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Hi, I’m Father Michael Denk and I’m here with Father Bob McCreary, a Capuchin priest of the Franciscan Order. I’m so blessed to be with Father Bob as I’ve known him for years. He was my Master’s Director in the seminary for my thesis. The time that I got to spend with him was wonderful. What I’ve always loved about Father Bob McCreary is his love for the Lord, especially his deep passion for prayer. He’s one of the few people that I can just talk to about prayer and get excited about actually sharing these wonderful deep experiences of God. I’m with Father Bob now and am looking forward to him sharing his prayer journey with all of our listeners.

 

Father Michael:

Welcome, Father Bob. Those that are listening might not even know what a Capuchin priest is. Can you say a little bit about that?

Father Bob:

Capuchins are a reform of the Franciscan order. We are a community that very strongly emphasizes fraternity among ourselves and fraternity to people in the world. We are strongly contemplative in our prayer life that we are faithful to, and we are faithful to praying contemplative prayer and trying to be prayerful brothers in that.

Father Michael:

Tell us where you’re from and what your first experiences or memories are of prayer or encountering God.

Father Bob:

I am from a small town outside of Pittsburgh, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. My father and my mother were very devout Catholics, and we were taught to pray from early on. My most striking memory which continually comes back to me is when my father, a doctor, was out taking care of people because they did house calls in those days, and it was storming. My mother lit a candle in front of the image of our Blessed Mother and all of us little children gathered around to pray for my dad’s safety as he was taking care of somebody. That’s my most striking image. I would have been maybe four years old at that time. My father later became sick with an infection they couldn’t stop (they didn’t have penicillin yet) and so our family started to go to daily Mass when I was in fifth grade. We went to daily Mass every day and prayed for my dad. Eventually, they found penicillin after three years of a rather terrible illness. The penicillin cured my dad, which was very interesting for me because later on, when my dad was actually dying, I was called to come from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh. I remember leaning over my dad’s bed. My mother said to me, “You should kiss your father,” which embarrassed me. I should have done that without her telling me to do that. Then I anointed him and I prayed over him that the Lord would not keep him alive because of our family because he had been a wonderful father, but keep him alive because he had been such a witness for pro-life as a doctor. Actually, the doctors gave him up for dead but he was healed after the prayer of the church and the anointing and lived for fifteen or twenty more years. So, those are experiences that were very powerful for me.

I had an uncle priest and an aunt, a nun, and they had a gigantic influence on me. They both had joyful and yet devout lives so I learned to be a prayerful guy. And then for years I served Mass in the morning as a little boy. We lived one block away from the church and I used to run down past the scary trees that cast shadows to get to church to be with the Lord and receive Holy Communion. My father also was such an example of prayer that one time he went to communion– I didn’t go to communion yet so I would have been about five–and when he came back from communion he knelt down with his head in his hands and I thought, as a little boy, I said, “He believes.” Then my dad would always take us on Holy Thursday to three churches and then three relatives. I always wondered why I stood beside this glass-blowing great-uncle of mine every Holy Thursday. I was just a little boy looking up at this gigantically big man and I said, ”What the heck am I doing here?” Later on I understood. My dad taught me if you receive the Lord you need to receive the people who are troubled or difficult. That was the spirit of my mom and dad. They helped all kinds of people.

I worked in a factory where grandfather was the vice president. I was a teenager at that time. All kinds of people came to me in the factory to tell me how my mom and dad had helped them. I was so edified by them for things they did that I had not known. It was the Eucharistic understanding that we had; after we prayed the Eucharist, we’d go to help people. So that was my background. I went to a Catholic high school—a Benedictine high school—St. Vincent Preparatory in Latrobe, where we had daily Mass and prayed the Rosary. I was a high school football player and had the opportunity to play college football, but I decided I should go and study for the priesthood, which I did. I entered the Capuchin order. One of the reasons I entered the Capuchin order was because the Capuchins were right in the next town over from where I grew up. They had a small parish there that they took care of. The friars there took my dad to poor people’s houses so the people would not be overlooked for the medical needs they had. That also impacted me to want to join an order that serves poor people, which is one of the charisms that we try to do ourselves.   From there I went to the seminary. It was a beautiful seminary.

Father Michael:

When you went in, I always like to ask people, how did you know the call? Did you have a moment when you felt that . . .

