Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Ridin Solo

I don't care what people say. Just because an engine fell off a a plane a few weeks ago it doesn't make China Eastern a bad airline. In fact, I've had a pleasant journey with them from start to finish. Air France wasn't bad either. I was sat next to a local "Madridian" who immediately gathered I was a pilgrim from my stylish zip-off knee pants, and chunky hiking boots. He told me his uncle was a priest who runs an albergue somewhere along the Way, and said I would get in free if I dropped the "soy seminarista" line, as well as his name. 

On arrival in Madrid I caught a bus to Hotel Senator Barajas for what I expect to be my only comfortable night's sleep for the next month. After the sleep deprivation common to air travel, I practically fell into a coma the moment I hit the sheets. But not before I had time to drop the first instalment of my video journal. https://youtu.be/bppq4lTiLZ0

 
View from Hotel Barajas

This morning I am back at Madrid airport at a cafe awaiting my bus to Pamplona. It's a good feeling to be able to just sit, pray Lauds and relax for a few moments to collect my thoughts.

 
A moment alone

It has only just dawned on me that this is the first time I have travelled internationally on my own. While I look forward to seeing the boys this afternoon, I must admit I have enjoyed the feeling of independence in solo travel. Being alone for a while in a foreign place with hardly a basic understanding of the language has provided an atmosphere of reflection, allowing me to prepare mentally and spiritually for the journey that lies ahead. I am truly blessed.

 
On route to Pamplona

Hasta pronto amigos.
Sam

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Fellow Travellers

I don't know what I was expecting, but my flight from Sydney to Shanghai went exceedingly well. Despite the rough turbulence at times, I looked out and was pleased to see that the engine casings were still firmly fixed to the plane.

 
Everything seems to be in order

The entertainment options were decent. I watched "Passengers", a B grade blockbuster about people stranded on a malfunctioning ship flying through space...I wonder why I do these things to myself.  

The meals on the flight were average, which is the best that can be expected. I've certainly had a lot worse. There's never a real reason to complain I suppose, as planes are not known for their gustative delights.

It was a clean plane, well managed with friendly staff. I was surprised at the amount of leg room in economy class. I'm beginning to think those internet reviewers are just a bunch of whiners. However, I have one final leg of this journey on China Eastern, so my view will be set in stone after that I'm sure.

Sitting in Pudong airport I had 7 hours to kill. I noticed a group of a few girls who I recognised from my flight, so I introduced myself and asked where they were going. One was off to Italy, while the other two were returning to their respective family homes in Paris and Amsterdam.

It wasn't long before I was asked: "so, what do you do with yourself?" The mere mention of seminarian and priesthood triggered a cascade of interested questions. None of the girls identify as religious, but they were all equally intrigued at the sight of a young person discerning a religious call, and  they immediately intuited the significance of a pilgrimage like the Camino.

These conversations left me reflecting on how the spiritual sense of young people is still alive and active today. There is a thirst for God that lays in wait to be quenched by the Gospel. It was also a moment of great gratitude to God for the opportunity to open an avenue of simple evangelisation with no effort other than just being what I am.

Until next time.
Sam

+JMJ+

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Time is at Hand

Well this snuck up ridiculously quickly. It is already Sunday 25th June, the day of my departure. I am packed and ready to hit the road. It has been a busy week of preparation leading up to this point. Last Saturday 17th June, I organised with my local parish priest to have a pilgrim's blessing after the evening Mass. Ben, Jake, Matt, Michael and I were able to make it for the blessing, while James and Josh were tied up elsewhere. I expect due to their lack of commitment, they will suffer many pains and curses along the way ;).  Our family and friends came along to bid us farewell, and celebrated the commencement of our journey with a BBQ and drinks.

