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Over the years, Father Michael Denk has found that priests and the religious are extremely blessed to be taught “how to pray”. This often takes root during formation, which for priests happens at the seminary. In this edition of Praying with Priests Father Michael Denk sits down with Father Michael McCandless, Vocational Director at Borromeo Seminary in the Diocese of Cleveland. Together they discuss Father McCandless’ own prayer life, as well as direction and advice he has given to seminarians over the years. Hopefully, by learning “how to pray” beyond basic vocal prayer, we can all benefit and grow into a deeper relationship with God, through prayer.

If you have thought about considering the priesthood or would be interested in more information, please visit www.BorromeoSeminary.org

 

Hi, I’m Father Michael Denk of The Prodigal Father and I am here with Father Michael McCandless, Vocation Director of the Diocese of Cleveland. Welcome, Father Michael.

 

Father McCandless:

Thank you, Father Michael, glad to be here with you.

 Father Michael:

We are continuing our series of interviews of “Praying with Priests.” I am really excited to do this with Father Mike because he is the Vocation Director of our diocese and he has helped a lot of guys discern their call to the priesthood. He does a lot of this by helping them really move to their interior life and pray. So, Father Mike, I just want to begin by asking you what was your first memory or first memories of prayer?

Father McCandless:

When I was a child, and this is after my mom and dad divorced, my stepdad had recently come into my life and he began the habit of walking me up to my bedroom to go to bed. And when he did that, he would kneel down next to my bed with me and he taught me from the very beginning, I think, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be and the Prayer to One’s Guardian Angel. But before we did that, we said an Act of Contrition.

We said those five prayers every single night. I would say probably a majority, a good majority of nights, and we would say those together and he would teach me wherever I was . . . he would fill the words in for me. After being around him, I actually could say prayers on my own.

Now, what was interesting too is that I was very young, probably about four, when I moved to Mississippi. I was away from literally everybody else that was around me. I was away from my grandparents whom I had lived with. I’ll get back to that because there is a memory there from earlier childhood. A really good memory. We moved to Mississippi and to Annunciation Parish. I wasn’t old enough for kindergarten, but I remember going to Annunciation Parish, just outside of Columbus, Mississippi, every Sunday. I can still picture the inside of the church and I remember that church from when I was very young. I remembered my parents going to Communion and I, being not old enough, couldn’t go.

Father Michael:

What did that feel like?

 Father McCandless:

It was interesting because my mom would . . . my mom and dad would always . . . they would stand up from kneeling and I would stay kneeling while they would go receive Communion. It was interesting because one of the first times it happened my Mom looked at me and I, not sure what was going on, thought they were going somewhere far away. But I knew they would be back. I didn’t know if it was going to be days or hours . . . it was like a minute, right. Mom had looked at me and said, “I’ll be right back, honey.” And, whenever she got back in the pew, she would kind of touch my head, Mom would. That was always one of the best moments for her, when she got back in the pew and she’d received Communion.

She was always smiling. She was always devout. She and my stepdad receiving Communion was my first experience of God, church, prayer, and Communion. So, I guess in some respects I saw the Eucharist in them before even knowing what the Eucharist was all about when I was young.

My stepdad’s prayer with me was very key because eventually he would know that I would do that on my own. Eventually, when I got older, like six or seven years old, he did not necessarily kneel next to me by my bedside. But that was key because I think that he kind of knew, or I think he would ask from time to time if I was saying those prayers.

My grandfather on my Mom’s side was also a really key figure. This was interesting because he was instrumental in my priestly vocation in a way too. My grandpa would take me to church on Sunday mornings sometimes, and Mom would too . . . this is before my Mom and stepdad met . . . this is like when I was three years old or something like that. He would take me to church and I would sit with him and I think my Mom too. My grandparents live a quarter of a mile from Holy Family in Stow. So, we would walk or drive down. That was probably my earliest experience of church and of liturgical prayer. My stepdad working with me, being with me and teaching me and helping me to memorize so it internalized those prayers. That was really key, as was my parish church of Annunciation down in Columbus, Mississippi. All those were key. All those were key moments.

Fr. Michael:

A hot topic that is often brought up is people taking kids to church. They wonder if they should take their kids to church if they’re going to be loud. Are they going to be tortured by being there? What did it feel like for you to go to church?

Fr. McCandless:

I always liked church when I was a kid. I think there’s a difference between I’m temporally not entertained (the pain or the slight suffering of not being entertained) and I would like to know more about what’s going on. I can’t necessarily see into it at the level that I would like to or could later on in life. But when I was younger, I always liked church. I liked dressing up. I liked going with mom and dad. I liked the beauty that was around me. Although you could probably argue that Holy Family in Stow is not a really beautiful church, but it is home. It is home to me. It still is. It is still home.

Fr. Michael:

You can find beauty in any church, I think Fr. Mike is trying to say.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, you can. You can find beauty in every church. What’s interesting about that is though, I work with kids who are in seventh and eighth grade, sometimes sixth grade, when they come to visit the seminary and I receive thank you letters from them. We are talking people who are probably six/seven years older than what I was in these memories that I am talking about. I look at their notes and sometimes their notes are developed in such a way that they know what’s going on when they come to visit the seminary and when they go to Mass with the seminarians. They know what’s happening and it obviously is not a year of just going to church that has helped them to become that reflective. They’re grateful that they can sing like that, pray like that. To have the experience of hearing about God’s plan for them. So, I think prayer in church is an important thing. Many things are happening in a child’s mind and heart that may be below the surface.

