If you’ve watched any of the media coverage on the Papal Visit, than you will probably recognize this face.
Fr. Rosica is also CEO Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, which is Canada’s first national Catholic Television Network.
The network recently aired a special with Fr. Rosica interviewing Stephen Colbert on his faith, called Colbert Witness (which you should definitely check out!).
Now years later, Father Rosica and I have remained close. He has become a friend and mentor to me. He was instrumental in producing The Holy Family Prayer Medal video which was featured at the World Meeting of Families.Last we met this past summer, I asked Father Rosica if I could interview him, specifically I wanted to know about his prayer life. How does he pray and to whom (God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit). There is no right or wrong way to pray, and everyone prays differently -especially priests. So I thought it would be interesting to see how some of my brother priests pray as well as advice they’ve given to people over the years. I’ve compiled the resulting interview into a new and regular segment that I will be posting to my blog, called “Praying with Priests“.
Praying with Priests – Fr. Thomas Rosica Audio Transcription
Fr. Michael: This is Father Michael Denk, welcome again, to Praying with Priests. Today I am here with Fr. Thomas Rosica, a priest of the Congregation of St. Basil, who was ordained in 1986. He is a native of Rodchester, New York and is a Scripture Scholar, and is the founder and CEO of Canada’s Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation and Television Network. He also works with the Holy See Press Office at the Vatican. Fr. Tom, it’s great to interview you today.
Fr. Tom: Thank you Fr. Mike!
Fr. Michael: Today we are going to be talking about prayer, and specifically I think it’s important, because people look to priests as being teachers and leaders in prayer. This series is focused on going to the priest and finding out what their prayer life is really like, how they’ve learnt to pray, and how their prayer has grown over the years? The first thing I want to ask you Fr. Tom, what is your first memory of prayer as a child?
Fr. Tom: We had the privilege of growing up with our grand parents and great grandparents in the house, and coming from an Italian family, there was some very beautiful simple piety. One of my first memories of prayer is my great grandmother Isabelle sitting on the steps in the living room with the rosary beads running through her fingers. She was not an educated woman at all but a very holy, pious woman and watching her with the rosary, I remember teasing her and saying, “Nona, Grandma, why aren’t you praying faster you are saying the same thing all the time?” She said, “No, no, slow, peaceful, quiet, Maria.” I was kind of intrigued by watching that whole scene unfolding. The next moments would have been going to church. We were blessed growing up in Rodchester, New York, to have very good priests in Church. I remember sitting in the pew, wide-eyed watching these men lead a community in prayer.
Fr. Michael: Before you go to that, did you ever pray with your Nona? Did you ever join her in rosary?
Fr. Tom: Yes I did, all the time.
Fr. Michael: What was that like?
Fr. Tom: Well, first of all I wanted to get through it much faster than she did, so I remember her kind of slowing us down. Prayer was not a matter of speed, but it had to be quiet and it always struck me, how peaceful people were when they prayed. Whereas, you know as kids, we were more agitated or whatever? But that’s one impression, very much watching the grandparents pray, watching the calmness come over them, and wondering what’s going on there, what’s happening? Something’s happening inside of them?
Fr. Michael: So, you saw in them, but did you ever experience that peace when you were a child or was it all just agitation?
Fr. Tom: In school we had prayer every day, I was in Catholic grade school, and prayer was a big part of the day. It began with prayer, we had the Angelus prayer. There was a certain discipline and rhythm. We had Sisters, it was the norm in those days, to have religious women teaching us. I can still remember them and their whole prayer. You know, people who pray are the best teachers for those of us who don’t pray. It’s kind of an enticing inviting thing, to watch people who pray give us a Holy jealousy to want to pray like them. So we were blessed and I memorized prayer. Memorization was very important. Some of those prayers that I remember as a kid preparing my first communion. Every time I receive communion now, the first thing that comes to me, is to go back to my place, or go back to the presider’s chair, as a priest and to say, “Look down upon me good and gentle Jesus, while before your face I humbly kneel, the prayer before the crucifix.” It kind of comes automatically with receiving communion.
The night prayer – we learn certain prayers to say at the end of the day. The angel of God prayer, I said it all the time. “Angel of God, my Guardian dear to whom God’s love and trust me hear.” Those I owe to the teachers I had in school, and so they taught us but they also modelled it for us. It’s one thing to teach but another thing to model it. I had very good models.
Fr. Michael: So when you were a child, were there ever times that you prayed alone at home or was it only at school?
Fr. Tom: I would pray in my room. To learn how to pray, every night, at the end of the day, I would kneel down next to my bed. God, I’m sorry for all the things I didn’t do, or did wrong or whatever, and Lord please be with me. I always talked to Jesus as a friend.
Fr. Michael: Even as a child?
Fr. Tom: Even as a child I was never afraid. I pictured him I think we had some good holy pictures in the house too. Now they were long, flowing robes, you know, the blonde, California Jesus pictures, because I later found out he didn’t look like that, but those pictures are also very important. I’m the type too, a very visual, kind of sensate person, that as I grew up, I found holy pictures, images, statues, and now the past 25, 30 years, icons to be very very helpful for prayer. I can’t pray without images, images for me are very important.
Fr. Michael: So let’s talk about that transition from a child. So as a child, it sounds like you prayed. You had memorized prayers, that you prayed, and those were very special to you. You prayed with your Nona?
Fr. Tom: Yes! Right!
Fr. Michael: You experienced from her how to slow down in prayer, as opposed to it being a task to get through? Something to be enjoyed and be at peace with?
Fr. Tom: Yes!
Fr. Michael: As you grew from a child, say into your adolescent years or high school years, did your prayer change, or was it the same?