The Pilgrim Blessing

Apart from the blessing, it was "wind-down week" in the seminary. It is an interesting time at the end of the semester where almost everyone has finished their assessment tasks for university, and so the pace of the routine slows right down, and most people spend the week catching up on lost sleep. This time, however, there were a few small activities to keep us busy, such as an ACYF (Australian Catholic Youth Festival) presentation, a half-day bush walk through the Blue Mountains, and also lessons in formal dining and etiquette (which was an interesting experience - especially for the 'uncultured" like myself).


Pulpit Rock Lookout with the Seminarians

A few levels out of my comfort zone

Then on the Wednesday night of wind-down week, I caught a train out to the airport to farewell my brothers, Michael and James, as they flew out a few days before me. James was running extremely late, so I had to professionally photoshop him in later. But you probably wouldn't have even noticed if I didn't draw attention to it.

All together

Finally, Friday arrived and the seminary got together to celebrate one final luncheon before the holiday break. It was a wonderful experience as we got to farewell a number of students who would be moving on from our community. Some going on to be ordained, others on extended pastoral placements, and one who had decided not to continue on in the seminary. Speeches were given ranging from heart-warming to humorous, a typical representation of the varied personalities that wind up in the seminary.

It was about Friday that the pictures starting rolling in from the boys already overseas. As to be expected they all look miserable without my company... 


Those who have gone before me

So after days of waiting Sunday is finally here! I'll be flying out tonight at 8:30pm. If you happen to read this before then, please offer up a prayer for a safe flight, as I am flying China Eastern. Yes, that's right, the same airline, and the same flight as the one that was force landed back in Sydney only days ago due to half the engine casing tearing off mid-flight. Nothing like a tad of extra excitement to get the pilgrimage poppin'.


She'll be right!

Hasta pronto amigos.
Sam.

+JMJ+

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Adventure Awaits

The seminary semester is swiftly approaching its end. I have handed in my final philosophy papers and completed my last theology exam. There are only 10 days left between now and the holidays, and I'm starting to feel excited. Now might be a good time to mention my holiday plans...



I'M GOING TO WALK THE CAMINO!!!



Very similar to WYD last year, this pilgrimage kind of just came out of nowhere. At some point last year, a number of my brothers and friends began to discuss the possibility of doing the Camino. At first, it seemed like a bit of a pipedream, as it was unlikely that everyone could get the time off work simultaneously in order to make the pilgrimage happen. Once again, it is clear that nothing is impossible for God. Plans were made, and everyone had approval. Early on in the piece, they asked me if it was possible for me to come along, but I rejected the plan outright, as there was no way a seminary stipend could be stretched to cover the cost of such an adventure. But in an amazing display of God's providence working through human generosity, my brothers and friends decided to pitch in and make it happen. So, EspaƱa, here I come!

"The boys"

This is going to be the adventure of a lifetime. Not only is the Camino one of the top 3 items on my  own bucket list, but I get to do it with my brothers and closest mates. Funnily enough, back in 2014 when I was umming and ahhing about the seminary, one of my major hang-ups was that the seminary would prevent the possibility of the camino, at least for the next several years. I accepted that reality, but the Good Lord had different things in mind, and I look forward to seeing what He has in store for me this time.


The whole thing begins in a couple of days. I plan to be gone between the dates of 25th June - 27th July. So, if I subtract flight times, I have roughly 30 days to walk the Camino. Difficult but doable. After all, I will be taking a slight shortcut by leaving a few days after "the boys" and meeting them in Pamplona, instead of starting at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. A total saving of 16 hrs and 70kms. Ideally, I would have began with them, but alas, there are seminary duties to attend to.

A google maps estimation of the first few days

This will not be my first time to Spain. I was there once before back in 2011 for WYD. It is such an incredible place, in fact, I would say it was one of my favourite places on earth. The beautiful culture, history, and people, all roll up together to make an unforgettable experience. And now I get to go back for round two! 

My brother Jake and I with our Spanish sister Patricia, whose family took us in during our stay in 2011.