Fr. Michael:

What did it feel like for you to go to church as a child? What kind of emotions did it evoke? Was it boredom? Was it awe? Was it a mixture? What did you feel like?

Fr. McCandless:

There were times of boredom. I soaked in a lot of things in church and I didn’t realize it when it was happening. So, one of the times that I came back (it was a Sunday afternoon, I think) I was with my mom and my stepdad in the kitchen and I was getting a drink of water. I used to have to climb on top of the countertop and get a cup . . . a plastic red Tupperware cup (I remember exactly what I used.) I filled this cup with water and as I was drinking from it, I elevated it and I began to say, “Then He took the cup.” It wasn’t the chalice at that time. There’s the old sacramentary translation. “Then He took the cup, again He gave thanks and praise and giving the cup to all His disciples. . ..” I just kind of racked off that portion of the Eucharistic prayer.

Fr. Michael:

How old do you think you were?

Fr. McCandless:

I think about four. My mom and my stepdad just kind of looked at me. You know, just kind of mystified looks at me. Like did that just happen? What are you . . .? Wow, okay. I suppose he’s soaking up something of Mass. They laughed. They chuckled after that and I guess I chuckled too. Did I experience boredom at Mass? Yes. Did I soak things in? Yes. Did I want Communion? Yes. I wanted to walk in line. I wanted to go with my parents.

 Fr. Michael:

Do you remember your First Communion?

Fr. McCandless:

Yes I do.

Fr. Michael:

Tell us about it.

Fr. McCandless:

Holy Family in Stow, second grade, and I was right behind a young man named Ralphie who was in the same class as me. His family was friends with my family. I wore a white blazer, correct that, an off white blazer. I remember exactly what I was wearing. It was an interesting day. My mom put a scapular on me earlier in the day and said, “I’d like you to wear this. It’s good for you to wear.” I remember getting the rosary from my aunt and my uncle. I got a really important gift, actually. I’m glad you asked that because it took me back to a memory of my prayer, which is my first book of the saints by Father John Logosek. I think he was an SPD Father. But going back to the day of, I remember us walking out. We sat by ourselves, you know, all the communicants. We sat and I received, I think, with my parents. Fr. Day was one of the Vicars of the parish. We had tasted the hosts ahead of time, non-consecrated, so I knew what I was getting into and I knew what it would taste like and I knew what the wine would taste like too. I just remember being very joyful.

We celebrated. We had a big meal as a family. Everyone came over to the house in Stow. They were pleased with what was going on. I was pleased with what was going on. Of course there’s this newness of receiving Communion and then there’s, not a bad, but an ordinariness of going frequently and that of course came too. Yes, the reception of Communion has had different impacts, several levels of impact in my life. And a lot of it is dependent on, you know, candidly, a lot is dependent on sin. A lot of it is dependent on anxiety, the stress, getting out of the earthly assignments and projects . . . just wanting everything else to stop so I can have and be with. It’s more of a . . .

Fr. Michael:

Do you find it not stopping when you receive Communion or stopping? What happens in those moments?

Fr. McCandless:

Everything else just goes to 2nd or 3rd or 10th place and that’s what I hope for, that’s what I wanted. I think when I was younger I don’t think that – I didn’t live in a way that I thought my life was reflective over, you know, Lex Vivendi.

Fr. Michael:

What is Lex Vivendi for a listener that doesn’t know?

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, so Lex Vivendi, Lex Credendi is the law of prayer. It is the law of belief or the law of the church, the belief of the church. It’s a liturgical saying that we use that prioritizes how we pray, often the foundation of what we believe.

Fr. Michael:

So just to review for our listeners, Lex Orandi is As We Worship.

Fr. McCandless:

The law of prayer.

Fr. Michael:

Law of prayer and how we pray. Lex Credendi is So We Believe.

Fr. McCandless:    

The law of belief.

Fr. Michael:

The law of belief or what belief becomes of prayer and Lex Vivendi would be So We Live.

Fr. McCandless:

The daily living out.

 

Fr. Michael:

How we live it out.

Fr. McCandless:

Exactly.

Fr. Michael:

Okay, good.

Fr. McCandless:    

I didn’t have that reflection when I was in grade school or early high school of Lex Vivendi. Like what I’m doing is actually going to impact how I’m going to live but now there’s just no separation between that. It’s impossible to receive Communion, to concelebrate or celebrate Mass and to not have it be immediately connected to what I am doing. What’s on my schedule? Who do I have to see? What am I struggling with? What kind of anxieties am I going through right now? Who am I supposed to pray for again intentionally at this Mass? Who has just recently asked me for prayers in the last two hours?

Fr. Michael:

So, now it has become connected with your life.

Fr. McCandless:

Everything can be presented to God and can be remembered and touched. Everything that I need touched, everything that people had asked me to bring to God, Communion is the time where it all comes together. It all comes together. You know, confession is so key in my life because it’s the time when I believe I’m the right kind of vessel again. But in the midst of being the right kind of vessel and receiving Communion, it’s not as if all the imperfections of the world are wiped away. It’s just this is God coming and arriving now and I cannot gain work, fabricate, try to make happen, deprive myself of sleep and work harder. I can’t do anything in my own power. To ask, beg, to have things more together or complete in that moment than they are in that moment. And so, Communion is the moment of completion.

Fr. Michael:

Now you mention confession too. There are a lot of Catholics that are either turned off by confession or afraid of confession. Just because I know you, I know that you have different or maybe a more deep and more profound experience of that. Tell us about confession in terms of actually encountering God. How you encounter God through confession and how that is a type of prayer for you.