Fr. Tom: The big turning point I remember very distinctly was in grade 7, or seventh grade as you say in America, ( Canada, we’d say grade 7) . It was a sister teaching in our school. She taught humanities and music. She was very much into the charismatic renewal, and I didn’t know what the charismatic renewal was, but somehow she took me under her wing.
Fr. Michael: What is the charismatic renewal for people who don’t know?
Fr. Tom: The charismatic renewal is a movement very much inspired by the second Vatican Council, and by the freedom of the Holy Spirit to pray in us. We’re not just stuck with form, and we’re not stuck with repetition, but to pray with the Scriptures, and to pray spontaneously, and to allow the spirit to pray in us, and sometimes that’s accompanied by a manifestation such as speaking in tongues, and all kinds of other things, but what Sister Rose Gonzaga did for me
was to help me pray with the scriptures. As I look back now, you know I clearly see the hand of God, but I remember in grade 7!
Fr. Michael: So seventh grade? She was a nun?
Father Tom: She was an older nun. We became very close. She was a teacher. She taught Humanities and Music.
Fr. Michael: She was a teacher, she taught humanities and music, so how did it come about that she taught you how to pray?
Fr. Tom: She took me under her wing, there were two or three of us and she was going through the charismatic renewal herself. These were the years after the Second Vatican Council. I watched a lot of sisters really come alive with their prayer. This one in particular, she just took us and she spent a lot of time with us after school. We went down to her room, and we would pray. Close our eyes. “Come Holy Spirit, fill the house of your faithful.” And I remember, and I kind of laugh at it now, at the end of my grade seven year with her, she gave me a big gift. It was a big book, like a brick! I opened it up and it was called the Jerome Biblical Commentary. Now who in their right mind would give a kid in grade 7, the Jerome Biblical Commentary, the JBC, but she gave this to me, and she said this will come in handy one day. I think from that day in grade 7, until I was in University, until I was in the Seminary, I never opened the book. Then when I arrived everybody in the Seminary, in Theology, everybody had to have one. I said I already have one. They looked at me and said where did you get that? I said in Grade 7. You know by that time, Sister was very old. I remember when I celebrated her funeral Mass, praying by her casket, and saying you saw something in me, that I didn’t see. I owe much of my spontaneous prayer and praying with the Scriptures to Sister Rose Gonzaga, and to her sister, Sister Marie Pauls. They were blood sisters, in the same Congregation. They were formed by Charismatic Renewal, and they spread that out to others.
Fr. Michael: Well let’s talk a little bit about that. I think that when people pray, especially if they have a difficulty with the Holy Spirit. Tell me about your experience through that charismatic type of prayer, experiencing praying to the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Tom: I’ve heard a lot of people who don’t know the Holy Spirit. I owe it to those two nuns, who taught me. They introduced me to the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit was never this foreign entity, or this mysterious presence. The Holy Spirit I always understood and in very simple language, the Holy Spirit was the “gas in the engine”, to keep the engine going. We need the Holy Spirit to open us up to pray to Jesus and to pray to God the Father. It was the energy, it was the vision, it was that force that was at work. The sister taught me also how to pray to the Holy Spirit. There are certain things that you turn to the Holy Spirit. I really owe it now, when I look back, how fortunate I was, because she said whenever you’re in a difficult situation and you need words, and you need to say something, pray to the Holy Spirit. This is long before I studied Theology and Sacred Scripture and now being a professor of Scripture and teaching the Acts of the Apostles, and teaching the texts of the Holy Spirit, I look back and say “Wow! There was a lot of preparation that was underway there and I didn’t even realize it.
Fr. Michael: When you prayed with Sister and the other classmates, it sounds like, did you have any “felt” experience of God during that time?
Fr. Tom: No, I was always concerned because all kinds of people would say they were overcome with emotion or whatever. I’ll tell you a really funny thing about prayer. There was this retreat movement when I was in high school and it was called Teen Seminar. I’m sure it’s gone through various innerations now and it’s called all kinds of other things. This was like the prized, coveted retreat experience for high school kids, especially because you get permission to get off School for three days to go on this retreat. It’s a whole triage system, they pull your name and you go to this retreat house on Canadegwa Lake, and it was highly emotional and highly intense. Certainly one thing that I learned through all of that was to never to do stuff like that it was like taking people to the top of the mountain and then when the retreat was over, adios, arrivederci, go down the mountain and nobody knew what you were talking about. Anyway we were on this retreat and I would have been in probably grade 11, eleventh grade, a junior in high school, and everybody on the retreat, one thing that struck me was that there were Kleenex boxes all over the place, The organizers of the retreat put a real high premium on crying. I remember sitting there watching all this and saying I can’t feel anything, I don’t feel anything. I said, Lord please help me to cry so that I’m not like an oddball here! There were movements in the Church, and retreat movements, such as that, which though they may seem to be very significant, when we put too much of a premium on being carried by this wave of feeling or emotion, it could be very dangerous.
Fr. Michael: I think that you bring up an important point I think for prayer, is that everyone prays differently. We all pray uniquely. For some people those emotional experiences, obviously some people have a retreat and it changes their entire lives. You didn’t experience anything.
Fr. Tom: Yes, as a kid, but later on the experiences I had, because I have made many retreats, I love making retreats, for example in Monasteries or Abbeys. Having studied in Europe and in the Holy Land or other places, they were quite accessible.
Fr. Michael: Let’s talk a little bit about that. We have your experiences as a child and your experience in seventh grade with the Sister, is there anymore progression?
Fr. Tom: Oh yes, when I got to University I was discerning or deciding where do I go? I know that I wanted to be a priest.
Fr. Michael: It sounds like you went to Catholic grade school?