My preparations are well underway. I have a backpack courtesy of one of my seminary brothers who did the Camino last year. I have my hiking boots, clothes, towel, hat, sunnies, etc. But most of all, I have been preparing the ultimate blister kit, as my skin is notoriously blister-prone due to "exfoliative keratolysis" (as the doc calls it). An annoying seasonal eczema that strikes at random usually once a year and causes dry peeling skin. This in turn decreases shear strength of skin, and causes my feet to experience the ultimate blista fiesta from time to time. It just so happens that this nightmare has struck me only weeks before departure, so I have responded by acquiring every preventative measure and treatment known to man (or at least to specific internet forums). So if anyone needs wholesale quantities of vaseline, liner socks, fixomull medical tape, silicone toe sleeves, talcum powder, or compeed bandages, just hit me up upon my return ;).

This was merely a quick post to let you know that I'll be off on a new adventure soon. My hope is that I will be able to maintain some sort of blog presence during my journey. However, I realise the upkeep of which will be directly proportional to my exhaustion from day to day. In all likelihood it will be heavily photo/video based with a few blog style comments thrown in between. Let's see how we go!

¡Hasta pronto! 
Sam


+JMJ+

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Second Year Experience

The most part of a year has gone by since the incredible WYD experience. Needless to say time flies in the seminary. It would take me more time than I have available to relay all of what has happened over the course of these months, so I will make do with a highlights reel of both the good and bad.

I begin not with the bad, but with the terrible. This year started off rocky for the Church with the Royal Commission into child sex abuse. Our semester began the week after the hearings into the Catholic Church, and it was a harrowing time for all of us. The statistics were no less than shocking, and undoubtedly the source of strong feelings of pain and betrayal on the part of survivors, their families, and the whole catholic community. As you can imagine, us as seminarians felt the heat, as society was reminded of the disgraceful crimes committed by men in the very positions we one day desire to fill. For weeks there was a heavy spirit lingering over the seminary community as we contemplated these shameful events. From the start of the Commission until now, our prayers for victims of abuse and their families have continued, and we live in hope that the Church can recover from this travesty, and continue onward in her mission of bringing Christ to the world.


On the local level, we have had a shake up among the ranks, specifically in "Second Year." One of our brothers left at the start of the year to discern the priesthood in the Ukranian Catholic Church, a decision he had pondered for a long time, and was confirmed on the 30-Day Silent Retreat at the end last year. Filling his place came a young man named Hugo, from the Wilcannia-Forbes diocese, who has settled in exceedingly well among our year group. And sadly, one of our second year brothers had to leave due to health concerns.



Here's Hugo!

So despite the unsettling start to this semester I find myself in second year. This year has been a completely unique experience. During my first year, the seminary environment was novel and fresh. It was unlike anything I had done before. Each day carried with it new and exciting tasks, as well as the occasional tedium of Catechism exams or in-house assessment tasks. First-years live a quasi-separated life from the rest of the community in order to better focus on establishing a stronger relationship to God through constant prayer and good spiritual habits. First year reaches its crescendo on the 30-day retreat at the end of the year where we undertook what is known as the "Ignatian Exercises" to delve deeply into ourselves and our relationship with God, and rigorously discern his will for our lives. Will I stay or will I go?

In second year, everything changes. We are no longer the newbies. A huge batch of 14 guys have replaced us in that role. We move out of the small upstairs quarters of the main seminary building, and are given rooms in one of the back houses; becoming more integrated into the wider seminary community. In varying ways we now have responsibilities and accountability. This includes taking on a full university study load, as well as adhering to cleaning rosters, liturgy rosters (altar serving, candle/thurible servicing etc), musical rosters (for those who have joined the Schola), and specialised jobs such as maintaining the website and social media as "Webmaster," the role of which I have inherited.