Fr. McCandless:

This is . . . Wow. In the midst of thinking about this, this really connected to scripture. So a few of the moments that are coming to mind are when the woman who was caught in adultery hears from Jesus, “Has anyone condemned you? Nor do I condemn you, go and do not sin anymore.” Peter. John 21, Peter’s confession. And, this is a watershed moment of my life. You know I am Peter. When I look at the apostles and look at the saints, I am Peter.

Fr. Michael:

Meaning what?

Fr. McCandless:

Oh, there’s just so much there. When I’m on I’m on. When I’m off I’m off, you know. In short, to keep that brief, I see myself reacting and responding in the same way that Peter reacts and responds.

Fr. Michael:

Which is?

Fr. McCandless:

I think that if Jesus would have said, “I’m going to hand myself over,” I would have said, “We can find another way around this.” And, in the end, I probably would have said in some way, “Damn it, I’m going to go to Rome. You know this needs to happen.”

Fr. Michael:

Talk about the experience of that going to confession.

Fr. McCandless:

So, when I sin, I’m helpless. I mean, sin is a trap. Imagine yourself getting caught in a trap. When we’re caught in a trap, we don’t have the same level of bodily or mental and emotional functions. You know, a limb is caught. Or our mind is going berserk. We’re literally in darkness or we feel overpowered or outwitted, so I can’t think my way out of my sin. I cannot escape the fact that I’ve sinned. And practically, you know, getting trapped and caught and outwitted by Satan begins to dull you a bit for the next temptation. So, confession is an interruption.

Confession is . . . confession is the cleaning up. It’s all the wheels have totally fallen off or at least partially fallen off. I cannot return myself back to being the conduit and the receptor of God’s grace that I was and I want to be because we often taste the sweetness of being close to God when we’re far away from it. Because we’re remembering it and confession is the cleaning. It’s the repairing. It’s the setting me up again, pointing me in the right direction. And it also has this little bit of a slap to it where it’s like, “Okay, Mike, this could be a moment where you’re just trying to be relieved of the fact that you know you did something wrong.” Right, and the angst that comes from doing something wrong. But confession is much more so now because I think of the transformation of my heart. You know, confession for me now is “Michael, let’s . . . let’s travel for a long time by a new road.”

Fr. Michael:

And it seems like it’s a freeing of yourself, you know. You talk about sin being the prison. I think that confession for you is probably an unlocking and releasing of. . .

Fr. McCandless:

It is. You know, God needs to come touch what I have done wrong. I need God in the midst looking at, seeing–however tough that is to think about–because of the sins we commit. But I want God to see, to touch, to heal and to not leave anything behind. I want Him to touch it all, you know, and to just set me free. Freedom has been a really big thing. One really quick thing about that: when I was on my diaconate retreat in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, I had what I would call a mystical experience and it is one of probably two mystical experiences that I believe I have had. But this was, although it wasn’t audible, it was just like a lightning rod right to my heart, to my mind, to my whole person. Nobody else was around. I was walking on the back part of the Jesuit Retreat House in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. I was in one of my holy hours and God simply said, “Michael, put all of these sins behind you and let’s get this party started.”

Fr. Michael:

That’s what you heard from God?

 Fr. McCandless:

That’s exactly what I heard from God. “Michael, put all of these sins behind you and let’s get this party started.” And that has actually come true so many times afterwards. It has been something I’ve returned to and it has been unlocked in a different angle frequently. I can tell you about that later on but in short, the gift of confession is the gift of continuously purging me from what wants to take me over.

Fr. Michael:

And I think confession is a sacrament and with all sacraments, we celebrate them. The phrase “let’s get this party started”, there’s a celebration there.

Fr. McCandless:

There has been.

Fr. Michael:

So confession is not a dreadful experience but an experience of celebration, of freedom, and of new life.

Fr. McCandless:    

I think that if people . . . I think that if people didn’t protect their sins or be the sole owners of who can touch their sins, I think that people would find that God is surprisingly good at being God with sin.

Fr. Michael:

People will ask, though, why can’t I just go to God? Why do I have to go to a priest?

Fr. McCandless:

It’s a common question and I don’t think that even spending a lot of time is more beneficial than spending a short amount of time on that. I look at it this way, sin happens in time and space. Let God come into time and space to remedy those sins. So, who is God’s agent in time and space? Can we in our own souls and our own persons? We’re trapped, right? Our minds are struggling. Our minds, our hearts are struggling. We’re not . . . we cannot minister to ourselves once we’ve sinned. We can’t minister to ourselves ever.

Fr. Michael:

I agree. Yeah, we can’t. We can’t minister to ourselves. We need someone else.

Fr. McCandless:    

Look at the common example of family counseling. You know, when something is happening wrong in the family, those two people don’t wake up five years later with the capability of fixing that. They need to have the conversation in time and space with the people who can aid them with that. Confession is the exact same thing, it’s more than counseling.

Fr. Michael:

And, I think people have difficulty with counseling as well, of placing their trust in another person. But, there’s something about the sacredness of priesthood and of the seal of confession, knowing that your sins are going to remain between you and the Father.

Fr. McCandless:

Completely.

Fr. Michael:

You know, I think that that allows for . . . I know for you, you can be so candid and so vulnerable and so yourself and feel safe.