Fr. Tom: Catholic grade school, Catholic high school run by my community and a Catholic College where my community was present but interestingly enough, in College, I took no religion courses. I took Philosophy, but I specialized in Italian and French literature. In College I noticed as I was, you know the word discerning is a pretty large word, but I was trying to choose do I become a Jesuit, or a Franciscan, or a Basilian father which I ended up choosing, or Diocesan priest. I found myself praying, “Lord show me the way, Show me the way. I got to love the Psalms. There was a progression there and then I went to Noviciate. In the Noviciate year, that intense spirituality year, my Noviciate was in Detroit, in the inner city. We had a Novice Master, a Superior, Formater, who was a wonderful holy man of prayer and one of the things he taught me was the importance of praying the daily homilies, praying the scripture readings. There was a lot of preparation with the scripture readings, the Sunday readings, the daily readings and then to my surprise in the Noviciate year…
Father Michael: Well before you go on, what does that mean to pray with the daily homilies? The daily readings? What does that mean to pray with them?
Father Tom: When I go to Mass, just don’t zip through the readings. First of all I read those readings very slowly. You begin to do some critical approach to the readings. What’s behind this, what does the prophet Isaiah mean by this? Why is there a lot of war language in the Old Testament? What do the parables mean? Much of it was what we would consider to be a form of guided imagery, or placing ourselves in the story. In the noviciate we we had a strong component everyday of personal prayer and meditation together in the chapel. An hour before we did anything. An hour before morning prayer, an hour in silence in the chapel.
Father Michael: So you would all as a community spend time in the chapel.
Father Tom: Right, we were ten novices at the time, and two priests in the community. That was a lesson in itself, to do that.
Father Michael: What do you mean by that? What was that like?
Father Tom: I had never done that. Being quiet together can be a form of prayer. Usually being quiet, you go off on your own and sit in a quiet room, but this became part of our identity, of who we are, to be men of contemplation. Following that I went to Theology. I did my Theology my Masters degree in Toronto, at the University of Toronto, and because we were living in a big community with the Divine Office we had already started The Divine Office in the noviciate, but you got into the rhythm of prayer.
Father Mchael: What is the Divine Office for people that might not know?
Father Tom: The book of readings, the Breviary, that contain psalms is based on monastic prayer where they pray at all hours of the day and night. This is more modified where you have more morning prayer, mid morning prayer, evening prayer and night prayer. Each of those is accompanied by psalms, morning, evening and night prayer with specific biblical canticles which we memorized by heart. There was a deepening of the scriptural tradition in prayer. I got to love the psalms, and of course when you’re in theology you are taking scripture courses, and of course that was truly remarkable. To take these scripture texts and see what’s underneath them in a very scientific way. But another big shift happened. I was ordained of course, I went to a parish for two years – as deacon and priest, and there it was preaching. Preaching isn’t simply writing out a talk. I tried to apply everything that I had before hand to prepare those. I remember in the beginning, I would write everything out, and be so concerned. It was meticulous stuff, and little by little I realized it was still important to prepare. One rule of thumb I adopted is whether I celebrate or don’t celebrate Mass, preside or not preside, I prepare the scripture readings everyday as if I’m going to preach, so it’s been a discipline. Another thing that I did.
Father Michael: Talk a little bit about discipline because I think discipline is important for prayer life.
Father Tom: You know nowadays, discipline when I go work out at the athletic club, the health club and you see all of these people on these machines in such intensity, it’s extraordinary. For many of them it’s a form of meditation and devotion. It they don’t show up they know something is missing. I often said why can’t we apply these same principles to prayer. We pray to keep in good spiritual shape, like I walk on the moving sidewalk there, the machines at the athletic club, to keep in good physical shape. We need the spiritual shape and the physical shape that go hand-in-hand. I don’t believe that people are undisciplined today in fact, they are probably more disciplined than ever before. Disciplined for diets, disciplined for exercise, disciplined for all kinds of things, why can’t we translate that form of discipline to the life of prayer, so that every morning when I get up, I say certain prayers. I say different prayers throughout the day. I say prayers at the conclusion of the day.
Now you asked me what had been some big teaching moments in prayer? When I was doing my graduate studies in sacred scripture I didn’t take the normal route that most people take. A priest will get a masters degree or Master Divinity degree, I was asked to go on for further studies. I was sent to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome for 3 1/2 years and then to Jerusalem for 4 1/2 years. The big kind of explosion in prayer happened for me when you study Scripture at the graduate level you have to study the original languages. I remember distinctly the day in December of 1988, we had taken Hebrew now already for two or three years, and I was reading the psalms, and all of a sudden I was no longer reading them as a grammar student or language student. I started praying the Psalms in the language that Jesus prayed them. I tented this really stupid tradition and my friends laughed at me. I cut up the book of Psalms into all these cards, put them in plastic holders, and how I didn’t get killed walking to school in Rome at times, or Jerusalem is beyond me, because I’d be reciting the Psalms on the way to school in Hebrew. It seemed like an insignificant thing but I got to memorize the Psalms in Hebrew. I remembered the day that I memorized Psalm 23. I got it down. It was like a feeling of exhilaration, saying I’m praying as Jesus prayed.
Father Michael: Psalm 23 is the Good Shepherd Psalm.
Father Tom: The Lord is my Shepherd!
Father Michael: That is usually a very powerful prayer for people. Tell me about that! The first time you prayed that in Hebrew.
Father Tom: I remember the first time that I prayed Psalm 23, not as a language student but as a prayer. It was a very strange warm sensation inside of me and I got into the habit now, after all these years, 25 or 30 years to pray different Psalms in Hebrew. Psalm 23, the Lord is my Shepherd, is one of my favourite Psalms.
