said: "You Catholics are big into this church thing, aren't you?"
 
She then asked him to tell her more and joking, he told the crowd: "You asked for it!"
His point was that many people have questions or even misconceptions about faith and need to be part of a conversation about it.
 
Stressing that church members today, as always, are called to be evangelizing disciples, the cardinal said this role requires courage, a sense of urgency, compassion and joy.
 
Deacon Phil Lawson, director of evangelization and catechesis for the Diocese of Burlington and one of the convocation attendees, said it was “inspiring to be part of such an incredible and joy-filled gathering as the Church in America looks to move forward.”
 
The concept of a joy-filled missionary discipleship “must undergird all of our efforts in the Church—from our institution to our outreach to the margins of our society,” he said. “There are so many who are hurting, wounded and marginalized. The Lord can heal those hurts. And we have the privilege and responsibility to be the Lord’s instruments of mercy and love in the world. What a privilege and responsibility!”
 
Members of a panel of Church leaders who spoke at the convocation, similarly stressed the need to evangelize in simple ways of sitting and eating together, sharing conversion stories, and also reaching out to parishioners and urging them to be more involved.
 
The cardinal and many of the panelists also emphasized that reaching out to others requires a reconnection of one's personal faith.
 
Or as Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Connecticut, said: "If you want to go out in world, start by going in."
 
Deacon Lawson said the convocation energized him for his ministry in Vermont: “The Lord continues to send us out into the world, but He never sends us out alone—always two by two right? To be with some 3,600 other Catholic leaders all seeking the same goal was inspiring and enlivening.”
 
Also in attendance was Bill Gavin, director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Burlington.
 
-- Vermont Catholic Content Editor and Staff Reporter Cori Fugere Urban contributed to this story.
 
 
 
  • Published in Nation

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.
 

Lenten confirmation program

Parishes throughout the Diocese of Burlington have been invited to participate in a Lenten program to prepare adults to receive the sacrament of confirmation at Pentecost.
 
Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne confirms adults at Pentecost at St. Joseph Co-Cathedral in Burlington. “Offering this program through Lent and the Easter Season allows those adults [18 and older] who are seeking confirmation to be adequately prepared to receive the graces of the sacrament both intellectually and spiritually,” explained Deacon Phil Lawson, director of evangelization and catechesis for the diocese. “Journeying with the community through Lent and Easter is a wonderful opportunity to grow closer to Christ and prepare to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.”
 
Confirmation is one of the Sacraments of Initiation, the initial sacraments by which persons become members of the Catholic Church: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Through these sacraments, one is first welcomed into the Catholic community, nourished by the body and blood of the Lord and strengthened through intensification of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
 
Leaders for the confirmation program vary; in some parishes the director of religious education teaches the participants, in others it is a parish priest or volunteer catechist.
 
Deacon Lawson provided a workshop and online training for the parish leaders.
 
Paul Turnley is co-facilitating the program with RoseMaria Doran, for Our Lady of Seven Dolors Church in Fair Haven, St. John the Baptist Church in Castleton, St. Paul Church in Orwell, St. Matthew of Avalon Church at Lake Bomoseen, St. Frances Cabrini Church in West Pawlet, St. Raphael Church in Poultney and St. Anne Church in Middletown Springs.
 
Their program will include seven two-hour sessions: Each will use the framework of prayer, discipleship and mission to present its theme using as resources “The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults,” “Catechism of the Catholic Church” and the Bible.
 
Topics include “Desire for God,” “The Holy Spirit,” “Prayer. Challenge of following Christ. Moral Life. Mary and the Communion of Saints” and “Discipleship.”
 
“The Adult Confirmation Program is built around the framework of Encounter, Accompany, and Mission,” Turnley explained. “The first four and a half sessions, which include the three sessions during Lent, are focused on ‘Encountering Christ’ through focusing on our desire for God; the Holy Spirit; the sacraments of confirmation, reconciliation and the Eucharist; and prayer. These are preparation for accompanying the participants as they accept the challenge of following Christ, responding in love and giving their whole selves and lives to Him….”
 