Our first Cathedral visit as Second Years

I would describe second year as a "dust-settling", for it is really our first exposure to "true" seminary life. To a degree, what we are experiencing now, is what the seminary is going to be like for the next six (or so) years leading up to ordination. While of course we are still discerning our vocation, second year carries with it (at least for me) an acceptance of this state of life. No longer am I "testing the waters" from an observer's perspective as in first year, I must now enter into the life and live it fully. This by no means suggest moral certainty regarding my vocation, but it is definitely a step closer.

First round of Austag for Fraternity Sport

This acceptance of seminary life carries with it certain realisations, that seemed to remain undetected during the whirlwind of first year. These are realisations of identity. What does being a seminarian mean to me, to my family, to my friends, and most of all, to God? This particular way of life is discernment to the Catholic priesthood by no means changes who I am, but I am beginning to realise only now how it changes the way that I am perceived. Almost six-months into my second year, the seminarian life of prayer, study, and recreation, has become second nature. Most of the time it feels completely normal to me, because I have become accustomed to it. But for those outside the seminary, it still looks just as foreign, just as radical as it did to me before I entered first year. 


What I am talking about becomes apparent in interaction with friends and family, old and new. When I speak to others, I am beginning to notice and almost imperceptible difference in the way people relate to me. On the one hand, this isn't surprising, because from a social perspective, studying to be a priest wouldn't exactly fall into the "normal" category. And yet, for me it feels it has become everyday life. The challenge for me, then, is learning to walk the line between the desire for "social normality", and responding honestly to the call to priesthood that God has placed on my heart. 


With Fr. Geoff who taught me how to altar serve as a boy


I think this is an important tension to recognise now, as it could prove to be an effective preparation for ordained ministry. There's no doubt that today, and always, priest's have been viewed as somehow "other." This is no doubt a result of their unique state of life and sacramental powers. If misunderstood, this "otherness" can be extremely destructive, it can be misused as a powerplay and manifest in clericalism. On the other hand, this "otherness" can serve as a powerful witness to faith in Jesus Christ. After all, the word "holy" is derived from the Greek word Hagios, or the Hebrew word Qodesh, meaning "set apart" or "otherness". God is completely set apart from creation, He is completely transcendent. For this reason a priest is also set apart in service to God, but this does not make the priest transcendent, but rather acts as a reminder of the holiness of God. 

As seminarians, we are not ordained, nor do we possess any sacramental powers. But, by merit of our aspirations to priesthood, we appear set apart. On the one hand, this can be painful, because it can make us feel slightly removed from our friends, family, and wider society. On the other hand, this state of life can be an opportunity to bear witness to the love of God we have experienced in our lives. A love so powerful, it has compelled us to leave behind the comfort of "normality" and reach for its transcendent source. This holiness of being "set apart", therefore, has nothing to do with our merits, and everything to do with God.

I pray that through the intercession of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, we may be brought to a greater knowledge of God's Divine Will in our lives. May our hearts be opened and the grace of the Holy Spirit be poured in so that we might be moulded into servants worthy of serving in God's Holy Church.

For those reading this, I ask your ongoing prayers for myself and my seminary brothers as we continue our journey of discernment towards the Catholic priesthood.

God bless,
Sam


+JMJ+








Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Post Pilgrimage Ponderings

So I’m sitting in my seminary room, in my pyjamas, on the first night of the first day of semester two. But you won’t hear anything about this until Friday night* at the earliest because of the first-year internet fast (an exercise in material detachment). The primary thought running through my mind right now is: how on earth did everything happen so fast? One minute I’m blogging away in Italy, next minute I’ve pilgrimaged through Poland, experienced World Youth Day, and am now back in my rightful place at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd.