Father Michael: Do you remember the first moment that you did that, and had that feeling?
Father Tom: Sort of like your first love? I was walking on the Villa Conchiliatzione, walking home from the Biblicum, and it struck me. Villa Conchiliatzione, is in Rome, right near the Vatican, and I’m reciting the prayers, I was always talking to myself walking to school and reading these cards. I knew the prayer and the words kept on coming. HEBREW WORDS THAT I DON’T WANT TO GUESS AT!! The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, but verted pastures he gives me. I stopped and I felt very warm since I cannot describe it. I remember talking to the priest about it in Rome and he said no, what you have done now is moved from the grammar, to the story, to the image. I found that very helpful! You know, another thing that’s happened to me because I have many Jewish friends and because I studied in Israel, and I love Israel, and I know the Jewish tradition, I’ve been invited, I have gone to many Jewish funerals of friends in Israel and also in Canada where I live. Last summer a friend of mine’s mother died, she’s a television personality, French, she’s Jewish and because of a whole series of events and family members couldn’t come and the burial had to be, she asked me to lead the prayers at the graveside for her mother, a Jew, a Holocaust survivor. I told the daughter, Hannah, Hannah, I’m a Catholic priest and she says that’s okay, you understand us! I remember praying, I wore the ???Kiepa, I wore the head out of respect for them and praying the prayers in Hebrew, and she said you’re the best Rabbi priest we’ve ever had. But to say those prayers, and I wasn’t just reading them, because their our prayers. At mass every time when you and I as priests we say the blessing over the gifts, the preparation of the gifts, blessed are you Lord God of all creation through your goodness, this bread and wine, those prayers are exactly from the Jewish blessing at Pissa, the Jewish blessing at Shabbat every week. HEBREW, HEBREW, so our prayer flows from Jewish prayer. If we want to pray well and we have time to study it’s very important to take into consideration Jewish prayer. I’ve often found associating myself with Jesus and praying is very helpful. Another really important moment happened during my years of Graduate studies in Israel. In Israel, it was like an explosion, of seeing all of this come alive in the prayer books, and I took a habit on Friday evenings I would go to the Shabbat, the Sabbath celebrations, the Jewish Sabbath, at the Hebrew Union College. It’s a seminary based in Cincinnati in fact, but they have a branch in Jerusalem, and I was able to join the Rubinical students every Friday night for the first prayers of the Jewish Sabbath. I found that very, very moving! Very beautiful!
Another very powerful moment in prayer, because I had to learn languages, I was the Confessor for a community of sisters in the little village of Emmaus, one of the village sites of Emmaus. They had a big nursing home for abandoned Palestinian and Arab women. I would stay with the sisters once a month, I went regularly for four years, spent three days, it was my little oasis, a little piece of paradise, and the sisters would take me up to the nursing home part and I would go and visit with the patients and speak to them in Arabic, but one day they said, this woman here is dying and she is from Mallula, in Syria. Mallula which has now been completely destroyed with the war, Mallula was the last entire village where Eramaic was spoken. It was a gorgeous little place, and she said would you come to Mary here, and just say the prayers of the dying and bring her Communion. I got there, and I know the prayers in Eramaic, and I started to speak the Our Father, in Eramaic, and the Hail Mary, and she had been in a semi coma. She just opened her eyes with this beautiful smile, and as I said ERAMAIC!! Our Father, who art in heaven, and it hit me – this is what Jesus would have said when he prayed this. So my experience in prayer has been a bit different and my prayer very much flows from the scripture. I love the rosary as a form of repetition. It’s like a song that you love, and you want to keep on playing it.
Father Michael: Do you pray the rosary now?
Father Tom: I pray the rosary now, I find it extremely helpful in the car. I find it really breaks up the driving, but also it’s a way of keeping focussed. I learned in Germany, when I was studying in Germany, how to do the biblical rosary. They have a very special way of adding scripture at the end of each of the prayers. Blessed are you among women, blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus, who suffered for us on the cross and you repeat that ten times. Rather than announcing the mystery you repeat the mystery each time, and I have about five versions of that which I found very, very helpful. Another form of prayer that really excited me, we talk about the way of the cross, the prayer of the devotional way of the cross, which is one of my favorite things. I lived on the Via Dolorosa, for four and a half years.
Father Michael: And that is?
Father Tom: I lived on the Way of the Cross street in Jerusalem. My address was the second station of the Cross.
Father Michael: Wow!
Father Tom: Where Pilate tried Jesus. Pilate presented Jesus to the people say ???. This is the man, behold the man! That’s where I lived. Afterwards, part of my journey brought me to lead the World Youth Day in Canada. Doing that you get to meet all kinds of people and experience all kinds of prayer things, and I discovered the mysteries of light which is a new prayer, the way of light the Via Luciaz, which is a magnificent prayer. We talk about the stations of the cross but the Via Luciaz, is the stations of the resurrection and it’s truly magnificent. My specialty in teaching is the passion narratives and the resurrection narratives. All of this to say that Scripture has played a very big part in helping me to pray. I do formal prayer. I know prayer by memory. I pray the Psalms as a religious every day and praying the Breviary and the Office book. I also love looking at the Scriptures, and then praying with the Scriptures, seeing myself in the story, seeing myself sitting next to the Samaritan woman, and experiencing that conversation. Seeing myself in the Gadarene cemetery there with the ? Jerisennes, with this man chained to the tomb, and the prayer that Jesus would have prayed over him, and that he prayed to Jesus. I don’t have any trouble, I’m kind of a visual person.