Fr. McCandless:

Tom Tiffin in the seminary said that one of my greatest gifts was that I was dead honest when I struggled and that was a really, really good thing for me to hear. Because, although it has always been kind of effortless, I’ve never told myself, “Okay, you really have to be honest this time.” It just comes. I’m really transparent. The lie . . . the lie that I think is becoming more and more popular, obviously fed by Satan, is do not trust anybody. You cannot trust anybody. People are going to . . . they’re out to win you over, they’re out to hurt you. They are going to take advantage of you. And, one of the greatest Christian truths is that trust is inherent to any kind of growth. Trust me. Trust my followers. Trust the Holy Spirit who is your advocate, the counselor. We have to trust. And, why did we appoint presbyters or deacons or bishops in the early church? Or, why do we have people take Communion to the sick? People need to have trust. Confession is all about trust.

Fr. Michael:

Can you think of one moment when you felt God’s presence in confession? Can you describe that for our listeners? What that would be like or feel like?

Fr. McCandless:

Oh yeah. I was with Bob McCreary one time on retreat. I talked to him about forgiveness of sins. Previous sins, even sins that I’d been to confession for but were still in my heart having some impact. I was outside praying at Creighton College. The rain came, and I love the rain. And the rain came and it was gentle and I just put my hands and my head outside the terrace which is on the second floor. And, I just let God wash me. And, He washed my head and He washed my hands and I was done being preoccupied with that previous sin in a profound way.

Fr. Michael:

Yes, and I think with confession, we can’t get rid of our own sins as much as we think that we can. You know, I’ll often deal with people who have held on to something forever and it’s not until they finally brought it to confession and heard the words of absolution that they have finally been freed from that. So, I want to go back a little bit to your childhood and growing in development of prayer. You talked a lot about your childhood. What would be the next stage where your prayer life grew and who impacted that?

Fr. McCandless:

When I was in seventh grade, I was serving Mass most weekends. Mostly because my family went to 7:00 am Mass and there weren’t many kids my age there, so I served Mass almost every weekend. And, I would say that my sense of liturgical prayer grew at that time. My familiarity with Mass. My being close to the mysteries of the Mass. There was something that happened. My love for Mass and liturgy happened around that time in fundamental ways. Holding the book for the priest. Listening to what the priest would say. I loved serving the Easter Vigil. I loved the darkness, the light. I loved everything that went into that. So there was a liturgical sense that came. Symbolism was very important to me at that time, at that day and age. I learned about symbolism a little bit. Not near as much as I would later on, like I would in the seminary and things like that. But. . .

Fr. Michael:

But intrinsically you were learning.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, absolutely. Now, there was a time at Archbishop Hoban High School when I was involved in campus ministry and peer counseling that I began to notice the power of intercessory prayer, petitionary prayer.

Fr. Michael:

What is that for people that might not know?

Fr. McCandless:

Intercessory prayer is when one is entrusted with an intention, which is a desire, which is a need, which is a particular begging of a member or a group of members in the church. And, this person offers through their own prayer, through their own fasting, through their own works of mercy an intention to God. That is to say, they take this intention and they lift it in heart, mind, action, and soul to God, asking for His response on behalf of this other person or group of people.

Fr. Michael:

So people often say, “Father, can you pray for so and so?”

Fr. McCandless:

Bingo.

Fr. Michael:

That would be your intercessory prayer. You would take that prayer to God.

Fr. McCandless:

Mike, I need a new job. This person is really struggling with this friendship. This marriage is on the rocks. And as a priest it happens seventeen times a day, right? So many that I can’t remember them all.

Fr. Michael:

It happens all the time. But go back to that first time that intention became important.

Fr. McCandless:

So, I really began to get into conversations of how to help, encourage and support people when they struggling. That’s a lot of what campus ministry was about back in that day and age. We were learning about listening to people in the midst of their problems and pointing them to the right people to get some support. Praying for them, praying with them, we practiced praying with people. We practiced listening to people and we became, I thought, very mindful of that. Mindful of the fact that there was brokenness, even in the lives of fifteen-year-old kids. There’s a big difference between fifteen and seventeen. The problems of a fifteen-year-old and the problems of a seventeen-year-old could be the difference between “my friend doesn’t like me anymore” to “I think I’m pregnant.” So there are these moments of taking upon your own shoulders at least listening to these people. That was a key thing, the hurt of the church. The community of the church became present to me in high school.

Fr. Michael:

Is there someone that taught you how to do that or did you just wind up doing it?

Fr. McCandless:

A lot of it is peers, I think. From older peers who really wanted to be helpful, and I think a lot of it was. I don’t know if I had a great mentor at that time for that particular kind of prayer or that particular kind of ministry. That would probably come later on.

Fr. Michael:

Well, let’s talk about later on. Have there been any good mentors in your life that have helped you grow in your prayer life?

Fr. McCandless:

One of the first people that ever taught me how to pray with more fervor, giving me more understanding along the way, was a guy that we were in seminary with, Steve McCormick. Steve was so good though. Steve was a year older than me and he was already in the seminary. I began to play on a softball team with Steve and got to know him through some different church events. But, Steve introduced me to the Blessed Mother. Steve introduced me to discipline and prayer. Steve challenged me. At that point in time I’m eighteen/nineteen years old and I wasn’t getting challenged with daily prayer, scriptural time with prayer or an encounter with scripture in my prayer. Silence. Praying a rosary. Learning the Chaplet. Having time for intentional time to come close to Our Lord. He taught me a lot of that. And when I got into the seminary, numerous mentors came on the scene but up to that point in time, Steve was one of the best mentors that I had. In fact, he still remains in some respect a mentor for me because he has the right blend of passion and he’s fervent; he learns and his excitement is more than mine. It’s one of those moments where a really passionate person is teaching a very passionate person.

Fr. Michael:

It’s very evident. It’s almost like a spark. His spark helped spark you. But what I want to highlight and think is so important to people in prayer life is that discipline and accountability. So often we don’t like those words, but the word disciple comes from discipline.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes.