There actually is a very reasonable (but perhaps not satisfying) explanation for my absence. The moment our plane touched down in Warsaw the day after my last post, our pilgrimage schedule went wild. I was very tempted to force myself to continue with the blog updates, but I knew it would not be a wise choice. First of all, Fr. B made me promise to get proper rest, which would be patently impossible if I had to toil away online each night. Second, Fr. B’s famous words “adapt and prosper at all times” were constantly echoing through my mind. To “adapt and prosper” means to recognise what can be achieved and what can not, with proper reference to God’s will in our lives. I knew that WYD was first and foremost an encounter with Jesus, the blogging was a secondary luxury. If I forced myself to continue pushing out updates, it would mean less sleep, which could potentially lead to missing encounters with our Lord in the people and places of Poland. Fortunately, I slept well enough to keep my eyes wide open, and as a result I felt His presence every step of the way. The words I’m about to say next are a kind of summary of my interior experience of WYD in Poland.



As everyone who has read my previous posts would know, when I left for WYD, I had no idea what to expect. My primary aim was to keep and open heart and be receptive to what God might be trying to tell me amidst the chaos. My guess was that travelling through Italy and Poland would be a prayerful experience that led me into a deeper spiritual relationship with Jesus (and that it was! To a certain degree). But nothing could have prepared me for the real purpose God had in mind…

It was during WYD in Krakow, in 2016, that I fell in love. I fell in love with my Diocese of Broken Bay. And when I say Broken Bay, I don’t mean the physical landmass that constitutes our ecclesial district, I mean the body of Christ, the actual people who are the soul of our local Church. I simply could not have expected to meet such an amazing group of people, and bond with them on the level I did (I refer now to the group affectionately nicknamed “the magic bus”). It was through my encounter with their genuine faith, love and friendship, that I met Christ. Almost everyday of the pilgrimage, I felt as though I was growing in love for God out of a sheer sense of thankfulness for these people in my life.

As I mentioned in a brief sharing I gave at our post-pilgrimage retreat in Warsaw, my experience of Broken Bay has sometimes been a lonely one. The five or so years I spent as youth minister in Woy Woy parish, while extremely rewarding, was often difficult due to lack of support. I think any form of ministry can feel like a slog when one person’s enthusiasm remains in isolation. More recently there’s the fact that up until this month I’ve been the sole seminarian for Broken Bay. Sometimes I could not help but feel like I was: “doing it alone.” But this WYD has cut straight through this manifest untruth. Broken Bay is alive, and it has a vibrant core of young people at its heart. We are certainly not alone, we are just spread out, and it took a unifying event like WYD to bring us together.


The youth of our diocese have so much to offer. The friends I made a WYD bear with them a spirit of joy, an attitude of hope, a strong sense of the faith and a myriad of talents too numerous to count. When my particular pilgrimage group came together, it only took a few days to realise we had something really special. It was no wonder then that it was unanimously chosen that we be called the “magic bus.”


No words can adequately describe the feelings that have been left in my heart after this incredible pilgrimage. I’m at once feeling the sense of heightened elation one gets after making a new friend (multiplied by the thirty-five persons in my bus group), and also saddened that the whole experience is over. The rational part of me recognises that where I am now is my “real-life,” and WYD was just a God-given gift to help me along the way. But that doesn’t stop me from secretly wishing it wasn’t so.


One thing is for certain, it’s only been a few days and I’m already missing my new friends like crazy. But this morning, as if like a voice from the heavens, one of my senior seminary brothers delivered a preaching which related to WYD. He said something like:

“Over the break we’ve developed many new relationships. And as seminarians, just by being ourselves, we have the ability to bear witness to the presence of Christ in our lives in a special way. So, let us not let those relationships fade away. Let us nurture them so as to as to keep the light of Christ burning bright in all our lives.”

I agree completely. However, from my own perspective, it seems as if it was my new WYD friends witnessing Christ to me, not the other way around. But the message remains the same: it is of paramount importance that we maintain these special relationships forged on pilgrimage. These friendships don’t feel to me like fleeting joys, rather they feel like pillars of encouragement and support planted by God in my life. Already I’ve felt a change in myself. It’s like my heart has been expanded with joy and excitement. No longer do I feel isolated, instead I feel a surge of energy and vigour. I have a new and very personal resolve to dedicate myself to this formation process, so that one day (God willing) I might be a priest worthy of serving these amazing people.