Fr. Michael: Well, and it seems like, the reality is that obviously as a priest, you are afforded with these wonderful luxuries of experiences that will help your prayer life. I think sometimes people, especially at Mass, will say Father, I just don’t get anything out of the Mass. It seems to me like a lot of your prayer, your personal prayer, as you mentioned contributes to your experience of the word of God in the Mass. Can you talk a little bit about that? Times where you’ve really felt God during the Mass?
Fr. Tom: We go to Mass, not so much to get something out of it, but to witness an incredible love story that is unfolding for us on that altar of the word and the altar of the sacrament.
Fr. Michael: So give us an example of when you have witnessed that?
Father Tom: What helps me very much at Mass and when I taught in the Seminary, and I taught young priests or students to become priests. If the celebrant, if the presider, if the priest, is not having a love affair with God, and with Jesus, don’t say Mass. If you don’t have a heart that is really filled with love, don’t bother. There is a wonderful quote by Thomas Merton, “If you haven’t experienced a broken heart, then don’t try to celebrate Mass.” You’re inviting people into a love affair and so much of it depends, not on how dazzling we make it, but on the piety and reverence of the person celebrating Mass. This is one thing that Pope Francis has done remarkably well. When you see him with the crowds in St. Peter’s square, and the crowds, he’s a rock star. When you see him at Mass, he’s really so recollected, so profoundly moved and fixed on what he’s doing, that invites people into prayer. I have to ask myself, if I’m going to Mass to get something out of it, what do I want out of it, who am I to say get something? I am going as a witness to a love story and I’m going to be fed and whether I’m moved emotionally, whether I have tears in my eyes or whatever I’m going there to be fed, and the Lord is going to speak to me.
Fr. Michael: What would you say to somebody that maybe does not have a priest that seems to be in that love affair?
Fr. Tom: The people of God have a right to be fed by the sacrament and fed by the Word. It’s a right. Pope John Paul II wrote, I think in the year 2000, this wonderful document called Diaz Domini, the Day of the Lord, and it’s a beautiful, it’s really the charter of rights of the faithful celebrating the Eucharist. The day of the Lord is Sunday. When you don’t have that then I would tell people, the other thing the Church teaches is that it does not depend on the Minister, that the Lord is still present- aubray oberado. It’s in the action but it does help when the Minister, the priest is well prepared and when he’s articulate, when he’s reverent, and when he’s really trying to be holy, and human at the same time.
Fr. Michael: What would be your advice to someone when they are not in that ideal scenario? What can they do to foster or experience at least for themselves to really go into Mass?
Fr. Tom: I would tell people listen carefully to the scripture readings. The readings are accessible to people long before they get to church. They are accessible on line, they are accessible on apps, they are accessible in books and whatever. Read those readings over, and I’ve often told people – please the night before, the morning of, read over the Gospel. If you don’t have time to read over the other stuff, read over the Gospel, and pray before you go to church, or even when you’re there in church waiting for Mass to begin. Lord, I want you to help me understand what this is about. You spoke about the lost sheep in today’s Gospel. I am that sheep! Come and reach me, come and touch me, if you have special needs to pray for people, read over that Gospel. Read over the Psalms, a line in the Psalms, keep on repeating that and hopefully the priest’s homily will build upon that. Sometimes it doesn’t. So, I think to expect to get something every time, the question should be, what am I bringing to this celebration?
Fr. Michael: Well maybe a better way of saying is not to get something but you did say that the people have a right to be fed.
Fr. Tom: Right!
Fr. Michael: Yes, so maybe that’s a better thing. Some times people are saying I’m not being fed.
Fr. Tom: The feeding takes place whether we like it or not, the feeding is there. But, it would be nice to be fed with a certain decorum, and a certain spirit, and in a certain atmosphere. It’s so important. You know another way that we pray is through Music, too in the liturgy. That’s why there’s a high premium. When I look at the years that I was Pastor, I was in a Parish for two years, Deacon and priest, and I was the Pastor, Chaplain at the University Church for six years and for me there’s a couple of givens that are necessary to create the right environment for prayer. Very practical things, make sure there’s a good sound system in church. Put a high premium on music ministry. Proper preparation of the lectors and the readers, and make sure the lighting is good. All of those things! What I am doing with the Liturgy, when I preside at Mass, it’s the most sacred act I could be about. It’s bringing God down to earth, and God deserves a proper setting. As well as preparing the environment and preparing the community to receive this wonderful gift. That’s how I’ve dealt with the Liturgy. Piety and devotion for example, there’s the wonderful prayer in adoration which is open to much misunderstanding or misinterpretation today. But what it profoundly realizes or reveals to us, is that the presence of God is not just limited to the Eucharistic celebration but it’s this lingering presence that invites us to be with Jesus. Thank God that adoration has come back with a vengeance, I think because we tried to throw it out after Vatican II, in many places. When I went through Theology in graduate school we never once had adoration of the blessed sacrament. In fact I don’t think they had monstrances anymore. They were kind of passé or de passé or whatever. And to see it come back, and now much through the reverence of John Paul II, World Youth Days, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. It is a very beautiful way of teaching people to be with Jesus and Jesus to be with them. When I was Chaplain of the University of Toronto, I will never forget, I took the great risk and I decided to institute Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Friday. We had Mass every day, but every Friday, after the daily mass at 12:30 until 5 o’clock we exposed the blessed sacrament. It was a big, high-powered university – 60,000 students, the middle of downtown Toronto. I was criticized, why are you bringing back that old thing? I said, no, no, this is a time for people to be with Jesus and we assigned volunteers to always be in the church. I will never forget one day, I had a graduate student from Asia, came in my office. She was a medical student, and she sat down, and she said, I wanted to thank you for bringing back the monstrance and Jesus. I said, Thank you very much, what’s so special about it? She said Father, we’re living today in a world of absence – absent friends, absent fathers, absent mothers, people not there. She said at least this presence won’t let us down. She said it very simply, very beautifully! A graduate medical student at the University of Toronto from Southeast Asia, and remember thinking to myself, that’s exactly it, in a world of absence, or false forms of presence, we are instituting Jesus again. But I made sure that with Adoration, it was always accompanied properly with scripture, with music, with proper prayers, good moments of silence, and I found using Taize music there to be very good.