Father Bob:

Well, I felt attracted to be like my uncle, who was a priest. Because my uncle was such a joyful priest—he really was—and our house was full of priests and nuns, I mean. My aunt would come—in fact, my aunt would come with a partner. In fact, at my ordination I think she brought the prettiest Dominican in the whole world, and I told my aunt, “Don’t bring her again.” But anyhow, I was very influenced by my aunt and uncle, and my mom and dad’s prayerfulness. Then in the Capuchins we would always spend an hour, that was required in our constitution, so we‘d spend an hour or even more if we had time to do that every day.

Father Michael:

When would you say you kind of began your prayer life or your spiritual life on your own terms? As a child you were very much formed by your parents, but then at some point, it becomes you.

Father Bob:

Well, I had an experience for that. When I was at the seminary, and I was not completely happy when I first went to the seminary, I knelt down at my desk. I would have been eighteen years old now and I knelt down at my desk and I said, ”You better get a heck of a lot more real if you want me to hang around here.” So that was the prayer that really struck me. And then I read the life of St. Therese of Lisieux and a book by Thomas Merton on his seminary days. I remember making a book report on that to the class. The Sign of Jonas* is the name of the book of his early seminary days. And I said that was an answer to my prayer because I could see for Merton and for Therese, God was very real. And so I passed over to that; God is very real and I didn’t just pray because I was told to pray or received it from my parents, but it was mine now.

Father Michael:

So, regarding experiencing God for real, Karl Rahner** says, “In the days ahead we will all either become mystics or despair.” He defines the word mystic as “one who experiences God for real.” That’s really my passion and desire, to help people experience that. So you prayed that.   You said, “God, you better become real for me.” And then, tell me about that process of Him becoming real. Was it through the reading of the lives of the saints?

Father Bob:

Yes, all my life I read. I always read a life of the saints or a holy person, and it’s in reading them that I say, “I wish I had that.” I’ve developed a motto which is, “If it can happen to one, it can happen to two.” What I meant by that is the awakening of my own heart for the Lord was imaged by people who went ahead of me and who found the Lord to be very real. If you read Therese’s life, she’s just remarkably alive in that, with wisdom and grace. Also, St. Francis. We studied Francis and we were taught how to pray like Francis would pray. We would especially love to pray on Christ and put our emphasis on Christ. That has been really helpful for me. When I made final vows, I was twenty-one at perpetual vows, I spent three hours praying before a crucifix and tried to give myself entirely to the Lord. That became sort of a pattern for me, praying before the crucifix. That wasn’t the San Damiano Crucifix that Francis prayed in front of, but since then it’s the San Damiano Crucifix. I’ve prayed before that crucifix. Actually, for Francis praying before the crucifix, was that Francis understood how graciously God looked at him from the cross. Not condemning. Francis was a sinner. He didn‘t feel condemned by the Lord but he felt that he was blessed by the Lord with kindness. Francis says, “When I was in sin it was too bitter a thing for me even to see lepers, but the Lord let me amongst them and what before was bitter was turned to sweetness of body and soul.” And that’s the only biographical sentence Francis ever wrote. He wrote many beautiful prayers and many letters but that’s the one sentence we have where he describes his life. He was made happy in contemplating the gracious Christ and then moving to contemplate his brothers and his sisters in need because they were connected very much. It’s like Francis prayed in front of the cross because Christ was given, and then—this is the language of John Paul II—then, what Francis would do, is give himself, as Christ gave Himself to him, he gave himself to the people of God. His love was remarkably universal. He went to see even the Muslims. He did not love the crusades. He hated the crusades. He went to Egypt and, when a terrible battle happened where the Christians killed many, many Muslims, he was very upset by that. He gave himself even to the Muslims. He went and talked to the main Muslim chief. And he showed love to the pope when no one did, or to the priests who were in sin.

Father Michael:

So as you went through your time of formation in the Capuchins, or even as you became a young priest, were there moments where God became real to you in your prayer life?

Father Bob:

Yes. I mean many times. For me, the glance down from the cross of Christ crucified is not just an image when I pray in front of the crucifix. It’s because I know He’s looking. For Francis it’s the same look I receive, the gracious look of Christ. I’ve had many experiences of that and the result of it. The gracious look of Christ that I want to have. . . I’ve been in a mission over by Australia, in our mission in Papua, New Guinea, and I have met all kinds of people all over the world that I want to show the gracious look of Christ to, but I keep coming back. I wrote a paper one time on the Lord. It is five characteristics of God’s love. People asked me if I could write something about how I understand God based on scripture. First, love. I don’t love Him first, He loves me first. And this is love. Not that we love God, but He loves us and gives His son in reparation for our sins. This is John’s epistle. So first love, fresh love. Karl Rahner–the first thing he ever wrote as a young seminarian was in a parish bulletin where he talked about Christmas, about His son showing how perpetually young God’s love is, and how it’s reborn again. First love, fresh love, forgiving love. The Prodigal Son, forever love, as scripture is forever; and the last one is fierce love, that He can ask difficult things of us. Saints receive that, too.