Fr. Michael:

For us to have a real rich, deep prayer life, we do need to have a discipline. The catechism says that prayer doesn’t just happen. We have to make the time for prayer. So, we have to actually discipline ourselves. What I think is so wonderful is God provided you with some kind of accountability, a friend that would just check in with you and challenge you to make sure that you were praying. So, I think that sounds like a wonderful growth in your prayer life and it came through a brother seminarian. Maybe he didn’t even know that he was doing that.

Fr. McCandless:

I think that you’re right. I think that he just sought me and my growth and my closeness to God and he did that with other men too. He was truly a good friend and he still is, you know, he and his wife. And in fact, I married he and his wife. Interesting how he supplied to me the initial sparks of the next level of devout prayer and I supplied for him the priestly blessing of blessing he and his wife.

Fr. Michael:

What a wonderful story. He did give me his set of breviaries when he left the seminary. So, Steve, I still pray with them.

Fr. McCandless:

He still lives on.

Fr. Michael:

He still lives on. So it seems like Steve really did help you take your prayer life to another level. Are there any other moments in your life where you can remember your prayer life going to another level?

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, several come to mind. So, I was talking to you earlier about confession, about liturgy, about the sense of the church becoming much bigger and me connected to it, especially in high school. I call this my first real confession. When I was a junior and I was about to be confirmed, I went to confession. I know who the priest is. He’s still a priest in our diocese. I went to confession with this priest and in my heart I knew that I had not vocalized and made available or talked about probably a couple of sins of my life up to that point.

My whole conscience was being developed about these sins needing to be touched and vocalized. I remember painstakingly going through this confession and this priest was so good. He was so gentle. He was so able to lead me in the direction of “what else do you think the Lord wants you to share, that He wants to touch?” And, it was interesting that he used that phrase “the Lord will touch all of your sins.” He can touch and heal everything. That was my first real confession where sins that had been in my life, in my growing awareness, were disrupting my love of the church and disrupting me and disrupting the people around me. I confessed them. That was what I called my first real confession.

Fr. Michael:

Yeah, I think that that gives us a wonderful illustration of how a priest led you through that darkness and through sins that you weren’t even aware of and again freed you. Christ freed you in that sacrament.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, he led me to not be afraid to say whatever I felt was in the way. There it is.

Fr. Michael:

Wonderful. You talked a little bit about Mary. I want to hear from you. So, part of what I love to do with people is get them to experience this personal relationship with God. With the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother. Is Mary real to you?

Fr. McCandless:

Yes. That’s an interesting question for me right now in several ways. The Blessed Mother has always been in my life. My Mom went through a divorce with my Dad when I was young and my Mom cared for me in memorable ways as a single parent. I saw my Dad. It was a good relationship and I grew over time to see him more but my Mom memorably took care of me when I was younger. So the image of being taken care of by om is in me.

Mary was one who I prayed the rosary with, or I prayed it because I believed that she wanted me to. These were moments I’d be going back to Steve, when I was learning to put on devotional prayer. I think those were good and I believe that at times she needed to be honored. She needed to be recognized. She needed to be shown thanks and gratitude. The request that God made of her was one kind of naming the systematic things that she did or practical things that she did of being willing to accept God’s challenge of bearing His Son. All those were worth honor, but now things are different. Not that they’ve changed from that, I believe all of these things; now Mary is, and I want her to be, more my spiritual mother and companion throughout the day. I made a Marian Consecration about a year ago.

Fr. Michael:

For people that may not know, there’s Marian Consecration you can make called the Total Consecration to Mary by St. Louis-Marie de Montfort. Also a tribute is today’s 33 Days to Morning Glory. Tell us about this.

Fr. McCandless:

Sure, a brief introduction. A Marian Consecration has actually been a long practice within the church. Devotion of offering my life, my works, the graces that God gives me to live out, offering all of these in return to the Blessed Mother because she has made herself a full sacrifice to God. I offer them to her, to the Father, but through her as the spouse of the Holy Spirit. This consecration oftentimes is preceded by days of prayer, oftentimes over a month. I followed Fr. Michael Gaitley’s Consecration to Mary. I’ll be very candid, I’ve wanted to give myself over to Mary in a way where she had my whole body. She had my whole body physically where she could be an intercessor for me and my whole body. She could be an intercessor for me as a priest where she would also walk with me as a priest. She would be one who reminded me that I was a priest and I could live so little time not being connected to Jesus Christ and not being connected to God. It’s like inviting a near spouse into your life as a priest especially when you ask Mary to be close.

Fr. Michael:

I think many priests would say that Mary guards and protects our chastity.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, she does. Two thoughts, and this is going back to the original question of just how she’s played a role in my life. Again, there are stages here, right, Mike? One of the stages that has happened in the last couple of years is this openness to Marian Consecration. The other thing that’s happened is that I have met most of the profound women in my life over the last couple of years’ time. I’ve met sisters, religious sisters especially, from Christ the Bridegroom Monastery, the Byzantine Monastery in Parma. I’ve met the Mercedarian Sisters from the Diocese of Cleveland. They have convents throughout the US, but a fantastic group of postulants, novices, and sisters in Cleveland. I have worked with various religious women whose personal stories I have gotten to know just because of the privilege of being a vocation director in the diocese. It works hand in hand. Literally, I’ve had to listen, work with different orders. Their experience to me, their example to me in sharing their experiences with me (I was just telling Steve Flynn this earlier today). It’s like having Mary incarnate in my life and the Blessed Mother is the image of the church, right? The womb of the Blessed Mother is the church. This is where the church has grown and fed inside the womb of the Blessed Mother. I look at these women or I look at women who are married and I see Mary in all of them. It’s evident when they talk about being a spiritual mother if they are a religious sister. How they talk about bearing fruit. They would long to have a family but those longings are just overwhelmed by the longing of wanting to be a maternal spiritual figure to many children. I see Mary in them and them in Mary, and I see this image of the church alive and growing and feminine. Very feminine. You know, that C. S. Lewis line “In God’s eyes, we’re all feminine” in the respect that we all need to receive. We all need to have openness and willingness to receive, but women do it without trying.