Fr. Michael: So there are some people who haven’t experienced Adoration. What is that?
Fr. Tom: Adoration is, we take the host, that was consecrated at Mass. It is put in this lovely receptacle we call a monstrance, some people call it a big clock. It’s there on the altar and it’s exposed for quiet prayer. We gaze upon Jesus, we look upon Jesus. And some times it’s pure silence. I find it very helpful. It’s a centring prayer of coming to peace and you know repeating different prayers. I have a whole series of things that I repeat when I pray, mostly from the Scriptures, mostly Psalms. One of my favourite ones is from the Emmaus story stay with us Lord. Stay with us Lord. ?? Stay with us in Latin. ?? , ?? in German, ?? in Spanish, because I have had to work in those different languages. I look at Jesus in this. But not only I look at Jesus, he’s looking at me.
Fr. Michael: St. Jean Vianney said that.
Fr. Tom: Pope Francis said it beautifully, that he goes and prays all the time in the chapel at Santa Marta, in the evenings. Sometimes before the Blessed Sacrament, and he said sometimes I fall asleep. But even when I fall asleep, He’s looking upon me, He’s gazing upon me. So it’s prayer essentially, is this long loving look at the real, my loving look at the real, and God’s loving look at the real me! Somehow it’s a case of gazing upon somebody and looking at someone, you’re also calling them out, and you’re bringing them to life, and that’s how I view prayer.
Father Michael: Can you describe for us a moment in Adoration where you really felt that presence?
Father Tom: You know I feel it all the time in Adoration. I’m not carried away by some high emotion ever. Sometimes I wish I was, but I feel at home, I feel very comfortable. In the evenings often times, when I lived in Jerusalem, I went down to the Basilica. I lived on the top floor, the roof of the convent, and I went down to the Basilica that commemorates the place where Jesus was handed over by Pontius Pilate. I would sit for a long, long time before the tabernacle, it was underneath this big arch from Hadrian’s period, the Roman period. And I felt the presence. I felt the presence of Jesus in the Holy Land, very, very clearly. They were the moments, probably the most intimate prayer that I have had in my life.
Father Michael: Like where? Like when?
Father Tom: All over, Galilee, at the place of the multiplication, the Mount of the Beatitudes. I felt, people say was this really there when Jesus was here? Was this the place? I say you are missing the whole point! This is the same land that he walked, and the same sky that hovered over him, is hovering over us. When people have the opportunity to go to the Holy Land, I encourage them. It really is a marvellous experience. You’ve had it and I’ve had it.
Fr. Michael: Yes, having been there, now I say everyone should have that opportunity.
Fr. Tom: It really is. It gave me a whole new way, I will never pray the Scriptures in the same way. I’ll never pray them, my mother had a beautiful line. Now my mother’s memory is failing and everything. My mom went to daily Mass. She was a very prayerful woman. She prayed the Divine Office. She’s a third order member of my Congregation. Often times when I went home, I would see her praying there in the corner, in the chair, with the office book. When she came to see me in the Holy Land, she came twice. The first time she came, she was so moved by it. It was a pilgrimage. She was caught up with this, and when she went back home, she wrote me a letter, and she said it’s sort of like virtual reality at Mass. I wrote back and I said what do you mean by this? She said when I listen to the readings now, I can’t shut the tape off.
Then when she came back the second time, I had her explain it. I asked her what do you experience? She said I listen, I close my eyes, I’m not sleeping. I close my eyes, and I see Him moving on the Mount of the Beatitudes. I can feel the prophet, I can feel Mary. She said I can’t shut the tape off. I said what a wonderful way for somebody who didn’t study Theology.
Father Michael: Wow!
Father Tom: When she goes to God, I know what I am going to say about her.
Father Michael: I can’t shut the tape off!
Father Tom: I can’t shut the tape off.
Father Michael: Talk about pray always!
Father Tom: It’s a beautiful, beautiful… In fact, I was with her the other day in the nursing home. She suffered a terrible accident, that triggered off dementia. She can’t forget. She can’t remember what she ate for breakfast. But the minute I take her down to the chapel, it all comes out, the prayers. I celebrate Mass in the nursing home when she’s there, and she remembers all the prayers. Not only in English, she knows them in Italian. But she can’t remember what she had for breakfast in the morning. You know praying is very important. I tell people, learn that vocabulary now, because in the end, when everything is stripped from us, it’s important that those words remain. We saw that with Pope John Paul II at the end of his life.
Father Michael: You mentioned icons earlier. Tell me about your first introduction to icons. What introduced you to icons?
Father Tom: I stumbled upon the Church of St. Gervais in Paris. I was an undergraduate student studying in France for three summers and working in France. Living in Paris, I remember one day. It was probably 1978. I walked to this church, St. Gervais Church, right behind the City Hall, walked right into it, it was around evening, around vespers time, and I was blown away by what I saw. First of all, it was a church that had pretty much fallen into ruin. I later learnt that it was given to this community, called the Fraternity of Jerusalem. I saw all these monks, women and men in white robes sitting on the floor in the front, and there were all of these icons with candles in front of them. So these are not the normal pictures. What are these things? So, I owe it to that community, to teach me about icons, and then living in Jerusalem I studied iconography. I was celebrating Mass every Saturday at the Benedictine Abbey, on the Mount of Olives, where the chief iconographer lives in the Middle East, Sister Marie Paul. I realized that these are not paintings, they are not photographs. Icons are windows into the holy. They invite you into the story, so I became a lover of icons.