Father Michael:

So, what’s the affective experience? What does it feel like to have Christ look at you?

Father Bob:

That’s a good question, and I feel that in my morning meditation that I do, the hour that I spend every morning, is basically on God’s love for me. I feel that I receive his gracious love in such a way that I want to give him everything. I have a motto that I wrote on my 25th year as a priest. Now this year I’m 60 years a priest so I’m no spring chicken. But the motto I wrote was, “Abba, Father, everyone, everything, everywhere.” Everyone’s chastity, everywhere’s obedience, and everything is part of it. I want to give myself to the Lord. What comes out of being convinced that somebody really loves you is you want to give yourself to the Lord. The Lord wants us to give ourselves to the Lord. It’s adoration. Love leads to adoration. Adoration leads to everything, everyone, everywhere. My instinct every morning is to make my prayer more real for the Lord. That I want to love my brothers more fervently. I want whatever happens to me for me to accept it. That’s all that comes from that. If I have a moment of, I’m thinking out loud now, but there are three things that happen, it seems to me. That if I receive the Lord’s love, then I will feel something in my heart that wants to give everything. Secondly, I will feel a presence that is more real than any moment with another person. It’s real, it’s really presence. And, I feel that there is like a song in my heart.

Augustine, when he said, “What is it that I do when I love my God?” I follow that pretty much because there are five things that Augustine said. “When I love my God it’s a certain embrace, it’s a certain melody, it’s a certain beauty, it’s a certain touch, and aroma.” So he takes the five senses. Each of the five senses represents the experience of the Lord. When I was young and I was a novice, we were told that the Holy Spirit really dwells in our hearts. We have a practice of adoring the Blessed Sacrament by kissing the floor. But then I thought, if the Holy Spirit is in my heart, then I need to kiss the floor before the Holy Spirit, which I did. After working in the garden, I’d come in and take a shower and kiss the floor in my room. I do that every morning now. I kiss the floor as adoration to the Holy Spirit in me. So it’s all sort of intertwined, but those are part of what I think we do. I made the other three points; I’ll add a fourth. You just become more prayerful during the day. If you have a moment that’s quiet, you just fall into the moment and adore the Lord. Adoration is really the authentic prayer that you give everything, no defenses. And at the same time there is an ever-deepening act of contrition that goes on. The adoration takes the form of contrition. It’s called compunction, that I’m punctured by the Lord’s mercy, and celebrating his mercy. I’ve worked a lot with women who have had abortions, and I came to know how wonderful the Prodigal Son is when the prodigal son comes back and the father embraces the prodigal son. I asked a friend of mine who had had an abortion, “What should I say when I preach at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception?” She said, “Well, what did the son hear when the father embraced him?” And she said, “What the son heard was music in the heart of God.” So, when we confess our sins, we’re singing a song into the heart of God, our sins. They’re not sins committed, they’re sins confessed. That melody is in the Father’s mercy to me, but it’s also my melody to Him, and rejoicing in the mercy of God. That is really an important part of how I look at things.

Father Michael:

We all struggle, I think, with going to God in our sin. I think people feel they have to get rid of their sin first before they can go to God. The reality is that we need to bring everything that we are. I feel that a lot of times before exposition, before adoration, that He’s so open, that it brings about an openness in me as well.

Father Bob:

Yes, that’s right.

Father Michael:

So we talked about God personally, and you talked about this in terms of Christ. In terms of personally relating to God, one of the things I love helping people see is that prayer is not just about saying prayers but actually being in a relationship with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Can you talk a little about your experience with the persons of the Holy Trinity?

Father Bob:

Yes, John Paul II has written something very, very beautiful, which is that we are made in the image of the Blessed Trinity, and the Blessed Trinity is persons giving themselves to the other. The Father gives Himself to the Son. John Paul says that the Father gave Himself to the Son so profoundly that were He not God, He would disappear because He gave the Son everything that He had. Then the Father and the Son in their mutual love for the Holy Spirit is given. They are given. And John Paul talks about a person is somebody given. So in our communion with God, we are called to make communion with the people of God. So when we enter into communion with them we are entering into this sharing of gracious love and mercy and grace and so on. I love John Paul’s understanding that I am, as a person in the image of the Trinity, I need to give myself, too. That’s where you have the intrinsic receiving myself as a gift and giving myself as a gift. You see the interrelationship between contemplation and ministry of self-giving. I want to give myself. And I want to give myself in such a way that I am an image of the Father giving. I am a father or mother image and then I am an image of the Son, and the man anointed by the Holy Spirit. They all kind of fit together that way, it seems.