I think I’ve made it reasonably clear now how God has been at work in this whole experience. He gave me the opportunity to see some wonders of the world, but more than that, he gave me new friendships that I hope will become as enduring as they are fruitful. It is through this incredible encounter with my diocesan brothers and sisters that God has enlivened the Spirit within me, and given me the strength and resolve to move forward on my journey of priestly discernment.

Peace and blessings,
Sam.


*or Thursday morning, if I happen to exploit the brief window of wifi that opens before class at uni.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Superstition, the Sacred and a String Quartet

I think yesterday was the most unique day of the pilgrimage so far. Up until this point our journey has included some incredible historical wonders, magnificent architecture, and rich culture. But nothing we had witnessed to date could be compared to the sights and sounds of the floating city. I refer, of course, to Venice.

The moment we stepped off our water taxi on to the island of San Marco, we knew we were in for something different. I was immediately struck by the vibrant colours, not only of the buildings, but of the people, the dresses, the masks and the stalls. Another thing I noticed quite quickly was the hike in prices. San Marco, being and island, has to have everything shipped to it by boat, and carried around on carts by hand because their are no vehicles allowed. It makes sense then, that some services tax might apply.

 
First step off the boat.

I was amazed when I heard that Venice was not a natural island, but held up completely by wooden stakes that had been hammered into the mud 100's of years ago. It makes sense that as time goes on, many of the buildings in Venice have begun to develop a bit of a lean. Here is a picture of a bell tower that I saw in the first few minutes of stepping onto "solid" ground.

 

First thing on the agenda was a visit to St. Mark's Square. It was pretty obvious that this city was obsessed with their patron evangelist. Statues and pictures of the symbolic lion adorned everything from the top of giant columns, to mosaics on buildings to small plaques in gelato shops.

 
Note the lion atop the pillar and try to ignore Ezra's shameless photobomb.

"Immediately" we continued on to the Basilica of St. Mark (biblical scholars will understand). It was illegal to take pictures inside so I can't show you the amazing mosaics that flooded every surface with a burst of golden light and colour.  Quite incredibly, the marble floor felt like we were walking on a wavy surface. Over the course of centuries some of the aforementioned pillars had began to give way, leading to a very bumpy walk through the nave. Praying at the tomb of one of the four evangelists blew my mind. Sadly, I quite literally did not have time to comprehend the reality of what was taking place. I hope that retroactive graces might be applied as I contemplate the experience over the following days.

The city of Venice itself is amazing. It's known for its atmosphere of luxury and romance. Skipping the latter, I and a few of my new friends decided to taste some Venetian delights. We settled on cafe Florian, which supposedly was the spot where the likes of Napoleon and Michelangelo may have eaten (huge question mark on that one). Nevertheless, the experience was appreciated by all, and despite the price tag, no one walked away with regret. Here are some snaps of the experience... 


 
 
To give you an idea, it cost €6 pp just to sit down and hear the orchestra play. (Mind you they sounded incredible)

Straight after lunch we met a new tour guide who took us through the Doge's Palace (The doge was the leader). Although filled with the work of much artistic beauty there were two main highlights for me. The Dropbox (pictures below) where political accusations were posted. Each accusation placed in the carved letterbox was investigated, and if it was found to be serious and true, the accused was beheaded. If not, the accuser copped the punishment they wished upon the other. Along with this ran the superstition that liars would be bitten by the Dropbox if they intentionally submitted a lie. 

 
Me submitting a clearly false accusation.

The second thing that caught my attention was the largest oil painting in the world. 10 points to the person who spots Mark the Evangelist.

 

And before you ask. Of course we eventually went on the Gondolas!!
 
 
 
 
While I tried my best to strike a majestic pose. Our gondolier was much more interested checking his Facebook.

Another incredible day.
Sam