Fr. Michael:

I think they have very much received you. You have found a place. You have allowed yourself to be mothered, as you said, incarnationally in the flesh by these women. So, it very much seems like that has enfleshed your notion of who Mary is.

Fr. McCandless:

So, one of the things that has happened (yes to all of that). . one of the things that has happened is that my knowledge and my understanding, my wisdom has grown through the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother helping me to grow in the wisdom, knowledge and understanding of the goodness of femininity. I believe that the Blessed Mother has impacted an intercession over my whole being: my soul, my mind, my physical body. I find that in giving myself to her, I don’t feel like I’m able to be taken easily by anything in the world. If I’ve given and dedicated myself to her, then how can I let myself be taken?

Fr. Michael:

Nor will she let you be taken.

Fr. McCandless:

I believe that. The other thing is, as one of the fruits (obviously there’s a fruit), there’s a connection here with real genuine women in my life. I have had women friends in my life before, but in this stage of God revealing His goodness in giving me these women friends, in the last couple of years especially, God is incarnationally coming to me through the friendships of good women. Married, religious, single. I’m able to be a priest and a man for them and they want only the purest . . . they want Mike without obstacles, and I want to give that freely to them and not have anything in the way. So, just the friendship of women and the women that are connected to Mary in my life has brought about a really important desire for me to be a purely priestly sacrifice for them in my life.

Fr. Michael:

That’s wonderful. I think, again, God blessed you with companions, maternal companions this time. Steve was a brotherly fraternal companion in the seminary. Right now, at this moment, He’s given you these mother figures both married and religious in really helping you be what you’re called to be and who you’re called to be. So wonderful. I haven’t heard some of these stories and how God does work through people, His church. People always ask, “Why do we have to go to church?” I think you’re helping us understand God works through people and especially through the people of His church to bring us closer to Him.

So, you’ve talked about Mary. Tell us about the Trinity, God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Who do you pray to? How do you relate to . . . is God real to you?

Fr. McCandless:

Okay. On retreat with Msgr. John Esseff about two years ago and he was talking about the love that the Father has with him. How the Father is with him all the time and I said, “Okay, Msgr., just describe that to me.” He said, “Mike” and he holds his hand right over his head and he keeps making this gesture of . . . as if there is a constant exchange between the Father and him . . . a constant presence, a constant voice, a constant exchange, a constant dialogue. He just kind of keeps moving his hand over his head as if there is something being received all the time between him and the Father. He goes, “The Father is right here. The Father is right here. Always. He is never not with me.”

That cracked things open. I knew that God dwelled in me. I knew that He wanted to be within me. I knew that He and His son would want to make their place within me and to dine with me to use the lines from scripture. But, it is like the words of Brother Lawrence practicing the constant presence of God and it is in the fact that God is always here. God does not leave me when I drive down the road. God does not leave me when I feel like I am against the wall and things are being asked of me. God does not leave me when I do not think that I have anything to preach on Sunday. . .preach or offer on Sunday morning. God is there. God is accessible. God is always there. Now, when I sin, I sin because I let that go. I forget it. I forget it. Or I forget to return. Or I think I try to minimalize that. I try to say, oh God is not really there.

Fr. Michael:

I love that because it is a much different intimate feeling then. Some of the older generation, my father’s generation, your father’s generation, have this experience of God that He is always watching over you, waiting for you to do something wrong. What you have just illustrated is that God is this loving presence, like monsignor gestured. For me, I thought a blessing was there. Just blessing you lovingly. You can go to Him for anything. Not a situation in your life that He is not right there ready to help you.

Fr. McCandless:

The Holy Spirit is very key for me.

Fr. Michael:

Yes, talk about the Spirit because that is a very illusive person in the Trinity for people.

Fr. McCandless:

I can talk about the Spirit for a long time. So, in short, the Spirit is the animator. The giver of life. I love that phrase. And life means many, many things. Whether you read St. Ignatius of Loyola or you read the saints, life means many, many things – but we can get into that. The Spirit animates me, grants me perseverance, literally does not just grant it to me but activates it within. He activates fortitude in me. He activates the ability to confront a difficult temptation. He activates within me at that moment the ability to meet the next challenge. I have to accept it. I have to participate. The Spirit is the giver of life. He animates.

I always think of this opposite image: if you go to Dante’s Inferno, the lowest level of hell is the cavern not of fire, it is the cavern of ice. If you look at the most original depictions of this from Dante’s Inferno, it is not an inferno in the very bottom, it is a cavern of ice. Satan is entrapped in this ice that he is constantly beating with his wings, freezing it all over again. Stuck, dejected, looking in on himself. Just totally using, gnawing, and taking advantage of the people that he has collected. He is self-abusive and he is eating and feasting upon people that he has brought to himself. He is wretched and he is paralyzed. He is paralyzed.