Father Michael:

What’s the father like, or mother?

Father Bob:

The Father is more. . . Abba is Jesus’ word. He used the word Abba, which is not just Father. It is dear, gracious, loving Father. Christ lived in that gracious relationship, even onto the cross when He said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Father, forgive them. Father, take this cup away from Me.” It’s always super gracious Father. I had a father who really was a beautiful father so I’m blessed. I think my responsibility is to be as a father to people who don’t have a father like that. And that’s one of the beauties of the priesthood and religious life in different ways. Francis also had a terrible father who disowned him and spit on him, and yet he said I have a Father in heaven. I think God as Father is someone who always has blessings for us. Even if we make mistakes He has blessings for us, and forgives us even the worst sins. The Little Flower, St. Therese, says, ”If I committed every sin in the world I still would have recourse for His mercy for me.” She understood that, how really beautiful that is. On the other hand St. Therese had such pain with tuberculosis that she felt some suicidal feelings, apparently, because she asked for all metals to be removed from her room. And Therese is so beautiful because she had a tremendously close relationship with her father, and she took that over to God the Father when she was a child. She said, “Rich people have elevators but I have a father who carries me up the stairs.” That notion of her father is such an important part of her life.

Father Michael:

When I did my master’s thesis it was on Misology and the Mystics and you continued to focus me on the humanity of Christ. In terms of prayer, how does that impact your prayer? How do you pray with and to Jesus?

Father Bob:

That’s a good question because I was thinking recently that if I pray to the Father because I’m in Christ and only because I’m in Christ, can I call on my Father. If I call on the Father, God called the Father, it’s because the Holy Spirit returns me to God, with the Holy Spirit. In my mind I spend a long time on God the Father every day. My first half hour of silence would be on God the Father, but it doesn’t make any difference because the Trinity is one being and one beloved. Sometimes I feel I neglect the Holy Spirit but I have to stop thinking that because if I love Christ it’s by the Spirit I do that. In our Christian life, Christ has a certain priority because of the Incarnation. He’s incarnate for us. When Christ shows graciousness to Peter or Christ shows forgiveness of the thief on the cross, it’s because Christ is coming to us, coming toward us, knocking as on a door. If we open the door, He will come and talk with us. That’s from the Book of Revelations. There’s a text in 2 Peter 1:16 and following which is a big impact on my life, which is the Transfiguration. Peter, in the second epistle of Peter, he’s talking about the Transfiguration. “We were with Him on the mountain and we heard it said, ‘This is My beloved son’.” It’s the Trinity working. The beloved son, this is the beloved son. And St. Peter goes on to say, “Keep this prophetic word, ‘You are My beloved son’ as you would a lamp shining in the dark until the first streaks of dawn appear and the morning star rises in your heart.” He’s inviting us to enter into Christ so that we go deeply in it. Keep your eye fixed on the prophetic word. I am also a beloved son and I hang onto that word as I would a lamp shining in the dark, against all my darkness, until the first streaks of dawn appear, rising like the sun in the morning, and the morning star is Christ and shines in your heart. It’s just gorgeous. That’s my main text of my prayer these days, for a couple years.

Father Michael:

When we talk about these things that you said, if it could happen to them it could happen to me, too. For our listeners, I would love to share experiences that you may have had. Are there any mystical experiences or profound experiences that you’ve had that might stir our listeners to think, hmm, if it happened to him, maybe it could happen to me, too?

Father Bob:

That’s right, yes. I don’t whether you’d call it a mystical experience but like my three hours before I offered myself to the Lord before my vows, definitely I felt captured by the Lord. Like St. Augustine said, “When I love my Lord what else do I do?” It’s a certain embrace, I felt embraced by Christ. I one time experienced a saint come to me, a saintly Jesuit, of all people for God’s sake, for a Franciscan. This Jesuit came and I felt, I had read his life, I knew him, and he embraced me during Mass. I was saying Mass at the Carmelite Monastery. When he said, “You did a good thing by making a general confession of your life,” I burst into tears and I wept for the rest of the Mass. It was sort of hopeless, I was sort of hopeless. It was a real touch of grace. I think those graces I count on. I want them to help me give myself away. They’re not for my aggrandizement, they’re not for me. Whether I have a very powerful prayer or the weakest possible prayer on the globe, they are both precious to God. I’ve learned my pride sometimes in proclaiming how good my prayer was that I should never do that. I don’t know, it may be the driest prayer in the world is the best one for the Lord.