Father Michael: I want to talk about that for a little bit. When we talk about devotionals, or we talk about sacramentals, I think most Catholics are very much aware of statues and paintings. We all have paintings of Jesus, or images that impact us. I think something that I was not aware of, and love now, and I know you do, are icons. Tell people what icons are.
Father Tom: It’s image, it’s a window, it’s an invitation to enter this scene, to come into this story. Not just to look at something, but it’s to enter into it. When you realize the process undertaken by the iconographer. We don’t say he or she painted it, but she wrote the icon. It’s a form of writing that takes place. The wood is blessed, the wood is prepared, as the coats of paint go on this, on this piece of wood, prayer is accompanied. Every icon, authentic icon, is prayed over, it’s a fruit of prayer and there’s a certain classic form of iconography. You just don’t set up something and call it an icon. There’s classic iconography, there’s specific words that are on it, there’s specific ways that Jesus is presented, or Mary is presented. They are stunning invitations and windows into the holy.
Father Michael: Tell me about that first time you entered into prayer through an icon.
Father Tom: It was it Paris, in the summers, ’78 and ’79 and then I remember when I acquired or received my first icon. It was from one of my confreres. It was the icon of the Anastisies, the Resurrection of Jesus, descending into hell, pulling up Adam and Eve from hell. He descended among the dead and since then there are many icons. I had an icon made, written, based on my thesis. My thesis was on the disciples of Emmaus.
Father Michael: We’ll talk about that next, I’d like to, but first that icon, what happened when you gazed upon that?
Father Tom: It was unlike looking at a picture or a reproduction of something. I love art, and there are some beautiful paintings, but to look at an icon, it’s almost like a sacramental. It’s, it’s a holy object. I don’t treat this as a normal picture, a normal painting. I treat this as a special invitation, a holy invitation to enter the scene. One of the things I do, it just happens to me automatically, is to look at that and in conjures up immediately the story, the atmosphere. I look all around the picture. Icons have certain code, things, the colour red, the colour blue, the colour green. The way things are depicted. I know a little bit about iconography, so that has really helped. When I look at icons, I can pray better. I found it very helpful.
Father Michael: When you looked at that icon, and prayed with the icon of the Resurrection, reaching into hell, what was that doing in you?
Father Tom: That story, the quiet, the silence of Holy Saturday, where was Jesus? He went down and he extended this new life to all those who had come before Him. It’s not just the fires of hell and evil, the red devil. He entered the netherworld, the place of nothingness and he brought up Adam and Eve and he said bring the rest with you. You will all rise with me. Icons of course come from the East. They’re wonderful invitations- ecumenical invitations to extend what came before, and to extend what comes after. They’re windows, they’re opportunities, they’re invitations, they’re sacred holy moments of scripture. It’s a form of scripture. To look at an icon is a form of scripture. When you think of the great medieval cathedrals, when people couldn’t read, it was art, icons, that really brought them to life.
Father Michael: It seems like, in someway, you experienced Christ with you, and all of us, bringing us into heaven, right here on Earth. Is that fair to say?
Father Tom: Icons are a window into Heaven. To have holy pictures, they’re windows into heaven. When I was Chaplain at the University, I put in 12 stained glass windows of the new Saints and blesseds. One of the nicest things that a graduate student said to me, when we had the dedication of the windows in 1999 he said, that day, that particular day was All Saints day. He said it was sort of like, I remember his language, it was sort of like, you climbed up and ripped open a patch, and we looked into heaven. You ripped open the clouds and we got to look on the other side. That’s what beautiful art, icons, windows and pictures do – to lead them beyond and not to stop with what we see. It’s an invitation to go beyond.
Father Michael: Yeah, and I think that’s a beautiful, I think that’s what we all long for in prayer is to experience something of heaven, right here on earth.
Father Tom: That’s right!
Father Michael: You’ve had obviously, tremendous and wonderful experiences of prayer and it’s probably evolved over the years. As you look at your prayer life right now, what is that like? Your daily prayer, what do you do? How do you pray?
Father Tom: Of course the structure, there is a certain framework and it’s the Liturgy of the Hours, the Psalms, morning prayer, evening prayer, night prayer. Throughout the day there’s all kinds of exclamations. At times, I feel they are tired of me in Heaven. I need this, please help me I can’t do this, be with me. You know I have had to do some very significant or big projects and some difficult jobs over the past few years. I can say in all honesty I’ve never done something without praying beforehand. Every time I have to go on live television, which is often, dealing with very contentious and difficult issues, I always go with great trepidation. I pray, “Lord, give me your words. Holy Spirit come and give me your words”. I insist with my staff at the television network, they are often called upon, do nothing unless you pray first. I really believe, we to prepare, we have to have the script and everything else, but the Lord will provide the words if we ask him. The Lord has been very faithful. The Lord has not let me down. That doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been horrifying moments, but the Lord has not let me down. When I have to give big talks, or whatever as part of my job, lectures… I say okay Lord, I’ve done the research, I’ve done the work, now speak through me and the Lord does that. When we feel the Lord, I’m confidant the Lord does that.
Father Michael: When we talk to people about how to pray, when to pray, where to pray, there’s an anecdote I like to use, which is called the five “P’s” of prayer. I am going to actually ask you to illustrate this for us. The five “P’s” of prayer are prepared, that when we go to pray, that in some way can kind of prepare to get ready for it, that we have a place to go to to pray, that there’s some kind of posture, so the church traditionally has four postures of standing, sitting, kneeling or prostrating. There is a moment of presence, where we enter into the presence of God and finally we go with the passage. Tell me about that, walk me through that with you. When you prepare to pray, how do you do that?