In that moment, after spiritually praying over that for a number of years, I realized that Satan wants ultimate paralysis. The Spirit oppositely must be the fullness of animation. Animation is different than paralysis, it is its opposite and in that moment the Spirit is the animator, any time. It is so subtle that we begin to slow down. That we begin to kind of let ourselves get tranquilized whether it is through sin or the occasion of sin. The Spirit is there to say okay let us get back, let us express the strength, let us express the wisdom, let us go back to the memories of consolation. That is another thing the Spirit is. The Spirit is energy. Literally, the Spirit is energizing, animating so whatever gives us life and breath and fire and action like wind. That is why the Spirit is depicted as these things because we are going to move. We are going to be stronger. We are going to confront. We are going to step around. We are going to make the effort to go forward despite the fact of what Satan’s paralysis is trying to make us do in the moment. The Spirit is extremely capable.

Fr. Michael:

What is so evident, as you’re saying this, is the Spirit is the operator. The Spirit is the one that initiates the movement in you. Maybe without you even realizing it. As you are talking, I’m thinking about Confirmation, that these gifts are in you and the Spirit animates them without you with even knowing that you need it or that you are ready for it. It seems like you are describing that it just happens.

Fr. McCandless:

Yes, there are two ways we can take that. One, I would really be a sorry self-operator. I mean, wouldn’t all of us? I don’t know what to do next sometimes so you say, ”Come, Holy Spirit.” Come, interrupt me right now. Actually, I think Jesus is the interrupter. The Spirit is the one that now is going to use our humanity and enter our humanity in a unique way for this particular moment of time and space.

Fr. Michael:

So, you have talked about Mary, you have talked about the Father, and you have talked about the Holy Spirit. Tell us about your experience in prayer with Jesus.

Fr. McCandless:

I remember one day I was on retreat and I began saying the Jesus prayer. I had always kind of felt a little bit out of sorts beginning a time of meditation or contemplation, so I was trying to move into that time. A beginner’s outlook of how do I make this time right. How do I get into this time right?

Fr. Michael:

What is the Jesus prayer?

Fr. McCandless:

The Jesus prayer is . . . it is very old. It is an ancient prayer. It often follows the line that is taken from scripture between the penitent and the Pharisee where the penitent is in the back beating his breast saying, “Lord God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

The Jesus prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Or variations as in “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the most high God, have mercy on me a sinner,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me for I’ve just committed sin,” or “Lord Jesus Christ, grant me the graces that I need for this particular moment.” So, it can be adapted but the original Jesus prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.” That prayer just came to me on retreat. Not that I did not know it or had not heard it before, but it kind of inserted itself into my prayer at that moment. That is the means to come to Jesus Christ directly and which begins or sometimes ends or re-directs me during private prayer.That gateway for me is the Jesus prayer. Does not matter where I am at. If I am outside praying in nature. If I am at the chapel at the seminary. If I am at a parish before I do a vocation weekend. I go right to the Jesus prayer.

Fr. Michael:

And does He come to you?

Fr. McCandless:

It is never just words. It is never just words. Often I will hold a crucifix. I carry a small Benedictine cross with me all the time. Sometimes I wear it but most of the time I carry it so it is easily accessible in my pocket. I use this so frequently when I pray the Jesus prayer or when I am going into private prayer. Jesus has brought me a very ancient, frequently honored prayer that collects me, centers me, and disposes me so I can move into Lexi Divina. Jesus is an interrupter.

Fr. Michael:

When you say that, what does that mean?

Fr. McCandless:

It has several different implications. For me, Jesus has been the one that has worked through other people to help me think about priesthood and seminary. Jesus comes to me in the midst of, and has come to me before, in the midst of temptations or when I have sinned. Jesus interrupts when I’ve sinned. Jesus interrupts if I might be doing something on the way to sin. Jesus interrupts the good so that He can have more. He nudges. Jesus interrupts frequently. I’ll be in the midst of doing something in the seminary, like in the vocation office . . . I am ready to make the next phone call and bam! Nope, daytime prayer is coming to mind. It is not like daytime, this certain set of prayers in my breviary that I have to pray. No, it is daytime prayer so I can be united and connected to Christ and I can pray for His church. So, these moments of invitation and interruption are how Jesus gets my gaze.

Fr. Michael:

That is beautiful how he gets your gaze. I think that is a beautiful personal, real experience of Jesus and gazing into His eyes. His gazing into yours and you gazing into His.

Fr. McCandless:

My favorite icon is the Pantokrator.

Fr. Michael:

Tell us what that is.

Fr. McCandless:

Icons. We call them windows to heaven. We call them living scripture. They are from early in the church as well, but icons have been frequently used in all the sects of Catholicism. They are frequently used in liturgy and private prayer for Eastern Catholics, often for Latin Catholics too. Icons are specific moments of scripture or people of the faith: Christ, Mary, angels, different saints wherein something is revealed within this icon about the Lord.

Pantokrator is the omnipotent teacher, the great teacher and he is holding a book of the gospels. There is one version of Jesus Christ, the Pantokrator, that I really enjoy. It is the first icon I ever received and He is looking, He is gazing at you. No matter how you look at the icon, He is looking at you and He is holding the book of gospels, which is not only a sign of authority, but He is the holder of all truth, life and freedom. So the gaze of Jesus is key. It is also key too when I talk to guys about vocations like priesthood or women when we talk about religious life. It is the gaze of Jesus that was evidently a part of all of His calling of the disciples. He is not just looking at Peter and Andrew kicking stones around and saying like, you guys, drop your nets. He is looking at them like drop your nets and follow after Me. That gaze has to be a part of it.