Pope Francis has called for the Church to be “a facilitator of grace,” and providing an opportunity for adults who haven’t been confirmed to receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirmation “certainly fits the bill,” Deacon Lawson said.
 
Evangelization is about going out and sharing the joy of the Gospel, so the Lenten program “is a tremendous opportunity to reach out to those who may have drifted away from their faith,” he said.
 
The foundation of this process is a type of mini-catechumenate. Participants encounter Christ -- especially in the Gospels -- the leaders journey with them, and then the participants are equipped and sent forward on mission to live a life of faith.
 
Edmundite Father David Cray, pastor of St. Jude Church in Hinesburg and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Charlotte, likes the idea of a “uniform…flexible and convenient” process throughout the diocese to prepare adults for confirmation. Offering it during Lent has the benefit of proximity to the Pentecost confirmation by the bishop.
 
However, offering the program during Lent is what is suggested but not required.
 
Turnley said the program combines the elements of re-enkindling love, devotion and commitment to Jesus as the Christ through prayer, the sacraments and a willingness to be Christ in the world “with the opportunity of refreshing our understanding of our faith and our beliefs.”
 
The process in the diocese will be ongoing and offered annually as well as on an as-needed basis.  

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

Responding to domestic violence

Abuse and violence have no place in marriage. Period.
 
That was the message of a presenter at the “Responding to Domestic Violence” workshop, Feb. 22, sponsored by the Diocese of Burlington and Vermont Catholic Charities Inc.
 
“There is no way you can justify abuse and violence in a Catholic marriage,” emphasized Dr. Sharon O’Brien, director of Catholics For Family Peace at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “We are called to honor ourselves and protect our children.”
 
In “When I Call for Help,” a pastoral response to domestic violence against women, the United States bishops condemned the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. “A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love,” they wrote.
 
O’Brien emphasized the hope, help and healing the Church offers to victims of domestic violence.
 
That was illustrated by “Nicole,” a survivor of domestic violence who told the gathering of about 50 people, including priests and deacons, at Holy Family parish center in Essex Junction that she “never would have made it through” without the strength she found in her faith and the compassion of a priest.
 
Pregnant, unmarried, underemployed, physically and emotionally abused, “scared beyond anybody’s ability to understand” and often locked in a room, she ran when she had the opportunity.
 
When the priest saw her crying at the back of the church one day, he spoke with her and suggested she contact Vermont Catholic Charities for help. “If he had not done that, I would still be in an abusive relationship and my child would be abused,” she said.
 
At Catholic Charities, she learned of services and resources available to her.
 
During her presentation, O’Brien explained that domestic violence is behavior that is used to control an intimate partner through fear and intimidation. It can include emotional, physical, sexual, psychological, financial and spiritual abuse as well as stalking.
 
She encouraged her listeners to “recognize, respond and refer” when they encounter abuse, but she stressed the importance of the abused person having a plan for what she/he will do later, before leaving. She suggested faith communities pray for both the abused and abusers, support local resource providers and showcase local resources and programs (by, for example, posting helpful information in rest rooms).
 
O’Brien noted that both men and women are abused. Signs of abuse include name calling, insults, constant criticism, humiliation; forced isolation from family and friends; monitoring of how time is spent; control of finances and refusal to share money; threats of deportation or of reporting to a welfare agency; death threats; destruction of property, such as household furnishings; and forced sex.
 
“The Church is crystal clear: There is no place for abuse and violence in marriage,” O’Brien reiterated.
 
Tom Mott, director of counseling services for Vermont Catholic Charities, addressed the gathering on “Catholic Charities Counseling Services for Victims and Perpetrators of Domestic Violence.”
 
Information about Vermont Catholic Charities, or call (Burlington) 877-250-4099 or (Rutland) 800-851-8379.

 
  • Published in Diocesan
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