Fr. Simon Cleary, L.C.

psimoncleary

The path of learning to love

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As a kid, I dreamed of being an actor. I don’t think I would have gone very far, except maybe – since I’m from New Zealand – I could have been a double for Frodo. While chasing this dream, I learnt one thing: the best actors don’t just change their smile or frown for the cameras. They can change the expression of their eyes. If they can do that, then they’re they convincing.

While practicing changing the expression of my own eyes, I also began to notice the feelings in other people’s eyes. One day, thinking this over, I walked into the business part of my home town, Dunedin. Looking into passing businessmen’s eyes, I got hit by a huge surprise. None of them showed happy eyes. If the eyes are the window to the soul, all of them revealed a sad soul. Then and there, I decided that whatever my future would be, I wanted to be happy. And then I got on with life, changing my dreams of being an actor for dreams of being a writer, or a professional soccer player…

In February of 1998, my parents went on a weekend retreat. That meant that I had a zero-stress, zero-chore weekend. I was loving it. My brothers and I ate fast food, had snacks at any hour, all the things we couldn’t when Mum was in the house.

While trying to enjoy the weekend of just pure fun, my conscience whispered, “You should go to the retreat.” I answered, “Of course not! It’s a retreat for adults, I’m just fourteen!” Even so, my conscience wouldn’t leave me in peace all Saturday. So when I woke up on Sunday, the last day of the retreat, and I decided to silence my conscience. “Dear God,” I stated, “I want to make sure that this retreat-thing isn’t Your will.  So if this coin doesn’t land ‘heads’ six times in a row, You are evidently telling me not to go to the retreat. If it does, You are.” Feeling happy, that my conscience wouldn’t be able to object, I flipped the coin. It landed heads.

I didn’t care the first time. I had five more attempts. The second ‘heads’ made me shrug. On the third ‘heads’ I knew it wasn’t my lucky day. When the fourth ‘heads’ landed, I realized I only had two more shots. On the fifth ‘heads’, I realized that God wanted me to go to the retreat. That didn’t stop me from flipping the coin the sixth time to make sure. It also landed ‘heads’, and so did the seventh toss. The eighth landed ‘tails’, just to prove that the coin wasn’t rigged.

I don’t remember anything about the retreat, except going. The Legionary priest who directed the retreat was from Mexico, and I didn’t understand his accent. I was the only person in the room under thirty, and I didn’t even have half that age. But I’d made a bet with God, I’d lost it, and I had to fulfil my part of the bargain.

In this retreat, the parents of other Legionaries must have guessed that I was a very spiritual young man, since I went to an adult’s retreat of my own free will. Obviously, I was never going to tell anyone that God twisted my arm into going. They invited me to a summer camp run by the Legionaries of Christ, thinking that this ‘very spiritual young man’ might discover an interest in the priesthood there. All that I heard was an invitation to go on a huge plane trip to a camp in the United States. That sounded great.

In June of 1998, I took part in “Camp Eagle’s Cliff”, in Cheshire, Connecticut. And one thing surprised me: the eyes of everyone there revealed happy souls. Nobody was faking being happy. The happiest people there were the Legionaries who watched out for us, and that was despite staying up for us and serving us while we played games the whole time.

At the end of June the camp went up to New Hampshire, and God hit me with a second surprise. Without warning, he called me to the priesthood. Normally a vocation comes first as a whisper that starts to take root in the heart. In my case, I almost felt the impact of the call. I remember when and where: in a Holy Hour in the chapel in Center Harbor. I couldn’t pretend the idea popped into my head, trying to be happy like the priests were happy. The Gospel of the Holy Hour was Luke 9, the demands of following Christ, leaving everything and taking up your cross. This wasn’t seeking happiness. As the Gospel called me, I had the choice to either take up my cross and follow Jesus, or not follow Him so closely. I was free to say “Yes” or “No”, but wasn’t free to say, “What did You say?”

I entered the High School Minor Seminary in the summer of 1999. I was 15 years old. My path to the priesthood has been fortified by this awareness of my call. On the other hand, I know why this sudden call isn’t the normal way that Jesus calls young men to follow Him: He doesn’t want people who follow Him just for duty’s sake. He wants people who follow Him out of love and free choice. Many times in my years of preparation for the priesthood, I conformed myself with just obeying the call and fulfilling the stages of seminary life. But I was simply doing my duty. I had to learn to put my heart into my vocation and love He who was calling me. I obeyed, but lacked love.

It was three years of pastoral work in the Irish Institute, in Mexico City that began to break that mold. No-one can teach others to follow Jesus for duty’s sake. (And least of all Mexicans!) Jesus is to be followed out of love. “And this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He loved us first and sent His Son as propitiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10) To bring others to Jesus’ love, I had to love Him more. And I also experienced that my ability to fulfil my duty for duty’s sake wasn’t as strong as I had believed. I had to appeal to the Mercy of the Lord, instead of believing myself sufficiently good and faithful follower of Christ by my own powers.

This path of learning to love and trust in His Mercy isn’t complete. I still have to continue learning to not trust my vocation to my dutiful nature.

Loving and trusting in the Divine Mercy has been and will be a great part of my growth towards the priesthood. Loving and trusting others was the second great lesson. The Regnum Christi Movement is called to be a family, and I had to learn to have brothers and sisters in the Movement. With a sister who is a Consecrated member of Regnum Christi, I have always esteemed the Consecrated. I worked for 5 years in the Irish Institute (this time in Rome, after Mexico), and I learnt to live the Regnum Christi family with them, as sisters. Also, I was always a Legionary Brother, but my growth towards my Legionary brothers and Legionary brotherhood grew ever more in my last years in Rome.

Now my years of preparation for priesthood are at an end, and I will have to learn fatherhood in the Regnum Christi Movement, especially the sacramental fatherhood of a priest of the Legionaries of Christ. I have the vocation to be a Father, to bring souls to a rebirth in Christ Jesus. I want His sacraments, passing through my hands, to give joy, renewal and peace to the souls entrusted to my ministry. And I want to see His peace in their eyes. ​

F. Simon Cleary, L.C.

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