Going back to Christ, the interrupter, it is funny that Jesus reminds me more now to pray than when I was younger. It is like He wants me more. Wants me more frequently. I still struggle with that. Prayer for me . . . I like prayer, I like the idea of prayer. I can read on prayer and I like reading on prayer. I can hear other peoples’ prayer and I like hearing about other peoples’ prayer and I can have spiritual conversations with people, listening to them and getting some guidance. My struggle with Jesus Christ is that I often want to do things and I haven’t completely accepted the belief, at least in my actions, that being with God is first and above.

The image of Jesus as divine, who comes to His disciples, gives them the Holy Spirit and chases after them in the upper room and then chases after them again at the Sea of Tiberius. . . Jesus goes to ultimate lengths to chase after us. That is what He is doing with me right now. He is chasing after me to say, “Look, Mike, kiddo, brother, just be with Me. I’ll make sure you get everything else done. I’ll make sure you get it all done, Mike.” Guess what, there will be some things that you don’t. You know what, I didn’t need those things anyway. Why don’t you trust Me? Why don’t you trust Me, Mike?

Fr. Michael:

It reminds me of Martha and Mary. Martha who is busy with doing many things and Mary, as Jesus says, sits at His feet, is with Him, has chosen a better part. It is wonderful to hear you talk about that struggle because I have seen it where you struggle with being alone with Him. What advice would you give to somebody that does want to pray, maybe even has some idea of how to pray, but struggles with actually praying?

Fr. McCandless:

I feel like this is an Ignatian moment because Ignatius says, “Within your own spiritual life, it is good to imagine yourself giving counsel to a third party with discernment.” In this particular moment of prayer, I would like to use the fewest amount of words as possible because I don’t think that more words is going to help somebody. Just like with prayer. More knowledge about prayer, more methods of prayer does not make you a better prayer. I think it is as simple as this. Trust that what you have not trusted before. Maybe you have trusted your own mind. Maybe you have trusted your own ability to talk yourself in or out or through a situation. Maybe you are very reliant on your own logic. Maybe you rely on whatever it may be. Do not rely on anything. Put your reliance out there in a way where it is extending you beyond yourself and trust that God is there. It is not impersonal. It is a personal reliance. It is using different prayers or it is moving through different prayers maybe, but place yourself with God. Let your heart rely. Prayer ultimately is an act of faith, of trust, therefore reliance. What happens is God’s way of catching, or needing us, or being with us, often comes not by relieving boredom or leaving the doubts that this time might be fruitless (because we have that sometimes} but it comes in the way that we approach whatever comes immediately after. Who comes immediately after or the way we had approached that previously. God is now with us more where all things look differently and we look differently ourselves afterwards. Trust that which you haven’t trusted before.

Fr. Michael:

As we come to the end of this interview, one of the things I love to do is ask priests what advice they would give to somebody who wants to further develop their prayer life. I think it would be neat to hear from you what you encourage guys to do specifically that are thinking about the priesthood. What advice do you give to them to pray?

Fr. McCandless:

One of the phrases I use is basically an Ignatian spinoff. My role as a vocation director, my role as a priest and as a man before I’m a vocation director, is to help another towards clarity, confidence and courage to act. Whatever it may be. A guy is called to get married and not into the seminary, fantastic. If there is clarity, confidence and courage to act, beautiful. Towards the seminary, wonderful. Just plain and simple, if a guy is not praying, then conversation with him is just going to feel aimless. There is no foundation. There is no rock there. “Fr. Mike, I have not prayed in three months.” Let us get you praying first. Make sure that you are going to Mass if you are not.

Fr. Michael:

What would that be like when you get us praying?

Fr. McCandless:

Often the most practical way sounds like let us try to shoot for 10 or 15 minutes of silence a day where you include some scripture. I might introduce them to Praying Like a Pirate. I may introduce them to Lexi Divina. I often will give them a packet on prayer by Jesuit priests that I use. I will sometimes give them the book Time for God by Father Jacques Philippe. I actually have packets of individual prayers for them. Some prayers on vocation. I will also use Jardine’s prayer Trust of Slow Growth that he wrote in the early 1900s. I have books to give them. So it is as simple as that. Now it is let us make the time. Then I will often say, if they are not meeting with their pastor, will they meet with their pastor and talk about prayer and manhood and seminary stories.

The most fundamental way that I can jumpstart a guy in his discernment is if he is not praying to give him practicals to help him and point him towards the right people and to get him meeting with those people. If he is talking to me, ninety some percent of the time he has a prayer life. It includes some practicals. It includes people. It includes resources. Asking him to trust, to have the intimate time that he needs. We talk about that pretty frequently when we get together. Almost all of the time, that is my first question when I meet with a guy individually. I will spend five, six, ten hours individually with guys throughout the week sometimes. My first question is often “So how has your prayer been for the last two, four, six weeks?”

Fr. Michael:

That is a good question to leave our listeners with. How has your prayer been? Thank you Father Michael for this time of faith sharing with you. I got to hear a lot of stories I really did not even know about. It has been wonderful to sit with you and hear your personal relationship with Mary, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How you as a priest have grown in your prayer life. Do you want to give our listeners a blessing?

Fr. McCandless:

Let us pray. Generous Father, You are always present with us. Lord Jesus Christ who accompanies God, speak to us. Holy Spirit who comes to give life the very invitation to act, we ask You for Your blessing on all those trying to grow in faith. We ask for Your blessing upon those that are listening and those that are growing in faith. Locally, for those in church, for those that are far. In intercession to the Blessed Mother we have perpetual help in victory, Lord. May the blessing be upon you all in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Fr. Michael:

Once more I want to thank Father Michael McCandless, Vocation Director of the Diocese of Cleveland, for joining us today.

 

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