Father Tom: Where I live I have a little chapel in my house and so that’s very helpful but I also pray at night sometimes falling asleep in bed, or I pray at my desk. Ideally, the most ideal posture or position for me to pray or place, would be in some kind of a church setting or before a holy picture, or a holy image. I find that very important. A candle, I find a candle, a very simple candle. Light the candle, and it changes the mood. The Lord is present. This is the light. Okay? Holy images, holy places, holy pictures, they’re important, and conducive environments.
I find sometimes when I’m out in nature near the water I love being near the water, the lake, the sea, or when I’m in the mountains I can pray very well. I love that. The mountains are Psalms, I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where shall come my help, my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth, and near the water.
Israel is a perfect example, it’s the best real estate in the world for prayer. The best backdrops! The place – preparation, I’m going to pray! I’m going to turn off my iPhone, I’m going to move from the iPad, although nowadays you can pray on it. You can use the iPad to pray. How many times that I go to functions where everybody is praying from an iPad?
Father Michael: Then you can turn it off.
Father Tom: Followed by that, the place, the settings is very important. Posture, I’m very comfortable with kneeling, some people aren’t. I find the whole kneeling position, or the orante position, with one’s arms open and praying, looking up to heaven, that’s important!
Father Michael: Which I think is beautiful, because as a child you knelt before your bed.
Fr. Tom: That’s right!
Fr. Michael: Now it sounds like you have a chapel.
Fr. Tom: Yes.
Fr. Michael: Is there a kneeler in there?
Fr. Tom: Yes, I have a kneeler, there’s a predue in the Chapel, I have that, or kneeling next to my bed is just as fine too. Posture, of course depends on what one is comfortable with. I’m not going to prostrate on the floor, where other people are. We always have to be aware to of not causing a disturbance or putting on a show. When Jesus said go pray, go pray in your room in quiet. You don’t stand in the corner with your phylacteries or put on a big performance. The presence that comes, it’s my presence to the Lord, am I being truly present to him? He’s always always present to me, so this business of the Lord not hearing or whatever it’s the quality of my presence. How many distractions and sometimes I bring all my distractions to the Lord and say take these away from me. Take these temptations away from me. I say, let me feel your presence come deep within me, and it’s not necessarily with much emotion. But it’s that honesty of the discussion. It’s looking at the Lord, in reality, and the Lord looking at us in our reality.
Father Michael: So when you have that, try and articulate for us what that is, what that presence is like for you. How do you know when you’re present?
Father Tom: I just know. It’s hard to say, I know. I know obviously praying before the Blessed Sacrament, or praying before a holy image. I know the Lord is present. I’ve never felt the Lord not present with me. Never! Even in the most abysmal moments, in the dark moments and intense moments and difficult moments, I know that the Lord is there. I know you are with me, with your rod and staff. You give me courage.
Father Michael: And finally passage, what do you pray with when you go to pray?
Fr. Tom: The scripture passages. It depends on what the circumstances are. I pray every day the readings of the day. I read over the night before the scriptural readings for Mass the following day. No matter what, I read them over. And then for particular needs, for moments of sadness, there’s specific readings and in want there are readings and there’s plenty of things. There is nothing, everything is there and you need to look at and be aware. There’s guides and lists when you have a moment of need, when someone is sick, when someone is suffering, when you’re in sin, you need forgiveness, all of those things are present.
Father Michael: We’ll end with this, what would be your advice. As a priest, I think we are blessed with opportunities, tremendously to grow in prayer and experience prayer. What would be your advice to someone who doesn’t have these experiences? Say they are a layperson and wants to grow in prayer, what encouragement would you give them?
Father Tom: Go and ask somebody who prays to help you. The most beautiful thing that somebody can ask me as a priest, and it has happened many times, Father, would you teach me how to pray?
Fr. Michael: That’s a wonderful image, and that you said in the beginning, find someone.
Fr. Tom: Find someone who prays. It doesn’t have to be a priest or some kind of a spiritual guru, go and ask someone who prays, teach me how to pray. It’s a beautiful thing in Luke, Chapter 11, where the Our Father is taught, the disciples go to Jesus and say, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples how to pray.
Fr. Michael: Wonderful!
Fr. Tom: That reveals loads about the disciples, about Jesus, but especially about John the Baptist. I love it when I teach the Our Father, the methian Our Father, you know from Matthew’s gospel, incorporated in our prayer, but then the different Our Father, there’s some differences with Luke’s Our Father. I spend a long time teaching about the opening words, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.
That’s wonderful, John must have left deep and lasting impressions. Another thing is the chapter begins, “Jesus was in prayer and only when he finished did they go over to Him”. In other words, his praying caused the need and the desire to spring up from the apostles. When we pray that is the best invitation to others to pray. When I go down in the Vatican crypt and pray at the tombs of the popes, or I go and pray before John the 23rd, or Paul the sixth or John Paul, the second, I’m always amazed at the numbers of people that are praying there. Especially at John the 23rd. You have street people, bag ladies and bishops and Cardinals and people all well dressed up and everything, and for me, watching those people pray, gives me this desire to pray. People who pray, are the invitation to others to pray.
Father Michael: That’s wonderful, and I want to end with that. Right now my heart is on fire. I feel like I’ve been with someone who has that, that prayer of experience. I would encourage you if you’re listening to this and you want to grow in prayer, I think father Tom’s advice is so simple, and so wonderful. Look for that person, find someone that you see that has that depth of prayer life and ask them, teach me how to pray, just as John taught his disciples. So thank you Fr. Tom for your time and we look forward to more from you.
Father Tom: Thank you, thank you!