Father Michael:

Talk a little bit more about that experience of praying before the cross and what that felt like to be embraced by God.

Father Bob:

Well, as Augustine says, it’s an analogy. How do you explain something that’s unexplainable? You reach for human images. If I felt embraced by the Lord, as I have a number of times, it feels like an embrace, like someone is embracing you. My heart was quiet because I’m in communion. It’s something of the overflowing communion that is God’s gift of love to me. The embrace of Christ. . . I’ve had some experiences. It’s a certain melody, like a song. Like the woman who had the abortion said that the prodigal son received music from the father and gave music to the father. It’s music, and I quietly listened to the music of the Lord. We don’t realize how the Lord comes to us. He comes to us in the only way that we can understand. I’m also very devoted to images. For example, I have here a little book that I’ve made of pictures. All these pictures are pictures of our Blessed Mother. When I pray sometimes I just leaf through this book of pictures I’ve developed over the years, that I’ve had over the years. Sometimes when my head can’t think anymore I pray over these pictures. For example, in this particular booklet I have some very, very important pictures of my past. I have Our Lady of China, Our Lady of Korea, and Our Lady of Viet Nam in here. And I have Our Lady of Poland, Germany, the United States, all pictures of Mary. So when I can’t pray very well, can’t get my head to think, I have picture books I’ve made.

Father Michael:

What is your relationship like with Mary?

Father Bob:

I’ve been consecrated to Our Lady ever since I was a young boy in high school, and I hardly ever pray without our Lady. I’d like to say something that would be maybe very helpful for people. I hardly ever pray by myself. I always have a partner, maybe it’s our Blessed Mother or St. Joseph or Therese or Francis. I ask them to come with me and I ask them to pray my prayers for me and pray with me. It’s a communion of saints, and the liturgy says “with all the angels and saints we say holy, holy, holy”. That’s not the only time we should do that. We really should have partners in prayer all the time, especially since our prayers are so rinky dink and the saints have already achieved the place where their prayers are working always without any vanity or selfishness like I have.

Father Michael:

So now you are 60 years a priest, and I know you do a lot of spiritual direction. What encouragement, or what would you say to someone who is listening to this and hasn’t had an experience of perceiving God and would like to have that?

Father Bob:

I think you start with the faith of the church, and the faith of the church is Abba. That we have a Father who is very gracious and very dear to us. And then Christ crucified who is incarnate graciousness, and the Holy Spirit who is just love outpoured. I really feel that we need to, more than anything, have an image if we can, with the help of a spiritual director or spiritual person, help people realize how gracious and loving God is in the teaching of the church. Even in the midst of scandal or difficulties, the Lord is still beautiful. I know that people say, “How can you still be a Catholic?” Well, the church continually makes saints and I see them all over the place. I see very saintly people that I feel are really trying to have that faith. That paper I wrote—that God is first love, fresh love, forever love, forgiving love, fierce love—that’s what I really believe, and I believe that in the morning when I take my extended period to pray. We’re asked to spend an hour in quiet every morning. I know that not everybody can do that, but I know everybody can find some time to do things they like, and I think this is something they should like. They should spend 15 or 20 minutes, and gradually up that to half an hour. I want to be very respectful of lay people. But lay people don’t realize, maybe many clergy don’t realize, that we have a hermitage at hand and the hermitage is our car. We’re by ourselves, we don’t need the radio on and we can pray. So I have rosary beads and all kinds of helps in the car. If I take a long trip, I write down the names of people that I want to pray for. The car is a hermitage and everybody today who’s of age has a car, almost everybody.

Father Michael:

I find a lot of people say that they pray in their car. That’s a beautiful image, a hermitage. Well, thank you, are there any last words of wisdom?

Father Bob:

Father Michael, I’m very happy to talk to you since I haven’t seen you for a while. I’m very pleased that you’re engaged in helping people pray. God bless you.

Father Michael:

Thank you. How about a final blessing from you?

Father Bob:

This is St. Francis’ blessing:

The Lord bless you and keep you. May He show His face to you and have mercy. May He turn His countenance to you and give you peace. The Lord bless you! In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Father Michael:

Amen. God bless you all.

 

*Thomas Merton,  The Sign of Jonas

*Karl Rahner, Spiritual Writings

 

About the Author, Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into the priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.